Main content

Six ways to cope with erection problems

Erection problems are common. In Impotential - a new documentary for Radio 4 - Dr Petra Boynton examines a problem that most men will experience at some stage in their lives…

“I can't have sex the way I use to. I can't even get hard enough to enjoy sex. What is wrong with me?” That’s how most of the emails from men I get as an agony aunt begin. For the past 20 years they’ve been telling me similar stories in research too. Here, I’m sharing some of their stories - some names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Men are expected to behave in a very particular way. Not to show emotions, or talk about their feelings, or admit to having problems. Plus they’re also supposed to always want sex and be great in bed too.

None of this is realistic or helpful, so it’s no surprise men are shocked to learn erection difficulties are completely normal. All men have them sometimes.

Since few men admit publicly to having erection problems it creates a conspiracy of silence, meaning men and their partners blame themselves, fear rejection, and are scared it will break up their relationships.

The relief can be overwhelming on learning you were both anxious and want to try and sort erection difficulties. In my Radio 4 documentary, "Impotential", couples spoke candidly about their problems...

You have to keep a sense of humour

Graham and his partner Joanne had been together two years. Then they found out he had cancer. As a result his prostate was removed. Here they tell their story about how this affected his ability to have an erection and how they’ve kept positive about it…

Erection problems: "There are ways and means, and we get by"

Graham and his partner Joanne talk about how humour has helped them stay positive.

It’s awkward getting your bits out in front of a doctor… but they’ve seen it all before

It can be embarrassing talking to a doctor, let alone having to be examined down below. Here, Tom talks about his experience and says he was glad he was prepared for that bit - he’d had a shower…

‘You don’t want to get your bits out… but it was fine’

Tom shares his experience of getting medical help for his erection problems.

The most important thing is not to panic

Men often worry erection problems are a sign of something really serious: a terror that it might be cancer should send them rushing to their doctors, but often, instead, men can be frozen into inactivity.

If you have something serious like cancer, it doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed.

Erection problems that aren’t anxiety-based may be a sign that your body is trying to tell you something. So the quicker you get help, the quicker you can be treated if needs be.

Sex can still be surprisingly good

During the documentary I spoke to Nick and his wife Ede. They told me that even if you have something serious like cancer it doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed. Your sex life will change, but some of it might improve.

You did read that right. It’s not all doom and gloom. As Graham says: "There’s ways and means, we get by."

In fact sex, if you want it, can be enjoyable. Even after surgery or where there are chronic problems meaning erections are no longer possible; or just when erections occasionally just don’t happen. Where sex is no longer focused on the penis and penetration, then you’re free to be more creative, to explore more ways to experience pleasure throughout your body, and concentrate also on wider ways to connect with a partner and enjoy time together.

However, we shouldn’t rush to try and make everything better; to assume this only affects people in relationships; or to dismiss how angry, resentful and wistful men can feel when erections either happen inconsistently, or not at all. Nick emphasised how memories of what sex used to feel like can be devastating. Some men feel suicidal, others lonely, or unlovable.

If you are worried about erection problems you can get in touch with me and I have also created a self-help guide.

There are ways to avoid erection problems

Where there’s illness, infection or injury, some erection difficulties are unavoidable. More often they are not. There’s loads that can be done to prevent them. Quitting smoking and getting better sex education are two major changes that can help. Alcohol is another culprit to cut back on, as James explains.

Alcohol and erections

James talks about the impact alcohol had on his ability to have erections.

Sometimes men worry when there really is no need. Like the ones who write to me in a panic. They had sex once last night, but when they tried again an hour later they couldn’t get it up! They’re now convinced they have a sexual problem, when they just need to learn most of what they’ve been taught about sex is unrealistic and wrong. I spoke to a man called Femi who found his problems didn’t go away but were easier to understand the more he learned about sex and pleasure. But if you are still concerned, talk to your GP. They won’t judge, and as Tom says, they’ve seen and heard it all before.

You can hear more about living with erection problems from all the men featured here in Impotential on Radio 4.