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erectile dysfunction

“No hard feelings” – couples tell all about erectile difficulties

Health

Erectile dysfunction can be a difficult thing to deal with but it is perfectly possible to find solutions, as these real people tell Alix Fox

Ever been joined in bed by “Ed”? He’s an unwelcome guest between many couples’ sheets, sneaking in only now and again for some, but pretty much every night for others. He shows up just as things are heating up: you’re getting steamy, seductive, sensual…then along comes Ed to throw a tool-thwarting spanner in the works, sometimes with truly heart-wrenching consequences. Up to one in five men across the UK have encountered Ed, and it’s estimated that by 2025, 322 million guys worldwide will be touched by him, so you’re likely to have met him – but perhaps you know “ED” by his full name: Erectile Dysfunction.

Erection issues aren’t simply a problem that affect penises. They’re a challenge that impacts people. And partnerships.

When getting or staying hard becomes hard to do, this can have all sorts of wide-ranging consequences not only for the affected individual, but for lovers and relationships – so learning how to constructively and compassionately talk about, treat, and work around ED together can be an uplifting experience in more ways than one.

Writing for The Book of Man, Alix Fox spoke in depth to four men and couples about their ED stories, to learn what hindered, what hurt, and what helped make things better…

Above, Alix Fox

Andrew’s story: silence, violence, and a brilliant breakthrough

Andrew, 36, first began struggling with ED in his twenties. “I was brought up Catholic; sex was simultaneously framed as a solemn and special thing to be saved for the right person, but also vilified as an activity steeped in shame, sin and secrecy,” he explains. “As a result, I was a bit of a late bloomer; aside from a little ‘hand stuff’, I remained a virgin until 22, when I slept with my college sweetheart.”

Andrew imagined he and his honey would be together forever…but sadly, things didn’t stay so sugar-sweet. After they split, he had to move back home unexpectedly and unwillingly. He was generally feeling down as he attempted to re-enter the dating scene – and discovered that things began ‘feeling down downstairs’, too. “Hook-up culture really didn’t suit me; getting naked with women I barely knew made me feel pressured and nervous, and combined with both religious guilt and depression, I started struggling to maintain erections,” he recalls.

None of Andrew’s flings said anything about his ED. “They had faith backgrounds too, and Catholicism taught us that you don’t discuss sex at all, never mind sexual problems,” he notes. Yet studiously trying to ignore the problem didn’t make it go away, and while his date nights were filled with awkward silence, the worry was deafening inside Andrew’s mind. “I couldn’t stop ruminating about what was wrong with my penis, and what was wrong with me,” he remembers. “The more I stressed, the more it happened, which made me more stressed – I felt stuck in a terrible loop that worsened my mental health.”

Embarrassment, stigma, and a lack of education on how to comfortably broach the subject or what action to suggest: it’s no surprise so many people clam up about difficulties getting it up. As Andrew was to painfully find out, though, saying or hearing the wrong thing can be terribly damaging too.

When ED struck during intercourse with a girlfriend a few years ago, she “pulled a face, sighed heavily, and spat ‘Eugh, are you gonna come or not?’ at me,” he remembers. “She said it so viciously and with so much derision and rage, during this vulnerable moment. It was like a violent punch to the gut. I froze, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so acutely awful. Honestly, it was comparably bad to when my dad told me he had prostate cancer, in terms of being totally crushing.”

Their lovemaking descended into arguing. “She was so very angry, shouting: ‘It sucks to feel you go soft inside me’”, Andrew cringes.

Anger about ED from partners can actually be an expression of other, hidden emotions: shaming, blaming and lashing out can sometimes be a cover for feeling mortified and humiliated. If a partner interprets a loss of erection as proof that their lover doesn’t find them sufficiently attractive or sexy, then indignation can be a reaction to that perceived rejection. Fury can also stem from a sense of frustration at the situation, or resentment and disappointment that this real-life sex doesn’t match fantasy, or how society has taught them sexual encounters ‘ought’ to go. However it might be explained, though, flying off the handle or saying cruel things cannot be excused, and can have deep and lasting negative effects.

For Andrew, the result was that he not only felt emasculated, robbed of confidence, and like a bad lover, but also as though he might be a bad person. “I’ve spoken to male friends about the concept of toxic masculinity; how we sometimes feel the weight of other men’s terrible behaviour towards women, and have a sense of responsibility to prove via our own conduct that decent men do exist – that we as a group aren’t inherently awful,” he philosophises. “Having a girlfriend make it so ferociously clear that she was hating sex with me because of my ED made me feel like I’d let the side down on behalf of my gender, and accidentally become ‘just another shit man’.”

