Abstract image of plastic dolls in bed evoking sex
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When the guy you’ve been dating for a month tells you he’s impotent, there are several ways you may react to the news. Empathy, shock, and confusion are common. If you’re a monster, you might respond with laughter. I personally choked on a mouthful of beer and spluttered, “You can’t be impotent—we’ve had loads of sex!”

Robbie explained to me that complications from diabetes left him unable to get erections from the age of 17. He needed drugs like Viagra to get hard, and when we first started dating, he carried a pill in his wallet just in case the date led to sex (which it often did). I was baffled—I thought problems getting hard only happened to old men, but it’s becoming common in younger men, too. Research published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine suggests one in four men seeking medical help for erectile dysfunction is under the age of 40.

Robbie told me he needed to be honest upfront so that I knew what I was getting into. I was only 21—could I be fulfilled in a relationship where sex might not be straightforward or spontaneous? He shared that he’d struggled to maintain long-term relationships, and he blamed those relationships ending on a lack of confidence around his sexual performance. His frankness and vulnerability encouraged me to be open about my own issue—penetrative sex didn’t do much for me. I’d never orgasmed through penetration, and I admitted to him that, before we met, I had faked almost every orgasm with a partner. He laughed, “You can’t come and I can’t get it up. What a pair of losers!”

I’m not the only woman who struggles to come through penetration. A recent study by the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy showed that only 18% of the vagina-having participants reported orgasm through intercourse alone. The myth of the easy climax for cis women through heterosexual intercourse has been perpetuated by fiction, porn, and mainstream media for decades. It’s little wonder that men feel like a failure if they can’t whip a woman into a frenzy after a few thrusts in the missionary position.

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We continued the conversation about our sexual “failings” in the bedroom, and Robbie popped a little blue pill before we undressed each other. Viagra doesn’t give you an instant boner–it can take up to an hour to work, so we lay in bed, talking dirty while touching and stroking each other. Prolonged foreplay was a rarity for me. I was so familiar with sex being about giving pleasure rather than receiving. I felt selfish lapping up all this new attention. With previous partners we’d followed a pattern–entrée (foreplay), main course (penetration), dessert (orgasm). And I never enjoyed the main course and faked dessert, so it’s unsurprising that sex often left me unsatisfied.

Robbie and I made a pact that day–no more bullshit or faked orgasms. We decided to focus on pleasure without penetration.

We had so much fun discovering each other’s erogenous zones. I learned that wet kisses on my earlobes and the area underneath my belly button made my entire body tingle. Turns out that Robbie was a guy with super sensitive nipples, and neck kisses drove him crazy.

We sexted constantly when we were apart, so by the time we saw each other, we’d be so aroused that orgasms were quick and powerful. We started having fun outside of the bedroom, too—including one particularly memorable nightclub experience where Robbie used neck kisses and wandering hands to turn me on while we waited to get served at a bar. It turns out that if you take the focus away from the one thing that doesn’t come easily (erections and penetration), you get to open a whole new world of pleasure.

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The thing about erectile dysfunction is that it’s often the lack of communication that creates the biggest obstacle for a couple—not the sexual performance issues themselves.

Robbie had blamed his impotence for the failure of past relationships, but his reluctance to speak about his sexual issues caused him to shut down emotionally and push partners away. Similarly, I’d been happy to fake orgasms rather than have a difficult conversation about what did and didn’t make me come. Talking about sex can be embarrassing and awkward, but wouldn’t you rather have a few difficult conversations than a lifetime of pretending?

If you have a sexual partner who suffers from erectile dysfunction, don’t panic. Don’t take it as a sign that you’re not sexy enough or that you’re doing something wrong. See it as an opportunity to explore protracted foreplay. Enjoy getting to know your body and their body without penetration. Because having an “everything but” sex life might just produce some of the best orgasms of your life.