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The Men Who Can’t Cum

The reasons why are far more complicated than ‘death grip’

The trope of the man who shoots his shot then rolls over to sleep is so ingrained in our collective psyche that it may be hard to imagine that there are guys for whom having an orgasm with a partner is difficult — or even impossible. As 32-year-old L.A. writer James puts it, “There’s a million jokes out there shaming dudes who bust too quickly, so it’s almost weirder to have sex that’s going great to you — but since you’re not coming she thinks she’s doing something wrong.”

James is far from alone. Over the last few weeks, I’ve spoken to a number of men who have a hard time getting off — some in any context, but typically, only with partners. Some of these guys have difficulties because of situational conditions. Antidepressants, for example, are notorious for sexual side effects — one study found that 93 percent of men and women on clomipramine experienced partial or total anorgasmia as a side effect. Others, however, blame the infamous “death grip” or “concrete cock,” the alleged condition produced by the fanatic masturbator, wherein one’s dick becomes inured to sensation via frequent j/o sessions. As a result — so the theory goes at least — it becomes more difficult to reach orgasm via vaginal sex, since most pussies aren’t as tight as a closed fist.

But alas, to paraphrase Thomas Huxley, death-grip syndrome is a beautiful theory slain by an ugly fact: Death grip isn’t real — not exactly. Some practitioners have used the term “monotonous masturbation syndrome” to describe the specificity with which some guys jack off, but nobody truly believes that cranking it too hard will ruin sex with a partner. Again, most cases professionals deal with seem to relate back to antidepressants.

Purely psychological factors may be at work, too. Kevin, a 32-year-old banker in Seattle, says that getting off on his own is easier, “both as a function of getting the right kind/amount of stimulation and having time to work toward it without pressure from someone else.” Twenty-seven-year-old writer Ethan from Austin adds, “It’s an anxiety thing, so solo isn’t a problem.”

Not being able to get off causes some men angst, shame and relationship problems. Twenty-four-year-old Robert from Ireland says it’s hurt his confidence, “especially as a disabled man who already feels some anxiety about my masculinity as a result of my physical limitations and inability to work.” Ethan agrees, “It’s made one-night stands and short-term dating really difficult.”

Problems can arise in long-term relationships, too. Kevin’s difficulties reaching orgasm are relatively new, but they’ve created frustration all around. “My wife feels like she’s unattractive or something else is missing, and I feel frustrated because of the pressure to manage our expectations.” The same goes for Mark, a 26-year-old delivery driver in Virginia: “It definitely made one of my partners feel insecure, like she wasn’t attractive enough.”

Yet, most of the guys I spoke to enjoyed sex — and some even felt that their condition has its perks. As Greg, a software engineer from Ireland in his mid-20s puts it, “There’s definitely a positive side in that you feel like you’re performing well for your partner!” And certainly, having a partner who can go long is what’s known as a “high-class problem” among straight women. In fact, it’s the main measure of a good male partner — more so than length or girth, a guy who’s capable of lasting past his partner’s orgasm is the gold standard for straight sex.

That said, things can still get awkward given that the typical narrative of heterosexual intercourse ends with a male orgasm. “If the person doesn’t know me, they think something’s wrong,” Ethan says. “I had one girl ask if I was gay, and one of the first times I slept with a girlfriend she broke into tears because she thought she was bad at sex.”

It’s an interesting inversion of the usual scenario, in which a woman has a hard time getting off and the guy tends to see it as a challenge. Maybe that can be occasionally hot, but I’d argue that sex isn’t at its best when the goal is anything beyond mutual enjoyment and closeness. But because of our scripts around sex, some guys go to extremes to make things more “normal.” Ethan, for instance, says he’s gotten good at faking orgasms.

So what can guys with this particular sexual situation do? Some change up their masturbation habits. “I tried all the sensitivity training stuff from sites like curedeathgrip,” explains Anthony, a Kentucky-based engineer in his early 30s. “I bought a fleshlight, but stopped using it after about three goes — what a pain to clean up. Now, if I know I’m going to have sex with someone at the end of the week, I’ll stop masturbating on Monday.”

For those dealing with SSRI symptoms, though, things are trickier. James finds that Wellbutrin works great for his depression, and so: “I accept the side-effect trade-off because I enjoy feeling alive.” He’s also discovered effective workarounds. “I’ve had a lot of talks with my partner,” James says, “and there’s always the sporting fun of a prostate orgasm.” For their part, Kevin and his wife found that talking about the situation helped. “It relieved some of the pressure around what both of us were expecting to happen.”

One thing I want to be clear about here is that like any other kind of bodily variation, an inability to cum with a partner is only a problem if it causes you distress. In my past life as a graduate student studying sexuality and health, we talked a lot about a process called “medicalization,” which refers to how certain behaviors and attributes come to be seen as medical issues, wherein the treatment usually involves drugs or other interventions.

Don’t get me wrong — drugs are fucking great. But just because there’s a pill for something, doesn’t mean it necessarily needs fixing. Case in point: There have been dozens of attempts to create a “female Viagra” to cure what’s now commonly known as “female sexual arousal disorder” (and used to just be called frigidity). A pill for a healthier sex life? Great! The problem is that once we start defining specific parameters as healthy, everything else becomes unhealthy and bad, which leads to a lot of self-consciousness. Not what anyone should ideally be feeling during sex!

Let’s remember, too, that plenty of women can’t get off with partners, and that the most reliable solution to this has been talking about it, trying new things, and if all else fails, reminding our partners that we aren’t a project to be fixed or a mountain to be conquered. Not coming from penis-in-vagina sex is fine. And not all sex has to be orgasm-focused.

Or as Robert puts it, “Nothing worked as well as deciding not to overvalue cumming so much.”