Sex and Relationships: male sexual problems

What you can do about erection problems and premature or delayed ejaculation

On a cold February day in 1899, the president of France, Félix Faure, welcomed his mistress Marguerite Steinheil to the silver drawing-room at the Elysée Palace. You will not be surprised to hear that they rapidly began to enjoy les rapports sexuels — probably of the oral variety.

Pleasant though this doubtless was, it did not last long. Alas, Monsieur le Président suddenly collapsed unconscious, and later died. Officials found the half-naked Marguerite trapped beside the presidential couch, because his contracted hand was still clenched in her hair.

The doctors announced that he had succumbed to ‘apoplexy’ — which probably means that they thought he had had a stroke, though in those days the term could also mean a heart attack (a ‘coronary’).

The news of this high-profile death created alarm among amorous gentlemen (and ladies) throughout Europe. Could sex lead to sudden death, they wondered?

Well, the answer is that occasionally people do die while having rampaging sex. And when this disaster happens, the diagnosis is generally either a heart attack or a stroke. However, that doesn’t mean that sex actually causes the coronary or the stroke. The fact is that these illnesses are common. People develop them while they’re sitting on buses, or while they’re reading or cooking or watching TV. So it’s no wonder that they sometimes have them while enjoying sex.

But you have to remember that sex is a form of exercise. And just like other types of exercise, it does push up the blood pressure and the heart rate — albeit briefly. Furthermore, a raised BP and a raised pulse rate are factors which can occasionally make you more liable to some cardio-vascular disaster. Nevertheless, the British Heart Foundation says: ‘Sex is just as safe as other equally energetic forms of physical activity or exercise.’ So that’s pretty reassuring.

Turning from our bodies to our minds, there has always been anecdotal evidence that good sex counteracts stress and promotes good sleep. But is this actually true? Sadly, we’ve found that great sex doesn’t always make people nicer and — even worse — that it’s not always psychologically healthy. In our consulting room, we sometimes see patients who are completely ‘hooked’ on what they describe as ‘amazing’ or ‘mind-blowing’ sex with someone who may be exciting in the bedroom, but is disastrous in every other way.

Take the case of Jemma. In her late forties, she was seduced by an ambitious junior colleague. He helped her reach heights of physical excitement she had never previously experienced. Not surprisingly, she was soon utterly dependent on the pleasure he could provide — even though he was a freeloader, as well as a commitment-phobe, and treated her appallingly.

She lavished expensive presents on him, and hung on his every word, and cancelled all other arrangements if there was a chance of a few heady minutes in his bed. But the downside was that she lost both her self–esteem and her dignity. Her friends and family told her that her lover was bad for her, but their pleas landed on deaf ears, until — finally — after almost two years, she recognised for herself that even the most intense sexual thrill is no compensation for the collapse of your everyday life.

Similarly, Toby, a corporate lawyer in his sixties, lost everything: his house, his marriage, his career and his health, through a highly-charged liaison with a top model he met on a clients’ night out. They only had sex a few times but he was enslaved by her. He became intensely jealous of anyone who even spoke to her, and spent a fortune following her round the world, until she took out a restraining order against him and he ended up in the tabloids.

Not everyone’s good sex is quite as bad for them as Toby’s was, but bad judgments can happen to any of us — particularly at vulnerable times such as at the end of long-term relationships. Michael, a sophisticated and successful dentist in his mid-fifties, met a ‘sex siren’ shortly after emerging from a dull marriage. The chemistry was immediate and immense. He couldn’t get enough of her — despite the fact that she was a volatile, argumentative woman who drank heavily and kept embarrassing him in public. None of his friends or siblings could stand her.

Like Jemma, it took Michael ages before he acknowledged that the wild and passionate sex he craved was destroying him. ‘At last I’ve realised that no matter how good the sex is, you can’t be truly happy if the person you’re sleeping with upsets everyone else who matters to you,’ he said recently. ‘My hope now is that I can find someone lovely who will fit in with the rest of my life instead of creating chaos..’

‘Addicted’ is a good word for what happened to Jemma, Toby and Michael. And just as with any other addiction — food, drink, gambling or drugs — obsessive sex has the potential to destroy us.

Happily for most of us, lovemaking is fun, hugely enjoyable, and probably health-enhancing too. It’s a good component in our lives. But it should never be our only source of pleasure. Harold Pinter put it well: ‘I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing that God created on earth — certainly greater than sex, although sex isn’t too bad either.’