What to Do When ED Strikes During Sex
While I’ve never personally suffered from erectile dysfunction (alas, I was not blessed with the requisite equipment), I’m well aware of the anxiety and shame it can cause. I’ve had a handful of partners throughout the years, both casual and long term, who struggled to get hard enough for penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex.
At times, it truly was a drag, but not because I was disappointed or sexually unfulfilled; rather, it was because their reaction to it was such a turnoff. I’ve been around enough to know that erectile dysfunction (ED) is fairly common, yet almost every time it happened to a man I was with, he acted like it was a unique failure on his part.
The thing is, though, ED is only as big a deal as you make it. If you proceed to spend the rest of the night beating yourself up or apologizing over and over, your partner’s probably not going to have a great time. But if you can learn to roll with it and move on, your partner probably won’t think twice about it.
For some expert advice about how to respond to inconveniently timed ED, I spoke with Dr. Karen Stewart, a California-based psychologist who specializes in sex and couples therapy. She shared her insights on minimizing awkwardness and maintaining the chemistry.
Keep your cool
ED can occur for a lot of different reasons while you’re getting hot and heavy, from physical conditions to psychological issues such as "performance anxiety, previous difficulties resulting in fear of failure and being distracted by other life circumstances," Stewart said. She added, however, that obsessing over the source of the issues in the moment won’t do a man any good.
"When a man experiences ED, the first thing to do—and this can be very challenging, admittedly—is to remain calm and remember this happens to a vast majority of men some time in their lives," Stewart said. "Do not beat yourself up, blame your partner, cause a scene. The bigger the reaction you have to the situation, the more your mind will associate it with trauma and create a fear response associated with sex."
If you’re comfortable with what happened, you can share some insight about what’s going on in your head, especially if you’re with someone you trust, like a long-term partner.
"Try to normalize it for both of you. No need to profusely apologize; just explain you were distracted, had a hard day, whatever you are feeling," Stewart said.
If you don’t know or are not comfortable sharing what’s going on in your head, though, don’t feel like you have to provide a justification. The best response I ever heard from a guy experiencing ED was short and sweet: "Hey, I don’t think this is going to happen right now. Do you want to [insert sexual activity of choice here] instead?"
At that moment, I wasn’t even remotely let down. I could only think, "Wow, I wish every guy could be as chill about this as he is." Another reason why that response was so great? It didn’t interrupt the session at all. We just continued to have a good time fooling around.
Go with the flow
Now, PIV sex is far from the end-all, be-all. A lot of people out there enjoy hand, mouth and toy play just as much, or even more, than getting penetrated by a penis.
"Focus on other forms of pleasure to please your partner or yourself," Stewart said.
If, after a while of doing so, the man would like to try getting an erection again, Stewart suggested allowing "your body to relax and do some deep breathing."
"Anxiety is a killer of erections," she said. "You do not want to shift the pleasure you have with sex to a negative, scary situation. The biggest barrier you have to overcome is your own mind fearing a repeat of the ED that just occurred. And that’ll lead to performance anxiety."
Try to get your erection back manually, or however it works best for you, once you’ve had some time to relax.
"And if that doesn’t happen, don’t force it—just go back to what you were doing before," Stewart said. There’s always later, after all.
"Rest, and when ready—maybe in a few hours or even the next morning—go back to the sexual activity without any pressure," she added.
Know when to seek help
The occasional bout of ED is usually nothing to be concerned about; in fact, it’s practically inevitable at some point or another. But if chronic erection issues are seriously affecting your sex life, relationships and/or self-esteem, it’s probably worth looking into a little more closely and perhaps seeking some advice from a medical professional.
"If ED is a recurring problem for you, contact a urologist to see if there is anything medical occurring that is hindering your erections. Your primary doctor will be able to suggest a good one,” Stewart said. “Once you have been medically cleared, your urologist can recommend a professional therapist to discuss the psychological effects that could be causing this issue. Be open-minded and honest with the therapist about what you’ve been experiencing."
ED can seem like a major deal, especially when it happens in the middle of a romantic liaison. But it doesn’t have to define you or control your sex life. There’s a whole wide world of sexuality out there—and it’s damn well worth exploring. Don’t let ED get in the way.
Giddy psychologist Dr. Susan Ansorge talks about creating normalcy in a relationship despite the occurrence of erectile dysfunction. Watch the video here to learn more.