At some point in your life, you might experience a very flustering sexual encounter: You’re about to get down and dirty with your partner, when all of a sudden they lose their boner, or they can’t get one up in the first place. It leaves you unsure of what to do next — do you keep pushing through it because you bought new lacy underwear for this, or do you cancel the evening’s sexcapades entirely? Too, there’s probably a small voice in your head telling you that you did something wrong, or that this change in mood is your fault (when it’s obviously not, duh, next question).
If your partner is having a rough time getting and staying hard during sex, try not to descend into panic mode. Difficulty keeping an erection sufficient for penetration is referred to as Erectile Dysfunction, or ED for short. Here’s the thing though: this is a pretty normal issue, whether it happens just once or numerous times in a row. People of all sexes experience difficulty with arousal, and it’s inevitable that this comes up during intimacy. Issues with arousal are unrelated to how explosively sexy your relationship is or how much you love each other — sometimes there’s just no lift off for a variety of reasons.
There are sometimes physical causes at play.
“Diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, fatigue, smoking, high cholesterol, advanced age, or a host of other illnesses may bring about ED,” explains Dr. Alex Chinks, Boston-based licensed clinical psychologist and sexologist. “ED can be an early symptom of current or future heart disease. The first question I ask my ED patients is, ‘when was your last physical?’ to rule out these causes. My next question is about alcohol and drug use. Drinking is the largest culprit of ED in men under the age of 40. And any recreational or prescription drugs can bring about ED as a side effect.”
Maybe it’s all mental.
ED gets a lot more complicated when it comes to psychological causes, because humans are emotional, sensitive, insecure creatures (yep). Your significant other might have an image in their mind of how sex should look and how they should perform — but when real life doesn’t meet their expectations, this can lead to stress and going limp as a physical reaction. Your partner might also lose an erection due to reasons ranging from anxiety to big life changes. Depression in general can dampen sex drive and increase the chance that erection loss keeps occurring.
“I often say that one’s sex life is a window into their non-sexual lives. And if there’s a lot going on, a guy can begin to experience ED as a result,” notes Dr. Chinks.
Or there’s a sexual dysfunction present.
Dr. Chinks says that “our sexual response cycle typically follows a pathway of desire-arousal-excitement-orgasm. Erections are a sign of arousal. If your guy is experiencing low desire (or libido), then he may not be able to move into the arousal zone.” Sometimes you’re just not feeling that horny, oh well. But on the chance that there is sexual dysfunction at play, a doctor’s visit never hurts to figure out what’s up.
How will ED impact your relationship, both emotionally and sexually?
Keep in mind that erections are not going to make or break your sex life. And for most people with a clit, penetration is not even needed for pleasure. Especially if you care a lot about your partner, there are other ways to satisfy, and sex can be a whole range of behaviors. Brooke Norton, a marriage and family therapist says that playing with a soft penis can be enjoyable for everyone.
“A soft penis is just that — it doesn’t mean anything about masculinity or being a good lover. And we also have hands, mouths, and the rest of our bodies to use for pleasure.”
Dr. Emily Morse, Doctor of Human Sexuality and host of the SiriusXM Radio show and podcast of the same name, Sex With Emily, recommends a tactic in the same vein. “Try taking a break from sex for a bit – go back to kissing, have him go down on you and touch each other’s bodies, have a snack — whatever it is, the mood can come back!”
If you and your partner are still feeling totally lost about what to do next, there are a few things to try when working past ED. “I often encourage folks to think about what sex is about,” Norton says. “Is it really about staying hard? Sex is about sharing pleasure and enjoyment, not necessarily about parts behaving in a particular way. Some of us were taught that there is foreplay and then penetration is the main event.”
Instead, you can start to think of every part of a sexual encounter as sex. There’s no need to stick to a script when there are so many broad ways to express yourself sexually. Oftentimes, a sex therapist will also be able to come up with suggestions and assist with matters of ED. It’s important for a professional to give attention to individual stories and unique circumstances that brought people to the point where things are a problem. Norton says, “I once worked with a cis, hetero couple who really prioritized her penetration, so I asked them to consider using a toy for this purpose. It turned out that he enjoyed using the toy on her so much that he was able to get an erection.”
Overall, the best way you can help your partner is to be understanding and patient, and to not get upset in any way (remember, this isn’t your fault). In our very patriarchal culture, it can feel like a partner’s erection is inherently related to your appearance and sexual prowess, but that’s not true. Keep in mind that ED can feel embarrassing and your partner can feel like they’re taking a hit to their self-esteem as well, so just try to be the most supportive person you can. Being able to talk about and work through this will set you up for an even stronger relationship.
A version of this story was published May 2020.
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