Thankfully, Andrew has also had much more positive experiences, that have bolstered and boosted his self-esteem – and given him hope that erectile difficulties don’t mean the end of having good times and being a good partner. “I had an actress friend over to my home, initially to help her tape an audition video, then one thing led to another…but as our clothes spontaneously disappeared, my ED predictably reappeared,” he explains. “Her reaction was so chilled, kind and generous: she said, ‘No problem, we can play other ways,’ and we switched up to enjoying oral sex instead. Because she didn’t treat the ED like a huge deal, it didn’t feel so tragic and insurmountable, and I was able to relax.”

Once the tension was released, Andrew found it much easier to get hard. “Every sex session from then on was a hit: we had some amazing intercourse, and during any moments where erection issues did crop up again, we indulged in other play rather than it having to be ‘Game over’,” he enthuses. “The whole romance was a revelation: her gracious, laidback attitude, and the realisation that pleasure isn’t all about penetration and being rock solid. PIV – Penis In Vagina – sex isn’t the only way for two straight people to enjoy themselves.”

The couple only called ‘Cut!’ on their relationship because the actress landed the role she auditioned for, and moved away to shoot a film. She got the part…and Andrew now has a far better outlook on his private parts, however they may be acting.

Simon and Jada (and Ralph): discovering the joy of toys

“I’d never experienced any erection problems until last year – not even ‘brewer’s droop’ after a night on the lash,” reflects Simon, 45. “But I’d been suffering with terrible sciatica, and while I was awaiting back surgery, doctors put me on the medication Gabapentin to manage my nerve pain.” Gabapentin is used to treat all sorts of conditions, including epilepsy and restless leg syndrome, and works by acting on neurotransmitters: chemicals that transfer messages between nerve cells. Unfortunately, research has demonstrated that it can also cause issues with erections and ejaculation as a side effect.

“I found the tablets were excellent at taking away sensations of pain, but also took away sensations from my penis,” Simon explains. “So, ups and downs – literally! I was usually able to get erect with my partner, Jada, but had trouble maintaining hardness for long enough to orgasm.” He believes his ED had psychological roots, too, in addition to pharmacological ones: “I was worried about my back hurting; worried about my upcoming operation; and worried that my father had gone through spinal surgery at a similar age and ended up permanently impotent, which made me even more worried about the risks,” he recalls. “All those worries definitely didn’t help matters in the bedroom. I’d always felt that my sexuality and ability to perform erotically was a big part of my character, as well; it weighed me down considerably to feel I was losing a vital part of who I was through ED, and that it might not ever return. I have a very public-facing job, and even my confidence at work got knocked by what was happening in private. Us blokes can tie an awful lot about how we perceive ourselves into our sexual prowess.”

Whilst obviously concerned about his health and happiness, Jada (39) encouraged Simon to remember that he was still an adventurous, bold lover – that his passionate personality didn’t solely depend on his penis. The couple had long enjoyed using sex toys, and together they decided to turn their focus towards trying new gadgets, gizmos, tech and techniques: embarking on a thrilling voyage of shared discovery that wasn’t dependent on Simon staying hard. “The LELO Sona – a luxury clitoral suction toy – had unbelievably intense results for Jada, and we enjoyed exploring with pretty glass dildos that can be used anally or vaginally – plus you can mix things up with temperature play by warming or chilling them too,” he raves. “I think a lot of dudes fret about using toys with women; they can feel inadequate and incompetent if they view a vibrator as somehow ‘doing a job they can’t manage’, especially if they have ED. But toys can add and accentuate so many fresh and different sensations, and they don’t have to be massive, phallic dildos.”

That said, one particular dildo became a regular (suction-cup-based) fixture in Simon and Jada’s love life: ‘Ralph’. Judy Blume fans will recognise the nickname as a reference to her iconic novel about sexual awakenings, Forever. Affectionately baptising the silicone toy was a way of making it seem less intimidating, and reflective of the “friendly helping hand” it became in the pair’s sex sessions. “We’ve used Ralph a lot for double penetration and playing in the shower, but also switched to using him during vaginal sex if I’ve gone soft and need a chance to harden up again, or realise it’s a night when I’m not going to be able to maintain an erection. It’s like tag teaming!” Simon laughs.

Another device that gets a ringing endorsement from Jada and Simon? Cock rings. These work by applying light-to-medium pressure to the base of the penis, preventing blood from flowing out too quickly, and thus helping guys to sustain stronger erections for longer periods. They’re made from a variety of materials, including steel and stretchy silicone (the latter being an easier option for beginners). Different types can be fitted in different ways, and some are intended to be slipped into place while you’re still flaccid, while others are put on one you’re hard, so always read the instructions. “Both Jada and I love rings, because they make me look more engorged, thicker and vascular; I fill her up more which turns her on, and sensation is raised for me too,” he smiles.

