8/18/11 update: I'm bringing this older post to the top because it answers so many of the questions about erectile dysfunction that my readers are asking. Michael Castleman is also one of the experts in Naked at Our Age and I respect his knowledge and ability to convey important information simply and compassionately.
So many readers--both male and female--have been asking for information about erectile dysfunction that I asked Michael Castleman, a sex educator, counselor and journalist specializing in men's sexuality to answer some questions. His interview starts here and continues here.
Q: Explain erectile dysfunction (ED) and why it happens.
MC: Only a small fraction of men from age 45-60 have true ED. A larger but still modest fraction of men over 60 have true ED. True ED is the inability to raise an erection despite vigorous extended hand massage of the penis. True ED is usually the result of a medical problem, either a problem with the nerves that control erection, or more likely, narrowing of the arteries that carry blood into the penis. Like the arteries of the heart, the arteries into the penis can become narrowed by atherosclerotic plaques. Causes of plaque formation: heart disease, diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high-fat diet, sedentary lifestyle. In other words, all risk factors for heart disease are also risk factors for ED. In addition, ED can be caused or aggravated by stress and anxiety, which constrict the arteries and limit blood flow into the penis.
Q: What about men who are capable of erections, but they're less reliable than they used to be and require more stimulation?
MC: While only a fraction of men over 45 experience true ED, just about every man experiences what sex therapists call "erection dissatisfaction" (EDis). After 45 or 50 or so, men with EDis can still raises erections, but they don't rise as quickly as they used to. They no longer rise from fantasy alone--seeing an attractive woman or some erotic scene. Men begin to need direct penis stimulation by hand or mouth. When erections rise, they may not look/feel as firm as they were in the man's 20s. They may also droop from minor distractions, anything from donning a condom to hearing a motorcycle roar up the street.
The good news is that EDis is a normal and natural part of aging. If older erections wilt a bit, hand massage and/or oral stimulation bring them back up again--IF the man remains relaxed and patient with himself. If the man gets stressed and anxious, this reduces the likelihood of a return to fullish erection.
Many (most?) older men are unclear on the distinction between true ED and EDis. Many mistakenly think they have ED when they experience the normal age-related erection changes of EDis. Now EDis can be disconcerting. I've been a sex educator for 30 years. I knew all about what happens to erections after 50. But when those changes started happening to ME, I found them unnerving. P.S. Erection medication (Viagra etc) helps treat EDis. In fact, most men who take erection drugs don't have true ED. They have EDis.
Q: Many men fear that they can't please a woman without an erection, or they give up on sex altogether. Is an erection necessary for sex?
MC: Of course not. As you know, women's pleasure organ is the clitoris. Many women prefer cunnilingus to intercourse. Surveys show that only 25% of women are reliably orgasmic from intercourse, no matter how vigorous or how long it lasts. So women know that an erection and vaginal insertion are not necessary or sufficient for sexual pleasure and orgasm. But many men DON'T know this.
Q: How did men's sexual education skip that important concept that women's orgasms are based on clitoral stimulation, and that most women don't need penis-in-vagina penetration for their pleasure?
Most men get most of their sex ed from pornography. Porn is totally penis-centered. Porn actors have monster cocks, which makes normally endowed men feel they're "too small." Mainstream porn includes a bit of massage and cunnilingus, but it's mostly about sucking and fucking, so that's what men come to believe sex is all about.
I've spent my life as a sex educator and counselor trying to persuade men that they'll have better sex and get better reviews from women if they ditch their preoccupation with their penis and focus instead on leisurely, playful, whole-body, massage-based sensuality. But compared with porn, which is viewed overwhelmingly by men and is by far men's #1 source of sex ed, the combined voices of every sex expert on earth amount to a little whisper in the hurricane of porn porn porn.
Here's where I plug my book, Great Sex. Its message to men: If you want great sex, if you want women to sing your praises as a lover, stop trying to imitate porn. In fact, do the opposite of what you see in porn. Not only will she be happier, you will be, too. You'll enjoy sex more and have fewer sex problems--more cooperative erection and better ejaculatory control.