I interviewed Michael Castleman, a sex educator, counselor and journalist specializing in men’s sexuality to answer some questions for men about erectile dysfunction. In this part of the interview, Castleman talks directly to women:
Q: What don’t women understand about erectile dysfunction (ED)?
MC: Like men, few women understand the difference between true ED and erection dissatisfaction (EDis). Women also don’t really appreciate how men FEEL when EDis or ED develop. It’s sort of like how women feel when they lose a breast to cancer. You’re still alive, but you feel diminished. A part of your body you took for granted isn’t there anymore, or in the case of men, doesn’t work like it used to. And this isn’t just any part of the body. It’s a body part that in a profound way DEFINES you as a man or woman. For women, loss of a breast raises issues like: Am I still attractive? Am I still sexual? Can I still please a man sexually? Men with ED and EDis wrestle with similar issues.
Beyond this, men have lived their whole lives pretty much taking their penises for granted: See a sexy woman, get hard. See porn, get hard. Think a sexual thought, get hard. Then all of a sudden–and in many men this happens pretty suddenly–they’re in a situation where they expect to have to rearrange their underwear to accommodate some swelling down there, and then….nothing. Nothing happens.
Many don’t understand what’s happening to them or why. But even those who do, me for example, feel surprised, upset, disappointed, depressed. Change is stressful. But when the changes concern the penis, well, men get seriously freaked out.
Now women often (and rightly) believe that men are too focused on the penis. That’s often true. It takes most young men years (sometimes decades) to leave penis-centric sex behind and understand the erotic value and pleasure of whole-body sensuality, a lovestyle more based on whole-body massage than on just sticking it in somewhere. Men who never get there, men who continue to view sex as penis-centered, when their penis stops behaving as they expect, they often think it’s the end of sex, that they’re over the sexual hill, that it’s all over. In my experience as a sex counselor and writer, few women appreciate how diminished men feel as they get used to EDis… if they ever adjust.
Q: Why can’t men express these concerns?
MC: Many reasons. In general, men tend to be less emotionally articulate than women. Men are socialized to be the “strong silent type,” to keep a “stiff upper lip,” to “grin and bear it.” In other words, to deny what they’re feeling and just go on. As a result, men get less practice than women discussing their emotions, and when they do, they’re less skilled than women. Now some women believe that men don’t HAVE emotions because they don’t discuss them. Wrong. Men feel things just as deeply as women. They just are less likely to discuss them, and if they do, they’re less likely to be able to really articulate how they feel.
The two genders have different natural histories of sex problems. With the exception of vaginal dryness, which is easily mitigated with lubricants, most women have most of their sex problems/issues when they’re young. Young women wrestle with the mixed messages that they should be sexy but not trampy, that they should want love/sex, but not want sex “too” much, not be “too” easy. But how easy is too easy? Young women also have issues with orgasm. Many don’t have them and have to learn how to release orgasms.
Meanwhile, few young men have sex problems–other than coaxing women in to bed. The young penis works just fine, thank you very much. Maybe the guy comes too soon (this is the #1 sex problem of young men), but only rarely do young men have problems with erection. Then they hit 45 or 50 and suddenly, the erections they took for granted their entire lives start to fail them. They freak. It’s almost unthinkable. Many Americans found themselves speechless after Sept. 11. It was so horrible, unimaginable. Men don’t discuss their ED or EDis in part because it’s unimaginable–then it happens and they’re speechless.
To many men, having reliable erections is a significant part of what defines them as men. If they have problems in the erection department, some fear that the women in their lives will view them as less than real men. So why talk about it? Why invite her to rub his nose in the fact that he’s less of a man?
Q: When should a couple seek counseling?
There’s no hard-and-fast rule on this. But when a problem festers, when you find yourselves having the same conflict over and over again, when there seems to be no way out, no resolution, basically, when you feel stuck, that’s when to consider counseling.
Now every sex problem is also a relationship problem and visa versa. If the main issue is power/control/decision making or conflict resolution, then a couples counselor is probably the place to start. But if they main problem is sexual–a desire difference, orgasm issues for the woman, erection issues for the man–then I’d start with a sex therapist.
Personally, I’m a fan of sex therapy. This is not self-serving because I am not a sex therapist. But studies show that two-thirds of couples who consult sex therapists report significant benefit within 6 months. That’s pretty good. Men with ED or EDis need to reframe their thinking about sex. They need to get away from porn-inspired sex and explore whole-body sensuality. This is often unfamiliar to men. They often fight it. So going back to a therapist week after week can help keep them on the path to self-discovery.
To find a sex therapist, visit the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT). Click the map of the U.S. and Canada, and get a list of all the AASECT-certified sex therapists in your state or province.
Q: What if the man won’t go?
The woman should go by herself. This is not as good as the couple going. But going solo gives the woman a place to vent. It may equip her with new coping skills that can help deal with the couple’s issues. And she may be referred to some written material, e.g. my book and others like it, that she can litter around the house and hope he picks up and checks out.
Michael Castleman, M.A., is the author of twelve books, including Great Sex: The Man’s Guide to the Secrets of Whole-Body Sensuality and Sexual solutions: For men and the women who love them. From 1991-95, he answered the sex questions submitted to the Playboy Advisor. Visit his website about sex after midlife.