Why Erectile Challenges Need Not Mean Disappointment
There is a regular theme among my work of erectile dysfunction; or what often should be renamed erectile dissatisfaction. We expect that a penis should get hard with the slightest stimulation but often there are sensible reasons when one doesn't - but we still feel disappointed. This has come up (genuinely no pun intended) this week in coaching with a couple, enquiries from a single, and in a Facebook group for midlife women in which I am ‘Sex Expert’.
For this blog post, I am sharing my reply to an anonymous Facebook post in the group from a distressed wife about her husband’s increasing tendency to erectile difficulties. She's wondering whether it spells the end of the marriage for her. I’m hoping it will speak to any of you who are navigating this situation.
"Hi Anonymous, sorry to hear you are going through this and thank you for sharing. I'm sure a lot of women on here will be identifying with this.
You say you're worried you are ‘looking at a sexless marriage’... How do you define 'sex'? Does it absolutely have to involve a penis that is hard enough to penetrate a vagina?
I define 'sex' as any physically intimate, erotically charged time – ideally enjoyable! – with ourselves or another/others. We are so heavily conditioned to believe that penetrative intercourse is the only 'real' sex. But school sex ed (when we were at school) was actually reproductive biology with a side of shame and fear. I see couples of all ages move towards more pleasurable intimate lives when they can broaden their definition of sex.
To men who are resistant to this idea, I say – if sex with no erect penis involved is 'boring' and 'not real sex’, why do men find girl-girl adult-movies so hot?
From working with people with disabilities affecting the genitals, I know the whole body is a pleasure-seeking entity. With curiosity and creativity there does NOT need to be an erect penis in the room, for sensual sex play and connection. In fact the lack of it can open up new avenues for exploration for all parties. An erect penis kind of demands the attention be put on it!
There are so many reasons a man may have erectile challenges – ageing, accidents, illness, side effects of meds – all hugely exacerbated by the anxiety over it happening again. Taking the pressure off an erect penis as the star player is always of benefit. The ability to get and maintain and erection can disappear for a man of any age at any time, in an accident for example... Do we define their worth as partners by that? If a woman develops vaginismus (where the vaginal muscles clamp shut and nothing can enter) should her male partner start thinking "I should end the marriage"? I'm not saying that to shame you, and I know it's not as simple as that! – but to show another perspective.
And a flaccid penis is not a 'useless' one... The nerves which control erection, ejaculation and the sensation of orgasm are different. We tend to ignore a flaccid penis, but there is still pleasurable sensation to be had, and even orgasm. Add in prostate massage if you're both up for exploring that... With an orgasm based on that stimulation, it's more common than not for the man not to have an erection. You could investigate toys (available for all genders/bodies these days)... Full-body-sensation exploration ("If you were to develop orgasmic sensation somewhere other than your genitals, where might that be?")... and take the focus off the erection.
In the biggest survey of sexually-very-happy long term couples, they said it was the challenges to conventional intercourse which (when faced together with a spirit of curiosity) had resulted in better communication, a broadened definition of sex, and more pleasure. Read Dr Peggy Kleinplatz's book on this, 'Magnificent Sex - Lessons From Extraordinary Lovers' for more.
Having said all that... Penetrative intercourse is a unique feeling and experience. It's ladened with psychological and emotional meaning which we can't just 'switch off'. It's normal and understandable to miss it and to grieve it. Allow space for that.
Ultimately you need to ask yourself – is the marriage overall worth the effort of a mental reframe by you both of what sex is, and how pleasure can be experienced? I would hope you will give it a try."
It’s of benefit to ALL of us who play with a penis and vagina in the room (or multiples of those!) to broaden our view and practice away from penetrative intercourse always being the focus. It safeguards our intimate future, to not rely on this one act. And it makes sex more varied and more fun!
How will you put this into practice...?
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