22 August 2022: What a relief to find I am not alone with the phenomenon of phantom erections! Today a fellow member posted the following in an online prostate cancer support group. He dreamed he had a full-on erection. Then he woke up and felt down there – only to find nothing happening. Zero. Nada.
There was a deluge of responses in the group. Many of us have the experience of feeling all the telltale sensations of arousal and erection, even after prostate cancer treatment. Yet we need ourselves or our partners to grope around down below to see if any erection is actually manifesting physically.
Sadly, that groping hand often finds something totally flaccid between our legs. It’s a phantom erection that is all in the mind. And it feels devastating to our hopes of recovery.
Shock of physical disconnection
For me it is a huge shock to experience this disconnection between brain and body. Now I know this is true for many others. For over 50 years, I had always been hyper-aware of the state of my erections. Often it was exquisitely joyful, and of course at times it was exquisitely embarrassing.
Owners of male-presenting bodies are socially expected to be rather undemonstrative of our feelings. But our penises generally don’t get the memo, at least until we get over 50, or prostate cancer, or both.
Mine didn’t get the memo regarding aging. Barring a brief bout of ED around 50, my erections were pretty reliable until my radical prostatectomy. In fact I largely took them for granted. But since surgery aged 61, my spirit has been willing but my body frequently unable to manifest its time-honoured response to desire and arousal.
What phantom erections are like
It’s particularly common during the night, waking with the sensation of an automatic nocturnal erection, convinced it is there. But if I send a hand down there to check – it finds not even a chubby swelling. Lifeless is what it feels like.
When building up a head of erotic steam for some self pleasuring, the “normal” tingles and tightness can feel like there must be an erection down there. But on trying to give the old fellow a stroke and finding it completely soft: disappointment is too small a word. It can feel quite rubbery and barely recognisable.
For all these years that erection had been the epitome of eagerness. Now it’s all talk and no action – a man’s worst social fear?
Living with phantom erections
It’s hard to live with this disconnect. My admired pelvic floor physiotherapist recommended some helpful advanced penile rehab exercises. One of them is to twitch the muscles at the base of the penis, the way young men often do in the shower. It feels as if it sends a small burst of blood into the erectile tissue. He says it supports the automatic parts of erectile function while they recover.
But when I have a phantom erection, I can perform that clench-and-twitch routine, and really be convinced that there is a twitch. But if I look or feel down there, actually there is not a millimetre of movement or swelling. I still do the exercises to keep hope alive.
Adapting to the new normal
Where I see a way forward is through adaptation. Looking at the glass half empty, I have lost the eagerness of erections that want to burst out of my pants.
Looking at the glass half full: there are still times when I feel like bursting out of my pants. That libido, love of life, is what buoys me. Clearly I can’t always maintain this. The invitation remains to make love the way I can – with the new normal of the body I have now. My mantra is to make love, with or without the body shape I previously manifested.
And I am hugely grateful for the support and sharing of other survivors. This also sustains me and I believe we sustain each other.