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Slowing Things Down with the Preeminent Academic on Premature Ejaculation

Barry McCarthy has spent five decades trying to fix male sexuality

When sex psychologist Barry W. McCarthy arrived at American University to start a teaching role in 1970, he was offered an $1,100 incentive if he could “develop a new course that hadn’t been taught before.”

Just a few months earlier, William Masters and Virginia Johnson had released Human Sexual Inadequacy, the groundbreaking result of an 11-year research project on sexual dysfunction. Released to rave reviews, the book finally got America talking about shitty sexual communication, erectile dysfunction and straight-up bad sex. Inspired and excited by these innovative developments in what was then a fledgling field, McCarthy decided to develop his own course in human sexual behavior.

More than five decades later, he’s still going strong. In total, he’s published more than 20 books on myriad issues related to boning, sexuality and sexual dysfunction. From the media myths that condition us to believe we should all be beasts in the bedroom to the causes and cures of premature ejaculation, there are very few bedroom-related concerns McCarthy hasn’t mastered.

Although a lot has changed since the 1970s, McCarthy says there’s been one constant: When it comes to sex, plenty of us still have no clue what the hell we’re doing. “A favorite one-liner of mine is that good sex cannot save a bad relationship, but bad sex can destroy a loving relationship,” he explains. “I really believe that knowledge is power, but when it comes to sex, there are so many myths that are based on repression and ignorance.”

Specifically, his career has been dedicated to helping guys stifled by the archaic expectations of masculinity to confront problems in the bedroom. To this day, Coping With Premature Ejaculation — a book McCarthy co-authored with Michael E. Wetz in 2003 — remains somewhat of a Bible for dudes who struggle with premature ejaculation (PE), and it’s one of his proudest achievements. The intro chapter opens by busting myths — that a “man should be able to last at least an hour during intercourse” — and immediately laying out a thesis that PE, which they define as “when a man does have not have voluntary, conscious control, or the ability to choose in most encounters when to ejaculate,” is misunderstood, under-discussed and caused by a complex array of factors, many of which are psychological and social as opposed to merely biological. 

According to the book, at least three in 10 guys deal with PE. It dives into huge detail about the condition, analyzing different root causes and suggesting non-pharmaceutical solutions, like edging (jerking until you’re about to cum, then stopping, then starting again) and building up to full-length fucks with several starter rounds, all with consistent communication, of course. Crucially, drugs are never touted as long-term solutions (at least on their own). “I’m totally opposed to the biomedical model of sex,” McCarthy explains, calling bullshit on the notion that drugs alone are the key to sexual satisfaction.

It’s a realistic approach to healthy sexuality, but it’s one that requires a massive adjustment of expectations and months — sometimes years — of work. Compared to a quick-fix boner pill or a sensation-deadening SSRI, methods that require changes to behavior or relationships can be a tough sell. “In reality, the books that sell the most copies are the ones that promise you’ll last for hours, that you’ll never have erectile dysfunction and that your penis will grow two inches,” he jokes. “But they don’t help people.”

Last year, he released Contemporary Male Sexuality, a book that he describes as perhaps his best yet. It’s the culmination of decades of research, and a thorough dissection of the ways in which anxiety, depression and deleterious mental health can easily impact premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction. “Men didn’t buy it,” he says with a chuckle. “Women bought it, men didn’t — but anyway, I shouldn’t complain about that!” In his eyes, the notion that “real men don’t need help” still blinds guys to their own bullshit and blocks them from being vulnerable, which explains why rates of mental illness and suicide amongst men are still so high. “It’s a very sad statistic, but it’s also important to note that one of the best predictors of male mental illness is sexual prowess.”

In other words, serious mental health issues often play out in the bedroom first — and when they do, they shouldn’t be ignored.

McCarthy’s holistic approach to sexual dysfunction is pretty anomalous in today’s world of pop sex psychology and Big Pharma. Drug companies and media headlines lure us in with promises of dick-fixing miracle cures for erectile dysfunction, and dudes worldwide try everything from numbing lubes to dangerous cock injections in search of a quick fix for a litany of sexual quandaries. “I’m not anti-Cialis,” he says of the popular ED drug. “It can be a very helpful drug, both medically and as a placebo. What’s wrong with it is that we’re sold the idea that drugs can do everything, and then we get frustrated.” 

If you’re popping boner pills but you’ve still got a shitty diet, you’re barely sleeping and you’re suffering with acute anxiety, there’s little chance that a tiny yellow tablet alone will remedy a limp dick in any real, sustainable way. McCarthy has seen this firsthand — before it hit the market, he was on an advisory board for Cialis. “You need to tell people that pleasure is the measure, and that good sex isn’t all about erections,” he recalls. “They paid us a lot of money and treated us very well. They didn’t listen to any of our suggestions though. They basically said [sex on Cialis] lasts longer and it’s easier – bam! That was their selling point.”

By contrast, McCarthy has coached more than 4,000 couples throughout his decades as a marriage counselor, and he consistently sees how these unrealistic expectations actually play out in reality. “One of the things that really hurts my feelings, as a psychologist and a sex therapist, is that rates of sexual problems are more common than anxiety and depression combined. Over 50 percent of married couples complain about dissatisfaction or dysfunction. Two out of three non-married couples who have been together for two years or longer complain about dysfunction or dissatisfaction.”

These stats are symptomatic of a world still desperate to brush sex under the rug, to censor it and to encourage abstinence instead. To combat this, McCarthy has joined the growing wave of sex psychologists calling for a pleasure-based approach to sex-ed as opposed to the “you’ll get pregnant and die” fear-driven approach that’s still mandated in dozens of states across the country.

It’s this lack of education that makes him determined to break down the basics of good, healthy fucking in engaging, accessible detail, most obviously in books like Sex Made Simple. “Knowledge is power,” he says, emphasizing the need to also make sex-ed inclusive and representative of queer and gender non-conforming experiences. “It’s important to underline that you can be a comfortable, proud heterosexual man and also be pro-gay. There’s this notion that minority groups can only thrive if another group somehow loses something. That’s absolutely not true. Being pro-gay doesn’t come at the expense of heterosexual relationships.”

Clearly, these endless cultural hang-ups around sex aren’t doing us any favors. McCarthy says he’s proud of the gains sex psychology has made in terms of prioritizing women’s pleasure and acknowledging the needs of minority groups, but he says straight guys in particular are still reluctant to engage. They might click on articles about boner pills and open up around their partners in therapy when pushed, but making sex psychology appealing to broader swathes of men remains a challenge.

In the meantime, McCarthy’s biggest advice is to lower your expectations. “It’s completely normal for five to 15 percent of all sexual encounters to be mediocre, dissatisfying or dysfunctional,” he says with a smile and a shrug. “It’s healthy. Again, it doesn’t sell books, but I genuinely think that’s information that empowers and motivates people.” So, scream it from the rooftops: “It’s okay to have lousy sex, and you don’t have to apologize or panic!”

Soundbites like these aren’t particularly sexy, but they summarize the overall thesis of McCarthy’s career: That fucking becomes a lot easier when you realize our entire cultural vocabulary around sex is based on a string of myths. Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find most people with penises don’t fuck like jackhammers, and most people with vulvas don’t want to be pounded into oblivion with no thought to foreplay or clitoral stimulation. Sex doesn’t have to last hours, and cumming quickly doesn’t mean you’re a sexual failure — it probably just means you need better communication skills and a few edging sessions, a much more sustainable option than popping a pill. 

If anything, in McCarthy’s world, every bad fuck brings us one step closer to sexual enlightenment.

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