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Failure to launch

Pressure to perform has young men falling short

COVER STORY By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz REDEYE
December 1, 2006

Sex, DePaul University sophomore Kurt Janke says, is "the one thing guys are supposed to do."

Especially strapping young men expected to be eager and able to perform with gusto anytime, anywhere, with anyone.

But this demographic perceived to be perpetually in heat often encounters a different reality in the bedroom, where lifestyle and social pressure to be love-making machines are increasingly putting a damper on their game, experts say.

There is anxiety. There is disinterest. There is—more often than people may think—equipment failure, which can be a major ego-bruiser for a man and/or his partner.

Janke, 19, remembers a time last spring when he was revved up for sex with a woman, but as the moment approached he found his body wasn't up for it. "I was embarrassed," Janke said. "The girl took it as something against her personally." Janke wasn't worried—at the time he was taking Adderall, a prescription attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder drug which counts sexual dysfunction among its side effects. But it took a lot of convincing to mend things with his mate.

That scenario is not uncommon. Gabi Cherner, 19, also a DePaul sophomore, said sex between her and her friend ran into similar roadblocksó on three separate occasions. The first time the sex didn't fly she blamed herself, even though her friend explained that he was just nervous. After some initial difficulty on their third encounter, the two were finally able to follow through, but "it was so bad," Cherner said. She'd had an inkling all along that they weren't meant for a relationship, but their sexual ordeal confirmed it.

Performance problems, though far more frequent after middle age, are not uncommon among young men, said Dr. Laurence Levine, professor of urology at Rush University Medical Center. Levine said he sees one to two patients under 40 each week. Sometimes the causes are physical. Diabetes, high blood pressure, spinal injuries, cholesterol and hormone imbalances can lead to erectile dysfunction.

But for younger men it's more often habits that are their worst enemy. Erections are more difficult to attain after drinking too much alcohol, taking anti-depressants, riding a bicycle for more than two hours a day and, most of all, smoking.

"Smoking is the No. 1 most common cause for ED in the men I see," Levine said. The more men smoke, the worse the potential problem, Levine said, but once a young man stops he usually sees immediate recovery.

Performance failure also can stem from desire disorders or anxiety. Howie Wehrle, 31, said the anxiety is especially fierce when a man is not expecting a relationship with the woman he's in bed with.

"You don't want that person's one sexual memory of you to be, 'Wow, what a lousy lay,' " said Wehrle, of Ukrainian Village, a manager at the Pleasure Chest, an adult toy store in Lakeview.

If a man gets too uptight, he can set off a neurological process that causes his blood vessels to constrict and his erection to fail, no matter how badly he wants it, Levine said. That can turn into a bigger problem if the first botched job leads to panic the next time he tries to have sex—"What if it happens again?"—and the system failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Levine said he's noticed more young men seeking help for erection problems over the last three to five years. That's in part because ED drugs like Viagra have helped shed the stigma and promised hope, but also because the pressure to live up to the sexual ideal increasingly portrayed in movies and on TV is literally deflating some men.

Jeffrey Albaugh, who runs the sexual health program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Wellness Institute and estimates that 20 percent of his clients are young couples, agrees that media pressures have exacerbated the problem.

"We have more and more things in the media that promote the ultimate lover, the ultimate sexual experience," said Albaugh, a clinical nurse specialist.

"Society teaches that I'm successful as a man if I have an orgasm and you have one," he said. "Men think the goal is orgasm, orgasm, orgasm" for both partners.

That can be an intimidating goal, as it takes a woman an average of 12 to 14 minutes to reach orgasm—four times longer than it takes a man—and it's not always a guarantee that it'll happen, Albaugh said. It's also a misguided goal, he said, as women often want intimacy over orgasm.

Women say the occasional erection malfunction is no big deal. "It can be disappointing when you're in the moment, but I don't get pissed about it," said Claire Helbig, 24, of Albany Park who works at Pleasure Chest. "It just leads to more intimate playing."

Shannon Waters, 19, said men also shouldn't worry that word will spread of the bedroom snafu and hurt their reputation. Girlfriends may mention a stunted sexual encounter to one another, "but we don't make fun of them because we have our own insecurities, and we wouldn't want people talking about us," said Waters, a DePaul sophomore.

Another possible reason for men's rising angst in bed is that women in recent years have become much more the pursuers of sex and more adventurous, Levine said. "That can be perceived by some men to be a threat," he said.

Tony Randees, 30, of Lakeview said he sometimes is turned off by women who are particularly aggressive and sexually uninhibited

"I'm more old-fashioned, and it kind of grosses me out," said Randees, who works at the adult toy store Egor's Dungeon in Lakeview, remembering one woman in particular who was into choking and pulling hair. "Maybe it's because of the stereotype that women are supposed to be chaste."

To other men who welcome women's growing assertiveness, what's more frustrating is the assumption that a man will jump at the chance to sleep with any attractive woman who shows interest.

Mike Hannigan, 23, of Logan Square said he once got the "Are you gay?" from a girl when he wasn't receptive to her advances. The assumption that men are always on the hunt "doesn't give us much credit," said Hannigan, who is straight and a Pleasure Chest employee. "It makes us sound like sluts."