Glorious to experience and behold, a good, solid erection for a lot of men forms the basis of their sense of power and manhood. But what happens when our bodies don’t respond in the way that we want or expect them to?
I recently facilitated a workshop on this exact topic to explore the meanings we attribute to our erections, the identities we construct and the bodily messages we intend to communicate.
Unsurprisingly, most men associate their ability to have an erection with their ability to perform “well”. The pressure to perform and meet certain expectations, induces anxiety, which in turn makes it even more difficult to be erect. And so, a vicious cycle is created.
For men that view sex as a performance, their imagined solution (which always seems out of reach), involves figuring out:
- who (therapist, coach, hypnotherapist…); or
- how (exercises, visualisations, self-help books…); or
- what (Viagra, Cialis…)
will help them perform as they want to perform – not realising or wanting to explore how sex could be something other than a performance.
This reluctance to experience sex and pleasure differently is often deeply attached to a specific construct of what it means to be a man.
How we identify as men is informed and shaped throughout our lives, and how we believe men (should) perform sexually is often constructed through observing what other men do (porn) and what other men say they do (macho talk).
It takes a lot of courage and hard work to deconstruct identities of manhood that are hoisted upon us by our families and society and build our own identities and meaning structures that resonate more closely to how we feel.
What often seems to lie at the root of the inability to be erect is a feeling of being a disappointment. Disappointing others (ie. not meeting their expectations) is something that we all have to learn to tolerate in life. It is inevitable that we will disappoint others sometimes.
However, for some men, their childhood felt sense of somehow being a disappointment to their parents (‘not good enough’, ‘not man enough’, etc) is so painful, that a lot of their adult lives are spent in repeating and replaying this feeling in their sexual lives, as a substitute for working through earlier painful experiences.
A different way forward
Focusing on the function of the penis, rather than focusing on pleasure and the actual sexual encounter with a partner, reveals something structural about being in the world.
I, myself, may be falling into the trap of ‘performing’ in even suggesting a way forward, but I wonder whether a dissatisfaction with how one’s penis functions could in fact be a wake-up call to explore a different way of being in our bodies, a different type of relating to others, and a new approach of opening up to pleasure.
Phoebus Ebbini is a psychotherapist. He facilitates fortnightly workshops for gay/bi men in East London on the topics of sex and sexuality. To attend or to find out more about his workshops, please visit www.openconnection.org.uk