Our last column discussed some of the biological antecedents of good geezer sex: global wellness, minimal pharmaceuticals, and sufficient Hormonal, Cardiovascular, Skeleto-muscular, and Neurological wellness to support positive sexual functioning.
This column looks at the psychological-level gremlins which get in the way. Yet to come are the relational gremlins and the complex issue of Spirituality and Sexuality. The largest sex organ is the one between the ears, and problems there can dramatically influence our sexuality, for better or worse. Two of the more common issues are “performance anxiety” and a history of sexual trauma.
Sex begins with parasympathetic autonomic nervous system activation, i.e. with safety. If we in are flight, fight, or freeze “red” zones and our amygdala (brain alarm center) is screaming “DANGER,” all the blood leaves our genitals and goes to our extremities, so we can run away from the sabre tooth tiger or kill it. It would not serve our survival if we were wired up to finish sex before running away from the overgrown pussycat. We’d be lunch instead of orgasmic.
One of the more comforting things I am able to tell men with psychological performance anxiety is that nothing has gone wrong here. If you are having morning erections, nocturnal erections, or erections with masturbation, you junk is working just fine, exactly as your maker intended.
OK, so today we don’t have saber-toothed tigers except, maybe in zoos or the halls of government, but we do have unrelenting stress including financial, social, medical anxieties, and if we add performance anxiety it is easy to tip our nervous systems into flight or fight with “negative self-talk.” Flaccidity comes to all men, sooner or later, and it doesn’t mean anything other than at this moment he is not aroused. If he goes into the self-talk of “I am going to disappoint her, there is something wrong with me, I’m not a man, she is going to leave me if I don’t satisfy her, if I don’t satisfy her she will look elsewhere for someone who can,” etc., etc., etc., we begin a snowballing, self-fulfilling prophecy which makes flaccidity more and more likely.
It gets worse and worse until we are convinced that we are not man enough for the job. It is not about performance and proving our manhood, guys. It is about giving and receiving pleasure and sharing love. It is for fun, not for proving your manhood.
Once the limbic system of the brain takes over, erection ain’t gonna happen. As we age and the inevitable slowing down of our sexual responses occurs, the likelihood of not getting an erection increases. Women can suffer their version of the same negative self-talk: “I don’t turn him on anymore. I am not hot enough for him. He won’t desire me if I don’t satisfy him. He will shop elsewhere or leave me for someone younger without the wrinkles and stretchmarks.”
So, what to do when the inevitable happens and arousal or erections don’t happen? If we can rule out hormonal, cardiovascular, or neurological causes, we need to first of all “de-catastrophize” and normalize occasional flat-lining. It is not fair to us to compare ourselves to porn stars, or 18-year-olds, or even 50- year-olds! It’s not going to work every time. When the magic doesn’t happen, say yes to it, and have a good conversation about it with your partner.
The second nugget of advice from this ol’ geezer is “lose your mind and come to your senses.”
That means recognize your negative thoughts, accept them, be curious about them, but please don’t believe them. They are just thoughts, just neurons firing, not to be taken all that seriously. Just scary bedtime stories you are telling yourself. As Mark Twain once said, “There have been a great many terrible things in my life . . . and most of them have never happened!” So, notice your negative thoughts, then make a choice to return to your senses: sight (look at your partner’s lovely face and body), smell their wonderful scent, taste them, touch them, listen to their love sounds. Lose your mind and come to your senses. Leave the negative thoughts and tune in to the sensual pleasure of being with your beloved. If this is easier said than done and you are stuck, the services of a well-trained sex therapist can really help turn around the negative self-snowballing of performance anxiety by helping you take the pressure off.
The other common source of psychological sexual difficulties in either gender is unresolved sexual trauma. This can be big T trauma (e.g. rape, molestation, sexual torture) or little t trauma (rejection, embarrassment, disappointment, love gone bad). If your partner begins crying or becomes frightened during sex, they may be re-experiencing a sexual T or t trauma. If so, let the sex go and just hold them tenderly and tell them you love them. If it persists, a good therapist can help. There are cutting-edge trauma therapies which are highly effective in healing old wounds (IFS, EMDR).
Our next column will delve into how the relationship can affect sexuality for good or ill. In the meantime, be safe, be happy, and love each other well.
Send your questions to [email protected]
Ron Feintech, PhD
Sex Therapy Diplomate, AASECT