So far as I can recall, back in 2006, treatment for young men suffering from Erectile Dysfunction (such as services provided by Roman [or Ro, as the company sometimes refers to itself] ,wasn’t advertised on any mainstream platforms as they are now on television commercials and Facebook ads. References to Viagra might have made you think about the Bob Dole commercials whose target audience was middle age and older men. Why was I, at 19 years old, still a virgin (and aching to “lose” that virginity) stuck and doomed with a penis behaving as if it were decades older than it actually was, failing to “rise to the occasion,” and with such stubbornness that it took me months to actually be physically capable of intercourse and thus losing my virginity?
“Different strokes for different folks” (no pun intended) as my grandmother would say.
Different people of course react to things differently. Some guys, however old or young they are, if in possession of a proper education on sex, and a proper self-esteem, might be able to roll the failure to perform off their shoulders, so to speak and acknowledge first of all, that such a thing is most likely bound to happen here and there to nearly every male. Secondly, some men might have the wisdom to assess the context and ask themselves: is there anything going on here, or in life more generally, that is stressing me out and ‘pressing the breaks on my sexual arousal?’”
(With regard to “pressing on the breaks” I’m using the phraseology Dr. Emily Nagoski used in her book Come As You Are, while explaining some of the science behind sexual arousal and desire and that each of us has a set of “accelerators” thrusting us towards desire and arousal, and all of us have “breaks” which block our pathway to sexual thrills; if only she’d written the book in 2006, when I needed it. And I’ll add here, it’s sort of ironic that the book is written about female sexuality, but I find that I relate to much of what many women experience, such as context playing a significant role in sexual response.)
One of my favorite essayists and philosophers, Michel de Montaigne, was able to make light if ED in his essay “On the Power of Imagination.” He writes:
“We are right to note the licence and disobedience of this member which thrusts itself forward so inopportunely when we do not want it to, and which so inopportunely lets us down when we most need it; it imperiously contests for authority with our will: it stubbornly and proudly refuses all our incitements, both mental and manual. Yet if this member were arraigned for rebelliousness, found guilty because of it and then retained me to plead its cause, I would doubtless cast suspicion on our other members for having deliberately brought a trumped-up charge, plotting to arm everybody against it and maliciously accusing it alone of defect common to them all. I ask you to reflect whether there is one single part of our body which does not often refuse to function when we want it to, yet does so when we want it not do. Our members have emotions proper to themselves which arouse them or quiet them down without leave from us.”see the translation by M.A. Screech, Penguin Books 2003 edition, p. 115)
I wish, at 19 years old, I had the peace of mind and self-esteem to say much of anything even acknowledging the fact that I was struggling to maintain an erection, that my male member was overwhelmed with emotions, if you will. The only people I spoke to about it included my partner, my parents, and my doctors (the latter two because I was scared for my health, both physical and mental). And I was what you might call “a wreck,” with a mix of intensified depression and anxiety (I say intensified becauses I’d already struggled with both, and I’d actually recently worsened by smoking pot habitually, despite the pot usually making me very paranoid, inducing panic attacks, convincing me I’m dying, et cetera). What was wrong with me? Why did fate choose to damn me with such incompetence? (It’s a complicated ordeal, but I was very self-loathing and fatalistic/deterministic in those days). Though the meaning was ambiguous, of course I felt like “less of a man.” I could barely think of anything else. My identity as a failure symbolized via my ED haunted my mind. My skepticism towards the necessity for monogamy had also been emboldened. My relationship at the time was long distance so my partner wasn’t around, but I wanted to regain my self-esteem and experience being sexually active and feeling good about it. I craved a feeling of relief. That whatever had been wrong with me was “a thing of the past.” That I was “okay.” That I could join most of adult humanity as someone capable of having sex. So, what if I met someone who would give my body a try? I would have maintained, ultimately, that it would have been unethical (my partner wouldn’t have deserved that! Confused as I was about sex, I did believe I loved her and cared about her very much. The degree to which I succeeded in acting on that care and showing it is a different story for another occasion perhaps), and that instead of establishing a means to develop my self-esteem, I’d have been simply demonstrating how insecure I was.
