Perfectionism is a well-documented personality trait that can vary from somewhat healthy to... not so healthy. We often hear about the need to have everything 'just right' in the workplace or in social situations, but we rarely hear about the concept of sexual perfectionism; the kind that sees us taking it to the bedroom. To understand the concept a little better, we tapped into the expertise of Laura Miano, sex therapist and founder of sex toy company Posmo.
So, what is sexual perfectionism?
Sexual perfectionism is an umbrella term for a kind of performance anxiety. It can manifest in a variety of ways, but mostly comes down to the pressure to look or perform a certain way during sex. That could be things like intrusive thoughts of insecurity that take you out of the moment (e.g. how your body looks), fixating on doing things 'right' (e.g. how your moans sound) or putting unnecessary stress on yourself or your partner to climax.
As a study published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour outlines, the most common types of sexual perfectionism are: self-oriented, where a person holds themselves to exceedingly high standards; partner-oriented, where they hold their partners to exceedingly high standards; partner-prescribed, where a person holds the belief that their partner is holding them to high standards; and socially-prescribed, where a person feels pressure from society to present a certain kind of sexuality.
The study examined how sexual perfectionism affects women in particular and how partner-prescribed sexual perfectionism impacted overall sexual wellbeing and satisfaction. Examining 366 women between the ages of 17 and 69, it found that participants who thought their partner wanted sexual perfection were more likely to experience sexual dysfunction, anxiety and lower self-esteem — none of which really lead to a good time downtown.
What's so bad about it?
Wanting sex to be good isn't a bad thing. Hell, it's your right and you shouldn't settle for any less. But the nastier side of perfectionism creeps up when you find yourself getting bogged down in what you think sex is supposed to be like, rather than what you actually enjoy.
Essentially, it takes something that’s meant to be enjoyable and turns it into labour, especially if you tend to be highly critical of yourself and/or your partners.
Why does sexual perfectionism exist?
We all tend to lean towards perfectionism about certain things, and we all have our reasons for being particular. It can come from a need to have control over a situation, or having it play out exactly as we imagine or hope. Only, that's not very realistic. As Miano tells us, it can also stem from the desire for acceptance, or even from past experiences of feeling judged.
“People with perfectionistic tendencies might have been implicitly taught during their upbringing that in order to receive love, acceptance or affection they need to meet certain standards. i.e. a parent who is distant or harsh when their child fails in school,” she says.
“It may be a broader trait that they experience in the rest of their life, or perhaps certain earlier sexual experiences taught them a message that when you aren't 'performing' well in bed, your partner loses interest, disconnects from intimacy, or stops sex.”
Should we stop being sexual perfectionists?
Good sex is not an unreasonable demand. It's about feeling comfortable enough to experiment and getting to know what you like. The real key to getting ahead of your perfectionist tendencies is to get real about your needs and communicate those to your partner so you can work on mutual enjoyment, free of the need to bend in just the right, aesthetically pleasing way.