The Blessings of Erectile Dysfunction


Erectile dysfunction shouldn’t necessarily send you running to the doctor for a Viagra prescription. Run-of-the-mill ED might just improve your sex life in the long run.

If you’ve turned on a television since 1998, you know how obsessed we are with guaranteeing hard-ons. Since the little blue pill appeared more than a dozen years ago, countless imitators of varying legitimacy and effectiveness have hit the market. Ads for drugs that promise to cure erectile dysfunction (ED) run nonstop during sporting events, and the sales of these medications generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year. We watch these ads and pop these pills without ever considering that the periodic inability to get an erection might just be the best thing that could happen to our sex lives.

I’m not talking about men who have serious medical problems that make it impossible to get erections without pharmaceutical help. Of course, the drug companies wouldn’t be making much money if those were the only men consuming Cialis and Levitra. A growing percentage of those taking these anti-ED drugs are men under 30, a population in which medical impotence is rare. Performance anxiety is what’s driving most young men’s Viagra consumption. And they’ll never get to the root cause of that anxiety unless they overcome the source of that fear: the belief that an erection defines a man’s sexual power.


The first time I couldn’t get an erection, I was in bed with my high school girlfriend. We’d been dating for about three months and had been having sex for two. Michelle and I played hooky from school at least once a week, riding the bus to her empty house and spending a few hours in bed together. But this particular day, we were fighting (I have long since forgotten what the quarrel was about). For the first time, we tried having make-up sex. I was angry and confused and so was Michelle. We both wanted the soothing of sexual connection. But no matter what we did, it didn’t work: my penis stayed soft.

I was 17, near the peak of what is supposed to be teenage male horniness. I’d certainly never had this problem before, and I was confused—and quickly devastated. Michelle tried giving me a blowjob, but nothing happened. I tried masturbating myself, to no avail; the harder I tried, the softer it got. Michelle burst into tears, crying that I must not be attracted to her anymore. I felt incredibly ashamed, and ended up leaping out of bed, pulling on my clothes, and running down the street to catch the bus home. I couldn’t face her.

Similar incidents would bedevil me throughout the remainder of my teens and well into my 20s. To my tremendous frustration, I could never predict when I would suddenly be unable to get an erection. It happened with one-night stands, and it happened with women I’d been sleeping with for weeks and months. The “problem” would disappear for a long time, and then re-emerge with a vengeance. Unlike that first incident with Michelle, later bouts of impotence rarely had anything to do with a fight. More often, it was performance anxiety—I’d worry about getting an erection, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.


For many years, this anxiety made me fearful of too much foreplay. Once I had an erection, particularly with someone new I wanted to impress, I would try and rush to intercourse, scared of losing my hard-on. (The way it worked for me was that once I was inside a woman, I could always stay hard indefinitely. The dreaded problem always came before what one ex of mine liked to call “invagination.”) I wanted to be hard because I wanted so badly to perform. But as I eventually figured out, that anxiety made me a worse lover rather than a better one. Everyone likes a quickie now and again, but it gets awfully dull as the default.

Some women were understanding; some weren’t. One woman with whom I had a one-night stand said, after a prolonged amount of foreplay did not result in a “workable” hard-on, “Christ, I always knew you were a faggot.” Ouch. And other women became anxious, worrying that this was evidence I didn’t really want them. That only increased my desperation, making the problem worse.

But eventually, I figured out the lesson my body was trying to teach me. Contrary to what I’d grown up hearing, I figured out my penis is not a “tool,” a “drill,” a “rod” at my disposal. It’s part of my body and part of me, and it doesn’t perform on command. Thank goodness. ED left me feeling vulnerable and inadequate—and that’s exactly what I needed to feel in order to learn how to be a real partner to my lovers.

Like so many men, I didn’t question the dominant message about sexuality and the male body until I found myself falling woefully short of the standard. The fear, desperation, and shame associated with these periodic bouts of impotence was a gift. Even though I studied gender and sexuality in college, it took these on-again, off-again struggles with ED to get me to accept just how toxic and damaging the inflexible masculine idea really was.

