How to Deal With Losing an Erection During Sex
For a lot of people, erections are the foundation of sex.
Especially if you think that sex necessarily involves a penis and a vagina, well, the penis isn’t much use for penetrating the vagina unless it’s erect. Which means, if the person who normally has the erection — or who’s supposed to have the erection — is experiencing erectile difficulties, good sex may seem like it’s completely impossible.
That’s a major reason that so many men and their partners see erectile dysfunction or erectile disorder as such a frightening issue. It’s why so much money was spent on developing drugs like Viagra and Cialis. It’s part of why adjectives like “soft” or “limp” or “impotent” can feel so insulting to guys.
But until it actually impacts you — and though ED is not uncommon for men in their 30s, it’s much less common for younger guys than it is for older ones — all this can feel like someone else’s problem. Why should you care about any of that? Younger guys often have the opposite problem — too many erections, rather than too few.
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And then, in the heat of the moment, one day, you might suddenly feel the problem becoming much more personal. Why isn’t it getting hard? What’s going on? And, of course, worrying about your erection vanishing on you is exactly the kind of non-sexy thinking that’ll help it go away.
Whether that moment’s ever happened to you or not, it’s worth understanding what’s happening when an erection vanishes mid-coitus. To help clarify the matter, AskMen spoke to a handful of people, including doctors and sexperts. Here’s what they had to say.
Why Do Men Lose Erections During Sex?
Firstly, men aren’t the only ones who lose erections during sex. Trans women and non-binary or genderqueer people who don’t identify as men can too. This article uses “men” in part because cis men make up a higher percentage of the population and thus people search for these terms and phrases more often.
So what’s happening when someone loses an erection, regardless of gender? In order to understand that, first it’s important to understand how erections function to begin with.
How Erections Work
When a penis gets hard, it’s because the heart is pumping blood into the penis’s spongy tissue, called the corpus cavernosum — but it’s not coming back out as quickly.
“During erection, the blood flow stops because of the veins compressing,” says Gigi Engle, ACS, SKYN sex expert, certified educator, and author of All the F*cking Mistakes: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life. “Keeping the blood in the penis makes the penis hard. This is a complex process that comes from signals in the brain sent to the tissues.”
When the brain receives a signal from something that you find arousing, Engle says, the peripheral nervous system is stimulated. This releases nitric oxide and cyclic guanosine monophosphate, or cGMP, which dilates your blood vessels and relaxes smooth muscles.
“All of this culminates together to cause erection,” Engle says. “The blood vessels are squashed and the blood doesn’t flow out. (This process is key in how Viagra works — a cGMP inhibitor).”
As you may have realized by now, while it may feel simple and natural, biologically, it’s a somewhat complex process, which means that, if something goes wrong, it could be a number of different things malfunctioning.
Physiological Reasons for Erection Loss
“If a man cannot achieve enough blood flow in the penis to maintain a threshold blood pressure to trap blood in the penis, then the blood that has filled the penis will begin to leak out through the penile veins,” says Judson Brandeis, M.D., urologist and author of The Twenty-First Century Man. “Losing an erection typically occurs because the blood vessels leading to the penis are partially clogged, and the heart cannot push enough blood flow into the penis to maintain the erection.”
Dr. Vipul Khanpara, MD, board-certified emergency medicine physician and chief medical officer for Rugiet Health, explains that that can be a factor if you suffer from “diabetes, high blood pressure, or prostate disease,” or if you’ve had “surgery, low testosterone levels, or prior COVID infection,” among others.
“ED is a very common problem that affects >50% of men between the ages of 40 and 70, but it is relatively common in younger males,” he says. “[One study] showed an ED prevalence of 8% among men aged between 20 and 29, and 11% among those aged 30 to 39.”
Psychological Reasons for Erection Loss
“The other reason a man might lose an erection is to shift from a parasympathetic to a sympathetic state,” Judson explains. “There is a parasympathetic mode where blood flow is diverted to relaxation activities like digestion, waste production and procreation. The other mode is the sympathetic mode, which is fight or flight, where blood flow is diverted to muscles, the heart, eyes and brain. If a man is anxious about performance or something else in his life that is causing stress, blood flow will be diverted away from the penis.”
