Performance Anxiety

Whats great sex when everybodys having great sex?


Fifteen years ago, I took a yoga class from a little old Indian lady; me, some housewives and a few doughy middle-management types who'd recently suffered heart attacks. It was a nice class and she was a nice little old Indian lady—that is, until the point in every class when middle management would begin peeking to see if anyone was being more mindful of breath than they were and the housewives would make progressively louder comments about the intensity of their relaxation.

It was usually at this point that the Indian lady would remind the class that yoga was an ancient discipline aimed at reconciling body, mind and consciousness, not a sport. And so it went, students attempting to out-yoga each other—stretching past maximum, grunting—the Indian lady doing her slow ascetic burn until, finally, she'd huff: "Stop going for the burn! There is no burn in yoga!"

Sex, as the saying goes—the saying Steve Lowery devised at a bar one day a few weeks back—has become an Olympic competition. It’s got trainers, psychologists, standards of performance, professionals, amateurs, instant replays, awards and even doping. Lots of doping. Which is why photographer John Gilhooley—a Catholic boy if ever there was one—shot Olivia Tafoya (religious affiliation: unknown) waving the Stars & Stripes over a high school track. John and Olivia did their jobs; we were supposed to do ours—were supposed to write about the athleticism (or maybe athleticization) of sex. But we didn’t. We wrote about whatever the hell we wanted, but managed to work sex and drugs into nearly every story, even if the drug is the one that occurs most naturally in the brain, the one that tells us we’re engaged in something more than a merely animal act: expressing the most profound of human feelings, the desire for reunion with the Other. Or maybe it’s just sex. Olivia’s wristbands: Target. Body: Made in America.

Ah, but sensei, in America there is always a burn. It's what we do. We compete at everything, with others, with ourselves, we are in a constant state of burn, of betterment: body, mind and car in the driveway. We want to win not only at sport but also at what college our kids attend; at business, at pleasure and, yes, at yoga, and I have thought about the little Indian lady's naiveté in this matter and imagined the depth of her anguish the first time she passed a "Power Yoga" studio.

Now, sex has always been a competitive venture in terms of sheer numbers; men traditionally judged each other by how many they bedded, not necessarily how well. That is, until the past decade or two, when being good at sex became something that was not just desirable in a way that nourishes you and your partner with pleasure and intimacy, but was simply another something to be good at, like golf or car repair.

Go to Amazon.com, type in "sex self help," and you'll get nearly 2,500 hits for books designed to make you better at sex, books with bettering titles such as Sex and the Perfect Lover, Scientifically Guaranteed Male Multiple Orgasms & Ultimate Sex, How to Be a Great Lover, The Low Down on Going Down: How to Give Her Mind-Blowing Oral Sexand Blow Him Away: How to Give Him Mind-Blowing Oral Sex, which comes complete with 27 tongue exercises, as well as such mouth exercises as the "Jug of Plenty."

And while the fact that Blow Him Away is No. 258 on the Amazon hit list (No. 14 in Hudson, New Hampshire—hellooo, Hudson!) and Low Down is only No. 640 would seem to suggest that women are at least as competitive at sex as men, those in the know say it just isn't the case.

"When it comes to worrying about sexual performance, it seems to be pretty much a male thing," says Barbara Keesling, author of a dozen sex self-helpers ranging from the more serious, 400-page Sexual Healing, recently out in paperback, to The Good Girl's Guide to Bad Girl Sex. "Some of them get caught up in thinking that what makes sex good is how big or how hard they are, how long they last. This is what men focus on. You know: 'Hey, did you have a nice vacation?' 'Yeah, I drove 2,000 miles and made really good time.'"

Keesling, who teaches a course called Human Sexual Behavior at Cal State Fullerton, traces the phenomenon back some 60 years to Alfred Kinsey's groundbreaking work in sexual data and documentation. When Kinsey's book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male reported the average length of time a man had intercourse, suddenly men had something to compare themselves to.

"They started to think, wait a minute, am I lasting as long as the average guy?" Keesling says. "In the '60s and '70s it was whether they could find the clitoris. In the '80s it was all about the G-spot. Now we have so much about penis enlargement. It all becomes very competitive, even something that's supposed to be pleasurable. But that's the way some men are. You know, it all becomes 'If everyone else is 10 inches, you've got to be 11.'"

David Beattie, district manager for Condom Revolution, says he notices "young buck guys" come into the shop overly concerned with penis size and how long they are able to perform, guys who are obsessed with "being better at sex, you know, so they can score some points in some game they're playing."

Beattie says he sees the aforementioned bucks before, when they're trying to get bigger and last longer, and after, when all the pressure they've put on themselves to, as Beattie puts it, "have mind-blowing, idealized sex every time" actually shuts them down to the point that they can barely function.

"Performance anxiety is the biggest cause of sexual dysfunction," Keesling says. "Whether it's premature ejaculation or male orgasm disorder, where a man can't have an orgasm. It can all be triggered if a man is too busy wondering, 'I wonder if I'm as big as the last guy she had. I wonder if I'm as hard.'"

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