I can proudly claim that I have never had significant problems obtaining and sustaining an erection. Touch wood. The imperative word here, however, is significant. Like many men, I have had erection issues after a few drinks. I also struggled for a few weeks up to losing my virginity. Go figure. There are even a few times when I couldn't get it up despite being completely sober and with a beautiful girl. From time to time it's made me wonder what on earth is going on down there. So let's take a look at how erections work, why they don't and what to do about it. (For some background reading on the male anatomy, check out 10 Things You Don't Know About Penises.)

The Mechanics

An erection, unlike the female equivalent, is a visible indication of a man's sexual excitement. Of course, it's also necessary for intercourse. In the scientific community, an erection is called a "physiological phenomenon". It is part of a complex interaction between the psychological, neural, vascular (blood system) and hormonal functions of the body.

Two tubular structures running the length of the penis, the corpora cavernosa, fill with blood when these elements combine. The scrotum may also tighten, pulling closer to the body, and the foreskin will automatically and gradually retract, exposing the glans.

Usually, this all works like clockwork. Usually. Except that the brain can stop an erection even if there is physical or mechanical stimulation. Psychological, emotional and environmental factors affect a man’s ability not only to obtain an erection, but also to sustain it. That said, are some other things that are known to cause problems in the erection department.

Four Big Boner Blockers

  1. Drinking
    Until I reached the prime age of 20, I was able to drink large (perhaps excessive...) amounts of alcohol and still perform that night. Nowadays, it only takes a few drinks to put my little man right to sleep. Medical professionals will tell you that alcohol is a pretty reliable cause for erectile troubles. Even so, one of my close friends cannot obtain an erection even after the slightest drop of alcohol, while another friend has only ever slept with women while drunk. In short, alcohol affects erections in various ways.
  2. Condoms
    Condoms are often labeled as a passion killer. Don't worry: Wearing a rubber won't keep you down, unless it's too tight, in which case it may restrict the blood flow to your erection and soften it, or diminish it completely. Even so, the psychology behind men and condom use is worth discussing. For me, putting on a condom was quite a harrowing experience at first. After all, the first time many guys really get to be tested as lovers often coincides with the application of a condom ... in the dark and under pressure. Yeesh. (Avoid anxiety and learn to put on a condom correctly by avoiding the common mistakes in 9 Things You Don't Know About Putting on a Condom.)

    Scientists could undoubtedly explain this phenomenon better, but for me, the strong link between my own harrowing psychological experiences with condoms affected my ability to obtain an erection while wearing one in subsequent encounters. (For tips on what you can do about so-called "condom flop," check out this great article on TheSite.org.)
  3. Anxiety
    A littler nerves before sex is normal for men and women, but many men I know have had nerves get the better of them, especially in one-off encounters. The effort and level of anticipation that both parties go through in a one-night stand adds pressure to the performance. Sometimes, the erection loses out. Nerves may also take over when you're doing something exhibitionist and fear getting caught.
  4. Poor Health
    Poor general health, including a bad diet, can clog up the coronary arteries and lead to weaker erections or total erectile dysfunction. Maintaining a stable diet and healthy lifestyle, therefore, can really help sexual performance. According to Christopher Steidle, professor in urology at Indiana University, erectile dysfunction might also be named "early diagnosis," because it can often reliably predict a heart attack.

    That said, even short-term health effects can temporarily pull the plug. This includes stress, dehydration and lack of sleep. (Learn more about the causes of erectile dysfunction in The Flaccid Truth About Erectile Dysfunction.)
  5. Other Reasons
    There are probably a hundred reasons behind the lack of an erection. Being unable to talk openly about any relationship problems is usually an umbrella reason. Lack of sexual knowledge is most certainly another for younger men. Past sexual problems, sexual abuse, and even being in a new relationship will all affect a man’s ability to obtain an erection. The key is that in many cases the reason may be both complex and personal.

Helping It Up

Erections can be complicated buggers. Many men know this, but many women, unfortunately, do not. If your partner is struggling in the stiffy department, here are a few things to know.

  1. It Isn't You
    An inability to get an erection doesn't mean a man suddenly finds his partner unattractive or unappealing. In fact, if you're in a new relationship, nerves can really hold things back.
  2. It Isn't (Always) a Big Deal
    Occasional inability to obtain or maintain an erection is normal, so if it's a one-time thing, please don't make a big deal of it. Men can be very tender in these situations, so try to avoid expressing your disappointment with the night. It will only make things worse. That said, if you suspect a medical problem, it's worth looking into, both for your partner's health and for a healthy sex life for both of you.
  3. It Doesn't Have to Be Over
    If the context is right, there is nothing stopping you continuing with the night. Perhaps a little more intimacy and foreplay is all that's required.
I like to think that erections have their own personalities. If you are married or in a long-term relationship, you will probably understand the mysterious workings of at least one. But while what goes up must, well, come down, it doesn't always happen as expected, even for the man involved.

For some tips on keeping a healthy erection - and keeping healthy - check out "Survival of the Firmest: UCLA Doctors Describe Ten Steps to Better Erections, a Longer Life and Reversing Erectile Dysfunction."