How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions to email@example.com. Don’t worry, we won’t use names.
Every Friday, Stoya and Rich will answer one bonus question in chat form. This week, a partner who can’t perform.
Dear How Do It,
I’m getting divorced from my second husband and remain friendly with my first. While babysitting my granddaughter and having my ex over for dinner, the subject of getting naked came up. He knows how miserable I am, and his wife has lived several states away for years. Both of us could seriously use a good roll in the hay. Fast-forward to a couple nights later when we tried. Let’s say Mr. Johnson did not show up for work. I was very understanding: He is of the age where that could happen. I finally convinced him to get some little blue pills to see what comes up, so to speak.
What I want to know is what can I do to help wake things up, if you will? He is very afraid that the pills won’t work (it turns out he took one he got from a friend the one time we did try, and nothing happened). I understand not wanting to be embarrassed again, but I would never humiliate him as I know he can’t help it. I just want to know if there’s anything I can do to facilitate things. Sure, I have an ulterior motive, but we’d both be the beneficiary if we get things going. Any suggestions?
—Calling Mr. Johnson
Rich: There are just so many avenues to explore here.
Stoya: The first is: Viagra can’t help if the person isn’t aroused. Like, say, when they’re about to cheat on their wife in a really complicated way.
Rich: Right, it’s not a horny pill. It merely facilitates blood flow. In most cases, that itself is not enough to turn a man on. Even Viagra’s own website acknowledges that the drug’s efficacy is less than 100 percent. Some guys just need a different erectile-dysfunction med, like Levitra or Cialis. Did he eat fatty food just before or after taking it? That could interfere. Is he experiencing ED because of insufficient sleep or diabetes? There are a host of physiological and psychological possibilities here, and probably several more that science hasn’t yet pinpointed.
Stoya: This kind of nuance is part of why visiting a doctor personally, instead of using secondhand drugs, is the ideal way of handling things.
Rich: For sure. I think you have to come to ED meds knowing that none is a panacea. He might want to look into cock rings as well? But I think in terms of what the partner can do, it’s to not make this a big deal at all. Anything that feeds his anxiety is likely to take away from his erection. Starve anxiety, feed a boner. It works the other way too, obviously—not being able to get it up can cause its own anxiety, which makes attaining wood even more difficult. It becomes a cycle.
Stoya: I always want to check that the condom is the right size, too. (Presuming they’re using one.)
Rich: Yeah, totally. And a lot of guys report that condoms are enough to deaden wood. So there are a lot of balls in the air, if you will.
Stoya: Perennially funny.
Rich: A metaphor I certainly won’t overuse while writing this column.
Stoya: I’m stuck on the psychological aspect. I did make an assumption that the context here involves infidelity. I feel like she would have mentioned if there was an acknowledged open situation?
Rich: Yes, although the fact that the wife lives several states away feels at odds with monogamy. I know people do it, but I really don’t know how.
Stoya: Temporary situations are one thing, but multiple years …
Stoya: So it’s unclear whether guilt might be a factor, but that can be a dick-dwindling emotion. (Except when it’s a turn-on, because that happens too.)
Rich: Dicks are so sensitive. It is, at times, patience-testing. But what you say makes total sense. I think some people have this idea that a “real man” is ready for sex whenever, no matter the circumstance. And I’ve been around way too many men by now to know that’s just simply not the case.
Stoya: I’m grateful for the penis-having people who communicated that to me. It didn’t get mentioned in easily accessible sex books.
Rich: Have you ever encountered a dick that resembled overcooked spaghetti and took it personally?
Stoya: I took them as challenges. Which they still are, in a different way. I used to think the challenge was “find the right spot to stroke, suck, etc.” to wake them back up. But the challenge became “troubleshoot what’s going on, probably find something they’re feeling weird or nervous about, and talk through that.” That may lead to less sex, but the quality is consistently better. I think the letter writer might have more luck with the second.
Rich: If you can estimate the success rate of each method, what would you say it was in terms of boners achieved?
Stoya: I have literally no idea.
Rich: I was hoping you’d have a spreadsheet.
Stoya: I keep track of the past year for safer sex best practices, but otherwise no notes. One of my biggest organizational regrets in life.
Rich: I usually honestly just ignore uncooperative dicks if the guy signals that he is happy to continue despite no liftoff. In my case, in all likelihood, he’s vers so he can just bottom at that point. Sometimes that’s all he needs to harden back up. It’s like, “OK, what else can we do?” The letter writer could try to focus on non-erection-related activities, and the lack of pressure could be enough.
Stoya: There is a wide world of things you can do that don’t involve a penis.
Rich: Yeah, exactly. And pay attention to him. You can tell when he’s phoning it in, and when he’s actually engaged. Which is to say that someone else’s ostensible lack of physical interest (in this case a boner) may betray their actual investment in the situation and make the partner feel self-conscious. And I say trust him if he’s interested in keeping the sex going.
Stoya: I agree that an absent erection is not something to get self-conscious over.
Rich: It happens. It’s not something any party has much power over sometimes. So her question about what she can do, I think, belies a way of thinking that may be antithetical to her cause. The best thing you can do, I’d say, is not do anything, just continue as usual with a slight shift in focus toward the aroused party.
Stoya: I still have this suspicion that his heart isn’t totally in it.
Rich: Do you think we should be tougher regarding the cheating, or do you think his lack of arousal is telling in itself?
Stoya: That’s the thing! I don’t think we need to be tough. I think Mr. Johnson got a new job as moral arbiter. So before he goes off to the doctor or condom store or cock ring emporium, I think they ought to talk about whether there’s some lurking uncertainty in the first place.