It’s No Dysfunction, Your Penis is Fine. Understanding “Erectile Disappointment”

Dr. Chris Donaghue
Sep 16 · 5 min read

Healthy functioning for a penis is one of the more shamed and misunderstood elements of sexuality. “Erectile Dysfunction” is a misused term to describe what is most often just “erectile disappointment”. Without good sex education and enough experience seeing other penis owners variable penile functioning, most people do not understand what to expect from a healthy and aroused penis during sex, which leads to unrealistic expectations. A penis is not a dildo, and should not be expected to act like one- getting and remaining erect on-demand as desired, for as long as needed. Regardless of how attracted one is to their partner, a penis will always have diverse and variable functioning.

Most people have “performance based” sex and not “pleasure based” sex. “Performance based” sex means sex that sex isn’t centered in what feels good, seeking pleasure and fun, or being in your body and in the moment. Performance based sex is rooted in anxiety about your worth as a partner, value as a lover, and competence of your body. It’s using sex as a tool to make you feel validated and attractive. Its sex and body negative, as its often about ignoring authenticity and intimacy, and instead is used to feed the ego and to help one not have to be vulnerable or present with themselves, their desires, their body, or their partner. “Pleasure based” sex means focusing on what’s feels good- using tongues, toys, fingers, and erections if and when you have them, for as long as they are maintained. Pleasure based sex, one for the main reasons for having sex, means allowing your body to naturally do what it does and not forcing yourself to get or stay erect because of expectations, shame, or anxiety. Sex is not penetration. Sex is pleasure, fun, connection, intimacy, and growth, regardless of how it happens. What all partners do when you desire an erection but don’t have one, says all about their sexual maturity and sexual health.

The work to undo this toxic pressure upon the penis is an undoing of the sexual scripts we have all been playing into thus far, and a relearning of a more expansive and diversified vision of how both a penis and sex operate. The narrative of seeing the penis as a dildo runs deep. And the work falls on all of us, not just those that have a penis. In my clinical practice I see all partners being co-conspirators in perpetuating this form of body shaming and sex negativity. Not allowing the healthy diverse functioning of erections limits not just pleasure, but also strengthens body shame and penile dysmorphia. The shame of seeing ones penis as “not good enough” or “broken”, has an impact that extends far beyond just sex. The inability to enjoy and value parts of one’s body erodes at ones total self-esteem. Sex, and life in general, is about the presentation of ones total self, which requires feeling good or at least neutral about ones full self. Carrying shame about your penis leads to penile avoidance, pleasure reduction, and disconnection from yourself and your partner.

The work with Erectile Disappointment is not about fixing anything, as nothing is broken. It’s about allowing and accepting, instead of suffering and searching for solutions. It’s letting sex be therapeutic and grow you up. One of the more difficult parts of this journey towards sexual health and maturity will be dealing with partners that cause suffering by not supporting this needed work of body and sex positivity. Do the work and get confident, then tackle dismantling it in your partners. Help grow them up too.

The Work:

1.Realistic expectations of how a penis functions

I spend a lot of time in my clinical practice battling the cultural power of the “performance based” trope of sex and penis functioning. Sex education needs to tie the word “sometimes” to all mentions of erections. I’m also desperate for porn, the only place a bulk of men see other erections, to show the variable functioning of a penis and the sexual possibilities that exist when erections can’t be utilized. This realistic clarification is dire as all men will at some point experience erectile disappointments as they age; ALL of them.

2. A more expansive definition of “sex”

Sex is not penetration. Sex is a vast list of pleasurable and erotic experiences. Learn this now so as to avoid a future of disappointment and frustration. Sex can involve any body part or toy, doesn’t always lead to an orgasm, and can be just oral, mutual masturbation, or many other non penetrative non penis based acts of pleasure and fun.

3. Communication

Sexual confidence and wellness will require dismantling, challenging, and re-narrating sex partner’s scripts about sex and how bodies function. Do the work, because anything less allows the toxic myth to ruin your sexual self esteem. Promise partners pleasure, not penetration, and tell them that you prefer to be in the moment and follow whatever your body asks for. Anything less is ego and expectation, and not pleasure or fun.

4. Diversity of sexual skills

You don’t need an erection for pleasure. Most have tongues, fingers, and toys. And all of these are important parts of sexuality. Listen to your body, and don’t force it to perform when it doesn’t want to. Rely on the trifecta mentioned above when an erection is not longer interested or able to be used sexually. Sex should never stop because an erection isn’t available. If it does, we are no longer engaging in sex, but instead ego, expectation, and validation. You have left your body, yourself, and your partners, and are now trapped in your head. Keep the fun and pleasure going, just find another way.

5. Work on your “erotic esteem”

Expanding your sexuality beyond your penis and penetration, is a vital part of developing sexual self -esteem. Not attaching your worth or desirability to your partners erections or your own is how this is done.

6. Stay in the moment

Don’t panic, complain, or shame when an erection disappoints you or a partner. This is to be expected. Stay in the eroticism and the connection.

7. Allow each partner to be responsible for their own orgasm

Stop focusing on your partner. Always lead with care and compassion, and an openness to what they request and need sexually, but you need to prioritize what you are feeling and needing erotically. Worrying about “how you are doing”, how you look, sound, or what a partner thinks about your body or penis is to step outside of sex, which is always about pleasure and fun.

8. Be a sex and body positivity activist

Call out penis shaming, challenge people who refer to “having sex” as penetration only, openly discuss Erectile Disappointment, expand the definition of sex to sometimes only include the use of fingers, tongues and toys, and don’t let partners shame or pathologize your healthy functioning penis when it doesn’t get or stay erect. Battle hetero and homo normativity which tells us that sex always requires a penis or an erection. /

Dr. Chris Donaghue
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