Thanks to commercials run by drug companies, the first thing we guys think of when we lose an erection is “ask your doctor about viagra”. Although true erectile dysfunction (ED) affects around 5% of men age 40, and 15-25% of men age 65, according to the National Institutes of Health, don’t jump to the conclusion that you have ED just because you lose your erection during sex now and then, especially if you’re under 40 and healthy.
Erections can disappear for many different reasons not having to do with the kind of true chronic erectile dysfunction that merits the use of a little blue pill. Although ED shouldn’t be ruled out completely, if you’re on the younger side of life—age 18 to 40, and have a healthy weight and lifestyle, consider some of the following scenarios and solutions first.
Was it your first time having sex?
Maybe you were just nervous and overly excited.
We often place a lot of anticipation and pressure on the event of losing our virginity. Relax.
On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum from late-life ED, this scenario was ripped directly from countless forum postings—young guys embarrassed and in complete disbelief that their glorious erections evaporated at the very sexual milestone they had been anticipating feverishly and fantasizing about for years—losing their virginity. It had been on your mind since the day puberty hit, and whenever it was on your mind, you were probably hard. How could it possibly go away when you were finally about to make it happen?
Well, go back and reread the previous paragraph. That’s a lot of pressure and anticipation placed on that moment, isn’t it? And you probably jumped through a few hoops of some sort to get yourself into that coveted situation in the first place. Perhaps you’re one of those who has waited until his wedding night to have sex. That sense of pressure and anticipation goes double for that situation. There’s a voice in your subconscious telling you not to mess this up. What could go wrong?
Consider also that up to this point, sexual expression for you had been mostly a solo activity engaged in in private. Until now, you’ve only focused on the sheer joy and pleasure you were certain awaited you when you finally had sex, but you might never have anticipated how different it would feel to actually be sexual in front of another person. Suddenly, you find yourself self-conscious about things that you never felt inhibited about alone in your own bedroom, including just having your erection right there for someone else to see. Whether it feels silly and absurd, or exhilarating and liberating, it definitely feels new, and your brain can easily get distracted by those new secondary sensations.
What to do about it:
Relax. This probably doesn’t indicate a problem, it was a minor mishap. Give yourself a pass. The worst thing you could do is beat yourself up over it or worry that it will happen again. Losing your erection the first time you have sex isn’t really that unusual, and it shouldn’t be surprising considering all that we talked about above. All it takes is a quick look at the men’s health questions on countless forums such as answers.yahoo.com and Reddit to understand how common it is. And really, the first time you do anything isn’t going to go perfectly, and sex is no exception. Practice improves comfort level. It’ll be fine. If by the tenth time you try having sex you still can’t keep it up. Consider some other possibilities.
Was it your first time having sex with someone new?
Newness is exciting, but it can be distracting also.
Not unlike what occurs for some guys the first time they have sex, there’s an element of performance anxiety that can occur with a new partner. That’s part of the excitement of a new partner. In many cases, the excitement often results in somewhat the opposite—premature ejaculation, but it’s also quite possible for your mind to get distracted by the newness itself and thus you lose control in one way or another. Your brain, after all, is processing a lot of stuff all at once.
And then there’s an element of performance anxiety. You want to make a good impression with this new person so they’ll want to do this with you again and again.
What to do about it:
Like losing your erection when losing your virginity, this isn’t so much a problem as it is a slight mishap. The advice is the same—relax, and try again another time.
Were you having sex with a stranger?
It might have been your brain saying, “abort the mission! Repeat, abort!”
This is a little different than just having sex with someone new that you’ve been dating—this is sex with someone that you just met or haven’t even taken the time to meet. Sometimes opportunities get the best of us and we go past a comfort zone we didn’t even know we had. Have you ever realized halfway into your fourth beer that you should have stopped after the second? Did you put your beer down immediately and switch to water, or did you keep going?
Maybe your brain pulled the plug on your erection because somewhere in the back of your mind a voice said, “wait, this hookup is a bad idea for so many reasons. Abort! Abort!” This is one of those times where you might want to read a little more into the loss of an erection. It may not be ED, but it may also not be something that you want to just blow off either.
What to do about it:
Reevaluate whether or not you are truly comfortable having sex with strangers and maybe even why it is that you are having sex with strangers. Some people are comfortable with the idea of it, but once in the situation, they aren’t as comfortable as they thought they would be. The loss of your erection might have been your brain weighing in on the matter—putting your penis in its place as far as decision making is concerned. Also, consider an STD test if you don’t know the health status of the person you hooked up with.
Had you consumed alcohol?
