I recently received a late-night text from a single mom friend of mine. She said she needed some advice. Her last child became an adult and moved out, so she started dating again. After failed attempts at finding love through popular dating apps, she was excited to finally find a man in her real-life community with whom she shared chemistry and common friends. Things are moving along — they see each other daily. They laugh, shop, cook and even have taken naps together on the couch.
My friend was feeling like it was time to get intimate, but he’s turned down her not-so-subtle hints to move beyond kissing, which they both seem to enjoy. She became confused as after kissing, he’d flashed an erection, but then put it away quickly. He also seems to mention often that he’d been a great lover in the past. And he claims that if they have sex, then things “will go wrong.” When she asked him why, he just said “trust me.”
I felt something must be going on, so I suggested that it could be erectile dysfunction (ED). Whether or not that is the case, my suspicions are in no way far-fetched. A recent study published by the journal Sexual Medicine estimated that about 10.3 million men ages 18-64 in the U.S. were diagnosed with ED. It can happen at any age and it’s more common than you think, especially with age. Also, in our community, ED is associated with health disparities such as diabetes, poor cardiovascular health and a lack of exercise.
Whether you’re casually dating or in a long-term relationship, ED can negatively affect intimate relationships, communication, quality of life and the self-esteem of both partners. But just because someone has trouble getting or keeping an erection doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a cause for concern. It can just be a temporary situation.
Whatever the case is with the brother my friend is seeing, I’d realized that I was out of my league in the advice department. With my friend’s permission, I thought I’d tap a few Black women sexologists to figure out what this sister should do. How does someone even begin to approach this situation.
The idea of bringing up ED with a partner who may be experiencing it might feel incredibly personal and awkward, no matter how close you are.
Our culture still faces challenges when it comes to openly talking about sex, says Dr. Perquida Payne, DSW-LMSW-sexologist and founder of Queen Poise, which offers love, relationship and sexuality coaching for couples.
“Unfortunately, the way some people are socialized can make discussing pleasure, body challenges or desire difficult,” says Tanya M. Bass, Ph.D., M.S., M.E.d, CHES®, CSE and founder of the North Carolina Sexual Health Conference.
Some women prefer not to talk about sex due to fear, shame or embarrassment, not even to their doctors. This hesitance to talk is real for men as well because of cultural issues like toxic masculinity, where some men have been taught that showing emotions, vulnerability and revealing problems such as sexual dysfunction can be a knock to their masculinity.
“Because men watch porn and OnlyFans and they feel intimated by the performance, and so everyone is on mad pills. If you can’t perform, you feel horrible. Women will make you feel like sh**t,” explains a Black male, 45, who asked to remain anonymous. “If you’re insecure then it can make you feel insignificant in that area. Look at the alternative. You feel threatened by other men; women will feel empowered like, ‘I’ll get me a vibrator.’”
These feelings and fears are very real. If we can work through these emotions together, and learn to have real talk without the stigma, shame and embarrassment, everyone benefits.
“Having these honest conversations require trust, vulnerability and risk-taking. These characteristics are all worth the improvement of the physical relationship but can also increase overall intimacy,” says Dr. Bass.
So know that we know why it’s important to talk. Here’s how to get that conversation started:
How to broach the subject
·Create a safe space.
Don’t expect him to talk unless he feels safe. Building a space where he feels safe sharing is really important. A lot of men, for various reasons, don’t share their feelings or vulnerabilities because they fear being made fun of or rejected. It’s important to approach sensitive issues from an empathetic place when navigating the relationship and what some of the barriers may be. Dr. Payne suggests that it may be helpful to start with something like:
“I’m really interested in you and I’d actually like to know what’s going on. I’d like you to know that I want to build with you.”
· Don’t beat around the bush.
“Direct communication is best in most relationships,” says Dr. Bass, who suggests starting a conversation in the form of gentle probing with empathy, while being supportive. You might introduce the conversation as important for both partners’ sexual and relationship needs by saying:
“I would like to be physically intimate with you. I sense some apprehensiveness. How do you feel about us becoming more physical?”
· Don’t leave things to the imagination.
In the famous words of James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
As difficult as it may be to start a conversation, being secretive, avoiding the subject and doing guess work is never a good idea as imaginations can run wild. “Communication can allow partners to express their desires and needs and strategies to compromise and/or meet their needs directly,” says Dr. Bass.
“The relationship and intimacy can be drastically impacted if this is ignored. Both partners can lose out on physical satisfaction and pleasure with one another if communication is not improved. Having honest conversations require trust, vulnerability and risk-taking. These characteristics are all worth the improvement of the physical relationship but can also increase overall intimacy,” says Dr. Bass.
· Don’t make it about you.
Broach the subject with tact. You never want to come off as though you’re attacking your partner in any way or making it all about you and not the overall health of the partnership. Dr. Payne suggests avoiding statements like:
“Why don’t you want to, like, do anything with me?”
“Did I do something?”
“What’s wrong with you?”
That’s usually not going to get us where we really want to go, says Dr. Payne.
A more productive conversation starter might be:
“It’s safe to tell me what’s really going on.”
· Don’t belittle your partner for poor performance.
