Silent Suffering – and – Superhero Syndrome

When I worked as a professional companion it was not uncommon to hear clients ask, “Tell me what you like” or “What do you want me to do to you?” at the onset of our physical intimacy. Such requests came not only from clients, but men in my personal life too. I’m not alone in this. Countless female acquaintances have relayed similar stories, albeit usually framed as a complaint. These women didn’t want to be asked for guidance, counter intuitive as it seems, and claimed it “ruins the moment” or makes a lover seem less confident than clumsy.

If I didn’t know any better I’d think these women expected all men to instinctively know how to pleasure all women all the time. But I don’t think that’s the case. In truth, many women simply find voicing sexual needs and desires to be anxiety-inducing.

It starts in childhood. Girls, much more than boys, are raised to prioritize the needs of others to the extent their nurturing instinct gets stuck on overdrive. By adulthood it’s automatic. The average woman goes through life putting everyone else first: parents, partners, bosses, coworkers, kids, and even neighbors. Combine this societal conditioning with the demonizing of female sexuality and it’s no wonder women struggle to vocalize their desires. Cultural shifts are coming, but in the meantime this situation is doing a number on our sex lives. And by “our” I don’t just mean women.

If they’re aware of it at all, most men would be shocked at the pervasiveness of this issue—that many a woman’s capacity to tolerate unpleasant touch far surpasses her aptitude for making it change or stop. When he says, “Tell me what you like,” and she replies, “Whatever you want,” he’s unaware her agreeableness is masking extreme discomfort. Or that he’s asking her to focus on herself in ways she was never taught.

There’s no worse time for an awkward moment than at the onset of sex. It can bring up feelings of shame and inadequacy, not to mention blame and finger-pointing at men who ask relatively innocuous questions in bed.

So where does that leave us? Are men to simply forge ahead like wordless cavemen? Wouldn’t that lead to more vilifying? Besides, no two women are alike, and so not even James Bond would get it right 100 percent of the time. Expecting men to be mind-readers and superheroes is a tall order. They put too much pressure on themselves already.

We have an epidemic of performance anxiety in this country.

Intimacy takes courage, no two ways about it. The vulnerability inherent in an appeal for sexual guidance is something to be admired. A few words of instruction needn’t take longer than unbuttoning a blouse or putting on a condom. The relief it provides—to have one less obstacle between himself and his goal—is no small thing to a man.

And therein lies another problem.

As an intimacy coach I see this time and time again — clients so concerned with satisfying their partner they dissociate from their own sexual pleasure. They’re so stuck in their heads trying to “do it right” they’ve lost touch with their bodily sensations, those natural instincts that are the true pleasure compass and (ironically) the best sexual guide he could have. Instead, sex becomes another thing to achieve or win at, as opposed to a celebration, intimate union, or blissful immersion. A man who’s hyper-focused on his partner may get an ego boost from her satisfaction, but it comes at the cost of his own.

One-sided intimacy is a contradiction in terms.

If women are raised to put themselves last, men are raised to always keep score and outdo everyone else. Whether in a ballpark, boardroom, or bedroom, men tend to be goal-oriented, and they bring that attitude into their sexual relationships. If in every encounter a man is more concerned with ringing his woman’s bell than experiencing the spectrum of erotic delights available to him, performance anxiety results, sometimes erectile dysfunction or inhibited ejaculation (inability to orgasm). As an intimacy coach I see a lot of this.

The solution is improved communication and sensory focus — learning to touch for pleasure versus performance.

Just like women can practice stating their needs, men can practice embodiment. When we individually reconnect with our own erotic energy, everyone wins. Modern lifestyles confuse some of our best natural instincts. We’ve forgotten how to be present. We place limits on our enjoyment. All that can be changed, sometimes in an instant. Asking for what we want and allowing ourselves to experience it can end women’s Silent Suffering and men’s Superhero Syndrome.