Erections, Car Wrecks, and “Manliness”

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Every week, I deal with men terribly anxious about losing or strengthening their “manliness.” A lot of women are concerned about their mate’s “manliness,” too.

Almost everyone concerned about “manliness” measures it by referring to an erection—a small bit of flesh which comes and goes as it pleases. If they’re satisfied with its hydraulic response, they feel relieved; if not, they’re terrified.

I think it’s rather pointless for people to be measuring their own or others’ “manliness.” But if they do, I certainly don’t think they should use a metric that they’re powerless to control. It’s like deciding to measure your knowledge of astronomy based on whether or not the night sky is cloudy.

But both men and women do that. Here’s what it sounds like:

* “When I lose my erection I feel like less of a man.”
* “How can anyone feel sexy when your husband can’t get it up? I want a real man, not a friend or brother.”
* “It’s horrible to see my wife’s disappointment when I can’t satisfy her with real sex.”

It’s an ancient idea, but it’s still bizarre—that people create an ideal of “manliness” that actual men have so much trouble living up to.

The practical issue here is that some men attempt to feel more manly through the decisions they make in various parts of their lives without realizing it. I’ve seen men pick fights in bars over imagined insults to their girlfriends because for some reason they believed their manliness would be doubted (by themselves or others) if they didn’t.

So men do funny things to bolster their sense of manliness without even knowing they’re doing it: by pursuing extramarital affairs, or buying Porsches, or being extra harsh with their kids, sexualizing women at work, and so on. Some retreat from sex (instead of communicating with their partner) if it’s the site of feeling unmanly. That’s why it’s important to address the issue of “manliness” explicitly.

* * *

I discussed this very topic with a patient just the other day.

He had always thought that being manly meant giving his wife everything he possibly could, no matter how exhausted or pressured it made him feel. But over time they acquired more money, and her material desires increased. He became frightened that periodically he’d have to resist her urges to upgrade their lifestyle, while at the same time he felt anxious that denying her made him less manly.

This was the life course he was on, which made him lonely and isolated (because he believed that telling her about his interior conflict would be unmanly).

Additionally, every time one of his investments produced only mediocre results, he felt he failed as a husband. That made investing, which was his business, emotionally dangerous.

Fearing mistakes in any enterprise—business, sports, academia, family—inhibits creativity, suppresses energy, and makes joyful living impossible. That’s why it’s so crucial that our definitions of success not require perfection.

This is exactly what I told him. “It’s OK to be disappointed when you don’t create what you want,” I said, “but deciding that disappointment means you’re a failure is a fundamental mistake that you can change.”

“But Doc,” he said, “I’ve pledged myself to give my wife everything I can. What kind of a man says no to his wife? Especially when his reason is ‘I’m just too tired to take on another project,’ or ‘I’d just like to enjoy what we have without making more commitments’”?

So I told him the following story from my own life.

I said, “This is absolutely true, and it happened just a week ago:

My wife was driving home on the freeway one afternoon, with an 18-wheeler on her left, and signaled to exit the freeway to the right. Before she could exit, the truck driver somehow drifted right into her lane and whacked the driver side of her car—while they were both going 65 miles per hour. The impact spun her car 360 degrees counterclockwise across three lanes of freeway traffic, coming to a stop in the far left lane. She told me later that she was absolutely certain she was going to die.

The car was practically demolished. She walked away without a scratch.

No one can explain this. I’m grateful she’s alive.

When I spoke to the insurance guy the next day, we did the routine paperwork, and then he asked me if I had any questions. “Well yes,” I said, “I’d really like this guy to go to prison for the rest of his life, hopefully to get pretty badly treated by his fellow inmates (I was pretty graphic on this last point). What can we do to increase the chances of that happening?”

The agent was quiet for a second, and said “um, excuse me?” So I repeated what I’d said, adding, “after all, this guy came within a quarter of an inch of killing my wife.”

The insurance guy was very nice, and said the insurance companies would do their usual procedure, the police would do theirs, and anything else, well, we’d all have to see how it worked out.

I replied simply “So maybe absolutely nothing happens to this guy, and life just goes on, and I just accept this, right?”

“Yes,” said the insurance guy, “That’s right.””

* * *
Concluding this dramatic story in the therapy session, I reminded the patient that this had actually happened a week ago.

I then asked him, “So tell me—what kind of a man has a careless trucker almost kill his wife and does…nothing?”
“…Or lets his wife be disappointed?”
“…Or can’t get an erection when he wants one?”

A real man, I would say. A man who acknowledges how the world works—whether it’s the legal system, random chance, or the unpredictable hydraulics of penises.

After she almost died, I comforted my wife, and we both accepted we would do nothing about her near-death accident—except continue to enjoy our lives. That’s exactly what I advise my patients do in the case of disappointment about a missing erection—continue to enjoy life, including the many, many kinds of sex that don’t require an erection.

I tell them not getting an erection when they want one may be inconvenient, but it says nothing about their masculinity. And it needn’t prevent them from having playful, lusty, or intimate sex.

Year after year, people tell me this is a radical approach.

All I know is, it works.

And that feeling “manly” doesn’t have to be so problematic. It all depends on how you define it. And how important you make it.

* * *

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