ED made me much better in bed. Though from my earliest sexual experiences with other people, I’d known that there was more to sex than intercourse, I hit my early 20s still somehow convinced that penis-in-vagina sex was what really “counted.”

Losing my erections forced me to rethink my sexuality. It helped me make the vital shift from focusing on my own technique to focusing on sharing pleasure. I became a participant rather than a performer. Though I know that many of my partners did like intercourse, there’s no question that I learned to be a better and more present lover because of ED. And, predictably, as I learned to decenter the importance of intercourse, the erection problems gradually disappeared.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking Viagra or similar drugs when it’s clear that there are purely medical reasons for erectile dysfunction. But before we pop the little blue pill to make ourselves hard, we need to question what’s so “dysfunctional” about not being able to perform on command. We need to question our obsession with heterosexual intercourse, and broaden our understanding of what sex can be. We need to let go of the need to be hard and in control all the time.

Sex is not an athletic competition. We are participants in the creation of mutual pleasure, not solitary performers on a track or in a ring. And for a lot of us, the only way to really learn that lesson is to lose the one thing we were taught was indispensable.

—Photo fhwrdh/Flickr

About Hugo Schwyzer

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college's first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He serves as co-director of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people's attitudes around body image and fashion. Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his website


  1. Creativitate,

  2. I love how honest you are in your writing, Hugo. It’s a “testy” subject and that you can speak so openly about it surely helps others.

  3. Lindsay Davison says:

    I enjoyed this and other of Schwyzer’s articles, but one thing that really rubs me the wrong way is the author’s bragging on his many sexual partners. You don’t have to be hard all the time, with or without Viagra, to be a real man, but apparently having lots of sexual partners is a step in the right direction? I just think it’s irrelevant to the article, and not very classy.

    • Henry Vandenburgh says:

      Hugo may be using: feminist man = popular with ladies. (I’ve been known to use it too.) But, I think it’s better to be a distant (and certainly not congruent) ally of some parts of feminism, while expressing a balanced healthy male perspective. Feminist males are frequently passive agressive. They also have a tendency to subtly dominate women.

  4. Great article! a different POV was so damn necessary. so thank you.

  5. When I was writing my book, “Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight,” I researched the topic of male sexual dysfunction. We even struggle to say those words but now are calling it “ED.” Men have been sold a bill of goods. We are raised to believe we must be able to get an erection any time, any where and with anyone. We are also to believe that a truly successful sexual partner is responsible for an explosive, mutual orgasm.

    Our first experience with erective difficulty starts a series of negative questions to run through our heads. Will I get it up? Will I keep it up? If I lose it, will I be able to get it back? We become observers of our sex life instead of participants.

    Research into male sexuality suggests that our sexual function is dividied into four “domains:” Sexual desire, erectile function, ejaculation, and sexual satisfaction. What I found very interesting as a result of my research of the medical literature is that as we age, our sex dirve, erectile strength and ejaculation all diminish with age. However, sexual satisfaction does NOT diminish.

    I believe that sexual satisfaction does not diminish for the reasons discussed in this article. As men age, they begin to expand their definition of love making beyond a rock hard erection and ejaculation on demand. Once the focus from that is removed, men become better lovers, refocusing on all the sensual pleasures of love making. The beauty of that is it removes the self-observing qualities that can develop with erectile dificulty. When those pressures are removed, the self-judging is relaxed and erectile performance improves.

    Men do not experience the equivalent of menopause. The remain capable of fertility across their adult life span. And although some elements of sexuality diminish and change, sexual satisfaction can remain high well into late life.

    • Contributor says:

      They remain capable of fertility, however, there is chromosomal deterioration of sperm as men age. This is why sperm banks don’t take donations from men over the age of 35. There are birth defects, as well as conditions like autism, that are much more prevalent in children of older fathers. It is not known whether autism is genetic or environmental or both.