Privileged, though I was / Desire
To be clear, miserable as I was, my life wasn’t so bad. Impotence is not the worst thing someone can experience. I wasn’t fate’s most tragic victim. My life as such wasn’t threatened, nobody was violent towards me, there was no natural disaster. I hadn’t lost a loved one. Furthermore, painful a time as it was, I was nonetheless (and still am) privileged.
I was a young, white, heterosexual male, raised in the middle class in suburban and rural (mother in the suburbs, father in country-side) New Jersey and New Jersey is a rich state in a rich and considerably free and liberal country.
I didn’t have to work. I did work in the summer to make money because I dreamed of moving to England and planned to do it. But I didn’t have to work throughout my first two years of college. In contrast, almost a decade later, I would go to college part time while working two part time jobs. That in itself, I fear, speaks to how spoiled I was, and how much down to Earth perspective I lacked.
My family, at that time, had funded my first two years of college education. I had never been exposed to and had never experienced real poverty and the kind of life and struggles experienced by poor people.
Unwell as I was psychologically, being able to spend so much time ruminating over the responses of a hypersensitive penis may be viewed as somewhat of a luxury. There were so few external pressures on me. Really, not any, other than my impotence and my family’s dismay over my dropping out of college and planning to move to England. That and arguments between my partner and I.
But a fascinating characteristic of the human experience is that circumstances can always improve. Not because life is so inherently bad! Rather, because we can keep making it better until we croak. This aspect of the human condition is a blessing, because so long as we’re at least somewhat okay, psychologically, our bodies pump us up with desires so that the fulfillment of one desire does not inherently tend to leave one feeling as though “there’s nothing left” to inspire one to live on! Thus, desire as such is sacred and holy, I believe.
When we can’t seem to fulfill a desire, specifically a desire we value above most or all others, and which we prioritize even over most or practically all other considerations, and if we have very poor attitudes, agitated by extreme pessimism and self-loathing, it can indeed “drive one crazy. ”
In Come as You Are, Dr. Emily Nagoski talks about this in scientific terms. She explains that the brain possesses a mechanism which is sort of like a “little monitor” and “referee” and that
When I could not “get it up,” I was “enraged” and then in a “pit of despair” and felt a “hopeless desolation.” And not only about that.
Context context context context context context….
Now I would like to return to the idea of our life’s contexts and their impact on our sexual functioning– a central theme in Nagoski’s book, as I mentioned a little earlier. My contexts were depressing.
It wasn’t just my low self-esteem that was troubling my pecker.
When the impotence began, I was a sophomore in college, failing to take care of myself in any real basic way. I was doing poorly in all of my classes. Often, I didn’t even bother going to class.
I smoked pot chronically. (Maybe not a bad thing for some people, but pot made me awfully paranoid. Also, I didn’t smoke pot for the right reasons—i.e., for therapeutic reasons. I used it 1) to detach from reality; 2) because I thought my writing would only be “good” if it was composed while high; 3) I sought a spiritual connection with the universe and I thought pot was the answer.).
I smoked tobacco.
I paid virtually no attention to my diet (except in the sense that I was a vegetarian).
I fixated on very depressing poetry (Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell”).
My relationship with my mother was not at its best (alas, close to its worst), my relationship with my father was over all poor. Actually, I wasn’t really close or even on decent terms with most of my family. I got on well with my former step-sister and kept in touch a bit with my other half siblings, usually, however much we disagreed, without any stressful discouragement in our conversations, but we didn’t talk enough. (I did, however, get along very well with my grandparents who even came down to Fort Myers to visit me once).
I had no real hobbies except for maybe walking. (Writing didn’t count as a hobby for me. Though I wasn’t published and paid, I saw myself as a professional poet.)
I was oblivious to the political state of things. I was oblivious to news pretty much completely. I barely watched television anymore and only watched movies with my partner (In contrast, from about the time I was nine years old until roughly 16 or 17, movies were my life. I knew all about the movies coming out as well as those that had been produced as far back as the 1960s. I would spend my weekends watching movies studiously, meditating on the dialogue and the actors’ and actress’s performances.)
