Impotence, or erectile dysfunction, is very common. Indeed, almost every man experiences it sooner or later. And the causes vary. For some, it can be explained in purely physical terms: obesity, low testosterone, heart trouble, and so on. More often, the cause is psychological or emotional.
When it comes to sexual dysfunction, men are at a disadvantage. Unlike women, they cannot hide their failure to become aroused. A woman can go through the motions until her desire and pleasure return. Men cannot do this. Either they get and maintain an erection or they do not. Sometimes they will be turned on but still struggle to perform. At other times, arousal ebbs and flows. Some men enjoy the dating and romance, feel excited during the first kiss, and yet, when they move into the bedroom, find that their body seems to shut down and go cold.
Unfortunately, erectile dysfunction tends to be a downward spiral. A man goes to bed with his partner, feels unaroused, fails to get an erection (or fails to maintain it), sees the disappointment or bewilderment on his partner's face, feels crushed, and then dreads the same thing happening next time. That in turn causes tension, fear, and stress, which makes an erection impossible to sustain, leading to yet more tension and stress. This is known as "performance anxiety" and often remains a problem long after the initial cause (stress, for example, or some kind of libido-sapping medication) has disappeared. Either the man now fears failure or actually expects, even wills himself, to fail.
More than a century ago, Freud pointed out that sex is complicated and that early experiences have a lasting impact. In Freud's view, human beings must learn to be sexual. And things can go wrong during this learning process. You don't need to understand Freudian jargon to see the truth of this. Early experiences, in particular the very first sexual experience, leave their mark.
Let's take a couple of hypothetical examples: one ideal, the other disastrous. Imagine a young man who loses his virginity at 18. His girlfriend, who is the same age and also a virgin, invites him to stay the night at her house when her parents go away on vacation. Both approach this with excitement, tenderness, and curiosity. Neither quite know what they are doing, but they cope through laughter and affection. He is able to get an erection, and his partner assures him it was great. Now imagine a different scenario: a sensitive young man who is being bullied at school and finds it impossible to talk to girls visits a brothel. He has had no previous experience, not even a kiss, and the shock, novelty, and total lack of intimacy, leave him unable to get an erection.
Consider the effect of those two experiences. In each case, the young man now associates sex with certain emotions or experiences. In the first, he will associate it with fun, laughter, happiness, pleasure, and, in a sense, triumph. In the second case, the boy will associate it with secrecy, shame, fear, and detachment. The second will also associate sex with failure and inadequacy. Some argue that these first experiences, whether successful or not, are crucial and can act as a sort of template for all subsequent experiences.
Stress and depression are very common among sufferers of erectile dysfunction. Sex should be fun and joyful. For many, it is a way of expressing love and deepening intimacy. Obviously, for this to happen you need to be "in the mood." Those afflicted with chronic anxiety and depression simply don't feel like sharing their body and soul. Depression keeps you wrapped up in yourself – cold and withdrawn.
Sex also requires concentration. You need to be both relaxed and fully present. When someone is stressed, however, their anxiety constantly distracts them. It also makes it difficult to let go. For a man to become and remain erect, he must first be relaxed, then fully present, and, finally, able to "let go" or "give himself" to his partner – to lose himself in the moment. It may sound like an oxymoron, but you need to feel both mellow and charged up. Instead, the stressed and unhappy become stuck in "thinking-tense" mode. They seem distant and self-absorbed because they are.
Finally, do not underestimate the effect depression and stress can have on the body. People in the West still talk as though mind and body were two distinct and separate entities – as if the body is a lumbering machine and the mind some kind of ethereal ghost inhabiting it. In fact, the mind affects the body and the body affects the mind. Depressed people often experience a whole range of physical symptoms: nausea, tingling down the arms, aches and pains in the back, etc. And stress and depression also affect the hormones involved in sexual arousal, such as testosterone and cortisol.
For many people, masturbation is their only means of relieving sexual tension. And this is especially true of men tired of constant sexual failure. But in order to become aroused, they must combine masturbation with pornography or fantasy. Internet pornography is a particular problem. Some, like the author Gary Wilson, even believe it is causing an epidemic of sexual dysfunction among young men.
The essential problem with masturbation is that it isn't real sex. In fact, it is the opposite. Sex involves you and a partner. In sexual intercourse, you become aroused by the smell, sound, warmth, and touch of this other person. And you penetrate or push yourself into them. Now compare that to masturbation. For a start, you are alone; you are pleasuring yourself. If you use your hands, your penis may also become de-sensitized and used to their roughness and pressure. And instead of being aroused by a real, warm, breathing body, by the touch of skin, you are being turned on by flashing images on a screen, or by the fantasies inside your own head. Indeed, many long-term masturbators find that while a real woman cannot turn them on, the thought of her can!
For sex to work you need to be both aroused and relaxed. In a committed, loving relationship you also need intimacy (in general, sex is more successful, and more pleasurable, when you care for the other person – just as watching a good film is better with a close friend than an attractive stranger). Those who have problems tend to struggle with one or all of these, often feeling detached, unaroused, tense and anxious at the same time.
First, work on your arousal. Anxiety in itself can prevent arousal and leave a man numb, but so can many other things. Cut down on masturbation. If you have a partner, or have just begun a new relationship, try stopping altogether. Of course, there is nothing morally wrong with masturbation, but it is a very different kind of experience. You are turning your sexual energy inwards instead of outwards. And you are using your own hands instead of responding to someone else's touch. If this is your only sexual outlet for months, or even years, on end, the psychological impact can be huge. Plus, you simply become jaded and burnt out. Avoid all forms of sexual arousal other than the person you are with (even photos of lingerie models).
Next, do all you can to reduce tension and anxiety. People who struggle with sex often avoid serious or committed relationships, undertake a series of disastrous one night stands, become frustrated and depressed, and then return to masturbation or celibacy. But people may be more supportive than you expect. You just need to give them a chance. Explain that you struggle to get or maintain an erection and that you need time. Ideally, seek out what is known as a "snuggle buddy": someone you cuddle up to, sleep with, etc without doing anything sexual. This can help in several ways. First, it gets you used to the touch and warmth of another body. And, since there is no pressure to perform, it also teaches you to relax whilst being intimate (those who struggle often associate physical intimacy with tension and fear).
More generally, do what you can to reduce stress and anxiety. Begin with a change in your diet. Cut out junk food, caffeine, alcohol, and sugar, and instead eat lots of nuts, protein, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Exercise can also help. Lifting weights will boost testosterone levels. Finally, you need to re-connect with your body. Meditation could help a great deal. When you do meditate, try to be fully present. Some meditation practises include what is known as a "body scan," in which you begin by focussing on your toes, paying attention to every sensation around that area, then move up to the ankles and so on right through the whole body.
If you have a regular partner, try the following. First, take a long, hot bath. Then, ask your partner to give you a massage before giving them one in return. After that, try a deep meditation session together. Now get into bed and kiss, cuddle, gently touch and stroke. If you get an erection, just smile and allow your partner to feel it. Don't rush for penetration. Such routines will deepen both intimacy and relaxation.
It is also important to communicate with your partner. Explain your problems and the effect it has had on your life, and be sure they are willing to help. And make it clear that your failure has nothing to do with them – that you do find them attractive and do want to be intimate with them. If they are prepared to be patient, the two of you should celebrate erections without trying for penetration. Instead, allow them to come and go. And if you try for penetration and fail, don't make it into a big deal. It isn't. Remember, tension and anxiety are absolutely toxic.
The most important thing to know is that you are not alone. Indeed, those who never struggle with arousal or performance are the exception.