Don't Let ED Win: Explore Other Methods of Partnered Pleasure
One of the most limited aspects of self-exploration has to be how people view sex.
While times are changing and minds are opening, far too many guys still believe "sex" only occurs with penile penetration of the vagina or anus until orgasm is reached—and maybe by the partner, too, if they're lucky.
It turns out erectile dysfunction (ED) can be a pretty dramatic wake-up call for men with such a belief. Even without that obstacle, unlearning this limiting viewpoint can be eye-opening for guys and their partners.
If men and their partners are going to experience pleasure together apart from penetration, especially with ED in the mix, they need to know a few methods and strategies.
Face ED honestly
Healthcare workers and sex therapists often say that simply explaining to men how common ED is can help clear up some of the negative feelings it can engender.
"A lot of patients will tell me how much they appreciate being able to talk openly about those things," said Neel Parekh, M.D., a urologist and men's fertility specialist who works with Cleveland Clinic. "A lot of guys are embarrassed by it. But we know it's a normal part of aging. By age 50, over half of guys will have some degree of erectile dysfunction. For every decade after, the incidence of ED goes up 10 percent."
Know the mechanics
Breaking down the components of what makes up male sexual response and digging into what men are after and what they have trouble achieving can also help.
"Orgasm and ejaculation and erectile function are three different processes," said Amy Pearlman, M.D., a urologist and the director of men's health at the Carver College of Medicine at University of Iowa Health Care. "Someone can have a fully rigid erection and never reach orgasm. Someone can have a fully rigid erection and never form an ejaculate. Someone can have a flaccid penis and still have an orgasm and ejaculate."
It's often a good idea to address what "having sex" means for each partner, because it can vary wildly. Even two people in a long-term, partnered relationship may have surprisingly different desires and goals during bedroom activities.
"I tell all my clients that the broader definition of sex, the more sex you're going to be having," said Natalie Finegood Goldberg, L.M.F.T., a Los Angeles-based sex therapist certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). "So if you limit your definition of sex to penis-in-vagina intercourse, and your body's not responding the way you want it to, it leaves you with fewer options. The more you can take the pressure off of intercourse as the holy grail, the better."
Alternative strategies for pleasure
OK, it wouldn't be fair to tell you there are other ways to enjoy sexual pleasure with your partner and then not highlight any of those ways.
Get out of your (other) head
If you've had a negative experience with ED in the past, the next time you "step up to the plate," so to speak, your mental anticipation of another such perceived failure can trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As the fear of failure and its attendant nervousness set in, your body sends out stress hormones related to the "fight-or-flight response." If your body gets signals telling it you're about to run from a bear or something, it probably doesn't think you need an erection just now.
Simply refocusing your mental energy onto the physical sensations you're experiencing can help prevent this cycle.
"One of my interventions that I heavily emphasize is the idea of getting back into your body," Goldberg said. "Let's say your penis is already inserted in your partner, and you have that panic and you start to lose your erection. In that moment, utilize your sensation to use as an anchor to get back into your body. Focus on what the sensation feels like of your penis inside your partner. If you need to move your body in a different direction to draw your attention to it, go ahead and do it."
Touching me, touching you
Another way partners can enjoy sexual fun without penetration is mutual masturbation. Establishing a "no penetration" rule for a session and stipulating that each partner is going to touch only their own genitals can take the pressure off.
It can also be hot, naughty fun to watch and be watched.
"I'm a huge fan of mutual masturbation," Goldberg said. "Nobody knows how to touch themselves better than the individual. Have your partner play what I call a supporting role. Playing with your nipples or kissing your neck—whatever it might be—but they're there. They're with you."
Expand your toy box
There was a time when the term "sex toy" was strictly taken to mean a dildo or a vibrator designed for vaginal penetration, but times have changed.
Toys of every kind designed for men are out there: cock rings, masturbation sleeves, vibrators, vibrating cock rings. You name it, it probably exists. Partnered play that involves toys can open whole new worlds of sensation, as well as new avenues for couples to explore fun and pleasure together without penetration.
Speaking of penetration...
Another area to consider is the prostate. The pudendal nerve that gives you sensation in your penis also supplies nerves to the anal canal, the perineum and, importantly, the prostate gland.
If you're having trouble with penetrative sex with your partner, some prostate play as an alternative, or even a precursor, is worth a try. Stimulating the nerves in the area can lead to a whole suite of expanded sensations, including both orgasm and ejaculation.
"I'm a huge proponent of prostate play, because there is the physiological element of it but there's also the arousal element," Goldberg said. "Every person needs a certain level of arousal to trigger the blood flow and get the domino effect moving. Some people need a very high level of arousal. The prostate has a ton of nerve endings; it's a very sensitive area. So why not go there?"
At the end of the day, sex is whatever consenting adults want it to be for them. As long as your partner is on board, there's a whole universe of non-penetrative body exploration to be enjoyed together.