      If men wish to have children, they will do themselves and their children a great service by having them young. And protecting yourself against creating a child as you age (such as with a vasectomy or condoms) is advisable.

      That is not to say that men – and women (regardless of menopause) cannot enjoy sex well-past the years of lowest risk reproduction.

      • I think you came dangerously close to telling men that they shouldn’t have kids when they’re older, which is downright condescending, and also a little ignorant.

        You do realize some couples don’t meet until they’re already older, right? Or they have multiple kids, or they have to try for a while before having a kid. But in general, telling people when they should or shouldn’t have kids based solely on age is more than a little uncool.

        Moreover, advising men to get a vasectomy to avoid the possibility of having a autistic kid is disgusting and prejudiced against men, people with autism, and… anyone with reading comprehension.

        • Contributor says:

          I don’t see anything in my post that is telling people what to do. Or that is prejudiced against anyone. Just trying to provide some facts and warning people. Creating a child is not just about the parents – it’s about the child as well.

          I was concerned that Olson’s post was misleading in leaving some information out. He is apparently gay so perhaps is not in situations where he is at risk of creating a baby and may not be thinking of how these issues affect men who are having sex with women.

          Autism or some of the genetic defects from aging sperm are not something I’d wish on anyone (either being a child who gets those things or being the parent of a child with those conditions) – perhaps you ought to spend some time with birth defects and autistics, especially adult ones. I don’t think it’s “prejudiced” to try to prevent these conditions.

          There have been a number of New York Times and National Geographic articles lately on how delayed fatherhood hurts children of those fathers. Google it and get yourself informed.

          • Contributor says:

            “When fathers are in their thirties, children have about 1 1/2 times the risk of developing autism of children of fathers in their teens and twenties. Compared with the offspring of the youngest fathers, children of fathers in their forties have more than five times the risk of developing autism, and children of fathers in their fifties have more than nine times the risk.”


            • According to that study the odds of a child being diagnosed with Autism increase from one in 700 to one in 200. BFD.

              They don’t control for social background. I’m betting that younger parents are poorer and less educated and therefore less likely to come in contact with a quack who will diagnose their child on the ‘autism spectrum’.

              20 years ago the odds of getting diagnosed with autism was about 1 in 4000. Has the incidence of autism surged? Maybe all men should stop having children until this mystery is solved. Or is it that a cottage industry of diagnosing kids with vague behavioral maladies – autism and adhd – and increasingly depression – has sprung up – fueled by drug sales of course.

              The stats you are quoting are the bogus products of that industry, and a sign that older wealthier fathers are more likely the targets of that quackery.

      • Henry Vandenburgh says:

        What;’s really irritating that many sperm banks prefer sperm from medical students – dweebs all too often. And narcissistic ones, too. 🙂

  6. This type of opinion piece is so facile. There is enough context and circumstance to provide plausibility, but in the end, it enters through the back door on its ideological wagon. If you’re having issues with erections or any other bodily function, you should seek professional advice: exercise more, sleep more, eat healthier, and if requires, take some form of medication.

    What you don’t do is play with it as a means to gather broader perspective on love making. If you desire to gather a broader perspective on love making, then guess what – that’s what you do, and there are healthy and productive means of doing so – and not via the opportunity of erectile dysfunction. Trojan agenda riding in on a used condom…

    What a nonsense piece.

  7. As a man who has dealt with increasing ED issues over the past 15+ years I find your choice of wording most unfortunate.

    I agree with your points about our focusing upon our erections and intercourse and similar.

    There is, however, a clear, significant difference between men who have serious, treatable or not-treatable ED issues vs. situations such as you’ve been in. While you briefly allude to this, you seemingly don’t recognize the extreme emotional pain that both men and their partners commonly have when the men have ED which doesn’t go away commonly worsens.

    You’ve never had “ED”. You’ve had periods where you had EDlike “symptoms”. ED itself doesn’t disappear when you “get your s_it together” or similar.