In fact, while the physiological aspects may be more concerning, it’s psychological aspects that are the more likely culprit, according to Dr. Peter Stahl, SVP of Urology at Hims & Hers.
“The most common etiologies are actually psychological, as the physical causes of ED usually result in difficulty achieving an erection in the first place,” he says. “In fact, inability to sustain an erection is actually the hallmark of psychogenic ED.”
“Unfortunately, this becomes a difficult-to-control positive feedback loop,” Stahl explains. “Anxiety causes slight erection loss, which causes more anxiety, which in turn causes more erection loss.”
Chemical Reasons for Erection Loss
In addition to the physiological and psychological issues, Dr. Koushik Shaw, MD of the Austin Urology Institute notes that alcohol and drugs can play a part in erection issues, too.
“The excessive use of alcohol or recreational drugs, such as marijuana, can pose an obstacle for achieving an erection,” he explains. When someone “consumes too much alcohol, the depressant properties of the substance make it difficult for their penis to become erect. This is oftentimes referred to as ‘whiskey dick.’”
“On the other hand,” Shaw explains, “mild to moderate use of alcohol can serve to ease nerves and help with the stress and anxiety associated with the bedroom. Moderation is key.”
As well, Khanpara notes that side effects from medications you’re taking can also impact your erections. Antidepressants, in particular, are known to affect sexual function and desire, and, ironically, both “elevated blood pressure and the medications that are used to treat it,” according to Dr. Shaw, can cause ED issues.
Hormonal Reasons for Erection Loss
Another potential cause of erectile dysfunction may be a hormonal imbalance, Shaw says, for instance due to low testosterone.
“When a man’s testosterone, which is responsible for sex drive, is lowered,” he explains, “the obvious effect is less sexual desire and poorer performance in the bedroom.”
“Additionally, the topic of cardiovascular health is extremely important for proper erectile function,” Shaw adds. “Proper diet, sleep and exercise are all important factors for maintaining adequate testosterone levels and cardiovascular health.”
What to Do If You Lose an Erection
Feeling an erection slipping away from you can be a terrifying experience — whether it’s with a long-time partner or someone you’re just getting to know. No one wants to feel like a sub-par partner, and especially for straight men, there are very few cultural scripts about how to be good in bed that don’t involve having a massive, rock-hard erection. If you can sense that you’re losing any claim to that, it can be profoundly demoralizing and cause a lot of self-doubt and anxiety.
In the heat of the moment, Engle suggests using what she calls the “4-7-8 breathing technique.”
“This is a technique used by therapists to help calm the nervous system,” she says. “Breathe in for four seconds, hold the breath for seven seconds, and exhale for eight seconds.”
If something like that doesn’t work, Brandeis suggests you “laugh about it, relax and re-engage.”
“Criticizing yourself or your partner will only make it worse and more likely to occur again,” he explains. You could, for instance, explain that it’s not your partner’s fault, and offer to try oral sex, or just deep kissing, or non-penetrative techniques for a while, as these may help restore your arousal and thus your erection.
Still, that’s no guarantee that you’ll get hard again, especially if you can’t stop feeling self-conscious. Because of that, sometimes the best approach, according to Stahl, is to be prepared in advance.
“Preparation could be use of psychological techniques to limit anxiety, or could be use of ED medications to support erectile function and sexual confidence,” he said. Cock rings, as well, can help mitigate erection loss.
What to Do If Losing an Erection Happens Regularly
If the first time feels shocking as well as frustrating and embarrassing, well, successive instances may be more familiar, but are likely to feel even more annoying and may make you even more frustrated and embarrassed.
And, no surprise, that’s not exactly good for your sex life. Whether you’re single or partnered, as Stahl notes, if you don’t address the issue head-on, you might start to engage in what he calls “a pattern of anticipatory anxiety and avoidance of sexual activity.” In short, you might get so anxious and nervous around this stuff that you won’t be able to enjoy sex at all and might even stop trying to have it completely.
According to Brandeis, if losing your erection keeps happening and doesn’t appear to be a psychological issue, “it is essential to seek medical attention.”
