How To Respond When Your Partner Can’t Stay Hard

Couple laying in bed, woman smiling

Recently on the show, we talked about awkward sex – and, what to do when awkward sex happens. But I want to drill down on one point in particular, and that is: how to respond when your partner loses their erection.

Erectile dysfunction (ED for short) manifests in one of two ways: either it’s tough for a penis-owner to get hard, or it’s tough to stay hard once erection occurs (we break down the physiology for both situations here). And it’s incredibly common: some estimates say that at least half of men will experience sexual dysfunction in their lives. Nevertheless, it’s obviously stressful for the penis-owner experiencing it, and can be confusing for you, the person there with them. 

But taking the POV of the other person, let’s talk through what’s actually happening, and how to respond in a way that’s not only compassionate – but keeps the sexy times going. Here are 5 things to keep in mind.

1. It’s not about you.

In our culture, where physical appearance can seem so paramount, it’s easy to think this is happening because your partner isn’t attracted to you. But that’s not true at all: the reasons behind ED are largely physiological, and if, for example, the veins in their penis aren’t compressing enough to maintain blood flow, it’s not a knock on your attractiveness. Veins don’t care about how hot you are or how great you are in bed, so if you’re beating yourself up thinking you’re the cause, trust me when I say: you’re not. 

2. There might be a psychological component.

Along those lines, ED can also strike when the penis-owner is nervous or stressed. When I spoke with Dr. Edward Karpman, he talked about the body’s fight or flight response, and how this directs blood flow away from the penis when our mind’s alarm bells go off. And why might those alarm bells be sounding? “Omg omg we’re having sex! I’m nervous! I hope I don’t mess this up!” –A version of these thoughts might be running through your partner’s head, triggering a low-level panic. Which brings me to…

3. Sexual arousal and genital response aren’t the same thing.

As we know from contemporary sex research, getting aroused and getting hard/wet aren’t always correlated. You could be super turned on, without your genitals responding the way you might expect, and you could suddenly become hard or wet, without being sexually aroused at all. (I know penis-owners who get an erection when an airplane takes off from the runway!)

Just like all our other organs, our body parts are complex. Take your stomach: sometimes you still feel hungry even after a substantial meal, and sometimes you have zero appetite, even though you haven’t eaten all day. But extending that food and hunger metaphor, let’s get into some fun stuff…

4. Open up the sexual possibilities.

Penetration is just one act on the sexual menu. So if your partner loses their erection during sex, try pivoting to something else: do you love oral? Could they perform it on you? How about hand play? Erotic massage? Point being: instead of worrying whether something is wrong, one of the best ways to support your partner is to normalize this very common body behavior, and suggest other activities. “I’d actually love for you to tie me up, then go down on me,” for example. 

Once we start expanding our ideas of “sex,” and recognize that this word is truly an umbrella for a variety of behaviors, we divest from the idea that sex is supposed to follow a set of steps. It’s not. It’s truly whatever the two of you want it to be, and if you need some inspo, I’ve got a Yes / No / Maybe Guide to get your erotic imagination going. 

On top of that, sometimes all that’s needed is a break, to take the pressure off! If you start exploring other sex things, and the erection comes back, a couple’s toy like the Eva Dame could be just what the doctor ordered. It delivers stimulating vibes to both of you, since it’s a wearable vibrator for vulva-owners that stays in place during partner play. 

5. Talk about sex, and what it’s for.

You didn’t think you’d read a whole article about ED without getting some hard-core communication advice, did you? Now that we’ve talked about how to respond in the moment, let’s talk about a larger conversation that could radically help the penis-owner in your life.

Sometimes, we unconsciously equate a hard penis with masculinity, and penetration with desirability. But those are just assumptions, many of them culturally constructed – not cold hard facts. So try having a conversation with your partner outside of a sexual encounter, where you each talk about sex and what it does for you. Is it about sharing pleasure? Engaging in light power play? Expressing yourself? Getting vulnerable in a safe way? I get it – these conversations can seem intimidating! But when we allow ourselves to broach these topics, they not only get easier over time…they open the door to more deep intimacy. And often, that trust is exactly what’s needed to help both of you feel more erotic and alive.