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Thursday, Oct. 8, 2009

Men and Aging: The Erection Connection

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I love my partner but only get hard when I am in her mouth. Is this normal for a guy 56 years old?

A few weeks ago, I answered a reader question about changes that occur in women's sexuality as they get older. Men, too, experience normal fluctuations in sexual functioning with age.  One of the most common changes that many men notice concerns their erections. The penis may not get hard as quickly, feel as firm, or stay hard as long as it did when they were younger.

Is this something to worry about? Not necessarily. Just as with women, the type of sensation that produces arousal in men may change with age. More direct or focused stimulation of the penis may be necessary for a man to get an erection. So, requiring oral stimulation to get hard, as you describe, is not uncommon at all.

The reason that men worry about this is because our society tends to think of erections as the be-all and end-all of male sexuality. A hard penis is seen as a visual symbol of a man's arousal and virility. We expect men to always want sex and to be able to get it up at the drop of a hat. Much of what we define as "sex" focuses on all the different places that can be penetrated with an erect penis. Thus, as men get older and find that their dicks are a bit slower on the uptake, this can be seen by both a man and his partner as a flaw or failure.

In reality, men can be aroused and not be hard, can feel sexual desire for their partners and not be hard, and can please their partners sexually without being hard. If you find that erections don't come as easily, take the opportunity to shift your focus away from the almighty phallus and toward other aspects of sex play. Or, enjoy the fact that slower, more sustained, more direct stimulation of the penis might be necessary for you to get an erection. One thing that is definitely an erection-killer is worrying about whether or not you'll be able to get one, so setting aside your concern about getting hard may, ironically, help with the process.

There are some physical and psychological health conditions that can interfere with erections. An erection is basically just blood flowing into the penis, so any medical conditions that interfere with circulation can affect a man's ability to get hard. Alcohol and cigarette consumption both constrict blood flow, which can also be affected by weight gain, diabetes and some medications. Exercising, eating healthy foods and cutting down on drinking and smoking might help fire up the penis. Stress, depression, anger, lack of sleep and anxiety can also affect erections. These conditions aren't just "in your head;" they have a huge impact on your physical functioning. Addressing some of these underlying issues by talking to a medical or mental health professional can give your sex life a boost.

Notice that I haven't mentioned Viagra, Cialis or the countless untested herbal supplements that claim to instantly give you monster wood. While prescription medications may be extremely helpful for some, I don't recommend that all men who notice a change in how their penis is functioning immediately run out and start popping pills. These drugs have serious side effects, and they basically perpetuate the idea that a hard penis is all there is to male sexuality. Noticing and accepting the changes in your body, experimenting with new types of sexual stimulation and taking care of your physical and mental health are much better first steps. Two good sources for more reading about male sexuality and aging are the classic book by Bernie Zilbergeld, The New Male Sexuality, and All Night Long: How to Make Love to a Man Over 50 by Barbara Keesling.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.