Booze reduces blood flow to the penis. No blood flow=bad erections.
Although a drink or two may boost your confidence in bed, the negative effect of even a small amount of alcohol can have on erections is well-documented. Alcohol is a depressant and reduces blood flow to your penis. As you should know by now, blood flow is what powers erections. Without excellent blood flow, your erections don’t stand a chance. Additionally, alcohol reduces the intensity of sensation, excitement, and orgasms.
What to do about it:
There’s no way around it—you have to choose between booze and great sex. Cut back on the booze in general, and if you think you’re going to have an opportunity for sex, abstain from alcohol completely. Wait until after sex to have that beer or glass of wine.
Are you losing your erection specifically when you use a condom?
Yeah, yeah…we know, but there are solutions. Don’t ditch the condoms.
The necessity and benefits of condom usage in certain circumstances are pretty well-known. It’s Sex Ed 101. However, it is also well-documented and noted that many guys (and women) are turned off by them because of the perception that the same barrier that protects them from disease or accidental pregnancy will also impair the very pleasurable sensations that are the whole point of sex. That perception is subjective, of course. There are plenty of surprise babies crawling around out there in the world as living proof that guys don’t always perceive a difference in sensation when a condom breaks.
That having been said, putting on a condom does introduce a medical/industrial object into an essential and delicate human situation, and it shouldn’t be completely surprising if doing so takes us out of the moment and can sometimes put the kibosh on a perfectly good erection. Once again here, we probably aren’t dealing with actual ED, but an annoying mishap. But, condoms are a necessity much of the time, so…
What to do about it:
- Masturbate with a condom. It may seem silly or too simple to work, but occasionally incorporating a condom into the way you masturbate can do two things. First, it gives you lots of practice and familiarity with the process of putting it on quickly, correctly, and smoothly. With plenty of solo practice time, you’ll be able to just slip it on quickly and accurately during sex so that it’s not a disruption. Practice makes perfect. The second thing that masturbating with a condom can do is cause you to begin to associate condoms with pleasure rather than perceiving them as a barrier to pleasure. When lubricated correctly both internally and externally, a condom can actually enhance the experience of masturbating. Many guys will sometimes masturbate with a condom just for this reason alone. You could also consider having your partner give you hand jobs while you wear a condom in order to further reinforce both your comfort levels with the condoms, as well as to build an association of pleasure with condoms.
- Make putting on the condom part of foreplay. Make putting on the condom your partner’s job. Spend some time showing him or her how to do it correctly, of course, and it can be part of teasing. After all, being touched by someone else feels better than touching yourself, so having a condom put on you can actually feel very exciting if done right.
- Choose condoms designed to enhance YOUR pleasure and lube the inside correctly. Yes, many condoms are ribbed for her pleasure, but if you are losing your erection due to a lack of sensation, nobody is going to enjoy any pleasure. There are condoms that are designed to actually enhance sensations for the guy wearing the condom. The Inspiral and Pleasure Plus both incorporate extra textured material that fits around the head and frenulum of the penis. Rather than trying to feel sensations through the condom during sex, the material of the condom moves with your partner’s body and glides back and forth over the head and frenulum of your penis—and it works quite well. It feels much more natural than regular condoms. Just be sure to add a bit of lubrication to the inside of the condom before putting it on. Also, the Pleasure Plus needs to be positioned correctly so that the pouch fits on the underside of the penis where the frenulum is for best results.
(Update: There is additional advice on condom situations down in the comments.)
Are you losing your erection or failing to reach an orgasm because you aren’t feeling much sensation during sex?
Do you need to release your “death grip”?
If this is happening with a regular partner and none of the other scenarios apply (including condom use), another possibility to consider is something that is commonly known as masturbation death grip syndrome, or just “death grip”. That’s the slang term. Clinically it is known as retarded ejaculation (a very unfortunate name) or delayed ejaculation. It’s a condition in which a guy becomes dependent on a style or method of masturbation that is unnaturally vigorous and dissimilar to the sensation of sexual intercourse such that he has difficulty achieving an orgasm during sexual intercourse. In short, you have trouble feeling the level of sensation that you need during sex in order to reach an orgasm, but you have no problem hitting your orgasm with your own hand. The term “death grip” comes from the (often correct) assumption that it is the result of gripping the penis too tightly and “jerking off”.
Although many guys who are suffering from the “death grip” or delayed ejaculation don’t actually experience the loss of an erection during sex, some guys perceive so little stimulation during intercourse that they don’t feel enough stimulation to keep the erection.
