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Sex: Egos, Undressed

It's wise to keep perfectionism out of the bedroom.

Rarely are our egos more exposed than during sex. It's a kind of performance, and not only do we tend to evaluate ourselves, there's also a partner to please.

That exposure can be especially hard on perfectionists. With their demanding standards and oversensitivity to mistakes, many strive to be model lovers, convinced that they cannot accept anything less than a top-drawer experience.

Such an uncompromising attitude may actually undermine sexual satisfaction, researchers report in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

What makes sex "perfect" can vary from person to person: reaching or inducing an orgasm, stirring up high levels of excitement or desire, avoiding anything perceived as blundering or unsexy. But true perfectionists have one crucial thing in common. "They want to be flawless," says Joachim Stoeber, the head of the University of Kent's School of Psychology. This determination may help on the treadmill or in the classroom, but whenever other people are intimately involved, perfectionists risk some not-so-satisfying side effects.

Stoeber's team found that perfectionists who think their partners expect a flawless performance tend to blame themselves for any deviation from the ideal. Those who believe that society in general demands sexual excellence are likely to be pessimistic about future sexual success. Critical words from a partner or idealized notions about sex gleaned from films may exacerbate such worries.

Perfectionism driven from within is more of a mixed bag. It's correlated with having a positive opinion of one's own sexual abilities, but these perfectionists still report self-blame for sexual mistakes and concerns about messing up.

"If you place any kind of expectation on a sexual experience, you are automatically putting yourself in a position to be disappointed," says Kristen Mark, a professor of health promotion at the University of Kentucky. "Sexual desire and satisfaction ebb and flow."

It's fine to have high standards, experts say, but insisting that every sexual experience go according to plan or end in climax is counterproductive. It elicits anxiety, Mark says, "and too much anxiety has been shown to inhibit sexual response."

If you think your partner demands a bravura performance every time, have a chat about it before you get to the bedroom. Research suggests there's often a disconnect between perceived and actual expectations.

And for those who demand perfection of themselves? The paradoxical way to get more from your sex life may be to cut yourself some slack.