Updated: Nov 20
When you hear the word "performance", what comes to mind? Perhaps a piano recital? Giving a speech at work? A Broadway show? How about sex? For most people, they wouldn't describe sex as a "performance". For most, sex is a form of communication, a way to experience or share pleasure with a partner, or a way to connect to meaningful values. In fact, one study in 2020 enumerates 237 different reasons why people have sex. But putting on a "performance" is not one of them.
If sex is not really characterized as a "performance", why in the world do we use the word "perform" to describe sexual function? Men might say they "couldn't perform" to mean they can't get an erection or ejaculate too quickly or not at all. Women might say they "couldn't perform" to describe an inability to reach orgasm or an insufficiency in arousal. How does the use of the word "perform" impact the way we think about sex and sexuality?
Language is a remarkably powerful thing. How we use words can have a great impact on how we see and understand the world. In fact, according to Relational Frame Theory, a theory developed by Stephen Hayes, also the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Theory, or ACT , language is even the root of emotional pain and suffering. Becoming overly attached, or hooked, to a word or thought, and that word or thought begins to drive your perceptions and narratives. As discussed here, it's getting "hooked" into a thought, not the thought itself, that actually contributes to distress. While we might not attribute a great deal of significance to the use of the word "perform" to describe sexual function, that simple word gently implies that sex is, in fact, a performance. A show. A production. An act. And the more "hooked" one becomes to this idea, the more likely someone will get derailed from a sexual experience when having difficulty "performing".
This would also seemingly imply that if the performance was a failure, the entire encounter would be rendered meaningless. Why go to a concert if the musician forgot the lyrics to the song and would just sit there in silence watching the crowd? Why go hear a comedian if she was going to just stand on stage in silence? These would be an obviously disappointing night of entertainment. Why bother having a sexual encounter if the "performance" is not possible?
The word "perform" suggests that sex is rooted in a specific act, action, or outcome. If a man can't "perform" due to erectile dysfunction, it might mean he cannot engage in penetrative sex, a specific act. If a woman can't "perform" during sex, it might mean she cannot reach orgasm, a specific outcome. But, what about the rest of sex? The average duration of penetrative sex, and there is some variability in the research, is between 3 and 5 minutes. But, foreplay, which can also vary from couple to couple, is often significantly longer. One study found that 30% of couples spend between 10-20 minutes engaging in foreplay, 13% spend more than 20 minutes, and 45% spend between 5-10 minutes. This means that well over 80% of couples engage in foreplay that is as long, or longer, than the duration of penetrative sex. The duration of orgasm for women can last from a few seconds to up to 35 seconds or longer. One study even found that women can experience an orgasm for up to two minutes! Which also means that the majority of a sexual encounter is time spent not in orgasm. And yet, we should reduce the totality of the sexual encounter to defining it by the ability or inability to "perform"?
What about other forms of pleasure, playfulness, or exploration? What about bringing pleasure to one's partner? What about connecting to the values that make sex important to you or your partner? When we use the word "perform" we are implying that these things are not important to an individual or couple, only how the "performance" goes. What if instead of discussing "performance" we talked about "function"? Instead of "I couldn't perform" it's "I didn't reach an orgasm." or, "I didn't get an erection". This simple reframing allows us to see sexual function not as a "performance" but as a part of the whole sexual experience. As I discuss here, by looking at sex holistically, rather than as reducing it to specific acts, actions, or outcomes, meaningful sex is still possible, even if full sexual function is not accessible at that particular moment.
This shift from "performance" to "function", or from outcome-focused sex to pleasure-focused sex, is one that many individuals and couples struggle with due to how they are educated about sex, how they see sexual function as being linked to relational acceptance, and how sexual function impacts self-esteem, among many other factors. If you find yourself getting caught in a struggle with your approach to sex and sexuality, sex therapy can be a valuable tool to move towards the sexual relationship you'd like to have.