Ask Him: Why Can’t My Boyfriend Get It Up?

Q: I’ve been dating this guy for quite a while now, and everything is great. We get each other like you wouldn’t believe, our friends and family approve of our relationship, and I’m starting to envision a long-term future with him, and he’s said he’s doing the same. There’s just one issue thing that’s keeping me from investing fully: he’s always had difficulty getting and keeping an erection when we have sex. It’s like 7 out of 10 times. He has an even harder time cumming, even when he initiates. It’s not always an issue — those 3 out of 10 times are great – but those other 7 are frustrating for him and awkward for me, and I’m starting to get worried that there’s something really wrong. Is he losing interest in me sexually? Is he secretly unhappy with our relationship? I don’t know what to do, but this sexual funk is really killing the emotional buzz I’ve got right now from this otherwise-great relationship.

Man and woman sitting unhappy in bed

Relax, people. The world’s not gonna end just because your dude couldn’t start his engine.

A: I totally get why this is killing your buzz, and why you’re hesitant to mentally and emotionally allow yourself take things to the next level. As much as society likes to sell us sex in our daily lives, for some strange reason, it also likes to make us think that sex shouldn’t matter when considering the health of our romantic relationships. That’s bullsh*t; being able to have a satisfying and healthy sexual dynamic (for BOTH partners) is crazy-important if you want to have a satisfying and healthy romantic relationship in general. Whoever tells you otherwise needs to step out of the I Love Lucy set they’ve been living in and say whatup to the 21st century.

Based on the “7 out of 10” figure you mention, it sounds like your guy is suffering from some kind of erectile dysfunction that crops up pretty frequently. Contrary to what Pfizer would have us believe, ED doesn’t only affect guys who are going gray; any instance of being unable to achieve or maintain an erection can technically be classified as “erectile dysfunction.” In fact, a 2013 study found that many “younger” men – between their twenties and their forties — are speaking with their doctors about erectile dysfunction symptoms they’ve been experiencing. So now that we’ve diagnosed his problem – and I use “diagnose” lightly, I’m no doctor – we have to figure out what’s behind it. Which is admittedly a lot… harder to do. Sorry. I had to.

Let’s go through some of the more probable causes. A lack of sexual interest in you would definitely keep him from getting an erection, but I can pretty confidently conclude that this isn’t the issue, for three reasons. First, he initiates sex with you; this is a pretty obvious indicator that he finds you attractive and wants to be intimate with you. Second, the few times that he doesn’t have an issue are great. You can’t have great sex if one of the partners isn’t feeling the other. And third, it sounds like he’s had this issue since you started dating him. Sexual attraction is always strongest when a relationship is still new, so for him to have had this problem at the very beginning makes me wonder if he didn’t already have it before he met you. And if he’s expressed that he is happy with you and the way the relationship is progressing and wants to get more serious, there’s no reason to think he’s lying. It really is him, not you or the relationship, in this case.

The second thing to look at is his physical health. There are a host of physical issues that might be affecting his ability to get an erection. Is he very overweight or obese? Does he have high blood pressure or high cholesterol or heart disease? Does he have prostate cancer or an enlarged prostate? Does he regularly use alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs? And I mean regularly, as in every day – occasional use doesn’t normally cause chronic erectile dysfunction, not in someone as young as I’m guessing your guy is. If you or his real doctor can rule all of these factors out (and a few other ones you can search for), then the problem might not be physical at all.

Now we have to consider psychological causes that might be behind his ED. Does he suffer from stress or anxiety? They don’t even have to be necessarily related to your relationship – the male sexual arousal process isn’t as simple as “see someone hot, get boner, have sex.” A big part of it depends on being in the right mental state. He might have a job that really takes it out of him emotionally and mentally and it translates into his sexual life. Or he might be stressed out over bills, or his health, or his relationship with his mom, or a promotion he’s been gunning for at work – any of these situations would be enough to throw a wrench in his sex game. Depression could be a psychological factor to consider, too; the intense sadness and loss of interest in just about everything that marks this disease could easily bleed into his sexual life, seeing how people suffering from depression often exhibit other emotional and physical problems, erectile dysfunction included. If you think that depression, chronic stress, or anxiety might be the culprit, it’s important to try to get him to find an appropriate way to deal with it, be that medication, counseling, or another method — not just for his sexual health, but for his health in general.

