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That time my dick didn't work
There was a period of time when my dick didn’t work. During these miserable years, in my mid-twenties, I didn’t talk about it with anyone. But I wished that I could read some compassionate writing about the subject, some consolation penned by someone halfway intelligent who wasn’t selling me dubious herbal medicines.
Well—here it is, the written consolation.
The primary word I’d use to describe erectile dysfunction isn’t embarrassing, or horrifying, or depressing, although it is those things. The first word I’d use to describe is stupid. It feels so, so stupid. It is a remarkable example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
By the time a young man makes his way into a young woman’s bedroom, a lot of hours have gone into the enterprise. First of all, there’s 3.8 billion years of evolution, a series of brutal and complex survival struggles, waged in tide pools, jungles, and seaport bars, that ended in my personal interest in reproduction. Secondly, there’s the struggle to be even slightly attractive, which is not quite as impressive, but does require some doing.
Or at least that’s true in my case. I was a severely bullied misfit in childhood, emerging into adolescence with no idea how to talk to human beings. It took years of intentional effort to reliably flirt with anybody, let alone to become desirable. Years of alternating triumph and humiliation—but mostly the latter. A very long journey to the promised moment of being led by the hand up a dimly lit stair to some third-floor walkup decorated with Joan Didion books and a creaky IKEA mattress.
And then, after all that, my dick just goes like, nope. No thanks. It gets excited for a moment, but then shrugs and loses interest. And I respond—are you fucking serious? We learned guitar for this. In large part, we learned to write for this. And to cook, to ask questions, to make eye contact, and, yes, to recite poetry. We struck out, messed up, blithered through awkward first dates, spent years alone confronting suicidal ideation, wrestled with our difficulty with social cues, tried to sift out the little smidgeons of wisdom from manosphere blogs while figuring out which parts were bullshit. And now this?
Except that’s not quite how it feels from the inside. That would be kind of comic, the penis just Bartleby-ing at a fateful moment, relaxing into a frolic of its own. But the actual experience isn’t comic at all—it feels like your inner monologue is being hijacked by a virus. Just as the sexual occasion is about to occur, there’s a sudden shift in the stream of thought.
It sounds kind of like this:
Okay, great, we’re about to have sex. This is totally going to go well, don’t think it won’t. As long as you don’t think about any equipment failures, everything will be fine. We just need to remain focused on the boobs in front of us. Laser-focus on the boobs, please—also, perhaps the ass. Just don’t think, even for a solitary moment, about the boner loss that definitely won’t happen. Oh, pretty please, ignore the fact that you’re now kind of thinking about it. You’re not thinking about it for real, not yet, your thoughts haven’t quite slumped over into the land of no return, the ticker-tape of self-recrimination that starts almost without warning, where you suddenly find that you’re calling yourself a pathetic loser. Which is a pretty stupid thing to do, honestly. God, why would you do that? It’s kind of a pathetic shithead loser thing to do—honestly, really weak limp-dick stuff, just getting in your head like this, instead of getting down to business. This is the purpose of your existence. But you just can’t follow through? Seriously? She’s waiting, dumbass—GET IT UP.
By now, it’s over. Failure has now occurred, and there’s probably no coming back from it. Maybe you can propose some more making out, or some hand/mouth stuff, but everyone knows those pleasant diversions aren’t what we’re here for. Sometimes, with a little time, maybe an hour or two, the enthusiasm returns—but you’re not always courageous enough to ask for a moment to collect yourself, and sometimes it’s easier to just come up with an excuse, like, I had too much to drink, or, I’m nervous because you’re so attractive.
And even if you manage to right the ship, you still spend the rest of the night—more realistically, the rest of the week—carrying around the distinctive warmth of shame, that lingering feeling of curdled blood.
It happened naturally enough. At a certain point in my twenties, I was drinking too much, smoking, in terrible shape, and also dealing with awful mental health. These are not the ingredients for faultless vascular efficiency.
Also, stress is a real boner-kill, and sex was stressful for me because of what it represented. At the time, seduction was my only real path towards self-assurance. I wasn’t aware of this motive, but it’s plain in retrospect. Becoming sexually marketable was how I demonstrated to myself that I was, perhaps, worthwhile and desirable, after I had spent my earlier youth feeling disgusting and excluded pretty much 24/7. I was out there taking revenge for my past. And taking revenge is not a stress-free endeavor.
