For the past six months, my partner has had trouble maintaining an erection. Although we’re both in our late 20s, is it possible that he might have erectile dysfunction? What can I do to help us work through this problem?

co-authored by Lianna Hrycyk

Despite what the media might lead you to believe, erection problems are not exclusive to older men. On the contrary, around 7% of American men under the age of 30 report erectile difficulties. Hearing you say, “What can I do to help us work through this problem” is a good sign. Psychologists recommend looking at erection problems as a shared sexual concern, as they can affect both partners’ well being. Erectile dysfunction is clinically diagnosed as the constant inability to develop or maintain an erection for the duration of sexual intercourse. Erectile dysfunction can be a red flag for another serious medical problem, such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease. Your first step is to encourage your partner to visit his family doctor, in order to rule out medical complications. You may offer to accompany him to the clinic, so his doctor can conduct a thorough assessment of the various factors surrounding your partner’s erection difficulties.

Although only a doctor can make a diagnosis, remember that your partner’s difficulty maintaining an erection doesn’t automatically equal erectile dysfunction. Do you know if your partner gets erections while masturbating or sleeping? If so, then your partner isn’t necessarily unable to have an erection, but rather lacks erections in certain situations. Sex therapists warn against the medicalization of erection difficulties, where all deviations from the norm are considered “dysfunctional”. As famous sexologist Alfred Kinsey wisely wrote, “There is nothing more characteristic of sexual response than the fact that it is not the same in any two individuals”. The question then stops being, “Is this normal?” and becomes, “Is this a problem for you and your partner”[1].

It is important not to blame your partner; similarly, you should not blame yourself. It might also be tempting to comfort your partner by downplaying the impact his erectile difficulties have on your relationship. Instead, share your concerns openly with one another. For example, how has this affected your relationship? Are you both interested in making changes? Questions like these will increase your understanding of each other’s perspective on the issue.

Inability to have intercourse does not have to translate into a loss of sexual pleasure or intimacy. This brings us to challenge two prevailing myths: 1) that men can have erections whenever they want, and 2) that “sex” means sexual intercourse. Sex in our society focuses on male performance, in which the misconception is embedded that an erection is essential for satisfaction. This puts an incredible amount of pressure on men to be hard whenever the opportunity for sex presents itself. In reality, erections typically arise after sexual stimulation. Even more, remember that sex is more than just another word for sexual intercourse. Think of the purpose of sex as providing sexual pleasure. There are many other ways of being sexually intimate that do not require an erection. You and your partner may be surprised to learn that neither erection nor ejaculation is required for male orgasm. Once couples realize that pleasure is not dependent on erections or even orgasms, although these can be enjoyable when they do happen, partners are likely to have more frequent and better sex, according to therapist Bernie Zilbergeld.[2] Instead of thinking of touching and other sexual acts as “foreplay” to intercourse, engage in sex play for the pleasure it brings in itself. You might even end up enjoying a more diverse sex life.

Many sex therapists agree that talking about sex leads to better sex! Good communication is characterized by self-disclosure (partners openly sharing their personal feelings and thoughts), and partner responsiveness (partners showing understanding by acting in response to what their partners have shared). Ask your partner if he would like you to help him get in “the mood” and bring him pleasure. You can ask him if he is comfortable sharing his sexual fantasies with you, and don’t forget to share yours as well. Some couples find it helpful to make a list alone ahead of time. Either way, talking about your desires, preferences, and feelings can be exciting and arousing. If you are both willing, you can explore ways of turning each other on without the pressure of needing an erection. If you need some ideas to get you started, consider:

  • Kissing and hugging while one person stimulates the other with his or her hands or mouth
  • Bathing one another sensuously
  • One partner masturbating while the other kisses and touches the other
  • Simultaneously stimulating each other orally
  • Laying on your sides and looking at each other while masturbating

Overall, the most important thing is for you to talk to your partner openly and honestly. Then, you’ll be able to discuss a realistic plan together that will allow both of you to satisfy your sexual desires.

[1] Zilbergeld, Bernie. (1999) The New Male Sexuality. Revised edition. New York, New York: Bantam Books.

[2] Zilbergeld, Bernie. (1999) The New Male Sexuality. Revised edition. New York, New York: Bantam Books.