I struggled to make friends with many fellow artists and writers. I was not part of any club on campus. I didn’t have an expansive mind and try to synthesize the wide variety of points of view. (Rather, there was my hippiesh, artsie, anti-American, pothead, beatnik wanna be, paranoid, self-centered outlook and anyone with different views, I may have looked down upon (with the odd exception of Christians whom I loved to debate with.) The bottom line is that I didn’t believe I could learn much of anything from others.)
I actually didn’t even believe in the existence of knowledge or facts.
I viewed the universe or consciousness (they were the same thing to me) as an arbitrary illusion, sailing the mystical seas of fate. I was not quite intentionally nihilistic, but as a result of my metaphysical assumptions, my thinking was nihilistic by default. By that I mean, I had very little sense of purpose or of goals or things I cared about, other than “to be one with the universe” and write poetry and wait to be famous for it, which fate would handle for me; no effort required on my part.
It was my second year away from my three best friends.
I didn’t immerse myself in any culture.
And…despite believing no one else had anything to teach me, I nonetheless thought I was inherently an incompetent person with a very low IQ and/or intellectual disability. Indeed, one of the worst experiences of marijuana induced paranoia was when I grew convinced that I was “slow” and that anyone who didn’t tell me, was lying to me, because they didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I thought I’d had an epiphany that I belonged somewhere for people whose brains just didn’t work as well as the average brain. I wondered if I had something that had any relation to Down’s Syndrome.
I couldn’t lose my virginity when I had the chance
The one incredible positive was that I had a romantic partner. On this, I won’t say much, because I must protect peoples’ privacy. I thought this person was attractive, intelligent, and kind. We seemed to get along well. I also was in disbelief that so lovely a young woman could ever want someone “like me.”
It was just “too good to be true.” What was the catch?
I was not “good enough” for a girlfriend.
So…the night I intended to lose my virginity: I was stoned out of my mind, pleasantly horny, yes, but paranoid as well. I was so stoned that I couldn’t rip open the condom wrapper. And just like that, I felt…stupid and incompetent. I was embarrassed and mad at myself.
But…no worries. I eventually got it open and had the condom on. I was “ready to go.” And just as I was about to penetrate, the erection diminished.
Okay. Chill out. No big deal. Let’s just kiss and stuff. Erection would come back.
We tried again. And away the erection would go. In the same manner. Just as we were about to have intercourse.
This went on for months.
And honestly, I had no idea why, and as I mentioned earlier, this both terrified and depressed me; for my body seemed so totally, not only to have a “mind of its own” but to be working against me, just like the rest of the universe.
I felt dissociation, depersonalization, exteriorized locus of control, useless, a burden onto society, and…one of the things I wanted most in life, sex…which I had craved for so many years, through adolescence, never having “the chance,” never being desired, and now, even when, in theory, I could finally have sex, I in practice, could not.
Not being able to sustain an erection, at least not when I wanted to, and having my body freeze up on me like this for so long, so consistently, had left a lasting emotional scar, so to speak, in my soul.
Repressing my sexuality sometimes messed with my erections
15 years later, I still experience spells of worry that my erection will retreat and my penis will say “no” to what the rest of me (it would seem, at least) is saying “yes” to. My penis tends to get shyest when opportunities for trying new sexual positions present themselves.
Interestingly, this hadn’t always been the case. When I finally did get over my nerves, I was suddenly as pliable, sexually, as I’ve ever been! Additionally, I began feeling more sense of autonomy. I moved to Miami for awhile. I lived in Tampa. I spent a few months in California. I wrote and self published a book. I vlogged…about sex, in fact, for a brief time, as sex had come (no pun intended) to be one of my greatest interests in life. I was comfortable writing and talking about it. feel pretty natural and organic for me.
And then…I descended into sexual repression! My comfort with my sexuality significantly diminished. I believe it was also at this point in time when I’d experience flash backs, sometimes anticipate a softening of my penis.