So, predictably, there were some spotty moments, which weren’t pleasant. But it wasn’t too big of a deal, it was all recoverable. Until one particular occasion, with a partner who didn’t take my unreliability at all well.
When, for the second time during our relationship, I lost my erection, she freaked out. She cried, berated me, and, later, indicated that she’d told some of her friends and relatives about what was going on. She said, “I’m trying to be understanding,” while not demonstrating, in that moment, any real attempt to understand what it was like for me.
Although I wish she’d responded differently, I understand why she didn’t. It’s clear to me that she felt profoundly rejected and vulnerable, for universal and particular reasons. And I don’t wish ill on her, at all—she has since apologized, sincerely, and I was also kind of shitty in our relationship.
However, the apology didn’t do much. I was already significantly insecure, and so the damage was easy to do, and difficult to undo. It felt really personal. When bullies pushed me into the mud, I could at least tell myself that they didn’t really know me, that they were simply doing it for the sake of popularity. In this case, I’d failed in the most intimate possible way—or, at least, that’s how I saw it—and my failure was treated with scorn. I was deeply known, and found wanting.
Before this, I was a little paranoid about my sexual health, imagining that I might be humiliated if my dick didn’t cooperate. (I think this is an extremely common anxiety among men.) But the worries didn’t consume me, I could deal with them. However, what I took from that relationship was that I was correct to be paranoid. There were women—not a majority, probably, but not zero people—who would lash out, actively try to hurt me, if I didn’t perform.
That’s what got everything started. Basically, it put me in a relationship of mutual suspicion with my sexuality. Constantly, I wondered whether the thing was switched on and operating correctly. I spent my days in a state of vigilance, monitoring my pelvic response continuously during any interaction, no matter how minor, with a member of the opposite sex. I questioned whether I was adequately interested in that tattooed hippy girl passing me on the street, or that lingerie model on Instagram, or et cetera, et cetera. This, to be clear, is not how you conduct a happy sexual relationship with yourself. Penises do not behave well under constant supervision.
Whereas sex had already been a proving ground, now it was doubly so. I desperately wanted physical intimacy, so I could prove that I wasn’t broken, that I could still manage it. Yet, at the same time, I was desperately afraid of physical intimacy, for obvious reasons. Every time I managed to have sex, I thought, “what about next time?” And, even when it was good, I was stuck in my head, thinking, okay, yes, this is working, rather than paying attention to the act itself. At best, a good experience simply postponed the anxiety.
What I couldn’t do was admit the truth. I never just said to myself, “I’ve got a case of erectile dysfunction,” a straightforward admission that would’ve led to a prompter search for a solution. Instead, I was just fucked up about it. For years. During relationships, while out of relationships, while completely alone.
Almost every man, I think, wants relief from his sex drive sometimes. I’ve heard a number of men opine that they look forward to being older and enjoying a less testosterone-influenced experience. From the inside, male sexuality can be wonderful, but also deeply annoying. Sharing a body with such simplistic, involuntary desire can feel like cohabiting with an extremely ambitious, extremely energetic, and absolutely idiotic roommate—the kind of dangerously enterprising moron who always gets you in trouble. Every society develops multilayered social technology to deal with this fact.
But while I was in the depths of dick don’t work, I especially wanted relief. My dick was useless to me, and yet it still screamed at me about what I ought to be doing with it. More than once, I seriously considered monasticism. I could probably get myself to buy into all of that resurrection stuff, and then, after a few months in a stone dorm in Tibet full of dudes, my sexuality would lose interest in itself.
From the outside, I would’ve appeared like a typical loutish male commitment-phobe, coming on strong, but then abandoning promising relationships as quickly as the weather turned. And, well, that was the surface behavior. But my reasons were probably atypical, or at least not what some would’ve suspected. It’s not that I didn’t want commitment, or emotional depth. That’s what I wanted most. I was just afraid of what would happen in the bedroom if I stuck around.
Although I’m very happy that I’ve ended up where I have, I’m not happy that a few kind women were left wondering what was going on, and that I didn’t have the balls to tell them.
