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Relationships • Sex

The Difficulties of Impotence

Seldom do we need the insights of psychotherapy as urgently as when it comes to cases of male heterosexual impotence. A man can be physiologically entirely capable of having sex but then finds himself in bed with a woman he longs for and cannot enter, to his boundless embarrassment and shame. What might be going on?

Detail from Still Life by Dirck de Horn, 18th Century

We have to imagine what has to go right towards the start of a life in order to minimise the chances of this kind of psychological impotence later down the line. One of the great guarantors of adult male potency is the love of a certain kind of woman in childhood. So that a man can later on feel at home with his physical desire, it helps immensely if his central female caregiver is able to do two things: firstly, if she signals that the little man in her life is adored by her but in a way that encompasses and rewards his more robust and rumbustious sides. The little man might be very much allowed to play with a plastic sword, he can occasionally make a big noise, it’s not a terrible problem if he sometimes brings in some mud from the garden. He doesn’t just have to be a sweet, neat, tender innocent angel; he can be a more dynamic, powerful creature too. At the same time, it may be of great help if this maternal figure is resolved in her relationships with men: if she isn’t unduly scared of them, if she isn’t furious with them, if she hasn’t undergone a trauma at the hands of one of them, if she can – once the kids are asleep – have a very satisfying time in bed with one of their kind.

Fathers also have a key role to play in their son’s later potency. If they can give a boy a feeling that they can tolerate rivalry, that there is room enough in town for both of them, if they can suggest that the boy’s growing strength and vigour are sources of pride rather than threat.

Needless to say, none of this is guaranteed. There are otherwise extremely devoted maternal figures who somehow manage to suggest to their sons that it might be better if they didn’t remind them of the sort of men who have scared or damaged them; or who bring to bear on their ‘little man’ some of the anger that belongs to, and that they deep down wish to direct towards, ‘big men’ elsewhere. Or who turn their boys into substitute ‘boyfriends’ as a defence against their fear of a more three dimensional adult relationship. Just as there are dads who are too internally fragile to tolerate that anyone but they should have potency in the household.

The result, twenty years later, can be a man who panics at the sublime moment when a woman turns to him and says: ‘Come on, let’s go upstairs; I’ve been wanting you since the evening started’. It might sound delightful; to a certain sort of man, it can mean the onset of devastating panic. They are being invited to do the very thing that – according to the logic of their formative years – would have variously hurt, offended, angered or threatened the people they had to rely on. Their impotence, though entirely inconvenient today, is in their deep minds a necessary mechanism to steer them away from danger and upset.

What could be done to alleviate the situation? Most importantly, a conversation, so that the partner doesn’t feel that they are to blame and that their own insecurities don’t start to fill the vacuum of explanation. 

It might also help if the man were made into less of a focus of attention in bed. It might do wonders if the woman shared a fantasy about another person, male or female, (perhaps a colleague at work or someone she spotted on the train home), so that – witnessing the woman’s authentic excitement – the man might slowly find his way back to his own.

It’s possible to argue at length about whether psychotherapeutic theory is ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ We should probably reserve judgement until, physically in perfect health, we find ourselves unable to be get an erection with someone we intensely desire. It seems that – very sadly – we may just be a lot more complicated than we should be.

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