March 28, 2007

Q&A: Losing An Erection and Sexual Orientation

A male reader asks about losing his erection when having sex with his girlfriend and what this might mean for his sexual orientation

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Question: I am an 18 year old male who is somewhat confused about his sexuality. Growing up I always liked girls, I always had crushes on them and I always found them sexually attractive. About three years ago though, I started exploring the thought of sexual activity with the same sex. When I masturbate, I can masturbate to thoughts of either sex with no problem. However, lately I have had problems having sex with my girlfriend, not being able to maintain my erection. During foreplay and such my penis usually goes off and on from being hard to limp. I am not sure if I am gay or bi or what? Can you help?

It is common for many men and women to think or wonder about their sexual orientation, particularly given the many ways that human beings experience their sexuality (through dreams, waking fantasies, sexual behavior with others, masturbatory fantasies, romantic attraction for others, sexual attraction for others, etc).

Difficulty In Defining Sexual Orientation

There are also no clear or consistent ways that people define their sexual orientation. Many gay or lesbian identified people have previously (or even currently) had sexual experiences with members of the other sex, or may have dreams about people of the other sex.

Similarly, many straight-identified men and women have had (or are currently having) sexual experiences with same-sex partners, or may have dreams or fantasies about being sexual with same-sex partners.

Given the variety of ways that people explore, express and experience their sexuality, it is perhaps not surprising that human beings – in their endless quest to make order out of chaos – often search for ways to define their sexual orientation. In your case, it seems like you are wondering if your erections are a clue to your sexual orientation. Specifically, it seems like you are wondering if the fact that your erections have been less reliable with your girlfriend is a sign that you may be gay or bisexual.

Penile Erections Are Complex

The fact is, however, that penile erections are complex. Yes, they often come about because of sexual arousal (and therefore you might wonder if your lack of an erection reflects a lack of arousal to your girlfriend or women in general). But erections are not exclusively a reflection of sexual arousal.

If that surprises you, just think back to the time around puberty when quite a few boys were probably unexpectedly having erections during math class or walking in the hallways or at the dinner table when there was nothing particularly arousing or sexual occurring at the moment.

Penile erections, in all their complexity, can be influenced by physical touch, age, hormones, neurotransmitters (which is why some medications, such as many anti-depressants can influence sexual function), prescription drugs, stress, fatigue, relationship factors, cigarette smoking, alcohol use, and even the temperature in a room.

Erection Problems and Performance Anxiety

Very often in young men like yourself, erection problems are often influenced by performance anxiety (concern about performing a certain way during sex, giving your partner an orgasm, lasting long enough, or being able to get or maintain an erection).

When younger men have erection problems, other types of anxiety (like concerns about relationship problems, upcoming exams, work, family problems or sexual orientation) may cause problems too.

Some men find that focusing on sex play that is less genital focused (e.g., making out, massages, bathing together, erotic touching) makes it easier to enjoy sexual pleasure and to maintain erections.

For a more comprehensive look at men’s sexual function and erection issue, consider reading The Sexual Male: Problems and Solutions.

The Bottom Line

Bottom line: your penis may not be the best, or most reliable, indication of your sexual orientation, although it may possibly provide some clue.

A good place to explore your sexual orientation may be through meeting with a counselor or therapist who has experience dealing with relevant issues, and focusing more on your feelings, thoughts and experiences.

Campus and community Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) offices are often connected with experienced counselors; certified sex therapists also typically have experience seeing clients with similar questions (http://www.aasect.orgto locate a therapist near you).

The web site of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays ( has resources available not only for parents and friends, but for people like you who are curious about or questioning their own sexual orientation. The magazine XY (available in many national chain and independent bookstores) is directed toward young gay men, as is its web site ( I hope this is helpful.

  • jonwinston

    I'm a gay male and when I'm having sex with my boyfriend I love to reach around and feeling his erection. Sometimes when I reach aroud his erection is not there. Does that mean he is not really into it or maybe I'm not doing right this time. Please advise.