Guest blog: Cake or death – pleasure and performance anxiety

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

I’ve written quite a lot about anxiety here on the blog, but I don’t think I’ve ever written anything as beautiful as this guest blog on performance anxiety. The way he captures the minutiae of life intruding on sexual pleasure, then zooms out to place those in the context of larger existential panics – it properly punched me in the heart. If you’re thinking of pitching me a guest blog but you’re nervous, please read this and see that you don’t always have to focus on one specific story, or give a super-comprehensive and detailed piece of advice: sometimes the best sex writing is about capturing a feeling, articulating it beautifully, and then sharing it to help other people feel a little less alone.

Guest blog: Cake or death – pleasure and performance anxiety

It’s a little after midnight in 2006 and I realise with a crushing sense of regret that I’m about to come. It’s a close summer’s night; I’m in my early twenties and a girl named Cathy who’s out of my league. I’ve been trying so hard to keep my dick under control long enough to fuck her properly, to get into a rhythm where I feel hot and powerful so I can impress her and make her come. I feel sure that’s my responsibility, what I need to do for her to like me, but my dick simply will not listen to reason. I try slowing down, I try squeezing various bits of me, I try thinking of boring things like characters in sitcoms always said you were meant to. I want to keep going. But the sheer stress of a beautiful girl underneath me sends nervous energy gushing through my balls in search of release and I can’t hold it back, shuddering guiltily through a half-enjoyed orgasm, clasping her apologetically to me and wondering if I can give it another go in half an hour.

I was a very anxious young person. I desperately wanted girls to like me and be impressed with me and this led to a lot of very unsexy people-pleasing and general stammering. I always worried that when it got to sex I would come too fast, too slow, not at all, not enough. I just wanted to be impressive – it didn’t really occur to me to think about whether I was enjoying sex or not, or even if I actually wanted to have it. It seemed like a vital and stressful responsibility. I did kegels to try and gain more control, looked up breathing exercises, determined to learn to fuck with steady, powerful fervour like the men in porn. I tried to time my orgasm so I came at the same time as my partner, or soon after, convinced that the secret – just like in comedy – was timing. But you can’t really enjoy sex if you’re watching the clock more than her tits, and I’m glad I grew up and learned to relax a little. At least most of the time.

It’s 2016, late afternoon on a grey Sunday. I’m in my early thirties and a cute marketing exec called Sarah who I’ve been seeing for six months. I’m getting anxious because I know I’m taking too long to come: she’s getting bored, or at least tired. I need to speed things up and get some jizz out of me so we can both relax and watch Parks and Rec. If I don’t come I know she’ll be hurt, feel unattractive, ask what’s wrong. I try to go faster; find a better angle; think very, very graphically about some wildly implausible fantasy involving more women than could conceivably fit around my dick at any one time. It’s ten years later but my timing still isn’t right.

Getting sex ‘right’

The timings are a lie though – I didn’t gradually move from being a fervent teenage ejaculator going off like a starting pistol to a middle-aged man ploughing rhythmically away like a metronomic fuck-machine. There were times when I was 19 and couldn’t come for ages and times when I was 30 and found myself spraying helplessly about the place before we even had our socks off. And mostly it wasn’t that bad, mostly I enjoyed myself a lot in spite of… well, myself… but worrying always finds a way. I’m always too much or not enough, one way or another. Whether you want to come or stop yourself from coming it’s deeply frustrating to find you can’t will it to happen, that willing it makes things worse, that ultimately your penis has its own agenda. Having a body is infuriating and so, ultimately, is the abiding truth that we can’t control things.

The problem for me was always this idea that sex was a performance. Something to get right. I had to hit my cues and wrap up before the curtain went down. I envied people for whom sex was this joyous, chaotic and unexamined indulgence when for me it was so often something I had to perform with great care. Hit the right spots at the right moments like a ballet dancer in front of an audience one-two — one-two-SHIT I trod on your toe sorrysorry. And even when I was having good sex, when I relaxed and felt how I wanted to feel, when we did come at the same shuddering moment, when I felt that everything fell into place, it was always against a backdrop of self-involved concern, a sense of something I had to get right.

Sex is a paradox of control and surrender. I want to be in control of just when and how I lose control. It feels wonderful to fuck someone knowing that your dick is doing what you want, that you can use it to push someone out of control, pulsing in as hard and as fast as you need, keeping yourself just at the brink to savour the moment, or pausing to deliberately frustrate your partner, a sexy caesura in the middle of a line that you know you can conclude at your pleasure. It feels wonderful to have the safety and permission to lose that control, to surrender completely to someone else’s timescale and come helplessly hard because they decided you had to. To escape into that perfect orgasmic moment, stretched into eternity.

The gap between orgasmic contractions is reliably documented as lasting around 0.6 seconds. Each paroxysm lifts you out of time for two thirds of a second, little transcendent moments that grant brief escape before the ticking second hand ebbs back into your awareness. Part of what makes sex so good is that it can push fear and worry and even mortality out of your consciousness and that’s a glorious absence to enjoy… until la petite mort leaves the door unguarded, and in that post-orgasmic woe you can slip back into oh god am I wasting this fuck and on into oh fuck am I wasting my life.

