As an Olympic fencer, you might say I’m pretty handy with a sword. And, although I spent more than a decade outwitting opponents in competition, I became my own worst enemy as soon as I entered the bedroom. During my teen years, I didn’t know what to call it. It was just a big black hole of anxiety that opened up each time I lay naked with another person. But in my twenties, I finally found the words to describe my unspeakable problem: erectile dysfunction.
E.D. affects a staggering number of men at some point in their life (some studies peg the number at more than 50 percent). With estimates like that, you’d think guys would be screaming about it from the rooftops. Too often, however, the male culture of bravado can make men feel weak and incapable if they struggle to perform.
I want to change that, which is why I write openly about my past, offer resources to couples, and even text one-on-one with men or their partners. I know it may take a long time to remove the stigma surrounding E.D., but progress starts with dispelling some of the commonly held myths about erectile dysfunction. (The first? That it’s a big deal—it’s not.)
Here are the top three I’ve encountered and want every woman to know about:
If you’ve hooked up a few times and he’s not able to perform, that doesn’t mean he isn’t into you.
At 16, I started dating someone from an all-girls school nearby. Early on in our relationship, I learned that she’d lost her virginity the year before to her then-boyfriend, while I was still clinging to my V-card. Her experience only revved up the nerves I was already feeling around sex.
As a result, our initial forays into that arena got off to a rocky start. I felt like an audience member at own “performance,” my mind heckling me with insults as I watched myself bomb. The first time it happened, I managed to squeak out the words, “I’m nervous.” However, in our future hook-ups, I found myself feigning a laid-back attitude, even though each time I struggled, it felt like my heart was climbing up my throat.
The experience hardened me (figuratively speaking). Despite being a sensitive and caring teenager, my early twenties became a time when I became less thoughtful in how I handled my performance issues. I’d reach for standard explanations like “whiskey dick” or “stress,” and many partners asked me if I found them attractive. The truth was that I did. But rather than come clean about my own shame and embarrassment, I consistently put on a show.
Some ghosted me, sensing the wall I’d put up to “protect” myself and my sensitive parts. Others stuck around, figuring I’d learn to be vulnerable. Instead, I would eventually invent a reason to push them away.
This cool-as-a-cucumber attitude is an age-old masculine coping mechanism—the schoolyard equivalent of feigning disinterest after being picked last for dodgeball—and it’s one I unfortunately maintained for years.
A little blue pill won’t magically solve his problems.
When I first spoke to my doctor about my issue, he gave me a sample pack of Viagra, patted me on the back, and sent me on my way. Later that week, I tried half of a pill at home by myself, which led to an erection that was better suited for pole vaulting than sex. However, when I tried taking it with a partner, my nerves became so intense that they melted my arousal like a popsicle on a warm summer day.
That experience left me deeply discouraged because, while I wasn’t happy about being placed in the company of silver foxes (no offense, guys), some part of me thought Viagra would be the blue bullet that solved all my problems.
Despite the setback, I kept trying. I had intermittent success with the medication, but the moment I knew sex was a possibility, a clawing pressure rose in my chest.
Finally, in my late twenties, my then-girlfriend encouraged me to see a psychologist to get to the bottom of the issue. After several months of difficult conversations, I began to identify and deal with the real culprit causing my erectile dysfunction.
Over the years, I’d failed so many times that I just couldn’t imagine having a healthy, normal sex life. Pain had become my security blanket, and even when my anxiety lessened, I found unconscious ways to whip myself back into a frenzy.
It took months of difficult conversations. But, eventually, my psychologist and I began to chip away at an old belief—that I’d always be “broken”—and replace it with a better one: I’d always be enough. With that new perspective, trusting my body and loving myself became a possibility once again.
For many men, unless the source of their problem is a specific health issue (a heart condition, etc.), E.D. meds aren’t a long-term solution. Still, it’s easy to carry on using the drug as a safety net. But now I know that recovery begins when you find the courage to confront the issue emotionally, and if possible, with the help of a professional.
His sexual needs don’t come first—it may just take time to figure out how you both can feel satisfied and safe.
By the time I met my wife, I was well on my way to recovery. But after six months of dating, I had an unexpected resurgence of old doubts. When I struggled sexually, her instinct was to hold me tight to soothe my frustration. However, the physical closeness only revved up my nervous system, making my anxiety even worse.
When I explained that I preferred to “cocoon” into myself when I felt overstimulated, she was understanding and respectful of my needs, even when that meant choosing a book over an unpredictable erection. But, soon, my slumps stretched to several weeks at a time.
Eventually, it took a toll on her. I began to see flutters of insecurity beneath her assurances that everything was fine in our relationship. When we sat down to talk about what was going on, she answered all of my questions (Are you okay? Are you happy? Do you feel safe?), but I sensed tension beneath her words. Eventually, we agreed that radical transparency was the best thing for our relationship, even if it risked putting more pressure on our sex life.
Even though I often reminded her (and she reminded herself) that the source of the issue was fear, not lack of desire, my withdrawal made her feel rejected nonetheless. “When you need space, it makes me feel like you are going to leave,” she finally said. It wasn’t until that moment that I understood how much my coping mechanisms were doing the exact opposite for her. And though I consistently told her how much I loved her, my words weren’t enough.
Just like I needed my “cocoon,” she needed physical touch—not necessarily sex itself—to feel seen and loved. So, I did what I should have done months earlier and wrapped her in my arms until her body let out heaving sigh of relief.
Many partners of men with sexual dysfunction are afraid to say anything they think could make the problem worse. It’s a delicate balance, but my wife now knows how to voice her emotions—while still being sensitive to mine—and that has helped us both uncover new strategies to work together in meeting each other’s needs.