Choosing Connection Over Performance

Men, young and old, who are porn addicts, often experience erectile dysfunction (ED) and related sexual performance anxiety. Although research on porn-induced ED is mixed, I can tell you firsthand that many of my clients, individuals and couples alike, are negatively impacted. It can be difficult to measure the far-reaching effects of viewing too much porn and how it influences connection and intimacy with your partner.

Research in support of the link between pornography and erectile dysfunction argues that porn can desensitize sexual response. A 2016 article reports that young men are seeking help for ED and that this could be due to the desensitizing effects of so-called “hardcore” pornography. Drawing upon case studies and a review of previous research, the article argues that pornography may decrease men’s satisfaction with their own bodies triggering anxiety during sex. Men who view pornography may need to progressively increase sexual stimulation to feel and remain aroused.

The pattern I most often encounter includes the porn addict not being able to achieve or maintain an erection during lovemaking. The addicted partner searches his mind for memories of pornographic images to stir up excitement which causes the porn addict partner no longer being present with his partner. The result is both partners being frustrated, embarrassed, and having self-defeating experience. As this pattern continues, the porn addict now begins to carry each of these “failures” into their next sexual encounter and begins to build a narrative that he is sexually broken or dysfunctional. They begin to have a lot of anxiety about performing, hence, performance anxiety.

What I see most in these cases is not really ED. These clients are able to achieve erections either through masturbation or having random erections throughout their day. It’s just when they are with their partner that they struggle. Often, they will take ED medication in hopes that it will “cure” them — but it rarely works. That is because the ED they are grappling with is not erectile dysfunction, but rather an emotional dysfunction. Transitioning from digital images to a real person can be quite the shock. With porn, specifically online porn, you have more control, can match up your fantasy with images, and rely only upon your pleasure. Sex with another person is obviously quite different. You’re more vulnerable, more exposed, and therefore, more accountable. Porn is a fantasy, sex with your partner is reality — and the two don’t often match up.

Learning to build sexual intimacy with your partner provides the roadmap — but how do you get there? First of all, nothing kills arousal like anxiety. Whether you’re worrying about the argument you had over breakfast, listening for sounds of trouble from the kids downstairs, or mulling over a big project at work or school, it’s hard to think about sex when you’re pumped full of nervous energy. If that anxiety is around sexual performance, then sexual intimacy is likely not going to happen.

How can you work with strong feelings around performance anxiety? First of all, remind yourself that sex is supposed to be enjoyable. When you’re too stressed out to focus on sex, your body can’t get excited either. Lots of different worries can lead to the problem:

  • Fear that you won’t perform well in bed and satisfy your partner sexually
  • Poor body image
  • Worries that your penis won’t “measure up”
  • Anxiety that you will not be able to achieve or maintain an erection.

Notice the word, “performance.” Does sex or trying to have sex feel like you are performing? Can you picture moving beyond performance and instead see it a pleasurable way to connect with your partner? Does connection even enter the equation? If you have struggled with a porn obsession, you likely have built a narrative or myth about what sex is and how it should be. You have learned about fantasy, but not really what happens in the bedroom.

How do you begin to learn and choose connection over performance? Can you make strong choices right in the middle of a disappointing and possibly embarrassing moment? First, we have to get at the root of the issue. We have deeply embedded beliefs about what a “good” intimate interaction looks like. People judge themselves and their partners against these myths and when they don’t measure up, the emotional consequences can be devastating. Sex addiction help can help you work through emotional blocks and difficult feelings that arise when intimate interactions don’t go as planned. A good sex addiction therapist can help you check your assumptions and begin to choose to stop judging by performance and start being a good teammate.

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