Losing an Erection Doesn't Have to Make Sex Come to a Grinding Halt
Updated: Feb 28, 2019
For any topic around sex, it’s usually a good idea to dispel a few relevant myths, because with sex there’s a lot of them. Let’s look at a few here:
- A very small percentage of young men have an unsuccessful first intercourse experience, but if they do, it signals that they’ll have a lifelong sexual problem.
- Only 5% of men will experience an erection problem before age 40
- Successful intercourse is completely the man’s responsibility, and the intercourse failure is entirely his fault
- A real man can have an erection with any woman, any time, in any situation
- The major cause of erectile dysfunction (ED) is low testosterone
- ED is usually the woman’s fault
The reality that these are actually myths might be pretty surprising to a lot of people, both men and women, for two main reasons: many of us don’t have a realistic & productive view of what sex should look like, as well as how a man should be during sex.
Let’s break that down: what should sex look like? Usually we get all our information about this from movies, porn, or other media sources. It’s always intense, prolonged, endlessly fulfilling & stimulating, and goes off without a hitch. And how should a man be during sex? He should have complete control over his erection, keep it up for an hour straight, have sex only for the sake of the physical sensation, and ejaculate every single time.
Of course each of us will have differences in the details of how we think sex should look, but this is the prevailing template that society adopts. Sometimes it’s fine to have these expectations - it hasn’t caused any harm (yet) to you or your partner. But it’s hard for me to recommend keeping the status quo when the data shows that more than half of men will experience an erection problem at some point in their life.
So even if you haven’t experienced it yourself or with your partner, I strongly recommend taking a look at your own view of sex, and how it can shift to benefit both you and your current or future partner.
First, I want to look at society’s current view of sex in regards to men: it’s competitive, performance-oriented, isolated, and essentially fear-based. Men are told that we need to perform during sex, and if we don’t, it makes us less of a man. This not only isn’t true, but is extremely distressing to men, and in turn, their partners as well. It turns into a vicious cycle because any negative emotion can hinder erectile function. Anticipatory anxiety about sexual performance & ED is a sexual poison, and will likely keep you from getting an erection.
This anxiety hinders erections because erections occur through physiological relaxation. The microscopic muscles that surround the arteries in the penis relax, causing dilation of the arteries, which blood then rushes into. If we’re all tensed up, those muscles won’t relax, the blood won’t rush in, and there won’t be an erection. This is not an example of where the harder you think & worry about the problem, the more likely you’ll be to solve it.
Second, I want to discuss the reality of losing an erection, or being unable to get one initially in any given moment. Anticipatory anxiety certainly is one hindrance of erections, but there are many more: situational anxiety, reactive depression, loss of confidence, doubt, disappointment, irritation, remorse, embarrassment or negative feelings about his body, unrealistic expectations of sexual performance, or internal conflicts like having both roles of a lover and a father. In addition, losses, midlife adaptations, changing social status, parenting stresses, monotony, reaction to your partner’s distress, and even success can disrupt your psychological function.
As you can see, there are things that any man could experience on any given day that have the chance of leading to a difficulty with his erections. It is completely normal for them to be quite finicky at times, and are even more so when we have the expectation that nothing should impact our erections - that we're in total control at all times.
So what can be done? I suggest adopting a pleasure-oriented view of sex; this means thinking about sex in terms of pleasure, self-esteem, and intimacy as well as good-enough erections. Instead of looking at sex as something you must not “fail” at, try looking at it with a positive attitude and with realistic expectations.
A positive attitude could be something along the lines of putting more thought into how the two of you can experience pleasure with each other, instead of focusing on the arbitrary rule of keeping an erection the whole time. If we focus on pleasure, it makes a session of sex so much more fluid and flexible. This will be different from couple to couple, but talk about it. Share with each other what you really enjoy about sex, what you could use more or less of, and what new things you could try (positions, toys, being verbal, kink, etc).
Even more specifically, make sure you both have an idea of how you would like to handle a situation when you aren’t (or he isn’t) able to get an erection, or if that erection goes away during sex. Instead of one person taking it personally that their partner lost their erection, and the other person feeling embarrassed because they didn't maintain it throughout the session, work together. Come up with a plan so that if the erection is lost, you both take a 5 minute water break, or continue touching each other sexually, or lay close to each other and cuddle, or any other plan that would work. The point is to not let a loss of an erection become a disconnect; continue to connect and experience pleasure through those moments. Due to this continuity in connection, before you know it you’ll have regained that erection.
All in all, sex is something that at its best is a way to experience pleasure, connect, and bond with your partner - it’s not something to fail at. And for erections, they are only one piece of the pleasure experience. You certainly can experience pleasure with an erection in the mix, but you can experience pleasure without it too.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for erections to be neglected or taken out of sex. What I’m saying is that 1) you can experience pleasure outside of totally functional and hard erections, and 2) adopting a pleasure-oriented view of sex will make sex easier & more fulfilling as well as give you a better foundation for regaining those erections.
Take back control from society in how you view yourself and sex, and you’ll be on your way to better sex and a more confident self.
(Many men will be able to resolve their ED through shifting their view of sex, but this will not be enough for many other men. Always consult a professional if you are experiencing symptoms of ED).
For more reading on the topic, check out Coping with Erectile Dysfunction: How to Regain Confidence and Enjoy Great Sex by Barry McCarthy, PhD, & Michael Metz PhD.