I grew more insecure with my appearance. (I have always felt insecure about my appearance, but for a period of time I managed to at least curb it and could experience bouts pretending that I was “sexy.”)
I started thinking of sex as a little perverted aspect of myself that I kept most secret and only indulged when alone—usually very late at night, drunk and depressed. And with that, I lost my sexual confidence, my sexual flow, my celebration of sex. In a certain sense, I came to identify more with impotent and less sexual Sean, I was obliterating that perverted sex-freak Sean.
It’s a long and complex story, but in the midst of that obliteration and makeover, I began to view myself as weeding out my character flaws. To make the long and complex story short for context, ultimately, I self published a book, it failed to sell, and I lost faith in myself as a writer. I was working as a cashier at a grocery store, making minimum wage. I felt oblivious to the world around me, and since I was a college drop-out, my awareness of my poor attitude towards education started growing more apparent. My life needed to change so that I would not be the impoverished, uneducated cashier who was a failed writer and lost in psychological illness.
I weeded out parts of myself that either were mistakenly viewed as flaws, or I so strongly associated them with the more flawed Sean that it gave me more sense of comfort to just weed those, as well, and my sexuality was in that collection of things.
(Other things I did or stopped doing: that I stopped growing a beard. I stopped letting my hair grow out long. I dressed more formally—suits, specifically, and at every opportunity!—as to feel like I was not that dumb, artsie, oblivious, immoral bum! I became more “patriotic” and almost nationalistic, romanticizing America as the ideal country and the principles of its foundation as so sacred, such that libertarian-Republican ideology most resonated with me. I looked down on anyone who didn’t worship logic. [Though I myself idealized logic more than I actually applied it]. I felt a sort of general hatred for “the culture.” I had little interest in TV (with the exception of The West Wing and Star Trek and conservative news and commentary). I thought “most people” were evil and too altruistic. I viewed myself as a tragic genius. I possessed a philosophical insight, and philosophy just came so naturally to me that I was “the next Aristotle” full of “wisdom.” And I had more wisdom than anyone else except for Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, and Nathanial Branden. I grew increasingly obsessed with getting rich. I wanted to be the next Rockefeller. Once, I felt so desperate to make a lot of money that I spent a significant portion of my savings [which wasn’t much because I worked as a cashier at a grocery store and because gift money I received was usually gone about the time it grazed my palm] on scratch-off lottery tickets, with the delusion that if I simply bought enough of them the odds were that one of them had to be a jackpot! [Alas! Alas!] And so much of this had to do with a need to drastically reimagine myself and who I could be.)
White middle class background heterosexual male privilege and guilt
There was another dimension to my revitalized sexual insecurities—and indeed, it was an issue that had resurface during this weeding out of flaws, sexual flaws included. Put most simply, I would describe it as a feeling if male guilt, and more specifically, white, middle-class background, heterosexual male guilt.
I felt haunted by the history of sexism, the sexism that persisted, “gender roles,” and the confusion surrounding monogamy and non-monogamy.
I had a dark view of men. Most of the guys I came of age around didn’t speak about girls respectfully. “I’d fuck that shit yo” was the sort of thing I recall hearing males tell each other. “I’d eat that pussy, yo” “I’d tap that.” Not to say millennial teenage boys were absolutely un-romantic. I didn’t have many friends, so I wasn’t privy to what guys said in closed quarters outside the clique where there was perhaps a desire to project a certain expectation to fit a certain stereotypical notion of what a guy is supposed to be.
So, it wasn’t just the crudeness of my father’s sexist sexuality that troubled me (see “Paulita Pappel, Lustery, Ersties, and my corrective emotional experience concerning sex and porn.” )
I felt uneasy about the male condition. I felt confused about lust and how one ought to express or ever share one’s lust. Despite all my failures and all the times I’ve hurt people, even in my most nihilistic stages, I always at least SOUGHT to be a gentleman. And yet, I viewed being “a gentleman” and being sexual as an either/or.
