“Swellness” is a monthlong series exploring the health and wellness stuff no one talks about.
Look, it happens. If you have sex with people who have penises, at some point, you will encounter a situation where one doesn’t behave like you (or its owner) expect it to. Erectile dysfunction has been a source of concern and weirdness since the beginning of written history (and presumably before). Even the Bible has a story about King David being unable to “gat heat” for a young virgin. How awkward for everyone involved!
Erectile dysfunction is almost certainly worse for the person experiencing it than it is for their partner, but still, no one’s happy about it. If you happen to be the other party, it’s not your responsibility to “do” or “fix” anything. This is the same regardless of whether it’s a onetime thing or a recurring issue, if it’s a casual encounter or with a long-term significant other. But there are ways to make it easier on everyone including yourself.
Understanding the biology behind erectile dysfunction can help you not take it personally when it happens to your partner, says Dr. Rachel Rubin, a sexual-medicine specialist and professor in urology at Georgetown University. “If you know the physiology of how erections work or don’t work, you can take a lot of the guilt and shame out of it when things go wrong,” she explains. “I understand that it might hurt your feelings, but it’s actually not a reflection of you.”
A working erection calls for three components: “You need healthy muscles, healthy nerves, and healthy arteries,” says Dr. Rubin. “But, for example, if you’re stressed about your performance and your adrenaline is high, that contracts and tightens muscles, which makes you lose an erection.” In fact, new research shows that it’s pretty normal for someone to experience erectile dysfunction because they are simply too excited about the situation at hand, not because they aren’t attracted to the other person. This condition even has a name — adrenaline-mediated erectile dysfunction — and can be successfully treated with medication.
Of course, there are other causes including medical conditions and medications. For example, certain antidepressants can cause orgasm delay, loss of sensitivity in the penis, or additional erectile-function issues. The same goes for alcohol and certain recreational drugs. And sometimes, there’s just no clear explanation, says Dr. Rubin. “Remember, never in our lives will our bodies work and function 100 percent of the way we want them to.”
No matter the reason, if things don’t seem right, don’t beat around the bush. Clear communication is always the most important part of any sexual experience, so be kind but direct. Some suggestions: “Hey, do you want to take a break?” or “Do you want to try something else?” or even “This is a little bit stressful. Can we take a step back for a second?”
Taking the pressure off of traditional, penetrative sex is also a good idea. “There are lots of ways to have pleasure and orgasms,” says Dr. Rubin. “Instead of focusing on one way to have sex, use this as an opportunity to explore other ways to enjoy each other’s company.” Devices are another good solution, she adds. As is stopping if you feel like it.
If the issue is recurring with a long-term partner, once the moment has passed, you may want to gently suggest that they consult a doctor. “A urologist or a sex therapist is an essential part of figuring out what the issue is and how to communicate about it,” says Dr. Rubin. “A lot of people have trouble saying things like ‘My penis is not as sensitive as it used to be,’ but a medical professional can help them find ways to express that so that it doesn’t interfere with intimacy.”
And remember that you and your partner are not alone. “Fifty percent of 50-year-olds have this problem. So do 20 percent of 20-year-olds,” says Dr. Rubin. “It’s very common, and there are a lot of great treatments for it, so you have every right to be optimistic that this can be resolved.”
If your partner refuses to address it, though, you may have larger problems at hand. “If they are not showing up and communicating back, then is this someone you want to be having sex with?” says Dr. Rubin. “Be with someone who makes you feel great about yourself — no matter how they show up.”
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