A lot of people worry about getting and keeping a hard on (aka erections). This is about what makes them happen, why they might disappear, erectile dysfunction and what might actually help.
What is a hard on?
There’s no bone in the penis. There are two tubes of sponges each surrounded by a thick wall of tissue. Nitric oxide is released in the penis which widens the blood vessels. Then blood rushes into these sponges along the length of the penis (corpus cavernosa). As these fill up and expand they press against the surrounding tissue and, hey presto, the penis starts to gets a bit bigger, longer and harder. Sometimes it gets a bit bigger, sometimes it feels really big, tight and throbbing, often it’s somewhere in between.
They come and go right? Why?
Erections can happen at any time, whether you want them to or not. It can from be a physical sensation: like touching it, rubbing against your bed sheets, or the vibrations from a bus. It can be from a sexy thought or image. They happen in the night when the body is really relaxed (more on that below). Or it can be when you are turned on and want to have sexy times.
However, the annoying thing is that none of those things guarantee a hard on happening or staying. And like I say here, wanting sex and being turned on are very different.
Sometimes hard ons happen and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they happen when people want them to but often they don’t. They’re easier to make disappear than to make appear. If everyone could just accept this, then there wouldn’t be a problem. It’s just not normal for people to have full control over their hard ons all the time. Honest.
So am I saying that your problem isn’t a problem? Maybe a little bit. Let me explain.
Why are hard ons so important anyway?
Think about what you have learned about ‘proper’ sex from TV, porn, school, parents, friends, religion, and sex education. Think about all the sex scenes in TV and film, most porn clips, all the sex ed about condoms and contraception.
What is this ‘proper sex’? It’s penis in vagina sex (or penis in anus) – I call it entry sex. This is a problem because it excludes people who don’t have sex with penises, which isn’t cool obvs. But it also puts a lot of pressure on men with dicks.
What society says men and sex a) you need a penis (at least one) and b) it has to be hard. If you have a penis it has to be hard or you’re not good at sex. Society says soft dicks aren’t sexy and if you have a soft dick you can’t have sex. It ignores the person and focuses on their penis. This places a lot of pressure on a penis to do a thing, that we often have no real control over.
Pressure makes getting hard hard
Men can find it really hard to ignore all of this and can’t help believing this for themselves. They might worry about staying hard for long enough. They might worry that their partner will think they don’t fancy them if they can’t get or stay hard. They might really want to last longer when they have ‘sex’ because they know that their dick goes soft after ejaculation.
That’s a lot of pressure that we can place on this one body part. We don’t know much about how we can make penises hard on demand but we do know that stress and anxiety makes them go away. Just like anything else, most people find it too difficult to perform under pressure – the penis is just the same. The more we try to make erections happen, the harder it is.
Stress and hard ons
This all sounds really stressful right? A hard on is meant to demonstrate that you are ‘a real man’. It’s meant to be essential to being ‘good’ at sex. Erections are also meant to show that you ‘really’ fancy your partner. So much stress! Well, here’s another fact – stress kills hard ons.
That’s right. When you’re stressed, your body stops you getting hard ons. You can read more about how to deal with stress. The short version is that when you’re stressed (even a little bit stressed) your nervous system goes into react mode to keep you safe. So it diverts blood supply to where it’s needed (eyes, ears, stomach, feet) and away from where it isn’t (hard ons).
The reason that you get erections when you’re asleep is that the body is so relaxed that it sends blood into the penis (and clitoris) to recharge it overnight. Just basically to make sure it’s working okay. So to get and keep an erection you have to be pretty relaxed (excited, but relaxed). When it comes to sexy times, the fear of being laughed at or being shamed is enough to stress you out. Enough to kill your boner. Does that make sense?
So just to recap.
- Hard ons are random and we often can’t control when they come or go.
- But society says they are essential for sex and masculinity.
- Because men with penises, who want to have sex, want them to get hard a LOT.
- This pressure makes hard ons harder to get because of stress
- Making people sad, anxious and inadequate.
- This makes hard ons even harder.
It’s a vicious circle right? The only way we can beat this is to take the pressure off penises and the various roles that they have to do. If we can accept that hard ons come and go, and not stress about it, then we’re actually more likely to get them.