Even when I masturbated, after I orgasmed, I’d think I had done something that on some level was wrong. Part of that was just in response to the stigma around sex. You couldn’t show it on tv unless it was a movie channel. It was “inappropriate.” Why? Religion, especially conservative/fundamentalist variants of Christianity, certainly played a role. And I hadn’t known many people who masturbated and did so without guilt. But also, I always felt bad about sexualizing girls.
Females endured too much catcalling, sexual harassment, abuse, rape, et cetera. What if my expression of horniness and lust propagated the over-sexualization of women? What was the difference between unhealthy sex crazed and erotophilia?
I felt a desire to obliterate, to the best of my ability, the stereotypical male. AND the stereotypical female. More on the male briefly, but first on the female…
The socio-cultural message, so far as I could tell, was that guys wanted sex more than girls. Guys were hornier than girls. Guys enjoyed sex more than girls. I concocted a strange contradictory opinion on this. On the one hand, I believed that was completely possible. And it kind of depressed me. This meant that the women I was with wouldn’t be getting as much out of sex as I would.
Yet…there was a plentitude of depictions in art, entertainment, and media, of women as equally or sometimes more sexual than men.
Was this an honest reflection of men and women?
Part of me was paranoid that widely speaking a male controlled media was depicting women as increasingly liberal sexually because they wanted to brainwash women into becoming more comfortable as sex objects. I sometimes got so paranoid that even depictions of threesomes or non-monogamy were part of some sick scheme to destroy the convention of monogamy and in fact turn society utterly immoral and hedonistic.
Another part of me felt an intense craving to meet women who would help me see what a bunch of bullshit I was deluding myself with. I wanted to meet extremely sexual women who defied the idea of the female as less sexual than men.
I wanted to defy the idea of the male as less emotional and romantic than women. I felt this desire, in fact, with such intensity, that I sought to somehow envision a notion of “male beauty”—a phrasing not typically used in relation to men. Men are “handsome” and women are “beautiful” the social script had said, I thought.
“How could I be a beautiful man?”
How could I be a more emotional and less sexual man, in the name of doing something nice for women. It’s ridiculous, but I thought so many ridiculous things over the years.
Tying this back to my ED then: even if I wasn’t consciously or fully trying to evade intercourse as to prop of my ego and assuage my male guilt, I wouldn’t be surprised if unconsciously that disposition played a role, such that I could say to myself: “I’m such a good guy because I don’t have intercourse even when I can. I’m so much more than the cliché overly horny male pig. I’m ethical.”—et cetera.
Monogamy, non-monogamy, and speculations on human nature
Only one further major consideration remains for me to mention. I distrusted monogamy.
When exactly this occurred in my psyche, I have no clue. I always “told myself” that monogamy was a virtue. I fantasized about having a strong, deeply passionate, sweet, monogamous life-long marriage. But what I thought I “WANTED” did not align with my view of human nature.
On a totally physical and visceral level, for me, monogamy was a social construction based on religion.
If this was the case though, why did I feel so emotionally attached to monogamy and so scared of non-monogamy? Why did the mere thought of my lover with another person drive me crazy with jealousy?
It was not that simple, I thought.
The way I saw it, monogamy was how we SHOULD be, but I did not believe humans were capable of monogamy. My idea of the outlook of monogamous relationships was based on a prediction that a monogamous couple will for a time be monogamous and then take turns cheating and fucking up. Again, physically and viscerally, a lot of us experience wanting others, and wanting them bad. If humans have such an overwhelming appetite for sex, often desiring it all day, almost every day, how could they defy it for their entire lives?
So, I predicted that my partner and I would cheat on each other. This depressed me. This depressed me more than almost anything else did at the time. I felt jealous of every guy around us, because I believed she wanted to fuck them and that they wanted to fuck her and that the only thing stopping this sexual free-for-all was that she was nice and felt bad for me. And likewise, I couldn’t lie to myself. There were a lot of girls I wanted to fuck. Some very particularly and very badly. And so, I was a bad person.
To have intercourse, thus, might have made me more vulnerable than I already was.
Ultimately, I may never know which factors most directly contributed to the cause of my impotence and which are mere details of my psychology at the time which serve as correlation but not causation. Indeed, THAT WAS THE WORST PART ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE!
