Male sexual problems

It’s estimated that one in 10 men has a problem related to having sex, such as premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction. Dr John Tomlinson of The Sexual Advice Association explains some of the causes, and where to seek help.

“Sexual dysfunction in a man is when he's not able to perform properly,” says Dr Tomlinson. “The main problem is being unable to get an erection. It’s much more common than people realise. In the 20-40 age group it affects around 7-8% of men, in the 40-50 age group it affects 11%. In the over-60s it affects 40%, and more than half of men over 70.”

It can affect any man, whether he is straight, gay, bisexual or transgender. Read more about erectile dysfunction (impotence) and premature ejaculation.

Erectile dysfunction (impotence)

This is when a man can’t get, or keep, an erection. Most men experience it at some time in their life. “It only becomes a problem when the man or his partner considers it a problem,” says Dr Tomlinson. 

What causes erectile dysfunction?

“A variety of things cause it. Some psychological and some physical,” says Dr Tomlinson. "Psychological issues tend to affect younger men, such as first night nerves and so on. Often, these problems don’t persist. But there can be more serious psychological problems about sex that need the help of a psychosexual therapist.”

Worries about work, money, your relationship, family, and even worrying about not getting an erection, can all be factors.

Physical reasons for erectile dysfunction include:

Medical conditions that cause erectile dysfunction

  • heart disease
  • diabetes
  • raised blood pressure  
  • raised cholesterol: this can lead to clogging of arteries, including the arteries in the penis, which are very narrow (1-2mm in diameter compared with around 10mm in the heart artery) 
  • low testosterone: testosterone levels fall as men get older, but not all men are affected by it. Those who are affected will have symptoms such as feeling tired and unfit, and loss of interest in (and inability to have) sex.

Drugs that cause erectile dysfunction

  • some prescription drugs: these can include medicines (such as beta-blockers) used to treat raised blood pressure, and antidepressants, antipsychotic drugs and anticonvulsant drugs
  • alcohol 
  • recreational drugs such as cannabis and cocaine 
  • smoking: nicotine affects the blood supply to the areas of the penis that cause erections 

What should I do if I have erectile dysfunction?

See your GP. He or she can give you a physical examination and carry out blood tests to identify the cause.

Erectile dysfunction can be an important signal to other issues. “It's associated with raised cholesterol, diabetes and raised blood pressure. Any of these can be a warning of future heart disease,” says Dr Tomlinson. Your doctor can ensure that you get the treatment you need. 

What's the treatment for impotence?

First, adjust any lifestyle factors that might be causing your problem.

“If you stop smoking, drinking too much or using recreational drugs, the problem should eventually go away. But it can take months,” says Dr Tomlinson. “There is no overnight cure.”

If you're prescribed blood pressure tablets or antidepressants, your doctor may be able to put you on a different kind.

Low testosterone can be treated with hormone replacement therapy, which should resolve erectile dysfunction as long as it's used together with erection-helping drugs. Other conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, can be treated, which may improve erections. Find out more about erectile dysfunction treatment, including sildenafil cotrate (viagra). The Sexual Advice Association has useful factsheets on all of this.

Some men benefit from psychosexual therapy, which is a form of relationship therapy where you and your partner can discuss any sexual or emotional issues or concerns. You can contact the Sexual Advice Association, Relate, sexual health charity FPA or your GP to ask about psychosexual therapy.

Support options

For help with cutting down on drinking, drug use or smoking, contact:

Premature ejaculation

This is when a man ejaculates (comes) sooner than he wants to during sex. It's only a problem if it bothers him or his partner.  

You can see your GP or a psychosexual therapist for help.

What causes premature ejaculation?

"Either just being very excited with a new partner, or an acute sensitivity of the local nervous system, which triggers orgasm too suddenly," says Dr Tomlinson.

It can also be linked to anxiety about sexual performance, stress, unresolved issues in a relationship, or depression.

What should I do if I have premature ejaculation?

See your GP, or a psychosexual therapist. A therapist can teach you techniques to try to delay ejaculation.

What treatment is there?

“A lot of men and their partners don’t worry, and they work around it," says Dr Tomlinson. "But if you’re very unsatisfied, there are some things you can try.”