What makes this different from actual erectile dysfunction is that in the case of ED, an erection is difficult to achieve in the first place. With death grip, achieving an erection is not problem, but it goes away once sex commences.
What to do about it:
If you can rule out a few more common causes of temporary loss of erections, it may be time to take a look at the way you masturbate, especially if you have gone a long time without a partner (or are new to partnered sex) and have spent far more time masturbating than having sex—which is common for most guys, actually—masturbating for at least 4-6 years, if not longer, before becoming sexually active. And then there may be times where the need for more frequent masturbation resurfaces, such as long periods without or away from a partner, or during pregnancies and other life changes that make regular sex a challenge.
In Bed Magazine maintains a special mini-site (curedeathgrip.com) dedicated to trying to get over masturbation death grip syndrome. If you think you may be dealing with “death grip”, check it out.
Did you lose an erection during sex once, and now you’re so worried that it will happen again, it’s all you can think about during sex and the distraction makes you lose it again?
It’s a vicious cycle.
Whether you know why you lost your erection last time or if it’s a total mystery, one thing is for sure—losing it once during sex can make you paranoid that it will happen again. Then, it become a vicious repeating cycle. Maybe you think you feel just a little less firmness for just a second, and that’s just enough to send your brain into panic mode. “Please don’t go down,” you think. You so badly don’t want to lose your erection at that moment. You don’t want to disappoint your partner and you want the full sexual release. At that moment, nothing could be worse than to lose your erection. Unfortunately, stress and worry kill erections…so it happens again.
This may be one of the most common non-ED reasons for erections to begin to chronically disappear during sex.
What to do about it:
Well yeah, it’s easier said than done.
This is one where you may need your partner’s participation. Talk to your partner and let her (or him) know what is going through your head and what your fears are. Ideally, what you need to hear from your partner is that the two of you will have a good time no matter what—that losing an erection doesn’t ruin things for them or the two of you. And you can ask for that reassurance. Before you start having sex, simply tell them, “I’m nervous because I lost my erection last time and now I have trouble not thinking about it when we have sex. It would help me out to know that we’ll have a good time no matter what.”
It could also help you greatly to experience success again. But how do you do that if you are losing your erection during sex? Again, this calls for involving your partner and getting her/his permission and participation. If you are able to sustain an erection during masturbation or during a hand job (which is a good indication that your vanishing erections are due to stress, anxiety, or some other non-ED factor), what you can do is either masturbate yourself or have your partner masturbate you right up until you are just about to have an orgasm. When you have almost reached the point of no return, resume sexual intercourse just in time to experience your orgasm inside your partner. This will help engineer a successful experience and might boost your confidence—as if to prove to yourself that yes, yes you can achieve and orgasm in your partner.
The next time you have sex, rather than focusing on the memory of the last time that you failed at having sex, your last memory will be of how good it felt, both physically and mentally, to succeed.
Were you tired from lack of sleep, stress, or from exercising?
Never, ever underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep.
If none of the above applies, one final set of factors to consider before going to a doctor, especially if you are young and healthy, is the possibility of exhaustion. Not getting enough sleep, stress from school or work, or even working out too much or too hard can make you just exhausted enough to have trouble keeping an erection. You may not feel absolutely exhausted, but there just might not be the energy reserves available to keep it up during sex.
What to do about it:
This is probably a temporary condition that can be tested easily. If you’re behind on sleep or have been working out quite a bit, get more sleep and take a break from the exercise for a while. Give yourself about a week to recover and rest, then see if you notice any change in your ability to keep it up during sex.
Don’t get sucked into a repeating cycle of being afraid of failure
Keep in mind that erections can float away for all sorts of reasons and that if it happens to you now and then, chances overwhelmingly favor that it’s not the sign of any sort of problem. If an erection goes away, it’s not the end of the world. You might be tired and maybe you aren’t going to get off through sexual intercourse right now, but it’s not the end of the world and it doesn’t mean sex has to stop right then and there. There are still many, many ways to pleasure your partner—hands, fingers, tongue, toys—and perhaps you can still get off another way yourself. Perhaps changing positions will change your mindset and your blood flow. Go into sex with the goal of having fun together and getting off, and don’t worry about how it happens.
But if you continue to be worried…
Don’t be bashful about going to the doctor
Sex is too wonderful and too important to let the fear of a conversation with a doctor get in the way of enjoying it. Your doctor will likely ask about some of the same things that have been considered in this article. Be prepared to talk about your sexual history, stress, exercise, and family health history, as well as go through a standard physical to test your blood pressure etc. It’s also important to make sure that weak erections aren’t an indication of more serious health conditions. So yes, go to your doctor.