3 August 2020: I still can’t get erections, but today I feel much more satisfied and less frightened. My wife and I are learning to navigate erectionless sexual connection. It’s day 158 after my prostatectomy, and a long time since I got anything like an erection outside of penile rehab exercises, but we can still make love.
To adapt, a lot has had to change inside me and in our relationship. My wife might choose to write from her perspective in due course. Meantime, here’s my take on how we are sustaining relationship and making love after my body lost its most primal male function.
There are lots of practical how-to guides on erectionless sex, erotic touch, outercourse and more available online. But not that many of them speak to the emotional and relationship changes couples have to navigate in order to adapt.
Richard Wassersug has published the best sexual adaptation research I’ve found, based on an international survey. Importantly, it includes input from gay, straight and nonbinary men recovering from the impact of prostate cancer on their sexual being. It helped me put my own struggles to adapt into a wider context.
Here’s my story of adapting to erectionless sex as part of a long term heterosexual couple.
Erectionless sex: decoupling libido from erectile function
What got us more focused on erectionless sex a month ago was me panicking about my and our libidos fading. We were both getting amorous, and even managed a moment of penetrative intercourse with the help of the Vacurect pump, only to find that my erection quickly deflated, followed by my enthusiasm. Then her sexual energy quickly faded too.
That led to a really awkward series of conversations about what we want in an erectionless relationship and what really turns us on outside of “vanilla” sexual intercourse. We realised how connected our libidos are. So if one of us loses interest the other tends also to draw away.
It scared me when I found myself avoiding cuddles with my lovely wife. I realised a part of me believed “if we start hugging, that might lead towards sex – which is sure to end in disappointment.”
As always I learn from my partner. She reminds me that for good connection to happen we need to plan dedicated time. So we’ve created regular play dates to make love together. And I am super clear and explicit about no expectation of an erection. This is mainly for my own sake.
Connection, sensuality and exploration
It turns out these agreements are a huge gift to us. Our erectionless lovemaking is soft and sensual. Both of us have some swollen body parts but there is no hardness and no urgency. No penetration. It feels loving and connecting and we are both deeply satisfied.
There are amazing things we can do with our hands, tongues, and whole bodies entwined. Cuddles and candlelight also help. Sometimes it might be orgasmic for one or other of us, but often for neither. There is a huge liberation in removing the idea of penetration and/or orgasm as the fixed goals of lovemaking.
Inventiveness is getting a boost in our lovemaking. And for me, I have to let go the single-minded pursuit of what I have lost. Rather, it is time to explore the new possibilities of who I am now.
Asking for what I want: my erectionless body’s changing needs
After a time, a problem re-emerges for me. Some part of me starts to want more. After prostate cancer, it’s much more difficult for me to have orgasms than for her. I crave more sustained attention to my body’s needs. I think my partner is thrown off track because my body can’t show its appreciation the way it used to (no erections, few orgasms and no ejaculation).
I am shocked how hard it is for me to spit out the words: “Please can you pay more attention to my whole body, and stay with it much longer than you used to [need to] before.”
There is no way that change will happen unless I ask for what I want. I learn to be quite explicit about my requests. More all-over touch, longer attention to my nipples, some anal touch. Maybe some unguided creative exploration of what is emerging in my body.
Over decades, we have come to rely on my sexual response being pretty instant. If anything, my wife learned early on to avoid stimulating me too much in case I finished long before her. Now it is the other way round: I need sustained and focused physical stimulation to get even the beginnings of a sexual response in my body.
It was so difficult for me to plainly and simply say what has changed, and ask for what I want. I also found I needed to give her some time to take in my request and not to feel criticised. And I have to remember that some of my requests just may not work for her. Yet I am deeply grateful that now my wife and I have really shifted gears. Her loving and increasingly inventive touch is reawakening me in deeply moving, gentle and loving ways.
Being hard-wired for hardness
Even after this mental and emotional shifting of gears, we have been shocked at the extent to which our bodies still expected the old ways. We believed (and still believe) we are open, fluid and creative in our lovemaking. We’ve never thought it is all about what people now call “PIV:” mainstream conventional sexual intercourse.
What happens when we get a bit hotter sexually, is that our bodies are so wired for penetrative intercourse that we kind of start humping even though there is no erection to actually consummate that act. It’s awkward and disappointing – and really quite funny.
We have to go back to the beginning, remind ourselves of our new erectionless reality, and try again. As always, a good laugh about our primal ancestry helps a lot.
Giving up my control
Last night’s lovely lovemaking, celebrated in this post, confirmed that we are still interested in making love with each other. Even with my new and different body. The most obvious shift for me is letting go of the rush and thrill of a hard erection. I do miss the physicality of penetrative sex. Instead, I need to let in all the creativity and love that comes with our open-ended physical connection.
An even deeper change for me is learning to trust my partner and give myself up to her. I can no longer play such a dominant role sexually, nor does it work if I just pay attention to her body. I need to spend far more time receiving her physical attention and stimulation. That also means giving up a lot of control of what happens when we make love.
There’s a lot to learn (and more about this topic here). It’s often “one step forward, two steps backward.” But persistent love, kindness, laughter and experimentation are helping us to adapt.