Gray-haired men soaking in Jacuzzis overlooking canyons, thumbing through the morning newspaper in their thick reading glasses, cuddling their wives on gently swaying hammocks while drinking sensible glasses of cabernet...the classic erectile-dysfunction commercials of the past 20 years were pretty clear about who they wanted to reach. Ever since, those iconic images have defined who we as a society assume are in need of penis pills: men of retirement age.
But recently, slick, millennial-chic ads started popping up on social media from new men’s brands like Roman and Hims. Even though the (young) founders of these companies say they aren’t trying to market ED meds to your Tinder dates or male partners, clearly they are looping 20- and 30something guys into the deflated-D narrative for the first time ever.
This can mean only one thing: There are a lot more millennial men experiencing erectile dysfunction than we all thought. So Cosmopolitan went there, asking more than 500 men and women between the ages of 18 and 38 about #PenisProblems—and the results proved us right.
For starters, while past studies have estimated that ED affects somewhere between 1 and 10 percent of men under 40, our survey revealed that 80 percent of guys who responded have had an issue getting it up at least once. Here, we get to the bottom of what’s killing their boners and help you handle the moment if and (more likely) when it happens to you.
It’s All in His Head (the One on His Neck, We Mean)
Something James, 26, knows for sure about his penis is that it won’t get hard when he’s sleeping with a woman for the first time. No, it has nothing to do with how attracted he is to her. It’s just a classic case of performance anxiety, caused by his personal fears about how awkward and uncomfortable the experience could be—which, of course, turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Meanwhile, for Michael*, 26, it’s not so much performance anxiety that’s the issue but rather a belief he was raised with: Sex should be reserved for two people in love. He’s since moved on from that idea, but his penis has not, so it goes soft anytime he’s hooking up with someone he doesn’t have strong feelings for.
Both James and Michael fit the profile of millennial ED: healthy men with functional penises who experience occasional deflation for psychological reasons rather than mechanical issues (the latter of which typically plagues older men). Researchers and the medical community are aware of this specific problem facing younger men, says Landon Trost, MD, a urologist at the Mayo Clinic.
“Studies looking at men under 40 with ED have found certain psychiatric conditions, like depression and anxiety, at a higher rate than other groups,” Trost says. And as he explains it, anxiety and depression—two things millennials experience at uniquely high rates—can make it more difficult for a man’s brain to respond to arousing stimuli, which can cause a low sex drive or issues getting an erection.
When these mental hang-ups happen in the moment (aka in bed), they can trigger his brain’s fight-or-flight response, which sends a message to his penis to shut things down. In this way, performance anxiety–induced ED is actually pretty similar to what women experience when our thoughts during sex make it hard to stay turned on and/or orgasm—we just don’t have an appendage that shows the evidence.
If your dude deflates around an important emotional milestone, like when you’re sleeping together for the first time (in Cosmo’s survey, more than half the men who’ve had ED issues say they’ve experienced it when getting with someone new), know that he’s probably just psyching himself out.
Another clue it’s psychological: He starts going soft around the same time your commitment level has shifted. In fact, sudden ED happens so often among newlyweds—there’s the pressure of becoming a married man plus, hi, the expectation of amazing wedding-night sex, says Dr. Trost—it even has a name: honeymoon syndrome. And a study published in the journal Translational Andrology and Urology found that once a guy’s sexual confidence takes a hit, he can get anxious about it happening again, and all that pressure creates a vicious cycle of erection fixation.
Fact: It’s Really Not You, and It Really Is Him
It’s important not to take a bout of psychological ED personally. Still, when confronting a suddenly soft penis in the moment, “It’s not you” can be hard to believe. For instance, Erin, 22, tried—really tried—to make sex with Drew* happen. The first time his erection died right before they were about to have sex, she improvised and gave him “really long” oral instead. But the lack of a boner was confusing. “That had never happened to me with a sexual partner, so I was like, ‘Okay, he’s just not into me,’” Erin recalls.
