Performance Anxiety Is Often Transition Anxiety

When life changes, sex changes—often in ways lovers don’t expect.

Posted Jun 14, 2017

On the site I publish,, I offer free answers to sex questions. Here’s a recent question that raised issues worth blogging about:

My wife and I—she's 24, I'm 26—waited to have sex until we got married. We’ve been married three weeks, and we’ve had a lot of sex, but for some reason, I can't get a full, hard erection. I’m healthy, not depressed, not a drug abuser. I tried an erection drug, Cialis, but it didn’t work. So my question: Why can’t I get hard? Is it fear of sex? Consciously, I don’t feel afraid of it, but subconsciously who knows? Is it because, before my marriage, I wanked to so much porn? I wanked a lot. Did it destroy me? I really love my wife and feel very sexually attracted to her. Please advise ASAP!

My reply:

In all likelihood, your situation has nothing to do with fear of sex. And no, porn hasn’t destroyed you. You problem is what’s usually called performance anxiety, but it should be called transition anxiety. You’ve transitioned from solo to partner sex. The transition is not automatic and may cause problems, including erection difficulties in young men like you.

Masturbation and partner lovemaking are both "sex," but they're very different. In masturbation, the only person you have to please is yourself, and that's pretty easy. You get immediate feedback as you touch yourself, and can quickly adjust your strokes however you wish.

In addition, masturbation is mostly about fantasy, your own, or the fantasies provided by porn.

But in partner lovemaking, you’re no longer solo and no longer in the realm of fantasy. The two of you are doing the horizontal tango, and it's an intricate dance that takes time and practice to master and fully enjoy.

You waited until you married to become sexual with your wife. I respect your decision, but it comes with a significant downside. You may believe you know her well, but you don’t know her well sexually: what turns her on, the caresses she likes, the erotic pace she enjoys, how much warm-up time she needs to feel ready for genital play.

The vast majority of American couples have sex before marriage, today around 95 percent. They experiment with sex, and (ideally) work out a sexual repertoire and pace they both enjoy. This helps them feel reasonably familiar and comfortable with one another by the time they say, "I do."

But those who abstain before marriage undress on their wedding night with a person who’s both familiar to them and an erotic stranger. That can generate a good deal of excitement—finally!—but also considerable stress. And if things don't go like a fairly tale, one or both may feel they've “failed," which increases stress.

Stress triggers the “fight-or-flight” reaction that sends blood away from the central body and out to the arms and legs for self-defense or escape. The body accomplishes this by constricting the arteries in the core, including those that carry blood into the penis. Constricted arteries means less blood flow into the penis and weak erections. I’m guessing that’s what’s caused your problem.

My suggestions:

• If you and your wife haven’t had medical check-ups in a while, start there, and mention your sexual concerns. Chances are there’s nothing physically wrong with either of you. If, as I suspect, you both get clean bills of health, that should help you relax, and as you relax, more blood can flow into your penis to raise full, firm erections.

• Don’t drink more than one alcoholic beverage during the two hours before sex—one beer, one glass of wine, or one shot of spirits. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and anything more than one drink may become an erection killer. More than one drink may also reduce your wife’s erotic responsiveness and pleasure.

• Set up your bedroom for enjoyable sex: candles, music you both enjoy, perhaps some sex toys, and maybe extra pillows so you can feel comfortable rolling around. An erotic atmosphere piques sexual desire and supports erections.

• Enjoy some teasing sensual play before you undress: kissing, cuddling, touching all over, and whispered endearments. This begins the process of erotic—and erection—arousal.

• Before you get into bed, bathe or shower—together or taking turns. Hot water is very relaxing. It counters the fight-or-flight reflex and opens the penile arteries, setting you up for firm erections. Bathing also means no hygiene issues, which can be a real turn-off.

• When you get into bed, don’t immediately reach for her genitals or attempt intercourse. That’s porn-style sex. Porn can be an enjoyable masturbation aid for men, but real-life partner lovemaking is much different. Porn is 95 percent genital play, and only about 5 percent kissing, cuddling, and gentle, playful mutual massage from scalp to toe. Of course, genital play is a marvelous part of sex, but for fulfilling lovemaking, sex therapists recommend enjoying a lot more mutual, gentle, playful, whole-body massage than you see in porn. Most women need at least 30 minutes of non-genital kissing, cuddling, and massage caresses to warm up to genital play—if you make love to music, a half-dozen songs. Men also benefit from warm-up kissing, cuddling, and mutual massage. It’s deeply relaxing and deep relaxation opens the penile arteries for strong erections.

• As you touch one another, breathe deeply, and if you like, exhale with audible sighs. Deep breathing is deeply relaxing, so it helps support firm erections. And it’s arousing to hear that your lover is becoming aroused.

• Coach each other about your sexual likes and dislikes. No need to be didactic or interrupt things. When something feels good, just say, “Yes,” or “Ahhh.” When a move feels anything less than arousing, remain silent. Very quickly you and your wife should provide more of what brings yeses and ahhh’s, and less of what doesn’t. This should also help your erections.

• Many men love to have their penises stroked fairly quickly after getting into bed. If you feel that way, tell her. But as she strokes you, caress her all over her body, and encourage her to do the same with her other hand. Do that for at least 30 minutes before attempting to slip it in. 

• When you finally have intercourse, continue to breathe deeply and opt for the position that’s best for firm erections, woman-on-top. When you lie on your back, you’re relaxed, which supports erections. Woman-on-top also allows easier insertion—she can direct you in. The man-on-top (missionary) position is more stressful for men. You have to hold yourself up, and it’s more difficult to insert, both of which can trigger erection-wilting stress.

• Finally, don’t strive for simultaneous orgasms. That’s a staple of movie and TV sex, but in real life, it's rare. Take turns pleasuring one another. Eventually, one of you comes. After that person returns to earth, it’s the other’s turn to be pleasured to climax. Only about 25 percent of women are reliably orgasmic from intercourse. Intercourse doesn’t provide much stimulation for women’s pleasure organ, the clitoris, which sits outside the vagina, above it, beneath the top junction of the vaginal lips. To bring your new wife to orgasm, gently stroke or lick her clitoris—and ask for coaching on how she prefers her clitoris caressed.

I bet that if you and your wife embrace these suggestions, after some enjoyable practice, you'll function just fine as you master lovemaking and enjoy the wonderland of erotic pleasure.

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