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Sex and His Self-Esteem

by Dr. Barb DePree

Ladies, sometimes we are just too full of ourselves.

Yeah, it’s tough growing older in a society that adulates youth. It’s especially distracting in bed: Does he see the cellulite on my thighs? When I’m on top, my belly sags like a pregnant dog, so let’s stick to the missionary position. While we’re at it, nothing stronger than a candle. One candle.

Of course, our secret vulnerability is that we yearn, in the secret recesses of our still-adolescent souls, to be desired. To have the person we love (or maybe someone who looks like George Clooney) think we are the most beautiful creature he’s ever seen. In such a way that we know it’s true.

And, of course, as we discussed before, everything in our culture, in our psyche, and maybe even from our family of origin rewards youth, beauty, and thinness. And we are not those things any more.

But what about men?

Aren’t they unscathed by cultural expectations about sex and intimacy? They created them, didn’t they? And they don’t have to be in the mood. They don’t have the same, um, unpredictabilities when it comes to getting it off in bed. Things are just more straightforward for guys.

Not really.

I’ve been doing some reading lately, and it’s given me a different perspective on Mars. The cultural messages and expectations they absorb almost from the cradle are equally potent and can be equally unrealistic and even damaging. And part of the message is that they aren’t supposed to talk about it. No whining, no complaints, just be a man. Get it up and get her on.

Consider this observation from a researcher who has interviewed men (and even more women) for many years: “… From the time boys are from eight to ten years old, they learn that initiating sex is their responsibility, and that sexual rejection soon becomes the hallmark of masculine shame." She heard this from a man she interviewed:

"Even in my own life, when my wife isn’t interested, I still have to battle feelings of shame. It doesn’t matter if I intellectually understand why she’s not in the mood. I’m vulnerable, and it’s very difficult.” (From Daring Greatly by Brené Brown).

I encounter this sentiment repeatedly. Men are vulnerable too. Because they usually initiate, they can be rejected. And they’re “responsible,” not only for their own orgasm, but in some way for ours. After all, if they were slower or faster or lasted longer or were more skilled….

There’s a reason for performance anxiety in men. A lot is riding on that “performance.” They don’t articulate it, not even to themselves, but their self-worth is connected to “performing” well. And if we don’t get off, or, God forbid, if they don’t, the result is shame.

“A guy can’t get through the day without seeing an ad for an erectile stimulant, getting spam about some sort of penis enlargement pill, or hearing sexual tall tales from the guys in the locker-room,” says Ian Kerner, author of She Comes First. “We live in an age where a lot of guys feel like they have to make love like porn stars, and with all the cultural reinforcement, it’s hard to believe otherwise.”

When you think about it, ladies, who are the male role models put before our men and boys? Wouldn’t the Disney Princess counterpart for boys look something like GI Joe or the Terminator? And for men, according this Esquire list, it’s George Clooney (who “eats class for breakfast”) and Liam Neeson. (Actually, the list is incredibly thoughtful and diverse. Check it out.)

But the point is that social pressure on boys to be “men,” and how we define “manly” is every bit as intense and constricting as is the pressure on us to be young, beautiful, and thin. And performance in bed is absolutely integral to the definition of being manly.

“Sexual prowess is the Holy Grail of manhood,” writes Scott Alden. “More than success, more than athleticism, more than witty banter—if we’re not a killer in the sack, we’ve failed as men.”


But what is really sweet, actually, and vulnerable and heartbreaking is that the thing your man wants most—even if it’s buried deep inside under years of habitual behavior in bed and out—the thing your man want most, is to turn you on and to know that he did it.

Truth. Nothing is sexier to a man than to turn on the woman he loves.

“For men, there’s nothing sexier in a woman than awakened desire,” writes Alden. “We also have a deep-seated need to keep our mate committed to us, and pleasing her better than anyone else in the history of sex has ever pleased anyone would be a good way for us to do that.”

All of us—men and women—are stereotyped in unhelpful ways by our time and culture. We’d probably have a lot more fun if we understood the forces that form us and viewed each other with a little more compassion.


  • Ladies, if you’re naked and smiling, he’s not noticing your cellulite, sagging belly, or crow’s feet – he’s only thinking one thing, and that’s, “Hot damn – daddy’s gonna get laid!!!”

    If you want to put your man’s self-esteem on steroids, give him a look when you see HIM naked that says you’re thinking, “Hot damn – Mama’s gonna get laid!!!”

    …and if you want him to feel like a GOD, have your actions during and afterward clearly state, “Mama got laid – and DAMN it was good!!!”

    Bragging about him to your friends is also a nice touch.

    Tanstaafl2 on

  • kateconvissor

    I actually AM a man. I read relationship sites and blogs like this to try to gain a better understanding of women and what makes them tick in order to improve my relationship with my wife. I’ll be married for 22 years this August, and there are still many times I go completely nuts trying to figure her out. Changes she’s going through in mid-life make it even more of a challenge.

    The comments I make are usually in the interest of “Here’s what we guys really DO think, and here’s what we wish you understood about us”. If you could eavesdrop on us in the locker room or on “Guys’ night”, this is what you’d hear us saying if the topic were to come up. It’s what I’d like my wife to know.

    One fault with special interest web sites is that they have a tendency to become very insular. This can be wonderfully supportive, but can completely miss the mark without participants even knowing it. Sometimes the direct approach is best – if you want to know how we feel about these things, ASK.

    Tanstaafl2 on

  • Tanstaafi2: You are one smart cookie. And I’ll bet you have one happy man. Can’t imagine a better way of saying it.

    kateconvissor on

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