I’ve had people ask me about erectile dysfunction so often over the past few months in my own practice that it would be remiss of me not to notice the correlation between prolonged isolation and the surge in ED. I’ve nicknamed it (though I’m sure I’m not the first one to think of this): “The Lockdown Flop.” Now, don’t get me wrong. This is entirely tongue-in-cheek, and in no way shamey. Rather, I believe it highlights a very real situation that cisgender men and people with penises are dealing with right now. I should begin by saying that ED issues are incredibly common. One 2013 study found that 26% of men under the age of 40 have experienced erectile dysfunction at some point in their lives. A more recent 2018 review showed that one in three men experiences ED.
We need to take a look at the state of sex in the world right now. Let’s face it—2020 has been a straight up hot mess.
During lockdown, there seem to be two different ways people are approaching sex, whether it’s with themselves or with a partner. One the one hand, we have the people with the “lockdown hornies,” or the ones who have reported that that their sex lives (whether single or partnered) have skyrocketed since the start of isolation. These are the people responsible for the truly staggering increase in sex toy ownership over the last few months. Companies such as Womanizer, b-Vibe, and many others have reported an increase in sex toy sales by up to 200% in April 2020, compared to the same month the previous year.
Then we have the other side of this polarity: the people who are just not feeling it right now. Or worse, are so anxious about the state of the world (the global pandemic, racist violence, etc.) that their desire has taken a nosedive. This is not gender specific. People of all genders can experience anxiety around sex, and these issues can often operate in a vicious cycle. Performance anxiety can cause general anxiety and vice versa, especially because we don’t recognize the impact anxiety and other psychological issues can have on sexual performance, arousal, and desire. Studies have shown this to be true for both men and women. The numbers show a downward slope in sexual desire to be the more common theme. According to data from an NBC poll of 9,000 people, 24% said the coronavirus outbreak had positively affected their sex lives, whereas 47% reported said it had affected them negatively.
When it comes to cisgender men, sexual performance has taken a tumble. In order to understand exactly why this is, we need to look at the root causes. Cisgender men and penis owners need answers, because there are too many men showing up in my office (and the offices of my colleagues) wondering why they can’t get hard, but can’t even begin to understand why this might be so. Is the pandemic to blame? Partially, yes. But what’s more to blame is our cultural obsession with erection and the unfair pressures we put on men to perform.
Men Don’t Want to Talk About ED
Not only is the world a dumpster fire right now, but we also live in a world where men don’t know how to talk about sex, especially when they aren’t “performing” their “job” as men (aka: getting hard on command). A huge part of the problem that is stopping a lot of men from opening up are the misconceptions and downright toxic beliefs that surround the issue of ED: “If a man can’t perform, he isn’t doing his part as a lover.” If not having an erection is reflective of someone’s ability to be a good lover, how would anyone ever get a hard-on? Who could take that pressure?
With the lockdown affecting so many men (and people in general), we have a rare moment right now to start changing this conversation for the better. This starts with better sexual education, available to people of all ages, which can help us foster a language around sex so that couples can effectively communicate about it without shame. “Open communication is required in healthy sexual intercourse [and all forms of sex]. Each partner needs to feel safe and comfortable saying what feels good and what doesn’t, what they like and do not like, what they want and don’t want from their partner,” Fran Walfish, Psy.D., MFT, a Beverly Hills, California, family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, told TheBody.
Good sex is not about how long an erection lasts; good sex is about how much pleasure everyone feels during the experience.
Erectile Issues Are Linked Mostly to Psychological Factors
Contrary to popular opinion, most occurrences of ED do not happen for physiological reasons. The vast majority of the time, ED occurs because of psychological issues. As I’ve mentioned, these issues can be related to shame, anxiety, guilt, and fears around one’s sexual performance.
While erections are the main physical sign of arousal in men with penises, this isn’t always how it happens. You can be with a beautiful human and very into the idea of having sex with them, only to find your penis isn’t responding the way it’s “supposed to.” “Erections are mostly linked up to sexual arousal, but not always,” Pam Shaffer, MFT, a licensed sex therapist, said in an interview with TheBody. “Sometimes people can feel mentally aroused but not have an erection or not be mentally aroused at all but still be erect.” The point is, the body and brain don’t always work in sync—and what is happening in the brain can affect what happens in the body and vice versa.
The Global Pandemic and Erectile Dysfunction
We’re in the middle of one of the most devastating global health crises the world has ever seen. Stress has a huge impact on the ability to get and/or maintain an erection, so it really shouldn’t come as a shocking revelation that erectile issues are emerging left, right, and center. The problem is that we are missing those two key pieces of information: that anxiety and stress do cause erectile issues, and that ED is extremely common and happens to nearly a third of men under 40 (those numbers markedly increase after 40).
What’s more, Lucy Rowett, a certified sex and intimacy coach, points out to TheBody that those isolating alone or who have limited contact with their partners face an even stickier set of high-anxiety issues. “Factor in that if you can’t see your partner regularly, never know when it will be, and when you do, you’re anxious about potential virus exposure, it’s a perfect recipe for problems with erections and general anxiety around sex.”
Opening the Conversation: Can We Eliminate the Word “Performance” Already?
Lastly, it’s important that we look at the language we use around sexuality. The word “performance” is an issue because it puts cisgender men in the mindset (hello, psychological factors!) that having a hard penis is key to having a successful encounter.
There are so many ways to have sex. Between oral sex, hand sex, partnered sex, anal play, and so on, the idea that intercourse and hard penises are absolutely necessary is getting pretty tired. “We need to stop putting so much pressure on men and male-bodied people to maintain erections, because it reinforces a negative image of what masculinity is ‘supposed’ to look like,” explains Perri Shaw Borish, M.S.S., LCSW, a psychotherapist and founder of Whole Heart Maternal Mental Health.
Sex can take so many different forms, which may or may not involve a hard penis. If you’re having issues maintaining erections right now, it’s important to remember that we’re in a high-stress situation on a global level right now. You are normal. And you can still have mind-blowing sex.