Upstairs, downstairs

I couldn't get it up and I'm 19! It was going to be the first time for me and my girlfriend, but the man downstairs didn't respond! I didn't feel nervous, I felt confident that I would be fine. But when the mood struck I couldn't deliver. Now not only do I feel like crud, I'm hoping that the next time it happens that the little soldier downstairs decides to take some action... It felt like the most disappointing thing in my life. I was tired. If that is a factor, then maybe I just need a good nights sleep and another go at it? Any advice would be amazing.
Heather Corinna replies:

This happens.

I know that probably sounds cliché, but you need to understand that no matter how old you are, how much sleep you have had, how much you want to have sex, how turned on you are, your penis is neither a machine nor an obedient soldier. It's a part of your body, like any other, and just like any other part, you only have so much control over it.

I feel that it is very important, in order to have a healthy relationship with your sexual body, that any one of us has realistic expectations of our bodies and accepts -- and honors as okay -- that there will be times our bodies won't do what we want them to. It's highly likely that there are going to be plenty of times in your life when you don't get it up when you want to, not just this one time.

People with also will have times when our clitorises won't get erect, our vaginas won't loosen or lubricate: it's really the same deal (even though some people with vaginas will have genital sex anyway, despite it being uncomfortable, unpleasant or even painful). For all you know -- especially if sex is new to you and you're still becoming familiar with genitals -- your partner might have been in that same spot herself. I have a hand disability, so sometimes, despite the use of my hands being critical to the work I want so much to do, I have to honor my hand deciding that we both have to call it a day. That doesn't have to be a disaster: in fact, my body making that choice can help me to go find other things I enjoy doing but might not otherwise make time for. I'm getting older, so I have to accept that my hair is starting to go gray, I'm getting some wrinkles, and my bottom doesn't quite seem to be exactly where I left it 20 years ago. You may have experienced times when you want to stay awake so badly, but your body just plain needs some sleep, or times when there's a great plate of food in front of you, but you are just not hungry. Everything like this is simply part of being human, and there's nothing the matter with any of it.

Sex with a partner -- at any given time, no matter what kind of sex we're talking about -- is about sexually connecting with another person in the moment, in exactly the space our hearts, minds and bodies are in at a given time. It's really kind of a good thing all of that isn't static or completely predictable, because if it was, sex would get really boring really fast. When sex tends to be best is when we and our partners are able to go with the flow of our minds and bodies, without being fixated on what we want them to do or feel we should be doing. Going with the flow in that way, and having the expectation that we just don't really know what's going to happen exactly, or what's going to feel best at a given time, is a sound recipe for the good stuff. Getting stuck in the idea that any one thing must or should happen can be a recipe for missing out on other things we might explore or discover.

I also want to mention that first-times can be seriously nervewracking, especially when it's something a couple has tried to schedule, or gets their minds set being sure will happen at a given time. You say you didn't feel nervous, but if there was an expectation this would happen right then and there, on that night, there is going to be some kind of anxiousness involved. With that pressure and more, it's often more surprising that one or both partners CAN become fully aroused and have their bodies respond than when they can't. Being able to have some level of relaxation is a pretty big deal when it comes to human sexual response for most people, and I'd say that to have that real relaxation, everyone involved needs to feel that there is a good deal of flexibility when it comes to what you do together and how your bodies may or may not respond at any given time. In fact, the way your body responded may well have been a reflection of a nervousness, pressure or anxiety you were feeling, but just didn't intellectually or emotionally recognize or acknowledge.

So, what can you do when this happens? You have a handful of options.

If you're with a partner and still want to have sex, you can remember that not only do you have many ways of engaging in sex which don't require an erect penis, but that those other kinds of sex are not only often enjoyable for many partners, but for many women, are more enjoyable than intercourse or other activities where your penis is involved. With plenty of partners, it's hardly going to be a bummer for you to say, "Hey, this just isn't happening for me when it comes to intercourse right now: would you like it if I gave you some oral sex instead?" (a question often nearly guaranteed to result in a positive response) or "Nope, no intercourse right now, but howsabout we give each other full-body massages, or each talk and share a sexual fantasy with the other?"