    For those of us who are Not Penis – only focused – it is of course much easier, though still not easy. For other men and their partners it can often either destroy their relationship or make it substantially worse as their distance – communication crumble.

    I’ve written about these issues several times on my blog: .

    I’m not aware of any others writing similarly.

    I know you mean the best! I’d appreciate consideration – and consultation with people such as myself when you write about such topics. I speak not only from my own experiences but from years in a yahoo group where other men and women try to support each other. Thanks!

  8. This reminds me a lot of what I’ve gone through, as a woman, realizing that I’m just not going to have many orgasms during penis-in-vagina sex. I don’t know if I’m impatient or especially difficult to get off, but I tend to turn to a vibrator whenever I make love with my husband.

    • that vibrator might be part of the problem. There’s research that suggests over-use of a vibrator densensitizes a woman to “normal” stimulation.

      • My take on that is: meh. As long as it works, I’m happy. It’s my orgasm after all. No one else feels it. I don’t feel like I need to perform the “right” kind of orgasm. It’s pretty clear to me that penetration just isn’t going to do it for me, vibrator use or no.

        • Hey as long as it works for the two of you then it isn’t a problem, it just sorta sounded like from your post that it might have been. Sorry

  9. I have to question whether it was ED that helped you to become a better lover, or just plain old maturity.

    Look, it happens to everyone. It happened to me when I started dating the woman who is now my wife. Ironically, it occurred because I loved her right off the bat and desperately wanted to please her. With the other girls I just didn’t care what they thought. I’ve always been very generous in bed, but in the end it was just sex for the most part. My brain never got in the way. But with my wife I put so much pressure on myself, I fell short. But I wouldn’t call that ED, I’d call it stage fright. Eventually I got over it and things have been fine for years.

    But it had nothing to do with me going limp in the beginning. If anything, that just made things worse.

    Also, I take issue with your characterization of what makes sex good. You claim it’s not all about intercourse. That’s for you. For other people it is about intercourse. I’ve been with women who need an hour of foreplay, but I’ve also been with women interested solely in straight-up intercourse. Neither is right or wrong, just personal preference. Yet you seem to paint anyone simply interested in penetration only as someone who’s doing it wrong. But if someone wants to take Viagra to improve their performance and thus self-confidence, go for it. Who is it harming?

    • He does no such thing. Read the article again… He says there:

      “I became a participant rather than a performer. Though I know that many of my partners did like intercourse, there’s no question that I learned to be a better and more present lover because of ED. And, predictably, as I learned to decenter the importance of intercourse, the erection problems gradually disappeared.”

      He is saying simply that intercourse is not the be-all, end-all.

      • Dick: I think you need to read the article again and finish quoting that entire paragraph:

        “And, predictably, as I learned to decenter the importance of intercourse, the erection problems gradually disappeared.”

        This is clearly Hugo saying that intercourse is not as important as everything else, and “PREDICTABLY” everything got better when he learned that. How is that not implying one way (sex without emphasis on penetration) is better than another way (sex with vaginal intercourse secondary)?

        I agreed with most of the piece, but I just took exception to that particular part.

  10. Hugo, how many times are you going to write this same article? I mean I know plagerizing yourself isn’t illegal or anything, but really, how many articles do you need to say that you, for some reason, think ED is a good thing sometimes?

    I would think one would suffice.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I have had a similar experience w/ premature ejaculation.

    My current partner is the only person with whom I have had sexual intercourse, losing my virginity to her in my late 20s, (there were other issues that led me to being such a “late bloomer”!). The first few times I came quickly, we put it down to the over-excitement, but after a while it was still happening. We just switched the focus from trying to come together to getting her off first and then getting me off. Whilst vaginal intercourse still sees me erupting after just a few strokes, I can now last for a few minutes with manual and oral stimulation. I feel it has made us both a lot more attentive to each others’ needs.