Dealing with ED can be tough mentally on folks, especially in a society where the bar is raised by unrealistic sexual performances. Shaming your partner doesn’t help the situation at all. Put-downs can come from a place of learned behavior, ignorance, insecurity, frustration or ego. Try not to take them personally.
“In respect to social expectations and stereotypes, the idea of ‘manliness’ or toxic masculinity perpetuates performance stereotypes that are not realistic to achieve,” says Dr. Bass. “Everyone must be willing to release themselves from the scripts and tropes created by society, especially Black people.”
· Gauge their comfort level.
“Everyone can be sensitive and hesitant to discuss topics related to their sexuality and sexual function,” Dr. Bass explains. It’s important to know what your partner is or isn’t willing to discuss.
· Be patient.
“Personal and societal expectations often create an additional layer of ‘protection of pride,’ making avoidance and deflection common responses. Exercising patience will be critical,” says Dr. Bass.
· Suggest getting professional help.
“If a partner doesn’t feel comfortable disclosing erectile differences or challenges, a trained professional may be able to assist. Seeking a professional can facilitate or guide discussions if couples are open to assistance. Several sexuality counselors and therapists can be found at www.aasect.org,” says Dr. Bass.
· Take the pressure off.
Dr. Payne suggests having a conversation when the pressure is off, when it’s not time for sex and intimacy has not been building up. So maybe over breakfast or lunch or when hanging out.
· Keep talk casual.
Try to talk casually about the needs of both partners when there’s no pressure to perform right after. It can be helpful to discuss what each partner does or does not like. For example, you can say: “I really like when you hold the back of my neck” or “I get turned on by kissing, do you?” Don’t expect or demand your partner to be ready to talk right away.
· Avoid teasing your partner.
You may be tempted to make light of a heavy situation with playful, well-intentioned teasing, but it’s best not to make jokes. Again, you’re dealing with a potentially emotionally and psychologically sensitive situation.
What to do in the bedroom
· Choreograph sex.
A few related issues that men (and genders with male genitalia) might deal with are diminished desire and delayed orgasm. There are ways to communicate and choreograph sex to manage these issues. “The orgasm gap is real, and both men and women have reported incidences of sexual dissatisfaction,” says Dr. Bass. Talking about what works and what doesn’t work for both partners is key. And keep in mind that your partner’s needs may change, like yours do from time to time.
You can experiment with your partner to see what works best. That may mean discussing having more foreplay or trying positions that will maintain mutual arousal before penetration or going with his favorite position more often.
· Optimize timing.
Planned sex is also a technique to increase the likelihood of pleasurable experiences, says Dr. Bass. That might mean you may plan to do it in the morning before work, when he’s most alert.
· Introduce sex toys.
Dr. Bass sees vibrators and sex toys as a nice accessory to a strong union. “Sex toys can be a viable option as well as ‘sex play.’ Many couples find it pleasurable to include sex toys and other ways to experience pleasure.” Also, some of the sex toys available help with extending erection and increase sensation. Consider options based on comfort level. You might consider a ring, or dual vibrators that offer clitoral stimulation, increasing pleasure for both partners.
· Show him how to hit the spot.
Self-pleasure can also help with communication of desires and needs. Pleasure yourself and then show him how to pleasure you. This is an exciting way for both partners to learn how to best heat things up.
· Focus on the five senses.
“Pleasure is rooted in our sensuality,” says Dr. Bass. “Any opportunity to stimulate the five senses can be included in intimate connections for couples and individuals.” Focus on sensuality and intimacy, not climax or performance.
· Consider all the options.
According to Dr. Bass, “Open relationships are options for some couples but should be researched thoroughly as each has a specific goal and dynamic. Many relationships are not established solely for physical sexual satisfaction. Therapeutic options include somatic sex therapy or use of surrogate partners.”
What you can do to support his wellness
· Don’t give up altogether on intimacy.
Remind him of all the nonsexual ways your relationship is satisfying to you. Keep hugging, touch his shoulder or hold his hand outside of the bedroom. Tenderness and shows of affection are healthy and affirming to any relationship.
· Suggest he see a doctor.
It’s important for someone who might possibly have ED, or actually does have it, to get a confirmed diagnosis and speak to a medical professional about possible causes and available treatments. There are so many health-related issues that can impact sexual health. “Chronic disease, weight loss/gain, mental health and stress, side effects from medication, changes in diet can impact desire, libido, stamina and performance. All are to be expected and normalized,” says Dr. Bass.
· Stay away from strange pills.
It’s important that your partner not take just any random pills y’all may find at a gas station or convenience store without a prescription, or without knowing the ingredients in the package, as this can be hazardous. There are several legit treatments available to those with ED, and these should be prescribed by a medical professional.
· Model wellness.
Encouraging the health and wellness of both partners will make you both stronger in and out of the bedroom. You can support your partner’s sexual health by practicing healthy habits. Prepare heart-healthy meals or invite them along to the gym, hot yoga or for a long hike. Activities that get the blood flowing and promote cardiovascular health can be a real boost and an opportunity to bond. Dr. Payne says it’s important to be mindful of what you eat, your activity levels, and your daily intake of fruits and water.