Erectile dysfunction (ED) has been getting the millennial marketing treatment recently. On London transport earlier this year, you may have seen a 'quirky' ad campaign for a viagra delivery service called Eddie, which urged men not to be shy about the condition, proclaiming "ED isn’t an 'old man problem'". Men's health company Numan, which manufactures treatments for ED, uses a minimal, earthy-toned colour palette for its packaging – clearly targeted towards the same younger audience. In the US, the hipster-friendly viagra company Hims (with its cacti motif) has even been credited with making erectile dysfunction 'trendy'.
It's refreshing that brands are trying to de-stigmatise an issue that can emasculate men – and it makes sense, given that there's cause to believe younger men are increasingly finding it difficult to get or maintain an erection for long enough to have sex. A study of 2,000 British men last year found that half of men in their 30s and 35% of men in their 20s are "struggling in the bedroom", with stress, tiredness, anxiety and boozing too heavily cited as the predominant causes. The ubiquity of porn is also named as a possible cause.
The Instagram-ready billboards might do something to tackle the stigma surrounding ED for some men but certainly not all – a recent study of 1,000 men and 1,000 women by Numan found that less than half (42%) of men who have experienced ED took steps to fix it. Nor is the taboo lifting among the sexual partners of those with the condition. The fallout and shame arising from ED remains far worse for men themselves, of course – nearly 50% of men with ED told Numan's survey they felt self-conscious during sex, while nearly 20% avoided it altogether, and 79% were experiencing anxiety of some kind – but its impact on their romantic partners and relationships shouldn't be overlooked.
How do affected couples communicate about an issue that is so sensitive? How does it make them feel about themselves? And how does it affect their own sexual satisfaction and experience of sex? Sex and relationship experts advise "talking to him and letting him know that he has nothing to feel ashamed of" and suggesting that he seek professional help if the problem persists. But it can be difficult squaring your partner's wellbeing, self-esteem and masculine identity with your own needs, as two women in heterosexual relationships told Refinery29.
Jo, 36, a strategist and self-described serial monogamist, was in a relationship with a man with erectile dysfunction which was "cut short due to ED and how it manifested in the relationship," she says.
"The situation was twofold; he'd had health issues in the past brought on by a partying lifestyle that resulted in a mild heart issue, and he previously had an addiction to pornography, which he felt had warped his mind and changed how his body responded in intimate situations. I didn't know any of this, of course, but I sensed a disconnect when we were intimate. Like his mind went somewhere else. I found out a few months in that he regularly used Viagra to deal with it. He hadn't spoken to anyone else before and god knows where he was getting the medication.
Sex became less about my enjoyment and more about 'fixing' him.
During the next few months, sex changed... I acted more like a sex therapist than a girlfriend. It was probably the first time he'd discussed it with anyone. I wished there was someone else, like a professional, who he could speak to, to take the pressure off me. Sex became less about my enjoyment and more about 'fixing' him. I did a lot of research but didn't really know what to do in this situation and if I was being a 'good' girlfriend or not. Was I making it worse or better? I was kind and patient for sure but pushed my needs and feelings aside as a result.
The ED took over everything. If we wanted guaranteed sex then it had to be planned, so it was less spontaneous and felt fake. I think he possibly took too strong a dose or was on the wrong medication too, because I felt he changed a bit as a person sexually. As I say, it felt like a therapy session, which brought us closer together in a way but also got boring very quickly for me. I sound like a bitch even now saying it, but that's the truth.
The experience gave me a good insight into how hard it can be to be a man in 2019 and opened my eyes to how modern lifestyles, porn and mental health can really affect the physiology of a human; we all need to get to know and understand our bodies better. It taught me to be more patient and how to have tough conversations. Moreover, it taught me to care about my own feelings more, when to set boundaries and when to cut out."
Melissa (not her real name), 29, who works in recruitment, saw a man for several months from September last year, and it soon became clear that his religious beliefs were hampering his ability to have sex.
"I was really excited about him as we clicked on so many levels. Before we'd slept together, he told me he was quite religious and that he'd probably want to explore it more when he got older and settled down. I'm not religious, but I didn't think too much of it. On another occasion, he started talking about certain foreplay things he liked to do and asked if I was game – I was. Back at mine we started getting into it and he focused his attention on me during foreplay. He didn’t let me pay much attention to him. He had an erection at the time. However, when it came to having intercourse he lost it, proceeded to hug me and said that what we had just done was so amazing, etc. The foreplay was good and I'd been hoping we'd go the whole way since the dirty talk at dinner. I brushed it off.
I felt deflated that he couldn’t go the whole way. It made me think I was the problem.
We met up again and the same thing happened – he couldn’t get hard to have sex. We tried and it got a little hard but he lost it immediately. I could see that he was frustrated, but I could also sense he knew what was going on. I told him he could feel comfortable speaking to me about it, as we'd already had several deep conversations. Eventually, he told me his ex-girlfriend of five years was very religious and only wanted to have sex once she was married. He'd had a few sexual partners before her and was willing to wait. In the last year of his relationship they began to experiment with foreplay and when they eventually had sex, at his insistence, it didn’t feel right and they ended up splitting up. Essentially, he could only get hard off his kinky foreplay fantasy and had gone so long without intercourse that when it came to it, he had a mental and physical block.
We got on well but the lack of sex and his unwillingness to address it meant we didn't see much of each other after that. I was willing to try and help out, be understanding and patient but he kept me at a distance and ultimately didn't want to talk to me about it. Since he'd been so forward about what he wanted in bed I felt deflated that he couldn’t go the whole way. It made me think I was the problem. I now realise this wasn't the case, but if your partner has ED and doesn’t admit it, doesn’t talk about it and distances themselves, it doesn't make you feel good. Men rarely talk about it and women are often embarrassed to talk about it with their friends to avoid embarrassing their partner, so seek your own advice and if your partner is hesitant, broach the subject yourself. Give them resources or solutions and let them know it's a common problem. Help them to find out what really might be causing it."