the science of (sexual) frustration

Arthur Chu wrote this lovely piece about Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds over at Daily Beast, and this is me adding some brain science to his sentiment. It’s science that has totally changed my own life, both personally and professionally, and I want you all to learn it and then tell everyone you know, okay? It’s science I’ve blogged about maybe once, but it’s science that forms the foundation of the second half of my book (which won’t be out until next spring).

It’s about how frustration works, and what to do about it when it happens to you.

Ready? Here it is:

In your brain, you have a thing called a “discrepancy reducing feedback loop,” which you can imagine (not very accurately) as a little monitor, like a tennis judge. And she’s paying attention to:

Easy so far: the monitor knows your goal – say, driving to the mall – and she knows how much you’re investing in that goal – say, how much time is passing – and how much progress you’re making -how far you’re traveling. Easy.

Now. The monitor has a very strong opinion about what the appropriate resources-to-progress ratio should be. Like, she knows it should take 20 minutes to drive to the mall. That strong opinion is called your criterion velocity (PDF).

And as you travel, she’s keeping track of how far you’re going and how much time is passing. If you’re making great progress – there’s no traffic and you hit the lights just right, you’re getting there much faster than usual – how does that feel?

Kind of great, right? Woohoo! Green lights!

Now imagine traffic is heavy and you keep getting red lights.

You start to get frustrated, right?

Under just the wrong circumstances, you might even eventually start to get ENRAGED and start screaming at the car in front of you, “GET OUT OF MY FUCKING WAY, ASSHOLE!” even though you know that driver is just as stuck as you are.


Your little monitor KNOWS how much effort it should take to achieve this goal, so that when it takes much too much effort to achieve the goal, you get frustrated…

Then enraged…

And then your little monitor does a remarkable, powerful, and tremendously important thing: it’s as though she switches her assessment of the goal from “attainable” to “unattainable.” She gives up, and she pushes you off the cliff of rage into the emotional pit of despair.

Then you must mourn, grieve for the goal, and let it go, to create space for a new, attainable goal. You sit glumly, passively in your car, letting the traffic suck. Eventually it clears up, and so does your mood.


But what if we’re not talking about driving to the mall?

What if the “goal” is sex?

What if – for guys especially, based on how culture represents male sexuality – the goal is “have sex with women”? And your little monitor has been taught to expect that it should take, like, hardly any effort to attain that goal?

And so you try the things you’ve been taught, and you fail (because in actual fact, you’ve been taught kind of all the wrong stuff).

So you try some more things. You read books about it. You look for videos from guys who have figured out what to do. You might even, in your desperation, actually deign to ask WOMEN what they want! You try everything, and you keep failing.

You get frustrated.

Then you get enraged.

And then your emotions drop into the pit of despair.

Discrepancy reducing feedback loop. Criterion velocity.

Tell your friends.


Now if you think about it for a few seconds, I bet you can see that there are three places you can create change in this system, if you’re stuck in frustration or rage or despair:

  1. Change the goal 2. Change the amount or kind of effort/resources you’re investing 3. Change your effort-to-progress ratio – your criterion velocity.


In the case of a sexually frustrated guy, changing the goal is… well, it’s CRUCIAL, and it’s easy for me to talk about because I’m not a guy. From the point of view of a woman, who has not been taught all her life that getting laid is both easy and a measure of her value as a human being, it’s easy for me to say, “Just stop having ‘get laid’ as your goal.” But of course it’s not that simple, and it’s where my expertise runs out.

Anyone who’s been through this process of figuring out that what they were taught was bullshit and chosen a goal for themselves, please tell us in the comments how you did it, and what better goal you chose for yourself.

But strictly from a motivational perspective, let me say this:

The goal you were taught is not a goal you chose for yourself. It’s just the random, bullshit goal that was planted in your brain over and over again, every day of your life, from the day you were born and the adults around you saw that you had a penis. Every day, your family and your culture indirectly but systematically taught you that Getting Laid was something you should and must do, and if it was difficult for you, well then you’re a loser.

And fuck that.

Fuck that, because that goal – “getting laid” – only makes sense if sex is something someone gives you, like the “lay” is something a woman has that she’ll give to you if only you say the secret password. And that is completely and totally not at all even a little bit how it actually works.  In other words: the goal is only attainable if you’re somewhere between a brainless twerp and a rapist.

Without changing the goal, any effort to change your efforts or your criterion velocity just won’t help.

To change the goal, pick a goal that YOU choose.