I’m crouched in the en garde position at the Avant Garde Fencers Club in West L.A. wearing the only fencing jacket they had that would fit my ever-expanding 40-year-old waistline, which was specially ordered for retired NFL tight end Martellus Bennett when he was here last summer. While my collegiate squash team did share a locker room with the fencing team, it’s the closest I’ve come to the sport. Which is to say, I never imagined I’d be poised upon a piste, sabre in hand, preparing to battle an Olympian — let alone one with erectile dysfunction — but here I am.
My opponent, 36-year-old Jason Rogers, a silver medalist at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, recently disclosed his lifelong struggle with ED in preparation of a forthcoming memoir. I’m here to discuss the undue pressure he believes men face when they lack one or more “tenets of masculinity,” as he puts it — i.e., competitiveness, strength, material possessions, sexual prowess — causing them to be met with perceived ostracization from tribal groups of American men.
But first, we fight.
Following a brief tutorial in which Rogers offers a remedial lesson on proper fencing footwork, parries and attacks — and after saluting — the referee bellows “pret, allez!” to signify that the match has begun. I advance with a series of staccato steps, my feet perpendicular to each other, and am surprised to find that Rogers stands remarkably close with the entire left side of his lamé — target area quarte, specifically — totally exposed.
Recognizing an opportunity when I see one, I mount an attack by lunging and thrusting my sabre toward his heart in a threatening manner. At the last second, though, Rogers effortlessly drops a stopcut counterattack to my wrist and steps out of distance leaving my blade dangling helplessly in the air.
Turns out I fell for some trademark Rogers deception. Touché.
“Jason is patient and cunning,” explains Keeth Smart, the 40-year-old captain of the 2004 and 2008 U.S. teams, referring to Rogers as “an all-time great Olympic fencer for America” whose style is more defensive and cerebral, often waiting until the last second to pull the rug out from under an opponent with a deftly timed counterattack. “I first noticed him as a 15-year-old at the national circuits. He had all the intangibles necessary for success: the strength, speed, intelligence, and most importantly, work ethic required to become an Olympic fencer.”
Little did Smart know, though, that Rogers secretly struggled with an entirely different sword fight. Right around the time Smart first noticed the young prodigy, Rogers was attempting another gladiatorial right-of-passage with his high school girlfriend. “I wanted to have sex with her,” he recalls of the night she came over to his house. They were hanging out in his room, watching TV when they started kissing. But when things started getting more physical, despite his heart racing and his skin growing hotter, he felt what he describes as “blankness,” sexually. It wasn’t that he misunderstood sex — like most boys his age he’d been masturbating extensively — but he got nervous and something broke down.
“It wasn’t like I got an erection and had trouble keeping it,” he explains. “There was zero response.” All the while, an image of jousting knights on his bedroom wall reminded him that while he had plenty of confidence with a sabre, there remained one foil to contend with.
“It’s okay,” his girlfriend told him, before mercifully falling asleep on his shoulder, the implicit understanding being that they’d try again. Which they did, four or five more times, with each encounter resulting in a similarly flaccid tune. It created a pattern of Rogers feeling nervous in all types of sexual scenarios. As such, he graduated from high school with both a fencing scholarship from Ohio State University and his V-card glaringly in tact.
While the term “erectile dysfunction” often elicits visions of middle-aged men, it affects more young men than you’d think. “One in five men in their 20s,” says Paul Nelson, a clinical sexologist at Maze Men’s Health in New York, adding that the “vast majority” of his clients are in their 30s and 40s. “Voices in the back of their heads are screaming, which are the ghosts of 15-year-old boys who taught them how to have sex. Guys project all their wildest insecurities on other men. They think, Every other guy has amazing sex but me. Every other guy’s dick is bigger than mine. Every other guy can make his girl squirt when they cum. Granted, they’re middle-school bullshit beliefs, but the voices only get louder and more intense if left untreated.”
As they did at Ohio State for Rogers, who recalls the same no-response numbness happening repeatedly his freshman year. It left him increasingly insecure of his manhood, particularly around other athletes. Ohio State is a serious sports school, he notes, with football players going on to the NFL, basketball players going on to the NBA and Herculean male archetypes walking around campus having hyper-sexualized conversations about male conquest. It illuminated a troubling dichotomy for him: On the fencing strip he was “Jason Rogers, rising star,” while in the bedroom he was “Jason Rogers, unrisen virgin.” Those conflicting versions of his 21 year-old self headed to Athens in 2004, the birthplace of the modern Olympic games.
Rogers believed that being an Olympian required him to be a different type of man, so he constantly observed the other Olympians, attempting to discern their sexual prowess. The Italian fencer Luigi Tarantino was a prime example, a “cocksure Italian,” as Rogers describes him, who seemed to have everything figured out. He and the other Italian fencers — like the cigarette-smoking, cappuccino-drinking phenom Aldo Montano — exuded what Rogers perceived to be extreme sexual confidence. It was the kind of man he never felt he could be, despite it being precisely the type of man he thought he should be.
It was painfully poetic, then, to learn that Tarantino would be his first-round opponent in the individual sabre event. To make matters worse, Tarantino’s style of fencing — aggressive, emotive and over-the-top in its arrogance — was the most difficult type of opponent for Rogers. He preferred facing more tactical opponents like the Eastern Europeans, with whom he could easily match cunning with cunning.
