Performance vs. Pleasure Based Sex

Performance-based sex can lead to dishonesty, disappointment, and shallowness in a relationship. Although people often slip into a performance-based mindset with the best of intentions, it can quickly lead to dissatisfying and frustrating sexual experiences. Let’s start with a few real world examples (names have been changed for privacy and to reflect my favorite cartoons).


Daphne and Fred

Daphne and Fred had a pretty good sex life. But when Fred started tracking the times they had sex vs the times Daphne orgasmed, he discover she only orgasmed 1 out of 13 times they had sex. Fred saw this as a failing on his part, and took it upon himself to solve the problem. After this, he would always come to the bedroom with his analytical mind as he attempted to discover the secret to making his wife orgasm more frequently. After a while with no improvement, Fred felt discouraged and started to avoid sex. When the two did have sex, he started to loose his erections as he felt so anxious about being able to make her orgasm. Daphne started to feel like she wasn’t good enough and also started to not like sex. Fred had fallen into the trap of making sex performance-based. 

Matt and Inez

Matt and Inez were newlyweds and so excited to have sex with each other. However, Matt discovered he was not able to “get it up” every time they tried to have sex. Matt felt embarrassed and disappointed with his erectile dysfunction. When they were having an intimate moment, that embarrassment would cause him to “clam up”. Inez just wanted to make Matt feel more confident and so she started to fake more arousal than she felt. As soon as Matt got an erection, she would ask him to penetrate, usually long before she was actually aroused enough. Eventually, the two realized neither of them were getting what they really wanted out of these encounters. Both of them were so focused on the performance that they had lost most of the pleasure of being together. 

Performance-Based Sex Defined

Performance-based sex is focusing on outward appearances of pleasure rather than the actual experience of pleasure. For example, this could look like focusing solely on orgasm or erection; or focusing on the number of times you have sex. It could look like being worried about how you look during sex, what sounds you are making, what your partner might think of your performance etc. 

Often, people describe performance-based sex as a type of sepctatoring. Spectatoring is when you disconnect from what is happening to you so much that you feel like you are watching the scene from a third person view. During sex, we will stop really feeling what is happening to us and be more focused on how we look. This disconnect can come from anxiety about “doing it right”, worry about our body image, or a number of other anxieties that take us out of the moment.

Performance-based sex is being concerned with meeting expectations of what sex should look/be like. These expectations can be heavily influenced by media portrayals of sex and pornography. Sometimes, a performance focus can come from very pure intentions. Like Fred in the story, even focusing on your spouse’s outward signs of pleasure leads to performance-based sex.

Pleasure-based Sex Defined

Pleasure-based sex is the opposite of performance-based. It’s focusing on in-the-moment feelings and sensations. A couple who is pleasure-based will act on what feels good and be in-tune with their own and their spouses feelings. This type of sex allows for more emotionally-based thoughts like, “how can I communicate to my spouse that I love them?” and “what sexual expeirence do I think will draw us closer together?” and “how happy/connected/satisfied am I feeling?”.

Pleasure-based sex looks like touching your spouse and asking them to tell you what feels good. It means staying focused on your bodily sensations and not being carried away by worries about what comes next. Focusing on pleasure means doing what feels good, and not feeling like something else should be happening. 

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever try to vary or improve your performance. The differnece between pleasure-based and performance-based sex is whether the focus is on the performance alone, or on how the performance feels and how it creates deeper intimacy. 

Why is Pleasure-Based Better?

Pleasure-based sex is more inline with the ultimate goal of deeper intimacy. Pleasure-based sex helps us become more intune with our spouse and connect to them. Focusing on pleasure also leads to less disappointment. Orgasm is largely a bodily reflex, and is therefore at least partially out of our control. If we focus our attention on whether or not we orgasm, we are bound to be dissapointed. Throughout our lives, we will fluctuate in our ability to perform. Aging, giving birth, stressful life events, etc will change our ability to orgasm, become erect, or have the type of sex we used to be capable of. 

Focusing on pleasure instead of performance means that no matter what changes occur, there will be other ways to be physically intimate with your partner. Focusing on pleasure allows more creativity and room to try new things! 

Ironically, focusing on pleasure and letting go of worries will often improve performance as well! Anxiety is the antithesis of arousal. When you stop focusing on performance, anxieties fade and it can be easier to orgasm. However, we can’t switch to a pleasure-based focus while still expecting to orgasm more. Just like a watched pot never boils, we must learn to fully let go of our expectations in order to focus on our pleasure. 

How To Know What Your Focus Is?

Not every couple will be solely performance or pleasure-based. In fact, I would say most couples fall somewhere in between. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to determine when you are more performance-based.

  • What expectations do you have for sex? What do you hope to accomplish?
  • Do you feel a pressure to perform? Do you ever act more turned on than you feel?
  • Does having sex/trying new things make you feel anxious? Are you worried something new will affect your performance?
  • Does your ability to perform (get wet, an erection, an orgasm etc) affect how you feel about sex?

How to Switch Your Focus

Here are a few suggestions to start! If you would like more specific help, consider signing up for a coaching session!

Explore Your Expectations

Find a quiet moment to reflect on your expectations. Try to be honest with yourself. What are you seeking when you initiate sex? Do you avoid sex because something makes you nervous? 

Once you’ve discovered your expectations, seek actively to reset them. If you are too focused on orgasm or penetration, try a sex fast where you can just enjoy touching each other without the expectation of orgasm. If you are nervous about pleasing your partner, talk to them about it. Ask them what you have done that pleases them (not just what has made them orgasm, that’s not totally controllable!). Give your spouse reassurance that you want to have sex with them not because of their perforamce but because of who they are. 


Seek to be in the moment, especially during sex. If you catch yourself drifting towards spectatoring, try to pull yourself back to your body. Explore each of your 5 senses. What can you touch, taste, hear, see, and smell? When your thoughts do drift, explore that with curiosity instead of judgment. Why do your thoughts drift? Are you just not feeling this particular thing, or is anxiety getting in the way. Beating yourself up will have the opposite effect! Practice self-compassion. 


Along with mindfulness, it is important to recognize what you can control and what you can’t. Orgasm and erection are two bodily functions we don’t have complete control over. How our spouse reacts to us is also out of our control. Practice shifting your locus of control to things within your power. This could be how you choose to act and what you consciously focus on. For example, you cannot control if your wife will orgasm, but you can control how you love her. Focus on communicating to her your feelings (through your touch).

Set New Goals

If our brains are determined to focus on an outcome, we can choose a new outcome. Maybe your new goal is to discover your spouse’s body. Not just what makes them orgasm, but what they find to be appealing. Maybe your goal could be to follow your instincts and do what feels good.

Communication is key. If you are feeling like your sex life is performance-based, talk with yor spouse about it. Explore what expectations you both have and feel coming from the other person. Set new goals together of what you want to be focused on. 


Performance-based sex leads to frustration and anxiety. Instead, focus on the pleasures of the moment and on your deepening connection to your spouse. If you have a hard time making the switch on your own, let us help you.

Written by Amanda Severson with Get Your Marriage On!

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<h3>Amanda Severson</h3>

Amanda Severson

Hi, I'm Amanda! I'm a grad student on her way to becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist. I'm a wife and a sex enthusiast. I am a psychology nerd whose life goal is to help every couple find the absolute joy of sharing your life with someone else.

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