You can also just wait it out a bit: sometimes, if erection doesn't happen at a given time, it can happen fifteen minutes, a half hour, an hour down the road, particularly if you don't get all hung up about it and do other things together that turn you both on. Or, you can just take a raincheck on sex of any kind with a partner altogether if both of you really only wanted intercourse at the time: there are other ways to express physical affection or desire without sex, after all.

No matter how you choose to handle it, I'd encourage you not to get so down in the dumps about it, or to get all hung up on this. I think it's relatively safe to say that someone in a snit about not getting an erection, or who makes it into some kind of huge tragedy is far more likely to make a night a big-time bummer than the mere fact of there not being an erection or the kind of sex someone wanted. Next time this happens, no matter what you do, just let it go. Shrug it off, have a laugh at how rebellious our bodies can be (my current partner and I jest when he can't get erect that his penis has "gone rogue"), and let it be no big whoop, because it really is NOT a big deal unless you or someone else makes it one.

If your partner was really bummed, too (and not just because you were), it's a good idea to talk about this with her as well. An extra bonus of having that conversation is that it also opens the door for you to mention that when there are times she finds her body isn't responding in a way that'd make a given kind of sex work or feel good, that you don't expect her to try and force something that just isn't happening, either, and that your investment is in both of you feeling good in whatever way works for the two of you at a given time, not in having the sex you have stick to some kind of a script. It's probably obvious to you why that would be a great thing to hear your partner say, especially since this may not be the only time something doesn't "work" when either of you want it to. She may very well not reach orgasm from intercourse when you do. It might not feel so hot to her, especially at first: she may even discover (or you might) that intercourse isn't an activity she even likes. You both may get everything working physically, but then find that intercourse leaves you feeling a little underwhelmed. Having a conversation about realistic expectations, honoring your bodies as they are, and flexibility when it comes to what sexual discoveries you make is a great talk to have, and one likely to benefit your sex life a ton.

Lastly, do yourself a favor: don't think of your penis as a little soldier, seriously.

I know it might seem like nothing but semantics, but how we think about our bodies does often tend to have a pretty big impact on our body image, our sexuality and the kind of sex we have. Most folks don't want sex with a partner to resemble the Invasion of Normandy, so it's pretty safe to say that thinking about genitals as soldiers probably isn't going to be conducive to two people physically and emotionally connecting, and to honoring bodies as the humane, organic and sometimes wily, mind-of-their-own things they are.

Your penis isn't something separate from you: it's one part of the whole of you, and you're better off trying to think of it that way than you are dehumanizing or anthropomorphizing it. Thinking about your genitals more holistically may also help you glean a more acute awareness of them and your whole body so that when, for instance, you're just plain tired, you can honor that and have a sleep or a cuddle instead of sex, or figure that an erection is a bonus from your body, not a requirement or a pre-requisite for many kinds of sex. I've talked about a couple things that make for great sex already, but another biggie is not getting locked into the idea that sex is merely genital, or only about your penis. Sex is whole-body, and when you can really start to see it that way, you open the door to a sex life that's much more likely to be really enjoyable than when sex is limited to a mere six inches of a body and sexuality far larger than that.

Okay? Next time the two of you get together and want to be sexual, figure that you're just going to see where things go, based on what's feeling good for both of you and what your bodies are responsive to at that time. There is no one kind of sex that takes all or which all people, at all times, feel is best. It's a matter of what works for any set of partners on that day, in that moment, and what you're bringing to the collective table with your head and heart, which includes a positive, patient attitude about your body and theirs, and expectations which are realistic and leave room for the unpredictable nature of our bodies and our sexuality.

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