There is an episode of Sex and the City where the protagonist is dating a short story writer who, ironically, prematurely ejaculates. When I watch that episode in the company of male friends, they burst out laughing during the scene where we first witness Mr. Man’s sexual difficulty. Immediately thereafter, that hearty laughter turns to thinly veiled nervous laughter. Female friends, however, have never laughed. In contrast, they have tended to sympathize with the protagonist’s frustration with her partner — not so much over his sexual difficulty, but over his disinterest in discussing it with her.
In Girl World, you are valued first and foremost for your sexual attractiveness to men, and you are faced with a daily risk of sexual violence, but in Boy World, you are valued first and foremost for your sexual competence and prowess, and overall dominance, and you are faced with a daily risk of humiliation. Once upon a time, I used to think that cis-guys had social situations infinitely easier than women do. Their clothing has functional pockets, and they don’t really have to fear that a potential suitor will kill them — or, at least, they won’t be blamed if such an occurrence does happen. Given the emotional challenges and social expectations men face as a direct result of our society’s conditioning, I’m not so sure about who has what easier anymore.
When I ask male friends about their most prevalent concerns in sexually intimate settings with partners, all of them have identified impotence as a potential stressor. When I have asked men which is worse, impotence or premature ejaculation, they have all said the same thing: impotence. Why? Because, I was told, they have a chance of being able to attempt intercourse again more quickly. (Can you smell the heteronormativity?)
When I ask if it’s worse to be impotent in the company of a cis-female partner or a cis-male one, the men (who are all sexually attracted to cis-women) unilaterally voted for women. Why? … “because guys get it” and would empathize with the stress of a sexual performance. Translation: Expectations are higher when in the company of women.
I wonder, are women placing these expectations on men, or are men placing these expectations on themselves?
I suspect the answer is some of both.
From a cis-female perspective, I have never had to worry much about maintaining a state of sexual arousal with a partner. However, I have been trying to come up with a way to conceptualize male anxiety in that situation, and the best analogy I’ve concocted so far is with makeup. As someone who used to refuse to leave the house without full-on eye makeup every single day, I would have felt worthless if I had been seen by anyone, even a romantic partner, with a bare face. The first time a romantic partner did see me bare-faced, which was late in high school, I felt humiliated, despite his praise and support. From what I understand, men who fail to maintain an erection in a romatic settings experience a similar phenomenon, where the emotional support of a partner, while nice to have, doesn’t compensate for the internalized rejection that’s felt. No matter what your partner says, you still feel like shit for failing to live up to what you feel is expected of you.
When I ask female friends about erectile dysfuction and other cis-male sexual difficulties, a different pattern emerges. Although a couple of my friends have experienced frustration at their partners’ inability to perform as desired, the women I ask typically express a much greater concern over their partners’ unwillingness to communicate on the topic. These women have felt much more hurt — or, when I ask as a hypothetical, anticipate they would feel much more hurt — by their partners emotionally shutting them out, rather than disappointment or frustration over being unable to have satisfactory intercourse.
Part of the problem is that, of the women I’ve asked, most would take it personally if a male partner was unable to sexually perform in their company. They would assume he simply wasn’t sufficiently aroused because they did something wrong or were not attractive. That’s yet another example of why having an open line of communication is vital to sexual relationships. For instance, I have a friend whose male lover is totally uninterested in any sexual contact whatsoever. I suspect that’s because the whole endeavor is too stressful for him, but neither of us know for certain because he won’t talk about it. As a result, deep down, she feels like if she was more attractive, his libido would increase tenfold, and he’d want to reinvest himself in the sexual component of their relationship. I doubt that’s true.
I’m the exception to the trend among my informants. I recognize that penises, like all genitalia and brains, can be fickle sometimes, and that’s okay. I don’t take it personally when a partner’s body isn’t doing something he or I wish it would. Bodies do what they’re going to do, and sometimes, it’s difficult to get them to behave the way we’d prefer. That, and intercourse isn’t of interest to me.
I’m also less usual in that impotence has become fetishized in my mind. I have come to see it as — potentially — an extremely erotic, enjoyable experience, as long as it would embarrass my partner. My recent conversation with a fellow on OkCupid sums it up well. Take a gander:
Further, I resent the phrase “erectile dysfunction” as a synonym for impotence. It assumes the normal function is to have a penis that’s erect as often and for as long as all romantic parties prefer, which is problematic for both cis-men as well as other men. The human body isn’t built to regularly cooperate with that demand, so why have we decided that’s the norm? If the problem is something physical, I’m less offended at this label. However, if the problem is mental, to assign it this label implies the problem is with the erection, itself, which it isn’t; it’s with the mind.
I invite you to add your two cents on this topic. Everything I’ve stated above has come from my own experiences and my conversations with mostly cis-gendered, heterosexual men and women, none of which can be generalized.
Has impotence, or fear thereof, had an effect on your life?