Okay, so, I have been listening to Esther Perel’s podcast Where Should We Begin because after we posted my Musings on Monogamy piece, Laura Gonzalez recommended it. (Thank you!) It is such an interesting, informative, and engaging podcast, I would absolutely recommend it to podcast listeners (or anyone, but podcasts aren’t for everyone, fine fine).
I could probably talk about each of these podcasts with another human for hours, but I bring it up today because I was reading Aftermath by L.A. Witt (part of the Vino & Veritas series), which features a hero who discovers that, in addition to other trauma he experienced from a near-fatal car crash, he has erectile dysfunction, and that brought to mind an episode of the podcast from season 1: “Impotent Is No Way To Define A Man,” in which the couple in the session has been struggling because erectile dysfunction is impacting their sex life. What struck me as I listened, and what struck me again as I read yet another book featuring a protagonist with ED, was how romance allows for protagonists to find the matches that really see them. Patient, kind, and affirming partners who don’t see the protagonist’s struggles as a problem, even as the protagonist struggles emotionally and/or physically with their abilities.
In the podcast, the M/F couple has been unsuccessfully coping with the man’s ED for a really long time. Like more than a decade. And I can understand that sometimes people want what they want and even if everything else is great, bedroom mismatches can be a dealbreaker…
…but I was completely floored when the woman said that they would play, and he would give her an orgasm, but the fact that he couldn’t do penetrative sex (or if he could, not long enough for them to orgasm) made the whole experience a failure. And I think my shock was in part because I personally wouldn’t define a successful sexual encounter by P-in-V sex, but also…romance novels.
I think I’ve read three? romance novels that feature a protagonist with some variation of ED (I’ve also read a few others that involve bedroom challenges that are similar but aren’t specifically ED-related), and they’re all M/M. (I would really like to see some other couplings that allow for men not to have a giant boner that’s constantly hard enough to cut glass, but that’s a tangent I won’t go down today.) (Feel free to read Holly’s Hot Take about penis size.) In each of these books, part of the draw is the gentleness and sense of safety we get as the protagonist who is living with this condition shares their vulnerability with a partner who says, “That matters only insofar as it hurts you. We can find ways to be together that satisfy us both, and I don’t need anything but that.”
This type of gentle romance dynamic is not specific to these four books. In fact, I think that dynamic is exactly what led me to binge most of Annabeth Albert’s backlist last year. Earlier this year, for example, I noted that one of my favorite aspects of Sink or Swim was that Calder struggles to orgasm, and the stress over being the “problematic” sexual partner made that even worse; but Felix’s calm, consistent reassurance and lack of pressure allowed them to come together in a really lovely way. Albert also wrote one of the books I’ve read featuring a protagonist with ED (plus others involving those non-ED bedroom concerns I mentioned earlier).
The first book I read featuring a protagonist who struggled to have or maintain an erection was Strong Enough by Cardeno C., and my first thought was “YES! I’m so glad that here’s a man who seems normal and, more than that, that he’s found a partner who is 100% supporting him!” Since then, I’ve read even more widely, so I’ve seen more variety, but the norm is still huge penises that never flag once during marathon sexytimes. (Again, see Holly’s post.)
I think the reason that reading Aftermath was finally the impetus for me sitting down and punching this out is that 1) I’ve read, like, 700 books since reading Strong Enough and I’ve only read three featuring a character with ED, but it’s widely agreed that approximately 10% of men are affected by it, with some studies indicating at least ¼ to ⅓ of the population, and a 1994 aging study indicating a whopping 52% (the variability is in part because there’s not a consensus on how much difficulty having/maintaining an erection actually constitutes ED, plus age is a factor). In case math is not your strength, 3/700 is nowhere close to 10%. Also 2) part of the protagonists’ struggles in Aftermath are that the man who discovers he has ED, Brent, isn’t even 30, and he’s convinced that his silver fox partner who’s 40 doesn’t want to sign up for the medical mess that is the rest of Brent’s life, especially when they’ll never be able to have a “normal” sex life.
Brent was really struggling with the ways his life had changed, and then when he finally decided to put himself out there again, he discovered that he couldn’t even have the sex he used to have. He felt terrible about it, and the only reason he opened up to Jon about it was because he also felt terrible about leaving Jon high and dry after realizing how his night was turning out (or not) and running away in a panic. And what is the likelihood that Jon wouldn’t react like something was wrong with Brent, like the wife in the Esther Perel podcast did? But of all the people in all the world, Brent found Jon, and he found support and love and someone he felt safe experimenting with and who didn’t ask for anything that he was unwilling or unable to give. Now, in all fairness, these two didn’t really discuss self-pleasure, but because of Jon’s custody schedule and also because of some of Brent’s medical recommendations, they do engage in self-pleasure. Being on the same page here is important and can prevent miscommunication or bad feelings about what’s happening in the bedroom, but in the context of the novel it wasn’t an issue. (And if you’re wondering about whether I’m thinking of that Reddit relationship advice wife whose husband with low sex drive kept interrupting her, er, “me” time, I am.) (Thanks, Ingrid.)
The notion that one can be not only accepted but loved exactly as one is, that one can find a partner who’ll protect all those vulnerable spots, that the pleasure of finding pleasure together is the sweet spot, that mutual simultaneous orgasms isn’t the ideal (or the lack thereof isn’t a threat), it’s heady stuff. Everybody (who wants one) deserves a partner who is this kind of romance novel loving and supportive. And I love that romance novels are out there that show such relationships, all the way down to the non-erect, dry orgasm.