It happened again: You’re just about to get it on with your penis-having partner when they suddenly go…soft. Rest assured, you’re not alone in that predicament. According to the American Urological Association, an estimated 30 million people have erectile dysfunction (ED), which is medical speak for those with a penis who have a hard time getting or keeping an erection that is firm enough for pleasurable penetrative play. And contrary to popular belief, it can affect people of all ages. But, that still doesn’t mean pleasure is off the table, though, if you’re dating someone with erectile dysfunction.
Sure, if you enjoy penetrative play, it can be a real bummer not to be able to have that kind of sex as often or for as long as you might like. But, according to sex educators, there are a handful of work-arounds for a sex life that’s just as healthy and fulfilling.
As a first order of business, though, make sure your partner with ED is medically safe. Erectile dysfunction can occasionally be linked to an underlying health issue, such as vascular disease or type 2 diabetes, or a mental-health condition like depression or anxiety, so encouraging your partner to see a health-care provider may be an important step to both treating the issue and supporting their health. Otherwise, reframing your mindset and approach to sex can go a long way toward finding sexual satisfaction.
“It is 100 percent possible for people with ED and their partner(s) to enjoy a pleasurable sex life.” —Caitlin V. Neal, MPH, clinical sexologist
Below, sex educators share their best advice for maintaining a healthy sex life and getting your sexual needs met while dating someone with erectile dysfunction.
Here are 7 tips for experiencing more sexual pleasure while dating someone with erectile dysfunction
1. Believe it’s still possible to experience pleasure
If you want to have pleasurable sex with someone who has ED, you need to believe, with your whole body, that it is indeed possible. Otherwise, worrying about lack of pleasure might well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“It is 100 percent possible for people with ED and their partner(s) to enjoy a pleasurable sex life,” says Caitlin V. Neal, clinical sexologist for Royal, a vegan-friendly condom and lubricant company. However, for this to be true, you might need to remind your partner that their ability to get or maintain an erection is not an indicator of their worth, and remind yourself that it’s not an indicator of your attractiveness, if that thought ever enters your mind, she says.
2. Talk to your partner
Have you and your partner talked about their erectile dysfunction? If not, it’s time to chat. And given that sexual dysfunction can affect all parties to a relationship, you certainly don’t have to wait for your partner to bring it up, says Neal. In fact, if you do, you could be waiting quite a long time. “It could be really difficult for them to bring it up,” she says. “So choose a time when you haven’t just had sex, when they’re relaxed, and they’re able to process the conversation.” While you’re on a walk or over coffee would both work well, for two examples.
As for how to bring it up? In one word: compassionately.“Try to be gentle with your words and reassure your partner that what you are looking to achieve by talking about this is a better sex life for both of you,” says sex educator Searah Deysach, owner of Early to Bed, a Chicago-based pleasure-product company. “It is good to remember that while it might be awkward or hard [in the moment], all partners will benefit from having an open and honest conversation about your sex lives or lack thereof,” she says.
To do so, Deysach recommends sandwiching your concern about your partner’s ED between two compliments. Here’s one example: I love the way you feel when you’re inside me. The last few times we’ve had sex, we transitioned to another sex act because you had a hard time staying hard. Is there anything we might try to help you maintain your erection? I’d love to find a way to be able to have penetrative play with you lasting longer. And here’s another: You know how into you I am, and I want to have all the different kinds of sex with you. It’s no big deal to me that you can’t stay hard for the duration of time that we’re having sex. But I just wanted to see if we could find a way to work around it together.
3. Talk to a third party
If you and your partner struggle to talk about your sex life, Neal says a mental-health professional can help. They can guide the discussion in a sensitive way, while also validating both of your needs and feelings.
You might introduce the idea by saying: I really want to figure this out with you. Because we’re both having a hard time talking about it, I was thinking it might be helpful to bring in a professional. How would you feel about that?
“You could also choose to talk to trusted friends about your feelings of frustration, disappointment or confusion,” Neal adds.
4. Re-examine your definition of sex
Many of us “put so much emphasis on erections that we falsely equate them with sex itself,” says Neal. But sex isn’t a hard erection; it also isn’t exclusively a hard penis entering a vagina (or anus or mouth). “Thinking outside of the P-in-V box can show you that everyone—regardless of their body’s abilities and configurations—can have sex,” says Neal.
According to psychotherapist and sex and relationship expert Rachel Wright, LMFT, sex can be defined as any meaningful act of pleasure. While expanding the definition of sex can benefit folks in all relationship constructions, it can be especially beneficial for people who are dating someone with erectile dysfunction.
To get a better understanding of what sex looks like for you, and in the context of your personal relationship, consider making a joint list of the way sex feels to both of you. List out all the adjectives that might describe the sex you have, then make a second list of activities that can elicit those same feelings. Don’t limit the activities in the second list to things that involve mouths, genitals, and bums. Instead, allow yourself to include things like: Snuggling in a bath or massaging your feet, and so on. That’ll open the door for all kinds of non-penetrative—but still super-satisfying—sex acts to make their way into your sexual repertoire.
5. Unpack why you like to have sex
Sure, “it feels good” may be one of the reasons you like having sex. But often there are other reasons at play, too, says Deysach. For example, maybe sex helps you turn off Work Brain, or maybe physical touch is how you express your love, and sex is the primary instance of touch in your relationship.
Once you identify why you like having sex, you can supplement your life with additional acts that satisfy those reasons. If, for example, sex is usually what helps you reconnect with your partner at the end of the week, maybe there are other things that can facilitate that reconnection (think: weekly date nights, no-phone bed time, and joint showers).
6. Bring in pleasure products
PSA: Your partner’s penis isn’t the only thing that can penetrate you—and that’s essential to remember for anyone who’s dating someone with erectile dysfunction. “There are plenty of toys that can take the place of an erection,” says Neal. The most obvious choices are dildos and hollow dildos, which are sometimes called penis sleeves or penis extenders.
While wearing a harness like the Spareparts Deuce Harness , for example, your partner will have a hard phallus right below their pubic mound, which allows them to continue penetrating you long after they’ve lost their erection, says Deysach. There are also hollowed-out dildos, like the Vixen Colossus Extender, which fit over a non-erect penis and allow for continued penetration, regardless of a real erection, Deysach adds.
In addition to dildos, there are also G-spot vibrators, stainless steel wands, tentacle toys, and rabbit vibes that can be used for penetrative play with a partner—no erection, or often even penis, needed. “There’s also a new device called the Balldo, which is a toy that fits over your testicles and turns them into a dildo,” says Deysach. (Yes, really.) And, again, if you’re open to expanding your definition of sex beyond vaginal penetration, there are also finger vibrators, butt plugs, suction toys, clamps, and more. As Neal puts it, “as far as sex toys go, the only limit is your creativity.”
7. Try not to stress
No doubt, this is easier said than done for all parties involved. But if you can, try to limit stress around the erection, says Neal. “Stress and pressure can actually make ED much worse,” she says.
Rather than worrying about whether or not the penis in question is going to get or stay hard, remember that a healthy perspective, creativity, and a relaxed approach will help you overcome this particular challenge, she says.