Sexual Scripts and ED

Melvin Tillman, Melvin Tillman, MA

Posted by: Melvin Tillman
Melvin Tillman, MA
267-428-2612

According to the Massachusetts Male Aging Study (2018), Erectile disorder (ED) is a challenging sexual dysfunction that approximately 53% of US men have experienced at some point.  Though there are physical factors contributing to ED (e.g., cardiovascular issues, physical injury/trauma, etc.), thoughts, feelings, and messages also influence erections. Sexual scripts are an example of these internalized messages.  This article will explain what sexual scripts are, how they contribute to ED, and ways that you can modify or challenge old, unproductive sexual scripts.

What Is ED?

Before going forward, let’s create a clear definition of ED.  Erectile disorder/dysfunction (ED) is the consistent inability to obtain and maintain an erection during the majority of one’s sexual activities.  ED can occur during all sexual activities or simply some. In other words, a person can experience an erection during fellatio (aka, oral sex), but lose it when transitioning to penetrative sex.  Overall, ED is the experience of your body not working the way you would want it to. You’re sexually aroused and desiring of penetrative sex, but your lack of an erection makes it impossible.

What Are Sexual Scripts?

If you haven’t heard of sexual scripts before, you may have heard of social scripts.  Social scripts are often the unconscious messages that one has learned that dictate how they and others should act.  For instance, imagine that you need to go grocery shopping. What would that experience look like? What should you do while at the store?  Though you could thoroughly explain what grocery shopping should look like (e.g., grab a cart, select food or household items off shelves and place in cart, scan items to register the prices at checkout, and pay the cashier amount owed), you may have more difficulty explaining how you know what it should look like (e.g., Did you receive a formal lesson on grocery shopping? Read a book on what the process of grocery shopping entails?).  Sexual scripts are very similar. They are the messages, expectations, and attitudes that we hold regarding sexuality. Once again, people unconsciously absorb sexual scripts from their society.  Some of these messages come from a person’s parents, the movies and television they consume, and the sexual education taught in their school. These scripts form as early as childhood and persist way into one’s adulthood.  Over time, these unconscious messages form a rigid set of expectations on how sex “should” be (e.g., sex should end with orgasm, sex should always be spontaneous, sex should be natural and require no discussion).

Essentially, a person’s direct and indirect experiences with sex create an outline of what a positive sexual interaction should look like.  For instance, many people see sex through the staircase model. A positive sexual interaction starts with kissing, progresses to penetration, and ends with an orgasm.  One step leads to another, and only ends with the person at the top of the stairs (i.e., orgasm).. The staircase model is all-or-nothing: you either go all the way up the stairs, or not at all.  If that happens to be your sexual script, how do you think you would feel if you couldn’t complete it, if you were stuck halfway up the stairs? You would likely feel disappointed, frustrated, or sad, which is how many people who experience ED feel.  Ultimately, there are certain expectations people hold regarding sex, and those expectations are often gendered.

Gendered Sexual Scripts

People have certain scripts regarding how sex should look, but they also have scripts regarding how the people having sex should act.  What would the average person say if someone asked them, “How should a woman act regarding sex?”  Submissive, demure, emotionally expressive, and other derivatives are all likely examples. However, these reductive roles and ideas also affect men.  Here are some common sexual expectations and beliefs that society tends to hold for men.

  • Healthy men should always be able to get an erection during sex
  • Men are dominant during sex
  • Sex is mechanical and free from emotions for men
  • Men are always competent and confident during sex
  • Healthy men get erections instantly and can maintain one for hours
  • Men take charge or lead sexual interactions

These expectations are only some of the sexual scripts that society tends to have for men.  Though you could probably think of several more, they all affect ED in some way.

Sexual Scripts and ED

If you look back to the sexual scripts for men, what are the common themes?  One theme is the notion that sex is completely natural and effortless for men.  Erections come easily, the man feels no emotion other than pleasure, and he is in complete control of his body.  Another theme is the man being in charge of sex. If sex is a fun road trip, he is the one driving the car. These sexual scripts affect ED because they can produce anxiety, stress, and pressure to try to adhere to them.  Expectations can be useful for many reasons, like holding someone accountable, for instance. However, expectations can also engender anxiety, which is toxic for obtaining and maintaining erections. Anxiety takes you out of your body and puts you in your head.  Instead of focusing on the physical sensations happening before, during, or after sex, you begin to fixate on certain thoughts. Here are some common examples.