So what can you do to help your erections?
Try these tips for getting and staying hard
Just being relaxed about a penis sometimes being hard and sometimes not is really hard to do. Even though it’s the best advice, society and culture doesn’t make it easy. Most men struggle with this. If you struggle with this these tips might help.
Your penis is your friend
If you find yourself staring at your penis and getting angry that it’s not getting or staying hard remember to be gentle with it. Think of it as that friend of yours who is great fun when they’re around but sometimes just disappears for a bit. They’ll come back, they always do. Just accept it and chill with your other friends for a bit – like your hands, lips, nipples, legs.
You are not just your penis
Think about all the people in the world who have the most amazing sex without penises. You can do that too even though you have one! If you think about the different parts of your body that may feel pleasurable to you and to another person you will have much more fun. There are lots of tips about how to have amazing sex without an erection here. Also,you know that you can have orgasms without touching your dick right?
Ignore hard ons now and again
So imagine you’re doing sexy things with another person and you get an erection. It doesn’t mean you have to immediately reach for a condom and put your penis inside them. Remember, lots of things count as sex. Maybe it might be a good idea (and really hot for your partner) to ignore your erection. Remember that most women don’t orgasm from just penetration with a penis. If you took this off the table it might be a lot hotter for everyone.
Read this about why penis in vagina sex can be meh
Spectrum of hardness
Remember in the first paragraph I was saying that the hardness of dicks varies? Sometimes it can be like a 2 or 3 on the HardOn Scale™, sometimes it might be an 8 or 9. There might be some things that are more difficult to do with a 2 or 3 – for example entry sex. but you can still do some very enjoyable stuff with a not very hard penis. If you can start to enjoy how hard you are, rather than getting annoyed at how hard you aren’t then you might enjoy sex more.
Booze and drugs
Booze and other drugs can affect erections. Sometimes people say it makes them really hard (because it makes them relaxed). Other times it makes it hard to get hard. There’s more about booze and sex here. Also read this excellent bit of advice to a woman who has sex with drunk guys who can’t get hard.
Try to feel and not think
In addition to worrying about erections there are lots of worries we can have if we have sex with someone. Worries about our bodies, what they think of us and what this means can be well distracting. Add to this all the crappy sex advice about positions, lasting longer and magic techniques.
If this is you, try to slow down and pay really close attention to your body. Go through all of your senses: smell … sounds … touch … taste … what you can see…. Go through a map of your body, what can you feel where? How are you breathing? Compare your in breath to your out breath. It’s about being present and just really noticing everything that’s actually happening for you (as well as what’s happening for the other person/people).
It can be really difficult to do this during sex. There are so many messages about what we should and shouldn’t be doing when we have sex it can be really difficult to actually enjoy it. However it does get easier with practice, particularly if you practise when you are alone.
Trying for a baby?
Remember that in order for a pregnancy to begin you need a penis to ejaculate inside a vagina (although there are other options of course). It might be that entry sex ?? doesn’t help you to stay hard, but there might be other stuff that does keep you hard. You can do that kind of stuff and then, as you feel ejaculation might be imminent, you could insert the penis into the vagina at the last moment.
Mostly having problems staying hard?
If you have problems staying hard for most of the time you want an erection (and find that you don’t get hard at other times either) then you might have what a clinician would call erectile dysfunction. So it is a good idea to see a doctor. Sometimes some illnesses can affect erections, but also erection difficulties may be a sign of illnesses. So if you visit a doctor they can see if it is more of a physical issue and can give you treatments that might help e.g. viagra or cialis.
Be an expert on your own body
If you keep tuning into your own body and your sexual experiences you will get a much better idea of what does and doesn’t work for you. The more established this idea gets the more confident you can be in negotiating what you want, but also you can become more chill about what your dick does and doesn’t do. More about how to communicate and stay in the moment here.
Learn even more about sex!
The Penis – here is a guide to the rest of the penis
Balls and Cum – ever wondered what happens when you come/cum?
Staying Hard With Condoms – some advanced user tips for staying hard with condoms
Big Ups – remember you aren’t only attractive to people because of your penis
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© Justin Hancock, 2023
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.
Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. Find out more about Justin here