When Meredith* first started having sex her freshman year of college, she was insecure and naive, afraid she’d get dumped if each encounter wasn’t absolutely perfect for her partner. She prioritized his pleasure over her own every single time, focusing all her energy on giving a memorable performance that would leave him satisfied, and always wanting more. “Once that started with the first partner I had, I haven’t been able to stop. I’ve done it with one night stands, other boyfriends that I’ve had. It’s not something you can all of the sudden turn off,” she told the Cut.
Now 23 and living in New York, Meredith is sick of faking orgasms and would love to finally take ownership of her sexuality. But because she’s always been so preoccupied with being the perfect partner, she’s never been able to enjoy sex, and doesn’t actually know how. “Even in my current relationship that I’ve been in for two years, I’m so unfulfilled at this point. He has no idea and he thinks everything is going so well, and a lot of resentment has built up, and it all has to do with sex,” she said.
Meredith is one of the many men and women whose perfectionism negatively affects their sex lives. According to sex therapist Ian Kerner, It’s quite common for people to feel pressured to have a certain frequency of sex, to be open and available, to enjoy a variety of positions and techniques, and to ensure that their partner always reaches completion. This level of perfectionism can cause a phenomenon known as spectatoring, in which a person feels as though they’re watching themselves have sex, and spends the entire time concerned about their performance. “It can create a level of anxiety and stress,” Kerner told the Cut.
Anxiety, particularly for women, works against the process of arousal. “There have been studies in which men and women were put into fMRI machines and asked to masturbate to orgasm,” Kerner explained. “What was interesting, looking at the female brain versus the male brain, was that the more the woman got aroused, the more parts of the brain that were associated with stress and anxiety dimmed and deactivated.” Women reach an almost trance-like state when they approach orgasm, but they’re only able to get to that point if they can turn off certain parts of their brain. Therefore, if they’re focused on achieving some sort of goal during sex, that can create anxiety that works against the process of arousal.
A March study from the University of Kent explored the long-term effects that perfectionism can have on a person’s sex life. They found that, in particular, women who believe their partner is imposing impossible standards on them are prone to sexual dysfunction. Those standards include a partner’s expectation of how a woman should look, how often they should be having sex, or what positions they should be trying.
Such partner-prescribed perfectionism was found to increase a woman’s anxiety and negative self-esteem, which can affect their ability to enjoy sex. Rachel Sussman, a relationship therapist in New York, told the Cut that she often sees couples that have at least one partner with perfectionist standards. Those men and women grumble that their partner gained five pounds, that they don’t dress up enough, or that they aren’t sexy anymore. “Oftentimes when [partners] make these statements, the way women internalize it is, ‘I’m not good enough, I’m not pretty enough, I’m not sexy enough,’” Sussman said. “So you tell me now, is that girl going to feel sexy? Is that girl going to feel great ripping off her clothes, having hot, passionate, dirty sex?”
Of course, in a perfect world, a woman’s partner would never make her feel bad about her appearance. Sussman pointed out that of her clients, the couples with the healthiest sex lives are those with partners who make the other feel desired. Kerner agrees that the key ingredient to great sex is feeling wanted by your partner. Nevertheless, he explained that a lot of anxiety relating to sex tends to happen in the early stages of arousal. The more aroused a person gets, the more a sort of neurochemical cocktail works through their system to lower their inhibitions.
So for women like Meredith who are dealing with their own perfectionist standards, or for women who have perfectionist partners, they should ensure that they’re getting amply aroused to ease their anxiety. “That can mean fantasizing during sex, sharing fantasies with your partner, or watching [ethical] porn,” Kerner said. The irony of this approach is clear, though: Because perfectionists may be anxious about the arousal process, attempting to get turned on enough to enjoy sex can be a vicious cycle unto itself.
It’s also important for women like Meredith to communicate with their partner about what they like or don’t like, in terms of position, environment, lighting, clothing, and the parts of their body that need the most attention. “We have uncomfortable conversations with our partners all the time about things, whether it’s money, housing choices, work-related stress, problems with friends, in-laws, whatnot,” Kerner said. “Being able to talk about sex really isn’t so different than talking about a lot of issues.”
*Name has been changed.