Anyone for a Peyronie? No, that’s not a spelling mistake. I don’t mean Peroni, the fashionable Italian lager, which quite a few of us might have been reaching for as the late spring sun finally graced us with its presence.
I do mean Peyronie’s Disease, a condition which causes curvature of the penis, resulting in pain, erectile dysfunction, anxiety and stress, to name just a few of its effects.
But until I had cause to google it earlier this week, unlike its ubiquitous namesake, I’d never heard of it. Yet it’s estimated it affects six in 100 men between the ages of 40 and 70. The figure for those in the same age range who experience erectile dysfunction is more like 50%.
Worse still, we know what we’ve all too often joked about as an old men’s condition now increasingly affects younger men. It’s been suggested that, thanks to porn addiction, up to a third of young men now experience erectile dysfunction.
I could leave it completely to your imagination as to why I was googling it. And, sure, I’ll spare you the details. But what I’m not going to hide is that I’ve had a problem with erectile dysfunction since I was in my late 30s — 20 years. I’ve sought medical help for it more than once in the past.
Is it physiological or psychological? In my case, it’s never been quite clear. I think it’s almost certainly been more psychological. Tests some years ago suggested as much. But as it’s dragged and drooped on, I’ve stopped trying to over think it and hoped one day it would go away. Now it looks as though something else has happened which might make that less likely. And now I need to understand that too.
Why on earth am I telling you all this, albeit obscuring the intimate bits to protect your blushes and mine? I’m not adverse to making readers blush. I’ve written after all about starting my sex life as a teenager crouched in a public toilet. It was a truth of wider relevance I felt I had to share.
The fact is I’m telling you, in part, for the same reasons. Because, like my early sexual experiences, erectile dysfunction is something I have felt ashamed about. Because our unwillingness to talk about it, particularly as men, is a product of shame. It strikes at the heart of what we think it is to be a man.
Recently, women have been talking openly about the menopause. Some men have welcomed that. Some have even talked about it. I know when Kirsty Wark’s programme was shown a couple of years ago, it provoked some discussion in my mixed sex workplace. Not intrusive or overly personal, but acknowledging and empathetic.
We are all better off because conversations generated by women about the menopause and period pain have entered the public realm. But as those stories emerged they only served to reinforce our silence as men. There was at least a sense that some women had been able to have these conversations as women, even though it had happened behind closed doors.
Yet in the last 20 years I’ve seldom talked about my condition, and never with anyone who I wasn’t in a sexual relationship with. Even with those who I have been, talk has been stumbling and euphemistic. I’ve never been party to a conversation with peers about something which half of us have probably been going through.
Never. And I’m a chattering classes fella who talks a lot about all manner of things and why we need to talk about them. I’m also gay and you could be forgiven for thinking we’re better at this stuff. It doesn’t take a genius to work out why it might be helpful if we were. But the opposite is probably true in a world where sexual performance can often be king.
I’m obviously not advocating that men should go to work on Monday and blunder into inappropriate conversations about whether they got it up at the weekend. But I am asking that we think about ways of getting some acknowledgment of these issues into our everyday discourse.
If that sounds challenging — I think it is — here are a couple of reasons why it might just be a good idea.
Last year, the journalist, Neil Mackay, called for men to come together to talk about how we can be better allies to women. As someone who has written a fair bit about just that, I responded. I think it’s mission critical. But — without getting into an ‘it’s all about us’ syndrome — we could usefully start by just getting better at talking to each other as men. We’ve got a marathon to run, mountain to climb, on that front alone. Pick your metaphor.
The other reason is one of self preservation — literally. The crisis of suicide among middle aged men is well documented. And the picture for younger men is no less bleak. The causes of male suicide are varied and complex. At SAMH, whose board I chair, we’re working with Professor Rory O’Conner at the University of Glasgow to understand suicide risk among men.
I’m not suggesting that men kill themselves because they can’t get an erection. But it’s self evidently the case that unless we find a way to open up to each other about common place experiences we know fine well undermine our self esteem, we don’t stand much chance of making progress.
I know the realisation I might have a condition which affects my ability to have sex in the future hurts. Coming hard on the heels of a knee injury which still threatens to stop my running career in its tracks, last year, it’s a double whammy in middle age. I know however difficult it is — and it’s no panacea — that talking about this stuff will make me more resilient. Even I find it painful and you find it embarrassing.
I’ve ummed and aahed about writing this all week — Mental Health Awareness Week — but in the end I chose to write it down just to understand it. This year’s theme is body image after all. As a writer, it’s how I make sense of the world — and mine in particular. I’ve not especially enjoyed it. And sharing it is going to feel a tad awkward too.
But, guys, we have to TALK. The embarrassment won’t kill us. But not talking just might.