I don’t remember exactly when I said, okay, I have to deal with this. I do know that, before finally resolving the issue, I tried lots of stuff that didn’t take. There is an entire industry devoted to taking advantage of men with dick issues, hawking supplements, special lightbulbs, and mantras that purport to restore the magic. I can’t rule on the efficacy of these myriad remedies, other than to say the herbal stuff didn’t work for me. And, unlike with some other men, pornography and masturbation weren’t meaningful variables in my case. If I abstained from these numbing devices, my sex drive certainly increased, but my reliability did not, which was an even more aggravating situation.
Exercise and quitting smoking did help, to some extent. But do you know what really got the ball rolling? Fucking Viagra.
It took me an eternity to finally realize I should just buy some boner pills, but, in my defense, this was before online pill mills that could ship it to your door. I had to get on a bus and go to a special clinic, which I’d imagined being a horrible experience. It wasn’t, though. After a quick meeting with a receptionist who possessed exquisite professional neutrality, I was seen by a Jewish doctor with a cheerful, avuncular demeanor, who told me, “sometimes we just need to wake the penis up.” This was more charitable than my take, which was more like “you’re screwed up and will never recover.” The prostate exam I could’ve skipped, but otherwise it was not memorably uncomfortable.
It didn’t resolve the underlying issue—I still worried about sex, and my worth as a man. But Viagra can really cut through the uncertainty. Although the boners thus produced have an artificial, furniture-like quality, they still work, and I had a string of successful experiences that went a long way towards repairing my ego.
In some ways, it’s odd that this works so well, and doesn’t just make you dependent on Viagra. Maybe that happens for some men. But in my experience, when you have erectile dysfunction, there is a very simple piece of emotional learning in your head—“when I get naked with a woman, bad things happen.” Obtaining even a bit of contrary evidence reverses this belief.
But what really worked, finally, was a good relationship. I had a partner who was kind and secure enough to regard a disappeared erection as a non-issue. When, one day, I hadn’t taken the pills, and there occurred the inevitable failure to launch, she just shrugged and said “it happens.” When sex went well, she was thrilled. When it didn’t happen, she would calmly take care of her own needs and allow the evening to continue, unperturbed. It was clear that she still liked me either way.
This didn’t resolve the problem instantly. But it was pretty fast. Maybe a month and it wasn’t a problem anymore. This was almost infuriating, given how long the issue had lasted.
When your attitude is, “I must perform,” there’s a lot of pressure. When your attitude is more like, “if I lose one, I’ll probably get another,” the pressure disappears, and thus the mercuriality. Assuming the problem is more psychological than physical, that’s really all it takes—although if you’ve been programming yourself with another point of view, the deprogramming can take a minute.
I also now feel like there isn’t any pressure on me to perform faultlessly for the rest of my life. If, for some reason, my sex drive falls under a spell of bad weather, I can just order some medication and get through it. Whatever. I take a mood stabilizer so I don’t become irrational, I’m not above taking a dick stabilizer if required.
Often, the cliched message we broadcast to those who are deeply ashamed of themselves is, “there is nothing wrong with you.” It’s a sentence I read a number of times, while browsing the internet erectile dysfunction literature. And I never found that reassuring. What I would’ve found more reassuring would’ve been something more like this.
There is, actually, something wrong with you! Not with your essential self—that is unpolluted, and beyond reach. But, yes, your current relationship to your dick is not constructive. You’ve got a strange virus of the bodymind, you’re in a shitty feedback loop. But it’s reparable, and there are even some women who will actually be quite happy to work through it with you, who will take pride in helping you get back in the swing of things. Despite what the manosphere blogs will tell you, most women are not constantly monitoring you for any sign of unmanliness. That’s just what you’re doing to yourself. It’s true that a few will behave quite badly if you don’t perform. But if your girlfriend does act like this, congratulations—she’s just informed you that she’s not ready to support you when the going gets tough, which is very valuable information.
Some experimentation might be required, especially if Viagra doesn’t work for you. But what’s really important is just honesty—to name the thing and go after it. Don’t get me wrong, the honesty part isn’t easy. It’s incredibly difficult to open up about sexual difficulties to yourself, let alone to a partner. But it’s actually non-lethal. You just say “my dick isn’t working right now,” and then you find solutions. There’s a lot of fun to be had on the other side.
Photo credit goes to Saul Leiter.
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