Tuesday, November 25, 2014

V is for

It is November so lots of people are growing out their facial hair to raise money or awareness for men's health.  I already have a goatee and growing a beard isn't especially feasible because it gets insanely itchy and I don't feel like having my face be on fire for three weeks.  Instead I am going to do something much harder.  I am going to talk about my own medical history in an attempt to help destigmatize it, which is especially important in this case because my personal issue is among the most stigmatized ones around.

I suffer from erectile dysfunction.  According to WebMD, this is something that happens to about 5% of men in my age group and that number rapidly rises with age.  There are plenty of treatments for it that sound utterly terrifying to me such as penile injections, vacuum pumps, and surgery but thankfully my case is quite mild can be completely fixed with a low dose of viagra.  (Actually the off brand, but nobody would recognize the name.)  It is also one of those things that is associated with so much shame that nobody wants to talk about it even though we all know it is endemic - our spam folders are full of proof of that.

My case is also weirdly specific in that it only comes up when using condoms.  For anyone who isn't especially familiar with how condoms affect sex, imagine looking at a beautiful sunset... but with a giant latex balloon over your head.  You can still see the sunset of course because the balloon is translucent but it really does put a damper on the experience.  (Also it would probably really hurt if you got it caught on your ears on the way down - be careful with that.)  This only became relevant for me in recent times when I started practicing polyamory and had multiple sexual relationships simultaneously.  Condoms are amazing and wonderful as they make that situation drastically less likely to involve STDs.  Also condoms are awful and I hate them.

Talking about this sort of thing is hard because so much stock is put in the idea that a man is represented entirely by a giant throbbing erection.  This is a very damaging idea because some men don't have penises, some penises aren't on men, some of those penises aren't large, don't get erect, or otherwise don't fulfill the culture requirement of 'being a man'.  The fact that penises are so often referred to as manhood is testament to this destructive viewpoint.  It also places penetrative intercourse on a pedestal which is especially problematic for gay people but also for anyone else who has sex that isn't just a penis entering a vagina.

There is a lot of cultural pressure for men to not talk about their medical issues and just maintain a stoic silence.  This is doubly true whenever that medical issue involves sex.  The admission of sexual issues goes far beyond other medical problems and becomes about moral and life failure.  As if somehow a man has nothing to bring to the world if he doesn't have a permanent hardon.

In theory I know about how stupid and awful all this stuff is.  In theory I can ignore it.  But in practice when I have been having sex and had to deal with erectile dysfunction I was overcome with shame, guilt, and self doubt.  Staring at my groin thinking "You had ONE job, ONE!" and worrying that my partner was going to think that they did something wrong or that I am not sexually attracted to them (which has never been the case) made it all the worse.  No matter how much I want to be immune to such thoughts I am not; I am a product of the culture in which I was raised.

I use Viagra, and when I do it fixes a medical problem I have quite nicely.  Much like people use insulin for diabetes, or aspirin for heart problems, or bandaids for cuts I use viagra for erectile dysfunction.  Talking about it and trying to remove the stigma from it will be useful for other people like me and it might just help everybody else by eroding a lot of the terrible ideas our culture has about what it means to be a man.

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