I could only speculate as to why my cock wasn’t working how I wanted it to work. Was I a homosexual? That was a weird thing to wonder. I didn’t feel gay or experience attraction to guys. But if my penis wasn’t cooperating with intercourse, could that be why? That just didn’t make sense though. Especially because I really wanted to fuck certain girls and I thought about them when I masturbated sometimes. Was I bisexual? I had no actual reason to believe this. I mean, that anxiety over intercourse had not equated an unadmitted attraction to males. Had that been the case, it would have made everything easier, actually. I didn’t grow up with a homophobic family. And in terms of identities I took on and how society was thought to judge those kinds of identities didn’t mean a thing to me other than make me feel all the more unique and individualistic. Lonely too, for being “different,” but I was used to that. I was for a time a full-blown hippie. I had the long beard, long hair, tie-dye shirts and jeans, patches on my clothes. I was an atheist. And…despite the guilt I felt about sex, I didn’t shy away from talking about my love for it.
One of my most interesting memories: it was “free speech day” at Florida Gulf Coast University. It was maybe September or October, I think. And there was an open mic at the on-campus bar, and we were all encouraged to step to the mic and say whatever we wanted to say. Shy as I may have been when it came to having intercourse, I wasn’t shy in the least about my love for sex! So I gave a sort of impromptu speech on my love of masturbation. I talked about how I did it often and that I thought it was a wonderful thing. I don’t remember the specifics. Maybe I mentioned that for my essay composition class I’d written an essay on masturbation (I did, and the professor was funny about it. He asked if there should be a plastic cover over the pages so that he didn’t have to touch anything sticky). I also don’t remember what the general reaction in the bar was, but one girl did approach me and say she loved masturbating too. And she asked if I’d like a ride back to the on-campus apartments and I forget what was ultimately said but I do remember us both speaking with pride in how much we enjoyed getting ourselves off.
My point is that I was sex crazed and sex crazed for women and it was a natural, un-sought after feeling. Inherent, it felt. The theory that I was secretly gay or bi just didn’t hold up. (No pun intended)
There was no explanation! To feel so completely alienated from my own self, mind and body, to feel so little control over it, it’s unsettling. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but something was wrong. And I’d go months in the dark with respect to my penis.
Let us speak our minds; it may help us feel less alone
The worst thing about the experience, ultimately, was that I didn’t know of any other guys my age who suffered from ED, and with the exception of my partner, and my parents (because I feared for my health) and a doctor and a psychologist (neither of them seemed to appreciate how worried and sad I was; the doctor wrote me a prescription for Viagra—even though by the time I’d visited the doctor, I lost my virginity, sometimes when I tried to masturbate I still couldn’t get an erection. Even when I took Viagra, I couldn’t get hard when I wanted to masturbate. As for the psychologist, it didn’t last more than two sessions. He said something about a cock ring and how that helped some men and this made me feel worse, like I needed “help” and couldn’t just think my way to normalcy.)
I read some articles online that spoke of “performance anxiety” and how it can become a “self fulfilling prophecy.” Recommendations ranged from a variety of different herbs and supplements one could take to working on self-esteem and “not thinking about it” (easier said than done). I quit drinking Diet Coke and gave up my vegetarianism, wondering if that would make any difference. (I have since returned to vegetarianism. In fact, now I’m a vegan).
Skip again roughly twelve years.
I think it was two years ago when I began seeing ads on Facebook for Roman. This was the first time I recall noting any discussion on a very mainstream platform about Erectile Dysfunction in young men. It was rather validating. It took away some of the shame and lingering memories that haunted me.
It’s my hope that this blog post/essay might reach someone who has experienced a sexual dysfunction and felt ashamed about it and alone, fearing that to say anything too publicly about it would just be too mortifying, and so, remained silent. And I hope this essay can contribute to the conversation on the emotional aspects of male sexuality and the physiological impact, and of female psychology and sexuality as well and that it can help someone feel more comfortable contributing to the conversation themselves.