What is ‘normal’ erectile behaviour?
Reviewed by our clinical team
I'm not a fan of using the word ‘normal’, as it implies that there’s something wrong, if you don’t fit in society’s typical expectations.
However, when it comes to erectile function, what your penis does and doesn’t do could be telling you something important about your physical and mental health, which might need some medical or psychological attention. In this article we’ll look at what is normal erection function, the instances when you might lose an erection and what you can do in the future to maintain one.
What is normal erectile function?
To find out what’s normal erectile function, let’s first look at what’s considered to be a dysfunction. Erectile dysfunction (ED) is when you’re either unable to get an erection or unable to keep an erection long enough to have sex. So, normal erectile function is when you’re able to get an erection and can keep it long enough to have sex.
Erections are a physical response to a chemical reaction in your brain and body. In order to get an erection you need a strong blood flow to the penis. You don’t always need to be sexually stimulated to get an erection.
Stages of getting erect
This is your penis’s ‘normal’ or resting state, which occurs when you’re not sexually aroused or stimulated. It also happens after ejaculation as well. When your penis is flaccid the blood flow in and out of your penis is equal.
During this phase, sexual arousal causes the blood vessels in the penis to dilate, and the penis begins to fill with blood. Your penis will begin to swell as more blood flows into it than is flowing out.
The blood that flowed to your penis in the tumescent stage is now unable to drain from the penis. This causes your penis to become rigid and hard enough for sex.
If you’re worried about how your penis is performing, take our erection check quiz. We have advice and support if you need it too.
What is morning glory?
For as long as you can remember, you’ve probably woken every morning with that familiar sensation of a full bladder and an erect penis. If you notice that your morning erections are less frequent or less rigid, visit your GP, as it could be an early warning sign of heart disease or diabetes. Many conditions can affect your erectile functioning, such as stress, tiredness, illness, medication, drugs and alcohol, smoking, hormones, ageing and nerve damage.
At what age do men have trouble getting hard?
Erectile dysfunction can affect men of any age, however it’s more common the older you get. Typically ED affects men over 40, with around 50% of men aged 40-70 having ED. If you’re under the age of 40 and have trouble getting hard find out what may be causing your ED here.
How long does a normal erection last?
How long an erection lasts depends on a range of factors such as sexual desire or alcohol use. It’s difficult to accurately measure the length of time it takes to ejaculate as couples rarely time the start time and finish of sex, and many people overestimate the length of their sex session.
One study which included 500 couples from different countries, found that the average length of sex is 5.4 minutes but time ranged from 33 seconds to 44 minutes. These numbers are some of the closest we have to the average time an erection lasts.
Erections that happen during the night can last 25-35 minutes.
What is the refractory period?
After orgasm, every man goes through a recovery cycle, called the refractory period, which is when it is not possible to get another erection. This resolution stage can take anything from minutes to days and varies from man to man, generally extending as you get older.
Is it normal to lose your erection?
Losing an erection is completely normal and happens to a lot of people. Losing an erection can happen at different times during sex and it can be caused by a number of different factors:
Loss of erection while putting on a condom
Many men find that when it comes to putting on a condom, their erection disappears. It may appear as though that short break from stimulation stops the arousal process altogether. Condoms are important, not just as a contraceptive, but to protect against transmission of STI’s and HIV. Visit our STI tests clinic and STI treatments clinic.
If you are confident that you and your partner are STI-free, you may find that an alternative method of contraception (if needed) alleviates the problem. However, this may not be a suitable option, so how can you include condom use in sex without losing your erection?
- Play with your penis while soft in a condom, to get used to the sight, so it’s not so negative in your mind
- Masturbate with a condom occasionally and make condoms part of sex play with your partner
- Ask your partner to put the condom on you and experiment with different brands
- Perhaps try watching porn where condoms are featured, so you associate condom use with arousal
- Talk to your partner about this very common worry.
Remember that erections come, go and can come back again, so even if your penis softens, focus on the physical sensations within your body whilst touching your partner and being touched. Following this, your erection may make a comeback.
Loss of erection during sex
You may find that erectile loss is unique to certain situations, such as sex with your partner. If you find that you have no issues getting or maintaining your erection during masturbation, but partnered sex has become an issue, then it could be down to deeper relationship issues or performance anxiety.
Your partner’s reaction to the loss of erections could play a big part in the outcome. If he or she has a relaxed and encouraging attitude towards this situation, then you may find that your erection comes back as your anxiety reduces. However, if you feel responsible, guilty and ashamed, it is highly unlikely that your erection will want to come out to play.
Loss of erection during penetration
Some men find that their desire and arousal are fine up until the point of penetration. As soon as they enter their partner, their erection goes, which can be frustrating for both partners. Agree to intentionally let your penis go soft inside your partner, stop thrusting and lay still together. Try this on several occasions to both get used to the soft penis, so it is not something to fear.
With less pressure, anxiety and a more forgiving attitude, you may find erections stay for longer during sex. Take penetration off the menu sometimes and enjoy mutual masturbation. Penetration is not the gold standard in sex.
If you get caught up in your thoughts during sex, worrying about whether you will get or maintain an erection, obsessing over whether it is big or hard enough and what your partner might think, then you won’t be there in the moment, enjoying the pleasurable sensations. You might have experienced erectile loss before or ejaculated quicker than you’d have liked, but if you focus on these worries, you may find yourself experiencing performance anxiety which can stop your sexual arousal and lead to a loss of erection.
Similarly, if you find that you are preoccupied with a fear that you might hurt yourself or your partner during penetration, talk to your partner to see what they think and perhaps try using lubricant (lube) to aid penetration. For further information and advice on painful sex, see ‘Why do some men experience pain during sex?”
Anxiety and depression
Your penis is sensitive to what is going on in your brain and your nervous system. Anxiety and low self-esteem, that often accompanies depression, will not provide adequate blood flow to your genitals. Erections are formed from blood flowing into the penis and remaining there for a while, so negative and distracting thoughts and feelings will send the blood elsewhere.
How to maintain an erection
As there are many different reasons why you might lose an erection there are different ways to maintain an erection. You might find that one of these techniques work for you, or a combination to give you better erections.
If you find that you are struggling with maintaining erectile function and have ruled out any physical causes, you may wish to seek help from a qualified psychosexual therapist, to explore more deeply the possible underlying psychological issues.
This usually involves weekly talking therapy sessions, helping you to think about experiences in your life that may be affecting you and exploring the way that you think or feel about yourself and relationships. Guidance might include, learning about your body, sexual functioning and being given exercises to do by yourself or with your partner between sessions. Visit The College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists to search for a qualified, accredited therapist.
Viagra, Cialis, Vardenafil and Spedra are commonly used PDE5 inhibitors, which can increase blood flow to the penis to help erectile functioning. However, it can take up to eight attempts for them to have an effect and some do not work if you have eaten. Furthermore, you need to feel desire for your partner and be sexually stimulated for this medication to be effective.
If necessary, your doctor should be able to advise you on suitable treatments for erectile dysfunction (ED), including other PDE5 inhibitors, Vacuum Erection Devices, intrauretheral pellets, penile injections and surgical options.
Changes in erectile behaviour are often a sign of psychological, physical or relationship issues. Erectile dysfunction (ED) may be short-lived and return to normal, or you may feel you need professional help. Pretty much everyone will experience ED at some point in their lives, but if it continues, visit your GP.
Charlotte Simpson is an Accredited Psychosexual Therapist and Relationship Counsellor in Private Practice in North West London.