  12. Great article. Took a lot of courage to write…and publish.
    Love the line that the author “became a participant instead of a performer”!

  13. typhonblue says:

    Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten yourself circumcised.

  14. Really a fantastic post. I never thought about ED in this way before. Indeed, hadn’t really thought about ED at all. But you make some great points… Powerful and honest writing, great job 🙂

  15. Blixa Scott says:

    Our sex organs are like defiant children. If you try to tell them what to do, they sulk and refuse to cooperate. But if you tell them they’re NOT allowed to do something, suddenly they want to play.

  16. It’s great to hear of a similar mental/sexual connection that women experience. I have a great disdain for the mechanical nature that we are raised with in America. The How-To books and media are about performance. It’s awful, really.

    Everone’s erotic experience is different and it’s really great that you found the positive in your ED experiences. Contrary to what some men believe, pound, pound, pound with the man rod does not a good lover make.

    The young men using Viagra — YIKES!– certainly must be masking bigger issues. Great post!

    • I know a man who had bouts of ED sometimes due to drug abuse, other times it was a fear of not being able to “perform”. Yet he was a great lover. Always wanting to please, and had to know and feel comfortable with the girl in order to not have the ED. So the women knew it was more about connection mentally & physically.
      Much better than the men who lie and pretend to care just want to use women for sex. Yuck!

  17. Contributor says:

    Great article on a sensitive subject. I have read some books like “Passionate Marriage” by David Schnarch and “The Erotic Mind” by Jack Morin that suggest to me that this problem in men is sometimes not that different from analogous problems in women.

    They both seem to say that it is often related to emotional availability, i.e. that the more emotionally available you are or the more differentiated you are, the easier it is to engage in and enjoy sex. Schnarch even has a chart showing the increasing levels of human development and how they affect sexual function. They also say that declining hormone levels over the years can magnify the problem because when we are young hormones can override the anxiety and other emotional availability issues. But, according to them, it is never to late to make more of an effort to develop emotional availability and differentiation.

    And we can definitely do a better job preventing these problems in the first place. Our culture’s habit of shaming boys out of their emotional lives (especially vulnerability as Mr. Schwyzer notes – I hate that woman who said she thought he was gay) – and shaming girls out of autonomy, aggressive feelings, etc. – can thus cause them real problems, especially later in life.

  18. Very, very interesting article. A relief too- I was getting tired of the repetitive feminist vs. MRA stuff. I’ve never heard anything like this before, but you make a good case. I’ll think about it today.

  19. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    Okay, I admit it. I always hate your Viagra articles. The last one was fairly fakey about how there was a lot of “inappropriate” ED drug use going on. This one, although more benign, has anti-Viagra overtones too.

    Look. I’m a Viagra user. My ED probably comes from a combination of age and high blood pressure medication. I love Viagra and don’t care who uses it. It guarentees a rock-hard errection. It also lowers blood pressure, which is usually a good thing.

    Viagra or not, I still take my time during sex. I still eat pussy– every time. I spend lots of time before, during, and after in activities that are not intercourse. I’m still very receptive to what may partner’s doing to me, and can be passive and let her do the work.

    I don’t think Viagra has anything to do with it. I’ve always been like this.

    • I think you will find upon reading the article again that its not about Viagra giving you the ability to please women better, but to aid in giving people with performance anxiety the time to relax and not fear if they don’t stick it in whist they can they will loose there erection and not get it back.


  1. Trackback Link…

    […]Here are some of the sites we recommend for our visitors[…]…

  2. […] You get us. You get what we get, that there are men (many men, we hope) who want to read about sex and gender (often) and sports (often), and also media, the Internet, books, theater, dicks, […]

  3. […] I discovered this post on  “Good Men Project: “The Blessings of Erectile Dysfunction,” […]

  4. […] what I do expect will be my last post on erections for a long while, here’s my piece on Erectile Dysfunction and Sexual Connection at the Good Men […]

Speak Your Mind