That’s because, he says, “erectile dysfunction is an early warning sign of cardiovascular disease.”
“The flaccid penis sends us a message that we need to improve our lifestyle, including better eating, more exercise, smoking cessation and weight management,” according to Brandeis. “If you do not take this seriously, 5 or 10 years later, you are likely to experience a cardiovascular event. This is why it is important to see a physician rather than order pills from an online pharmacy.”
If it’s not a medical issue, however, it can be dealt with in a variety of ways, including seeing a sex therapist of some sort, as Engle points out. Still, you might be able to sort things out just between you and a partner, if you’re willing to think outside the box, she says.
“Performance anxiety usually centers around fears about sexual ability, the hardness of boners, or lasting long enough in bed,” Engle explains. “Masturbating before sexual play with a partner can help you get some of that ‘energy’ out. This may help you last longer and feel more grounded. If you know you’ve already climaxed, the pressure comes off. Plus, orgasms release oxytocin and dopamine, which help to calm anxiety naturally.”
You can also make this a romantic or sexy couples activity by engaging in mutual masturbation, she says.
Another option, according to Engle, is working on your Kegels. While you may associate Kegel exercises with women, everyone has Kegel muscles, and strengthening them can have a positive impact on your sex life regardless of your gender.
“The Kegels are the group of muscles that make up the pelvic floor,” Engle explains. “They surround the genitals and can aid in proper sexual function. A weak pelvic floor can cause erectile difficulties, because the PC muscles put pressure on the penile veins. The pressure prevents blood from leaving the area, making an erection possible. A lax pelvic floor can lead to issues with blood flow.”
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To help work them out, all you have to do is squeeze them, she says: “Try squeezing and lifting up, like you’re stopping the flow of urine (but don’t actually stop your flow of urine while taking a wee) and pulling the muscles up into your belly button. Hold for five to 10 seconds and then release. Repeat this three to five times daily. You can work your way up to holding for 30 seconds, as your muscles get stronger. This regime should be repeated every single day.”
What If It’s Your Partner?
If your partner loses their erection during sex, whether just once or twice or a regular occurence, you’re probably not exactly thrilled about it. It could feel like it’s your fault, like it’s a sign that you’re not attractive enough or doing the wrong things in bed; it could feel like it’s casting a pall over your relationship entirely.
The important thing to remember, according to Engle, is that this is almost certainly more difficult for your partner.
“Be empathetic,” she advises. “This is not a reflection of you as a sexual partner. Erections are as fickle as any other sexual function. They come and go with the drop of a hat — and context, mood, inner dialogue, anxiety all play a role. Try to be kind and respectful. Shame is not the game.”
Similarly, you shouldn’t feel ashamed to talk about the issue either. Without criticizing or trying to shame your partner, opening up about how you feel can help break the tension, according to Khanpara.
“If you are the partner of a person who is experiencing this issue, it is very important that you openly communicate your thoughts and feelings with your partner and encourage them to do the same,” he says. “ED is a very common problem affecting many relationships, and open and honest dialogue is key in identifying the problem and finding a solution that works.
So how do you address the issue together? If your partner’s struggling with erections, regardless of whether it’s a physiological or psychological issue, a good idea to keep sex fun while trying to resolve the issue, Engle says, is, paradoxically, to “let go” of erections.
“This may sound a bit counterintuitive, but achieving more reliable erections means removing erections for a hot minute,” Engle says. “When we put a ton of pressure on ourselves to maintain erections (or not ejaculate too quickly), we wind up upping our performance anxiety. Taking erections off the table for a week or two is a great way to remove that pressure, and therefore, have better sexual experiences.”
To make it work, she suggests having “an evening where you explore each other’s bodies, without bringing the penis into it.”
In essence, consider having non-penetrative sexual acts, or ones where the (typically) penetrating partner takes a break. Engage in oral, in manual stimulation, in sensual massage, in pegging or anilingus, maybe even in mutual masturbation. Anything that takes the pressure off your partner to please you with their erection specifically.
With the pressure alleviated, the space for that rock-hard erection to come back may open right up, and even if it doesn’t occur, you can have a lot of fun trying out alternative modes of pleasuring each other.
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