Giving his doctor a ring has been a key part of improving Simon’s situation, too. “Jada encouraged me to open up to my doc about the ED I’d been dealing with, because she felt rather guilty that despite all the sexy Toy Town fun we were having, she was climaxing and getting her rocks off more than me; I did explain to her that helping her orgasm made me feel powerful, and that I was still very much enjoying myself…but I can understand why she worried things were imbalanced,” he muses. “I was shy about talking to medics at first. But my doctor was ace: he spoke to me about the whole psychological grind of what I was going through, as well as discussing all my options with regard to modifying my pain med prescription to reduce side effects, and giving me erectile dysfunction tablets to try. These really helped: realising I could still get erect, stay erect and orgasm with them was reassuring, and helped boost my confidence. I don’t need them so much now but they were a great boost.”

If any aspects of this story ring true for you, it’s worth listening to what Simon says: “Outside of embracing toys, my biggest recommendations to guys and couples dealing with ED would be to communicate – with each other, with doctors, with your mates if you can. Once I was honest and unleashed my feelings, it was a big relief, and the start of improvements. Historically, men tend to hold back about these things, but that does us no good and can even make worries worse. You’d be surprised how many other men might relate, too; I ended up having a laugh with a pal down the pub about the Austin Powers-style vacuum pumps he’d been looking at in search of help for ED…it’s a part of life for a lot of people. Remember, too, that sex isn’t just about rumpy-pumpy penetration and ejaculation; it’s about mutual pleasure, enjoying each other’s time, bodies, space, air, moments shared.”

Making sexual magic doesn’t solely depend on the behaviour of your wand (and this type of Magic Wand can be enchanting, too!).

Ariana and Callum’s story: from “crying and dying inside” to walking and talking outside

“It was really difficult for me not to be convinced that the love of my life couldn’t get hard because he’d stopped fancying me, and for a while, I even wondered if he was having an affair because he kept coming home late from his job,” says Ariana, 32, of her husband Callum, also 32. “He would finally get back, then all I would see was his back, turned away from me in bed.”

“In reality, the exhaustion of grafting insane hours at my workplace was a big reason why my body was too wiped out to get sexually excited,” Callum counters. “There was no other woman, and nobody on earth I found sexier, but I had totally run out of steam to muster up anything steamy.”

Problems began when Callum took on extra orders via his catering business, with the intention of saving up a nest egg because he and Ariana were trying for a baby. Yet the chef had bitten off more than he could chew, and he soon became overwhelmed both by anxiety about hitting his deadlines, and sheer, severe knackeredness. “I was so tired and so wired all at once; then on top of that I was conscious that it was imperative for us to have sex at deliberate points in Ariana’s cycle if we were going to conceive, which made me feel under strain to perform,” he recalls. “I started struggling to get it up, and ED made me feel like such a failure: as a partner, and as a would-be dad. After a while I stopped engaging in anything sexual entirely; I just couldn’t face it. I couldn’t talk about it either. I knew that Ariana was upset – it kills me to remember this, but one evening I could hear her sobbing softly next to me, yet I felt sort of frozen…I’ve always prided myself on being a supportive husband but I couldn’t even hug her. I didn’t feel worthy of touching her at that moment. I felt like scum, and so, so lost. I think I sort of dissociated from the situation.”

It was Ariana’s best friend who urged the couple to take a holiday. “I’d confessed to her about what was going on, and told her that the night before I’d crept out to the bathroom in the early hours and sat on the floor as the sun came up, crying and dying inside. I couldn’t stand to be in the bedroom, as it had become such a tense, sad place,” she says. “My mate impressed upon me that Callum and I needed to take a break, or we’d be facing a break-up – so I booked a long weekend in the Lake District and texted Callum to say he needed to cancel all his orders from Friday onwards. Business would have to wait.”

Once Callum put on his Out Of Office, and the couple hiked through the outdoors, the conversational cork was finally popped on a whole host of bottled up emotions. “It sounds silly, but getting out helped me let it all out,” notes Callum. “Being in the open air on a bright day somehow made talking feel less terrifying and loaded than addressing things at night when we were both shattered and emotional, and in the same bed where everything had gone wrong…the site of the tragedy, if you will!” There is wisdom in the couple’s choice to wander in the wilderness: indeed, sex therapists often recommend chatting about sensitive topics like ED outside of the bedroom, as you’re more likely to have a calm, constructive chat when you’re not naked, feeling vulnerable, and perhaps rendered extra prickly and tender by tiredness and tension.

Once home, Callum made moves to lessen his load at work, and also sourced a qualified therapist of his own, via the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (bacp.co.uk). “I realised I had quite a lot of mental tangles to unravel regarding fatherhood, and my compulsion to break my back in my job to provide what I thought my future child needed had links to what I’d experienced with my own father and childhood,” he explains. “It turns out that the reasons why your dick starts dicking around can run really deep! My erectile dysfunction had some roots in my own dysfunctional family history. Dealing with ED, strangely enough, has set me up to be a more secure dad.”

Ariana and Callum’s baby is due in February. As well as a new baby on the way, they also bought new duvet covers – as Ariana puts it, “Fresh sheets, and a fresh start.”

Follow Alix Fox on Instagram

This article is part of our 30 Days of Taboo Special, in association with Cialis Together #peekataboo

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