When it happened a second time, she brought it up to some friends, who reassured her they’ve been there too. And according to our survey, more than 75 percent of women have had a male partner struggle with ED at least once—which is shockingly high. The most common word these women used to describe how ED makes them feel is “embarrassed.” “It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m obviously doing something wrong if I can’t even keep him aroused long enough for us to have sex,’” says Leigh*, 24, whose casual hookup Chris* started losing his erections a few months into their situationship.
And in a cruel twist, men are then internalizing these bad vibes. As James says, his partner incorrectly assuming his occasional ED is her fault is what stresses him out the most. “That’s a huge part of the mental aspect of it,” he says. “I feel guilty. I don’t want her to be offended.”
In Leigh’s case, Chris started making self-deprecating remarks like “If only my dick worked” and told her he’d understand if she didn’t want to see him anymore. His low self-esteem about his ED became a bigger issue than the problem itself.
As for Erin and Drew, his mood changed dramatically after he couldn’t stay hard the second time they tried to have sex. “He started talking about the other girls he had been sleeping with and how this doesn’t happen all the time, and he was very defensive about it,” Erin recalls. “I was just like, ‘I’m going home. You’re being a dick.’”
In these instances, talking to your friends or a therapist can help remind you that you’re not alone in experiencing this, and more important, ED—and a man’s reaction to it—is not your fault.
HOW YOU BOTH FEEL WHEN IT HAPPENS
“I felt like I was doing something wrong, as if it were my fault. But I was just too nervous.”
“Like less of a ‘man.’ I’ve lost relationships, confidence, opportunities. Too embarrassed to seek a doctor because I’m young. Even though I’ve heard a lot of men experience it…you don’t wanna be that guy.”
“Embarrassed, emasculated, disappointed.”
“Stressed out and afraid my wife thinks it’s because she isn’t attractive to me.”
“I’m aware it’s not my fault, but I still can’t help feeling like I’m not good enough.”
“As his partner, it makes me feels insecure, as though I’m not thoroughly satisfying him, despite the fact that he’s told me it’s nothing I’ve done or not done.”
“It only happens when he drinks. I don’t get bothered by it, but he does. I reassure him that I don’t think less of him for it.”
“Awkward and uncomfortable. I don’t know what to say or do.”
Move Onward and…Upward
Confusing, frustrating, emotional...ED knows how to kill the mood for everyone involved. But when it happens to you, Dr. Trost suggests staying calm and trying your best to avoid asking your guy if you’re the reason he’s lost stamina.
Instead, bench any P-in-V action for a beat and lower the stakes by telling him you want to fool around—not as a precursor to penetrative sex but just for the fun of it, suggests Natalie Finegood Goldberg, a sex therapist in Los Angeles who specializes in erectile dysfunction therapy. If this is a hookup situation, make it clear to him that you don’t expect or need him to have an erect penis for the two of you to have a good time, Goldberg says. You can always have oral sex, make out, or do some manual stimulation—because the worst thing you can do is freeze him out.
If ED happens to a boyfriend or husband, ask (outside the bedroom) if he’s ever seen a doctor about it. Only 15 percent of men have, according to our survey—but a doc visit might be the simplest solution. For instance, if your guy’s ED seems like a psychological issue, his doctor may refer him to a therapist who can help him work through whatever’s getting him down. Or he may be given a temporary prescription for sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, which is safe and effective when used correctly.
Then, to rewind and reset the mood once you’re between the sheets, Goldberg suggests setting aside time for strictly fooling around. Try “sensate focus,” a sex-therapist favorite in which you and your partner majorly slow down your foreplay, focusing heavily on the sensations that feel best to both of you. “This helps make being physically intimate more of a relaxing, sensual, and erotic experience,” Goldberg says. And it helps his body disassociate sex from the stressful experience of losing his hard-on, which can help put a stop to his erection fixation and prime him for full-on intercourse again.
In the long term, the best thing you can do for ED problems is “stay playful and keep the focus off getting your partner erect,” says Goldberg. Experiment with new erotic scenarios and situations, like having sex in a different room, wearing lingerie, or role-playing your fave fantasy. Oh, and don’t limit yourselves to just intercourse either (which applies to all couples, whether or not you’re dealing with ED). “The broader your definition of sex,” Goldberg says, “the more sex you can be having.”
*Names have been changed.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.