The Truth About "Erectile Dysfunction"
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One of the most common sexual complaints men present to their primary care physicians is trouble “getting hard” and “keeping it up.” For the last 20 years the treatment for erectile dysfunction (ED) has improved tremendously with the advent of medications such as Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra. Over 75 percent of men taking these medications are able to restore erections. However, for the remaining 25 percent of men, medical treatments are largely ineffective. In addition, a high percentage of men stop taking their medication. This can be explained in part by the fact that ED is both a physical and psychological problem.
Identifying and Changing Beliefs About Sexual Performance
For starters, a lot of men carry the belief that sexual performance and having a firm erection is one of the most defining and important characteristics of every sexual experience. As men try to make sense of their ED, many traditional (and implicit) male values about sexuality are triggered. For example, the inability to maintain erection often leads to feelings of shame because many men believe that “real” men should be able to satisfy their partner. And the only—or best—way to satisfy their partner requires an erection. Some partners will hold similar expectations of the need for the satisfying partner that can serve to worsen the situation.
ED is often strongly linked to performance anxiety. Performance anxiety is a widespread psychological phenomenon that affects many aspects of life, not just sex. It occurs when men become fearful of failure or embarrassed that they cannot achieve or maintain erections. Common thoughts that run through the man’s mind are, “Do I have an erection yet?” or “Am I going to have an orgasm this time?” A vicious circle of anxiety can develop where the anticipated fear of not having an erection results in recurring difficulties actually having one.
Here’s how the cycle starts: Men may hold some imagined fantasy of good sex, which leads to pressure to perform. When men do not achieve the result they were hoping for (i.e., a firm erection), this leads to troublesome feelings—sadness, disappointment, guilt and shame—and a return to negative thoughts that are now compounded by performance anxiety in the company of self-criticism.
The cycle can go on for a long time. For men to break the cycle, they first need to recognize that it exists. Only then can men start to change maladaptive ideas about sexuality that are not entirely helpful. First, men need to appreciate that setting the bar too high is a recipe for failure. Men need to reassure themselves that they do not have to be hard enough to drive nails every time they are intimate. Research has shown that many men with ED actually underrate their erectile response during sexual activity.
Secondly, men need to know that occasional sexual difficulties are normal and thus so are they. Research shows that most healthy men occasionally experience erectile dysfunction or failure. It does not mean you are necessarily impotent or that there is something inherently wrong with you. This can happen to anyone, and usually does at least occasionally.
Third, in western society we see a trend towards “instant gratification.” We want everything right away and instantaneously. This trend influences our relationships and sexual performance by creating a pressure to have an erection instantly and to be outstanding sexual performers. This trend of instant gratification does not take into account the fact that sexual performance is a learning process that takes time. Achieving mastery in sexual performance is no different than achieving mastery in sports or other activities: it takes practice. Sexual performance is a life-long learning process.