Instead, Tarantino overwhelmed him immediately. The score of their five-minute match, 15-3, was among the worst fencing losses in Athens. But it was the way Rogers lost — dominated by such an alpha male — that left him with an all-too-familiar sense of masculine bankruptcy. “I watched from the waiting room and could tell Jason was kind of a deer in headlights,” Smart recalls. “There’s no way Luigi was that much better than him. Luigi is one of these stereotypical Italian men, very over-the-top. Y’know, shouting ‘mamma mia’ and all that stuff. Think Donald Trump during the Republican primaries. Jason was more like Jeb Bush — traditional, organized and thoughtful — while Tarantino said and did whatever he wanted.”
Rogers stumbled back to the locker room in disbelief, summoned a family member and completely lost it, choking on tears. It was a recession to a child-like place of shame, he says, figuring everyone would deem him a failure. While he couldn’t draw a direct line between his embarrassment on the piste and in the bedroom back then, in hindsight, he says the parallel is perfectly clear. “Whenever I struggled with confidence issues — both in fencing and in my sex life — I had two voices in my head. One would remind me, ‘You can do this,’ while another would darkly whisper, ‘You’re gonna fuck this up.’ I never knew which would be louder,” he explains.
Rogers returned to Ohio State for two more years. During that time, he tried hooking up with more women, only to fail yet again and recede back to avoiding the whole issue by focusing on school and training for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “My coach was Russian and very demanding in a good way,” he says. “I was practicing twice a day and studying three hours a day. I didn’t have time to think about anything else — I was determined to redeem myself at the next Games.”
But while he won a silver medal in Beijing at age 25, his struggles in the bedroom persisted, leading to a “catastrophic experience” with a woman he met at a Hollywood club. Even with the help of Viagra, he lost his erection midway through the sexual encounter. “The faster I went, the more out of control I felt, as if sprinting on a treadmill moving too fast,” he says, before finally admitting defeat and burying his face in the pillow while being mocked by the same dark whisper: I’m an Olympian, and I can’t even fuck?
This time, though, with no more medals to win (he had retired from fencing), he was determined to figure this thing out once and for all. Not to mention, the silver medal brought new opportunities, including a burgeoning career as a model. Out magazine profiled him, and as a fresh face in the fashion world, he was around a lot of gay men who were giving him a lot of attention. “There was a level of interest and reaction that I didn’t always get from women,” he recalls. He began to wonder what these people knew about him that he didn’t. “Because I had so many negative or meh experiences with women, I wondered if dating men was the answer I’d been looking for.”
So in his mid-20s, Rogers began a series of romantic relationships with men. First was a friendly, all-American, blond guy named Chuck (a pseudonym) who interviewed Rogers on the red carpet. They went out for dinner, and Chuck said, “I have to ask you: Are you gay?” It was a rumor that had surrounded Rogers since he was a teenager, but it was the first time he’d ever responded with, “I don’t know.”
“That’s interesting,” Chuck replied, understandably intrigued. Rogers didn’t explain his sexual performance issues, but did elaborate that he was a little confused and didn’t really know what was going on with him. The next week, Chuck came over to Rogers’ apartment and they had an innocent make-out session, which repeated once more. But alas, “I had the same bodily non-response,” he explains. When he returned to L.A. for work, he began hanging out with an older man he’d met two months earlier. “That’s when I started to have an actual sexual relationship with a man,” Rogers says, adding that he could maintain an erection, for a time, with assistance from Viagra.
Still, though, something was missing. “Normally when you’re having sex with someone, things unfold naturally and your body is magnetically drawn toward them. While I was able to be sexual, and even, to a certain extent, enjoy the experience we were sharing, I didn’t feel that same level of neurons tingling. They were moderated by something. I was like, ‘Fuck, that’s not my answer.’”
What followed throughout his late 20s was “a period of growth,” he says, with a woman he had deep feelings for and who helped “him work through a lot of things.” But the real progress happened next, with a Swedish woman named Martina who worked in the Amsterdam office of the company he was working for in London. “When I met her, I was just like, ‘Who the fuck is that? This person needs to be part of my life.’ Luckily, she felt the same way. They started hooking up within a week and began spending all of their time together. The undeniable chemistry helped, he says, with the Viagra serving as an insurance policy. And while some erectile issues persisted, Martina didn’t give them a second thought. “The first night we were intimate it didn’t completely flow but it wasn’t a big deal,” she tells me. “I’ve like slept with a fair amount of men, and I feel like it’s happened 40 percent of the time.”
He confessed that he had used Viagra, which led to a discussion about his lifelong struggle. Martina reassured him that sex could include many different things, and explained how to continue the energy when things weren’t working as planned. “I’m Swedish, which makes me extra progressive, but coming to the U.S. has opened my eyes to how prudish Americans are about that part of life,” she says.
From that point on, everything changed for Rogers. And really it’s been that way ever since. Thanks in large part to Martina, of course, whom he married in 2018.
Back on the piste, I have Rogers right where I want him: overconfident, and up 14-1 (the referee awarded a mercy point after an attempted kamikaze lunge). But my alpha energy proves decidedly less effective than Tarantino’s, and I’m casually discarded like a background wight on Game of Thrones.
As we disrobe — alas, Rogers’ gay phase has long passed — I wonder aloud why he’s been so public about his struggle with erectile dysfunction. “Doesn’t it sort of tarnish the image of an Olympic swordsman?” I ask. Perhaps, he says, but he considers sharing his story to be a duty. Adolescence was a period of dark loneliness, he explains, noting he would’ve had a much easier time processing his own demons if someone he respected had talked openly about their ED struggle.
“A lot of men just ignore the issue, and pretend it’s not a problem. As a result, partners often blame themselves and mistakenly think they’re not desirable. But the crux of this, for me, lies in the shame that comes from men and boys thinking that if they have an issue in the bedroom, it means they’re less of a man, less of a partner and less of a human. So if I kept this story to myself, I think that’d be a little bit selfish.”