GMFA Staying hard: coping with erectile dysfunction By Hadley Stewart | @wordsbyhadley Not being able to get hard, or stay hard, when between the sheets can happen to any of us. Although it’s more common among older men, men of any age can experience erectile dysfunction or ‘performance anxiety.’ However, the stigma attached to it leaves those of us who have gone through it, or are currently experiencing it, feeling isolated and unable to discuss it with our partners and seek outside support. “It was like my mind was all in, and my penis was on vacation,” explains Josh, who has occasionally experienced performance anxiety during sex. “I’m vers and a few times when I wanted to top during a hook-up, I’ve become nervous for some reason and my plumbing just wouldn’t work!” Feeling embarrassed by his performance anxiety, Josh says he felt like he had no other option than to leave the hook-up. “It’s like a get the hell out of there feeling.” But his swift exit didn’t stop Josh thinking about the event later on: “It makes you start questioning your masculinity and your ability to perform. It also leaves you pretty much not wanting to face that sexual partner again because you feel you failed.” He also admits that he didn’t feel there was room for any further discussion with his partner. “There wasn’t any discussion with my sexual partner, because after you apologise the only thing you want to do is get out of that situation.” Bradley has social anxiety and explains that this sometimes has a habit of creeping into the bedroom. “I used to experience performance anxiety during sex quite a lot,” he says. “This would sometimes involve erectile dysfunction, but far more often it would be a case of shaking, sometimes violently, induced by anxiety.” “Nobody wants to be getting intimate with someone and start shaking all over,” laughs Bradley, who agrees that performance anxiety often goes hand in hand with embarrassment. “I used to feel extremely embarrassed of the shaking, which happened a lot in my first year out of the closet, and my first times being sexually active. This was especially the case when alcohol wasn’t involved.” Echoing Josh, Bradley didn’t have the opportunity to discuss it further with his partners. “I even had a guy once stop and ask why I was shaking, to which I simply responded with ‘I don’t know’ which was true. I never really discussed it apart from that one moment with anyone. Not even with a long term partner, because I was embarrassed and they didn’t bring it up.” “I’m quite insecure about my body and that sometimes means that I can’t get an erection,” admits Lee. “There’s something quite intimidating about being naked with somebody you don’t know that well, so when hooking-up with strangers I’ve definitely experienced it. Of course, that sends my insecurities through the roof even more.” OVERCOMING PERFORMANCE ANXIETY Lee has also found it challenging to discuss this with his sexual partners, but has found support elsewhere. “To be honest, I’m not convinced that a hook-up actually wants to discuss something as complex as erectile dysfunction,” he remarks. “They’re there to have sex, not take part in a therapy session. I’ve confided in a male best friend, who’s also gone through something similar. It was helpful to talk things through with him and to realise that I’m not the only one who feels anxious sometimes during sex.” As well as talking about it, Bradley thinks that the secret to overcoming performance anxiety in the bedroom is experience. “Luckily it almost never happens anymore, and as with some cases of anxiety, I truly think that performance anxiety is something that can be overcome with experience.” Josh adds that erectile dysfunction isn’t always as a result of something psychological. Condoms, he says, can also kill an erection. “I’ve heard several guys tell me over the years that condoms make them lose their erections. I believe that this can cause some men to be less interested in wearing condoms – it’s all an uncomfortable conversation.” Josh sought support from his doctor, but to no avail. “I told my doctor and he checked my testosterone level to make sure everything was fine. It was. So it didn’t make me feel better. I ended up ordering ED pills from an online source just to make sure if I’m worried about it again that I have options.” IN THE COMMUNITY Despite the support available, stigma remains an important barrier for people wishing to talk about erectile dysfunction and performance anxiety. In the gay community, is there stigma towards people experiencing erectile dysfunction? “I don’t necessarily know if there is extra stigma about it from the gay community as compared with the straight community,” argues Josh. “I just think that there is generally a high level of weirdness talking about erectile dysfunction and performance anxiety.” In contrast, Bradley disagrees and uses the internet to share positive messages about overcoming erectile dysfunction and wider performance anxiety. “I do absolutely think that there’s a lot of stigma around it and erectile dysfunction in the gay community, which is partly why I discuss it so openly on my YouTube channel and why I think it’s important to break that stigma down.” “It’s hard to say if there’s more stigma in the gay community than wider society, because I think everybody finds it difficult to talk about these things, no matter your sexuality or gender,” reasons Lee. “What I would say is that gay men, in particular, are stereotyped as being horny and having lots of sex. I guess that can be an added pressure to perform and it makes you think your partner is going to think less of you because you can’t get it up every time.” That being said, Lee believes that by discussing these issues more, he’s become less awkward about his occasional erectile dysfunction. “Opening up and talking to my friend about it feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. It doesn’t feel like such a big deal and maybe one day I’ll feel comfortable discussing it with more regular sexual partners, if it happens again.” THE EXPERT OPINION Lucy Snider is a Psychosexual and Relationship Therapist and explains that it really is more common than we might think: “Erectile dysfunction will affect everyone with a penis at some point in their lives. It’s completely normal to not be able to get an erection from time to time. If you’re tired, stressed or anxious these can all cause a one off problem even if usually you’d be able to get an erection.” So what are the options? “The good news is that erectile dysfunction is usually very easy to treat. Don’t suffer in silence, speak to your GP about a referral for psychosexual therapy,” advises Lucy. “It’s good to be aware that sometimes problems with erections can indicate other health concerns, most commonly heart disease. A simple test is that if you get morning erections or can get an erection when you masturbate, then there is nothing physically wrong with you. If you do have a problem getting an erection in all situations, please consult your GP as soon as possible.” Erectile dysfunction could happen at any time, and at any age. Bradley, Josh and Lee have highlighted that we all struggle when discussing this openly with our sexual partners. However, having the conversation with somebody, be it a friend or healthcare professional, might be the first step to overcoming it. For more sex problems and solutions, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/Pages/Category/sexual-problems-and-solutions. Find therapists in your area at www.cosrt.org.uk.