Sex, pornography and failed erections – do you have a problem?

image for blog on sex and pronography

By Emma Mathews

Sexual problems can be difficult to talk about, but more so for men, fewer men seek professional help for sexual problems than women and are much less likely to talk to their friends about sexual problems. So, the problems continue, often with the associated emotions of anxiety, embarrassment, shame, and helplessness. Men will often delay accessing professional help until the problem has escalated to the point that it is having a significant impact on their mental health and relationships.

Since the dawn of fast internet connections, and online pornography, there has been a significant growth in men, and adolescents developing sexual problems, usually presenting as not being able to get and keep an erection or not being able to reach climax, during sex with a partner. Of course, in recent years with the advent of online and over the counter medications, such as Viagra Connect, men will self-medicate, and some (certainly not all) may be able to obtain a ‘medication induced’ erection, but reaching climax is another matter. In both my NHS and private psychosexual clinics men of all ages are presenting with these difficulties and when I ask about their lifestyle and sexual problems, clients are increasingly reporting frequent and sometimes addictive or compulsive behaviour relating to watching and masturbating to pornography.

So why does pornography cause a problem to sexual function?

Many of the men I see at my clinics have started to watch porn during their early adolescence, in some cases from the age of 9-10 years old. It’s common these days for children and adolescents to have access to their own devices, smart phones, laptops etc. Therefore, there is very easy access to porn. Whereas in ‘the olden days’ pornography was generally only accessible in newsagents, in the form of magazines, on the top shelf, and rapidly shoved into a brown paper bag on purchase. When I ask men, generally age 40 and over about their first experience of porn, it always amazes me how many happened to find a stash of porn magazines in a random hedge somewhere!

A 2016 study of 1492 adolescents in their final year of high school found that 77.9% of internet users said they watched pornographic material. 59% of boys accessing these sites believed their consumption of pornography was stimulating, 21.9% said their behaviour was habitual and 10% reported that it reduced levels of sexual interest towards potential real-life partners. 19% of overall pornography users reported an abnormal sexual response in real-life situations, which increased to 25.1% among regular users.

Images that people are exposed to when watching porn are very different to real life situations and first sexual experiences are frequently online, masturbating to porn. When they get to the stage of having an ‘in person’ sexual experience, they find that there is not enough visual stimulation to keep the erection. Also, when men masturbate to porn frequently, it’s often done with a speed and grip that can’t be replicated by a vagina, anus, partners hand or mouth. So, the actual physical stimulation is very different too, and is not physically stimulating enough to keep an erection. Often when this has happened on one or two occasions, they can then go on to develop ‘performance anxiety’ which is when men feel so anxious about their sexual performance ‘failing’ that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

What is performance anxiety?

When someone starts to get anxious about their sexual performance as soon as they’re in a situation with a sexual partner they start to over-think and worry that their erection is going to fail. At this point part of the brain that is responsible for alerting us to take action because there is a threat (the amygdala) sends a message to the adrenal gland, causing adrenaline to be released into the body, we then go into a fight or flight response. When our bodies go into this fight or flight response the body diverts blood to parts of the body that are going to help us to either run away from the threat or fight the threat, those being the muscles in the thighs (to help us run) or arms and shoulders (to help us fight). Now the body only has so much blood in it, and at times when we feel threatened blood is diverted away from areas of the body where it’s not essential at that time, for example the digestive system (which is why when we are anxious, we can get a dry mouth and nausea and butterflies in our stomach) and guess what… the blood is also diverted away from our sexual organs, this causes loss of erection.

 

Men can develop performance anxiety about sex without having an addiction to porn or compulsion to masturbate to porn, however, porn is often a factor that can start the process, then men have the double problem of the addictive behaviour and the performance anxiety that has followed.

It has been recognised that some substances and behaviours can be problematic for health and wellbeing, health warnings are provided for a whole range of things that we are exposed to, cigarettes, alcohol, high sugar drinks, fatty food, gambling, etc. and those of a certain age may remember the “just say no” campaign in the 1980s, to try and bring awareness to the damage that illicit drugs can cause. This allows people to make an informed choice about what they do and consume. Hopefully in time pornography will also carry a health warning, not only in relation to sexual problems but also in relation to other problems pornography can cause including unrealistic sexual expectations, for both men and women, low self-esteem, body image problems and objectification of women.

Pornography can cause alterations to the brain’s motivational system when it is excessively used, as it provides limitless novelty and the potential for easy escalation to more extreme material. There is therefore the risk of a drift into accessing images which may be illegal, either consciously or unconsciously.

Whilst pornography is probably the most common form of sexually addictive behaviour, other behaviours can also be addictive, for example sexting, webcamming, using sex workers, chemsex, serial affairs or serial hook ups. Basically, a behaviour can be viewed as a problem if it impacts on your relationships, family life, finances, or work life. It can be viewed as an addictive or compulsive behaviour if you’ve tried to stop it on one or more occasions and can’t. Sometimes the behaviours develop just because of opportunity, easy access, and before you know it, you’re hooked and can’t stop, sometimes behaviours develop because the behaviour helps you to escape from difficult emotions relating to past experiences.

 

For those of you reading this blog who are concerned about their behaviours relating to sex, there is specialist help available and resources available online.

https://atsac.org.uk

https://www.yourbrainonporn.com

 

Beehive Healthcare Chester | Health and Wellbeing Centre | EmmaEmma Mathews Therapy offers confidential treatment for both sexual problems and sexual addiction. Sex addiction therapy focuses on helping you to stop the behaviour and build the lifestyle and relationships that you want. Therapy can also focus on processing past traumas have led to the behaviour. Therapy is also available for partners of sex addicts.

Emma has a short video she created surrounding performance anxiety. You can access this here

https://www.emmamathewstherapy.com