But if none of the above scenarios or causes seems to fit, there could be another culprit that might be behind his ED: porn. Yeah. For reals. Now, no scientific study exists causally linking porn use to erectile dysfunction, but a lot of anecdotal evidence has been cropping up on the Internet in the past few years, in which young guys have talked about experiencing erectile dysfunction and delayed ejaculation that were cured or alleviated significantly when they cut down the amount of porn they consumed, either drastically or altogether. The reasoning that “porn-induced erectile dysfunction” proponents offer is that the vast and diverse amount of porn available on the Internet has caused porn users to recalibrate their sexual responses from physical stimuli to digital ones, i.e. watching porn makes you able to only get off to porn.

If you think about the chemistry behind sexual arousal, it makes a bit of sense. Dopamine, that highly-addictive reward neurotransmitter, is released when you orgasm, but dopamine is like your aunt at a Vegas buffet: it likes variety. Studies have shown that dopamine surges in response to novel stimuli and especially to erotic imagery, so a smorgasbord of sexy pics and vids gets your brain releasing more dopamine than having sex with a familiar partner does. And because dopamine is addictive, it causes the brain to seek out the original source of that stimulation to make it, in ever-increasing quantities. According to proponents of this theory, it’s a vicious cycle that leaves no room for physical, person-to-person intimacy, especially if the porn consumption is high and has been going on for a long time. Retired neurologist Gary Wilson even explores this idea of Internet hyperstimulation and how it affects the sexual lives of the generation of young people who grew up with the Internet – boys, particularly — in a Tedx talk he gave in 2012. So it might be something to consider, because even if your boy swears he doesn’t watch porn, he probably (read: definitely) does.

Regardless of what the underlying issue causing his ED is, it’s important to understand that no matter how awkward or frustrating it is for you, it’s probably a hundred times more frustrating and awkward for him. An unfortunate side-effect of centuries of patriarchy is that cultural ideas of “masculinity” and “manhood” have come to rest firmly in our penises, so he’s probably thinking that if he can’t get it up with a hot, willing partner, he can’t be called a man. He’s probably also feeling insecure, wondering when you’re going to leave him for a real man who can actually perform when he needs to. And those aren’t fun thoughts to have, no matter how outdated the underlying principles behind it are. You definitely should have a talk with him, because if you guys want to be in a monogamous relationship (I’m assuming you do), his sexual life directly impacts yours, and you have a right to be in a relationship that can give you sexual intimacy that satisfies you, too.

But I urge you to be empathetic when you do have a talk with him and not to make a joke about it, no matter how much you think it’ll break the awkward ice. It’ll close him up tighter than a clam, and it’ll only exacerbate his insecurities, setting you back in the long run. Instead, tell him you really enjoy the great sex and intimacy you have together when there are no ED problems and you want it to be like that all the time, and that you’re willing to work together to figure out how to make that happen. Look for a bit more information on ED than this article provides and then arm yourself with it when you have the conversation, so you know what you’re talking about and as proof that you’re willing to help. Stress that you don’t think less of him as a person, a boyfriend, or a man (but only if he brings that up first, it’s better not to go down that road in case the thought hasn’t crossed his mind.) Point him in the direction of his doctor or a therapist if he thinks that he can’t handle this issue on his own. Consider that focusing on other kinds of intimate behavior, like kissing, cuddling, and touching, might help take the pressure off the “need” to have penetrative sex, help you guys learn more about each other’s bodies, and get you more in-tune with one another sexually — all of which will definitely help, not hinder, his progress. DO NOT ask his friends or family members for advice. And, above all, remember to be patient, because no matter what the underlying issue is, it won’t resolve itself overnight. But don’t worry – if the two of you work together and remember to keep your relationship strong in its other, equally-important aspects, it WILL resolve itself.

Good luck to you and your man.