In this week's Sex IDK column, Emma McGowan, certified sex educator and writer, answers your questions about how to help a partner with erectile dysfunction.
Q: How can I help my partner who’s struggling to maintain an erection?
Here’s the thing about boners: The essential element for keeping them alive is usually not the penis. It’s the brain. That’s because the most common cause of erectile dysfunction (ED) is getting wrapped up in one’s thoughts and anxieties. And nothing kills a hard-on faster than stress. (Seriously. Our bodies release cortisol when we’re stressed, and cortisol is a boner-killer. It’s a survival mechanism our bodies developed so we wouldn’t get eaten by lions or bears who came upon us mid-sexy time back in the cave person-days.)
ED is also way more common than you’d think, affecting 20% of people with penises in their twenties, 30% in their thirties, 40% in their forties, and so on, adding 10% for every decade. So, you and your partner are certainly not alone in dealing with this issue.
The first thing I always recommend when a couple is struggling with ED is taking the boner's focus away altogether. Society focuses on “real sex” being penetrative sex, and we tend to narrow it down even further to vaginal intercourse. (And anal, for many gay men.) We take all of the other awesome sex stuff — like kissing, licking, rubbing, making out, touching — and put it under the category of “foreplay,” like it’s somehow less worthy than putting a penis into someone else’s body.
But it’s not less worthy! For many of us, all that other stuff is the best part of sex. It’s the part that gets us revved up and going. If penetrative sex ending in orgasm is the delicious little bowl of chocolate mousse at the end of a six-course gourmet meal, then “foreplay” is the other five courses. And, unfortunately, so many of us skip right from course one to dessert.
So, spend a little more time on those first five courses. Get to know each other’s bodies, intimately and deeply. Dirty talk about your sexual fantasies. Have your partner focus on you and your pleasure instead of their own, which will help them get out of their head about their own performance. They’ll be so focused on turning you on that they won’t have the space to think about their erection — or lack thereof.
And guess what? Often, that’s what brings the boner back to life. Erections are often shyer than you’d expect, so coax it back like you would a cat. Ignore it. Do something else. Pretend you don’t care. And pretty soon, you’ll find it rubbing up against your leg again.
You might also want to consider a medication that helps with erectile dysfunction, like Viagra, which relaxes the muscles and arteries in the penis. This makes it easier for the penis to fill with blood when the person is aroused. It can also act as something of a placebo, giving people who struggle with ED the confidence they need to stop worrying about whether or not they’re going to get hard.
Finally, you might want to consider medical reasons for your partner’s ED. I bring this up last because I don’t want to freak you or your partner out; most erectile dysfunction can be solved with slight behavioral changes. But ED is an early sign of some cardiovascular issues and other health problems, according to the Mayo Clinic. So if you and your partner have tried my suggestions above — or your partner is just like, “I have no idea why this is happening because I’m super turned on, but it just won’t get hard” — then it’s time to make an appointment with your health care provider to get everything checked out.