  • What if I lose my erection?
  • Will I disappoint my partner?
  • Is this going to happen again?
  • What if they get mad?
  • Will I lose my erection if we change positions?
  • Will I be able to get it up?
  • What if I can’t perform?

The thoughts go on and on, and often stem from male sexual scripts.  After all, if you’re the one who’s supposed to run the show, what happens when you can’t?  The pressure to perform is very real, and can be rather scary. Once again, stress and fear are not conducive to an enjoyable sexual experience.  Therefore, what can you do to make things better?

How to Challenge Sexual Scripts

At this point, you know how unhelpful sexual scripts can be for fostering erections.  Therefore, challenge these sexual scripts when they show up. Begin by challenging these sexual scripts in a non-sexual environment.  Challenging the scripts requires time and for you to be in your head, which makes sex a bad setting. When you are in a non-sexual environment (e.g., at home after work), write down a male sexual script that personally impacts your sex life.  Once you have done that, write down the evidence that supports that belief, and then the evidence that goes against it. It may be easier to think of supporting evidence than counterarguments. If so, it can help to envision a friend saying the sexual script about himself.  After you have done that, replace the initial thought with one that is more adaptive and fair. For clarity, here are some examples of how this activity can look.

Initial Thought: “Healthy men get erections instantly, and can maintain one for hours.”

  • I was able to obtain erections more easily when I was younger
  • None of my friends talk about having ED
  • A past sexual partner couldn’t understand why I couldn’t keep it up, referencing my age
  • Millions of men experience ED
  • It’s not realistic; men are not machines
  • Every man is different
  • Sexual arousal isn’t a constant high; it ebbs and flows
  • Foreplay is important for several people

Revised Thought: “It may be easier to have and hold an erection when you are healthy; however, ED can also happen to anyone.”


Initial Thought: “Men take charge and lead sexual interactions.”

  • The media that I consume often shows men taking charge
  • My girlfriend stated that she wants to be submissive during sex
  • Society discourages overt, proactive female sexuality
  • Sex with a partner isn’t a solo activity
  • My sexual partner can also take the lead
  • Some men are, and like to be, submissive during sex
  • My partner also has sexual agency
  • Taking charge doesn’t make me a man

Revised Thought: “Men may be expected to take charge during sex, but not every person wants or needs to follow that expectation.”


Initial Thought: “Men feel no emotions other than pleasure during sex.”

  • The men around me tend to be stoic
  • People have told me to “be a man” when I’ve felt scared or sad in the past
  • I’ve received compliments for being calm and collected, but never for being emotional
  • Men are human, and humans have feelings
  • Having sex can be very vulnerable; vulnerability is scary
  • Men are not robots
  • Men feel various emotions outside of sex, why wouldn’t they have emotions during it?
  • Women sometimes feel stress and nervousness during sex; why would men be different?

Revised Thought: “While some men are stoic, it is completely okay and normal to be emotionally expressive.”

Practice this activity multiple times when you’re in a non-sexual environment.  Doing so will make it easier to challenge those scripts when they pop up during sex.  Another way to challenge these sexual scripts is to discuss them with someone whom you trust.  This can be a friend or a consistent sexual partner. Talking to the latter can be especially beneficial if the person is supportive.  You may learn that your male, sexual expectations are one-sided, or aren’t so high for your partner. Regardless, you’ll no longer have the thought, “Will I disappoint my partner?”  You will already know the answer by having this candid conversation.

Conclusion

Sexual scripts can be a challenge to manage.  They are unconscious, pervasive, and can influence ED.  However, they are also malleable. By taking time to reflect on your sexual scripts, you can change those messages into something healthier for your sex life.  If you still struggle to alter the connection between sexual scripts and ED, seeing a sex therapist could help. Make an appointment today at https://www.therapyinphiladelphia.com/contact/.