Performance anxiety and pressure

We’re getting more and more fixated as a society on what’s next, how we can measure it, how we can maximise it. Let’s pursue some more goddam happiness, let’s compound some fucking interest, or at least secure a good kick of dopamine at a reasonable price. The grinding weight of surveillance capitalism has driven us all quite mad and keeps on driving. There’s a cultural preoccupation with measuring everything and enhancing performance through very unsexy KPIs: how many steps have I taken today, how many milligrams of potassium is optimal for health, productivity hacks to maximise the effect of every second, stressing yourself so much over marginal gains that when it comes to just freely enjoying the pleasure of your body and someone else’s body it’s easy to wilt under the sheer pressure of the diminishing seconds, leaving your penis pointing uselessly to the ground.

I do know of course, by now, that a lot of my ideas about what I needed to be like for women were nonsense. My girlfriend doesn’t need or expect me to be an invulnerable sex god, constantly hard as a Rubik’s cube and ready to fuck all night or for 7.25 mins depending on her mood. I don’t need to be able to dispense jizz like a Mr Whippy machine on a hot day. I don’t need to be strong and functional and impressive at all times and it’s silly to try. I know that but I also a little bit don’t know that. Not fully. This is one of the tragedies of masculinity – we build a lot of nonsense scaffolding in our brains and also a big door marked Don’t Show Anyone The Nonsense Scaffolding. Which makes dismantling it rather hard work sometimes.

Can we resist the tyranny of measurement? Unburden ourselves of the pressure to squeeze every lemon for every drop of lemonade? Step away from the numbers and charts, step far enough back that we can’t hear the clock ticking? Be mindful, we’re told, live in the moment. Which moment? That one? It’s already gone! You’re too late and it’s getting dark now.

Sex is one of the best things in this life for pushing existential dread aside, honed by millions of years of creatures that felt the urgent need first and foremost to fuck. Sex created us, sex is our escape, sex is – wait – did I leave the oven on? Was that clock always so loud? I want to submit to my primal self and feel an orgasm grab me by the dick when the fates decree it but my pointlessly overcomplicated mind intrudes and wonders, even as I pant and writhe, whether I did in fact send that email I was meant to send.

Perhaps I just sound horribly neurotic. I do love the odd moments when my busy preoccupied thoughts retreat from a burgeoning erection, the warmth of intimacy swelling up as everything else recedes and I get to live in my body – oh to be alive and unfathomably deep in someone’s dripping cunt! Who are we to complain.

It still bothers me though, I think, this lurking notion of wasting a precious resource, sensing life slip away. The terribly capitalist sin of Not Making The Most Of Things. Not enjoying the world enough as it turns under you. And sex heightens that existential angst sometimes, or it does if I think too hard. No opportunity feels more frustratingly wasted then having a beautiful girl on her knees licking your dick with an eager tongue in between whispered encouragements to come all over her fucking face and realising that, try as you might, in that moment, you just fucking can’t. What a waste! What terrible timing! The privilege of having a beautiful girl murmuring that she’s a dirty cumslut, a filthy little whore, while your hands and your brain frantically trying to get your dick to cooperate on something that should be vastly fun, wondering if you’re destined to just stand here forever staring gift whores in the mouth.

But is there anything more pointlessly masturbatory than wanking on about life and loss and worrying about it all rather than just getting on with it? Shouldn’t we all aspire to worry less about how we appear, how we perform, how we’re perceived and just enjoy ourselves? Sex ultimately is a collaborative act. Even if you’re ruthlessly using someone’s holes to make yourself come you still have to make damn sure you’re doing so in a way that works for whoever’s holes those are; you have to worry at least a bit about how well you’re making life, the universe, and any given fuck work for the other person involved. Is it possible to dissolve those pressures for one another for a bit? Communicate and iterate and figure out ways to be entwined that feel freeing and joyous enough to escape time for a precious moment? A furtive five minute fumble can bring you as close to god as any 5-hour tantric yoga-fuck if you fumble it just right. Can we not find the right way to wring every drop of spunk from the throbbing erection life has placed in our hand? Or is the very act of gripping it too tight liable to leave us a bit raw?

One day you’ll have an orgasm for the last time in your life and you won’t know that’s what’s happening. So. You may as well relax and enjoy the time you have. Quickly though! Before it’s too late! Make the most of it but no more than that. Don’t worry but also do worry a bit. So we fuck on, dicks against the current, as Fitzgerald was far too polite to say.

Something about the fundamental uncertainty of life is just quite scary, isn’t it, and fear is the ultimate boner killer. But you need a little fear, you need to know you can fail and fade and die or what’s the point. If you run from the fear it’ll hunt you down but if you embrace it then it’s there with you and you can lean into the thrill of that, and the thrill of whoever is naked and lost in that precious moment beside you.




  • Anna says:

    Oh i enjoyed this. Beautifully, thoughtfully and urgently put. Well done!

  • Really good article and a lot of sense, I just turned 70 and my wife is 78 and it’s all seems to make good sense and I can relate to the younger man, he did not mention the perennial. My dick isn’t big enough, so I assume he’s hung like a horse, which I’m never sure is a good or a bad thing. Anyway, more stuff like this as well as the hot stuff is good.

  • The One says:

    Hard same dude. Hard same.

  • Boo says:

    This is a beautiful, sensitive article. I don’t have a penis, but I have experienced a lot of what you write about. I didn’t orgasm until my mid 20s and still feel myself compelled to give any new partner a comprehensive run down on on how I may not cum and, oh it’s okay if I don’t because that’s just me and my weird self.

    Thank you for writing this.

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