  • Have sex again soon after the man ejaculates. The second time, it will take longer to reach an orgasm. Older men might find this difficult as it may take too long to get a second erection. 
  • Creams (available from sex shops) can be put on the penis to numb sensation. “But this tends to transfer the numbing sensation to the partner, which they don't always like,” warns Dr Tomlinson. Some find using a condom useful.
  • The man’s partner can squeeze his penis in a certain way to prevent him ejaculating. “A man needs an extremely willing partner to do this, and some partners don’t feel comfortable with it,” says Dr Tomlinson. 
  • Antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can slow ejaculation, but only for a year or so. “We’ll try every other treatment first before starting on drugs,” says Dr Tomlinson. 
  • Psychotherapy might help in terms of relaxing or exploring problems in the relationship. Find out what a sex therapist does.

Dr Tomlinson is editor of The ABC of Sexual Health (published by Wiley-Blackwell).

The Sexual Advice Association helpline is 0207 486 7262.

Find out about other sexual problems, such as retarded ejaculation and retrograde ejaculation.

If you are worried about your health have a look at the Man MOT, a confidential online surgery where you can talk to a GP anonymously.

Page last reviewed: 10/06/2014

Next review due: 09/06/2016


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The 12 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Felix96 said on 11 August 2015

I've been experiencing this problem (i.e. ED) for a while now.

What the medical community seems to be avoiding is the possible link between pornography and erection problems. Why aren't the studies being done?

Right now the religious and spiritual communities have a monopoly on 're-booting' programmes, which entail abstaining from pornography and masturbation to increase sensitivity of the penis. Is this mere pseudo-science or is it an actual problem?

Please can the medical community address this problem and find out whether or not pornography can lead to erectile dysfunction? Does it depend on the level of usage? There is an increasing number of men, particularly young men such as myself, who have been exposed to online porn who are having problems. We need answers.

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Juanpep said on 18 June 2015

Hi my name is Juan, I´ve been using a natural treatment called vigorday and retarmen and the treatment has functioned me, but I want to know what do you think about it ?

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fjr said on 20 November 2012

Unfortunately GP's don't actually seem to be too knowledgeable when it comes to sexual matters, beyond handing out prescriptions for PDE5 inhibitors. Has the NHS any plans to provide GP's with sexual education

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Heltboe said on 15 September 2012

The definition quoted by Dr Tomlinson 'Sexual dysfunction in a man is when he's not able to perform properly,' is not very helpful. What is performing properly? What standards are being employed to measure performance ? Every man (and woman) do not perform to the same high standards they would want every time there have sex. This is not a dysfunction. This is a normal. Dysfunction is better expressed as the inability to fully enjoy sex.

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Steve Brad said on 31 March 2012

I do thank you for your supreme dedication in wanting to help people with this problem, and appreciate your efforts in giving information on this illness.

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Steve Brad said on 30 March 2012

Attitude counts. One good attitude to have is that intercourse is not the goal, being together and feeling close
physically is the goal. The sexiest part of your body is your mind

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123AustinScott said on 10 February 2012

Erectile dysfunction or impairment of men’ erectile reflex.In this case the affected persons will be unable to have and maintain a firm erection that is enough for intercourse.

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leeboy16 said on 04 October 2011

I have been to see a so call specialist about a lump that is under the skin on my penis. It has a fatty feel and comes and goes in size. I have had a camera down my penis and a scan on my pelvic area, don't know why and yet no one has still given me a clue to whats going on. When I wee it goes in different directions, can be quite embarrassing too. Does any have clue what this lump is. Could it be glandular not a good looking thing lol

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47XXY said on 25 November 2010

I have Kleinfelters Syndrome and as a consequence I had low testosterone levels which eventually forced me to take ill health retirement. The testosterone treatment did not commence until after I had retired at the age of 47.

However I beg to differ on the claim that low testosterone causes erectile dysfunction as this is something that I have rarely suffered from. My libido has always fluctuated from disinterest to borderline obssession and testosterone treatment has not altered that behaviour in the slightest.

It is certainly true that my sex drive suffered as a consequence of the symptoms of tiredness, fatigue and breathlessness probably caused by anaemia, as low testosterone can cause this, but I still retained an interest in making love.

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User77530 said on 27 December 2008

what is the most likely cause and or remedy when a man can obtain an erection but loses in the moments before ejaculation?

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rob said on 08 August 2008

Sheer excitement can do this. sometimes it can be a good idea to think about something non sexual for a while to prolong intercourse.

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kathy said on 26 May 2008

what causes a man to ejaculate to fast . all the time he has sex and does not pleases his spouse

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