Twenty-five years ago I sought other “pregnant men” to share our hopes and fears about impending fatherhood. While there may have been some interested dads-to-be out there, I never found them. Fathering wasn’t “hot” then. It also wasn’t taboo. A decade later, though, when erectile dysfunction (ED) gradually began affecting me, I was totally on my own. I didn’t know anyone with the condition, had nowhere to go, and no one to ask for help.
In retrospect my ED clues started at age 44, though I wasn’t sure then that something was wrong. Occasionally, I wondered – but was scared to do anything.
Fortunately, I had learned from feminism—so central to my earlier men’s movement activism—to remember I wasn’t ruled by my penis. Sex should be holistic, I believed, not primarily defined by intercourse, or by my genitals. Emotionally, though, it was totally different. I wasn’t crushed, but I was seriously hurting.
Sadly, I hurt alone.
Lost at 47
I was looking forward to a wonderful, long weekend with my love. We were going to chill out from life’s pressures, relax, catch up on things together, and share the magic of our normal extended hours of sweet lovemaking. Then a one hundred percent failure—I couldn’t get it up! Maybe, I told myself, I was just tired from the trip.
We relaxed…no pressure, sweetie…no talk about what had just happened. Several hours later—a repeat non-performance—Ground Hog Day. Again, we pretended everything was okay. The next day was déjà vu all over again. On top of my obvious failures, our usual cuddling just didn’t feel right to me.
There had always been a relaxed informality to our lovemaking. Intercourse wasn’t our main focus. It was part of our unhurried, soothing, incredible times together, but it wasn’t “it.”
Still, I was really shook! I remembered occasional premature ejaculation decades back, but I had never previously “failed” with my love. I hadn’t been drunk or sick, so why couldn’t I get it up? Once, sure, a fluke; but five, six, seven repeated failures—what the fuck was going on?!
We lived 2000 miles apart. A long-distance relationship brought its own set of problems. Now, I felt a further distance; serious unrelated issues had come up for me that weekend. It was an isolating, lonely time. Despite my love’s desires to work through our issues, I decided to break off the relationship.
Over the next several years my ED affected me in limited ways. I had no dramatic failures, but sex was never easy. I was in a longterm relationship, but my partner and I avoided talking about our growing emotional distance. Sexual issues seemed secondary to other concerns.
Although it no doubt would have been a big help, I never talked seriously with my best friend. When I tried to talk about my ED, he seemed uncomfortable. I certainly couldn’t talk with co-workers or anyone at the health club!
A Few Years Later
By the time I turned 52 my self-esteem had plummeted as my ED symptoms intensified. I didn’t hide my ED issues from my new partner. At first we didn’t understand how seriously it would affect our relationship.
My penis became a distant “other.” Sometimes I thought it was erect when it was totally soft. Sometimes it was almost the opposite. One of us always had to feel it to tell if it was erect enough to consider intercourse.
I was increasingly stung by my partner’s words: “You’re not hard enough.” Though not spoken with malice, her words really hurt. I had trouble sharing my feelings. I felt like I owed her what I couldn’t give. Despite her reassuring words, I was scared she’d leave me.
At my partner’s request, I made an appointment with my physician to get a prescription for Viagra. Although he had previously seemed attuned to my medical needs, he told me he knew very little about ED and seemed uncomfortable with the topic. Maybe I was hypersensitive, but it sure felt like he couldn’t wait to get on to his next patient. I was hurting and I left the office feeling like he didn’t care. He did, at least, refer me to a urologist.
That doctor could find no clear cause for my ED, a fairly common occurrence. He gave me samples of Levitra, Cialis and Viagra to try. Viagra was the only one that worked that had no serious accompanying side effects. At first I was able to achieve significant erections around 30-50 minutes after I took it. Still, my erections felt awkward, different in ways I can’t easily describe.
We had to plan times to make love. It couldn’t be too soon after meals or when I was exhausted. After waiting for a pill to take effect, a specific routine began: 1) I’d be “tested” for hardness. 2) If my penis was hard enough, we’d rush into prep mode—she would apply a lubricant. 3) We would then immediately attempt intercourse.
There was no more taking care of her desires or needs first. To me, that felt wrong, very wrong. I was always terrified that my erection would disappear. Intercourse became planned, nonpleasurable—a chore for both of us.
Although I thought I needed successful intercourse to feel good about myself, with increasing failures, I was scared to try. Absurd as it may sound, I was nostalgic for my increasingly distant memories of wet dreams and morning piss hard-ons.
About a year after first using Viagra, we gave up on it. By then I nearly always either couldn’t get erections or would quickly lose them as soon as we tried to have intercourse.
Lessons I’ve Learned
Physicians initially seek to “cure” men’s ED so we can have healthy sex lives. We are screened for underlying medical conditions (including undiagnosed potentially life threatening ones) and for medications whose side effects might cause our ED. Blood tests and routine exams focus on common causes such as low testosterone or high cholesterol, and/or blood pressure levels. Low testosterone can make us seem like “little boys” who can’t achieve erections and have no interest in sex. Antidepressants and other meds, such as those we take to fight cancer, also can cause ED.
My testosterone levels were normal. My cholesterol and blood pressure levels were high normal (possibly, but not conclusively related—lowering them, it turned out, didn’t change anything). No doctor ever determined what caused my ED, sadly too common an outcome. You can imagine my frustration. I didn’t want a bunch of explanations; I simply wanted my problem fixed.
For many men sex = intercourse = affection. Feeling that they are no longer “a real man,” many escape into work, television, porn, or other distractions. Shame and fear distance us from our emotions. We try to hide them from our partners who often feel rejected. They blame themselves after acting “nicer” or “sexier” fails to help. Men commonly make a bad situation worse by either showing obvious anger or remaining deliberately stoic.
Many men with ED resist seeking sustained medical help. If our initial medical efforts don’t go well, we rarely persist in seeking better, more accepting help. Living with ED can easily result in each partner badly hurting. We want support. Often, both partners are emotionally isolated, not feeling safe to talk with friends, family—or each other.
How we can help ourselves and our lovers? My partner and I have struggled through my ED together. We’ve learned to listen, to talk honestly, and to share our deepest feelings. We’ve tried multiple medical options. We both agreed that a “final option”—a penile prosthetic implant (which involves significant surgery)—was not desirable for me or us.
Physical intimacy such as gentle nuzzles, simple hugs, and soft kisses—are all important for both of us. We’ve learned to sexually explore what works and feels good for each of us. This includes using various parts of our bodies as well as sex toys. Achieving an orgasm without a fully erect penis is more difficult, but is still pleasurable.
My love lives with the reality that we can’t have the “quickies” she’d like. We both miss the closeness intercourse can provide. Still, we both appreciate our shared emotional and physical intimacy.
I’ve written about ED several times on my blog. I’ve found limited, but important support through an email group: “supportEDpartners” (http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/supportEDpartners/) which, though primarily for women, is accepting of men’s participation.
Men with ED can improve our lives—and those of our partners—by telling our stories. We can help end the stigma and resulting emotional isolation by reaching out to each other. We can learn a lot from each other.
“George” did men’s anti-rape organizing in the 1980s. In October 2010, he launched A Men’s Project (www.AMensProject.com). It contains links for resources on issues of concern to men and boys. He welcomes email dialogue at email@example.com.