By Amy Alkon
Q: My girlfriend found a certain little blue pill in my jeans pocket, and her feelings were hurt. I explained that I’m as into her as ever; I just need a little extra help because I’m getting older. However, she’s taking this personally. How do I reassure her?—Rhymes With Niagara
A: Back in seventh grade, erections were easy to get—especially when you were standing in front of the class giving your oral report on Harriet Tubman.
A penis is generally at its peppiest when a man’s in his teens and 20s (before genes and/or years of bad living narrow the arteries from superhighways to single-file footpaths). That’s because erections are blood flow-powered—ultimately, anyway. They start in the brain in response to a thought or something from the environment—like being touched or seeing the hot neighbor bending over in yoga pants.
Nitric oxide gets released and starts a chemical reaction that relaxes smooth muscle in the penis, allowing blood vessels to dilate: “Open up! Party time!” Then, sex researcher Dr. Robert Kolodny explains, “an increased amount of blood flows into the penis, where it is trapped in three spongy cylinders that run the length of the organ. The resulting fluid pressure is what causes the penis to increase in size … and to become rigid.”
There’s an elastic fibrous membrane, the tunica albuginea, that keeps the blood in the penis. And this thing being leaky—kind of like a submarine hatch with a bad seal—is just one of the things (along with narrowed arteries, anxiety, endocrine problems, smoking and diabetes, among others) that can cause a penis to stay floppy or get wilty.
Using a pharmaceutical erection helper is basically like calling in a plumber when the shower pressure isn’t what it used to be. It doesn’t make a man the least bit more attracted to a woman or more into sex than he’d otherwise be. It just relaxes the smooth muscle and increases blood flow, making the, um, cadet more likely to report for duty.
Explain all of this to your girlfriend. Then tell her how beautiful and sexy you find her, and tell her again. And keep telling her—with regularity. Men don’t quite understand how much this means to a woman. When a woman believes her man finds her attractive, it helps her feel loved and secure. That reassurance, combined with being clued-in on the mechanics of the manpart, should help your girlfriend understand that there’s no reason to take your pill-popping personally. The pipes just need a little help; it isn’t the penis version of Groundhog Day—with the little feller peeking out, deciding the landscape is hopeless, and going back into hiding.
Q: In “senior dating,” how, and how soon, do you suggest I disclose my ED [erectile dysfunction]? I’m 77, and this woman I’m seeing is 60ish.—Man of Yore
A: When I was 13, I could read a book from across the room. These days, it’s sometimes hard to make out the words on those ginormous highway signs unless I let my Leader Dog take the wheel.
Lucky for me, nobody snickers that I’m less of a woman because I have less-than-perfect eyesight. And it’s pretty stupid that we attach that baggage to the aging penis. We don’t expect a 1939 Studebaker to drive like a 2016 BMW. (And hey … where’s the backup camera on this thing?!)
To say that you aren’t alone is something of an understatement. In reviewing survey data from men 75 or older, UCLA urology professor Christopher Saigal found that 77.5 percent reported experiencing some degree of erectile dysfunction—the inability to “get and keep an erection adequate for satisfactory intercourse.” And 47.5 percent have a complete inability to achieve liftoff. (P.S. This isn’t exactly a secret to women who date 70-something men.)
Unfortunately, the reality for aging penises goes poorly with the ridiculous belief many people have that intercourse is the only “real” sex. However, sex therapist Dr. Marty Klein observes that ultimately, “what most people say they want from sex is some combination of pleasure and closeness.” You can give that to a woman—even if, at 77, everything on you is stiff but the one part you’d like to be.
That’s what you need to convey. But don’t sit there in the bright lights of the diner and be all, “Let’s talk about my penis.” Wait till there’s a makeout moment, and after you kiss a bit, pause the action. In telling her, consider that you set the tone for whether your situation is some shameful thing or “just one of those things.” Humor tends to express the latter pretty well—like, “I have a pet name for my penis. It’s Rip Van Winkle, because he’s been out cold since the Bush administration.”