Men's Health Friday January 27, 2012

Why is there such a stigma about male sexual health?

Consider this scenario. A middle aged man has been experiencing a persistent mild earache for several days. Though it is not a debilitating pain and he can function normally, it is preventing him from enjoying his normal activities. He visits his doctor and is prescribed antibiotics to clear the infection. Sound abnormal? It shouldn’t. This is the normal course of action when an individual is experiencing a health problem.

Consider, then, this alternative scenario. A similarly middle-aged man has been experiencing recurrent problems gaining an erection. In some cases, he gains an erection but it does not last long enough for full sex. Sometimes, he cannot gain an erection at all. Rather than discuss the problem with his partner, he tells her he is tired and not in the mood for sex. He decides not to visit his GP because he is worried he will feel embarrassed.

The second scenario is unfortunate but very common among men who are experiencing a form of erectile dysfunction. The stigma against these kinds of issues is pervasive and persistent, with conditions like impotence and premature ejaculation often being used as the basis for the punchlines of bad jokes. Why is it considered acceptable to laugh at male sexual health problems rather than talk about them seriously?

In 2011, an ad campaign ran for the deodorant Lynx with the theme of “premature perspiration”, a not-so-subtle allusion to the problem of premature ejaculation. Is the comparison amusing? Well, judge for yourself:

Call me humourless, but I just don’t really find these “joke” ads all that funny. Premature ejaculation is a genuine problem for millions of men. Is it funny that they are not able to enjoy a healthy sex life? Is it right to use this “humour” to sell, of all things, a deodorant? Alas, it seems that an awful lot of people think it is, judging by the generally favourable response the advert received.

It is curious that a reluctance to discuss sexual health problems appears to be a purely male phenomenon. It is seen as more socially acceptable for women to discuss problems with their sexual health, and there are several reasons why this might be the case. For one thing, women are taught in detail about their menstrual cycles from a relatively young age, which could be why women may be generally more comfortable with, and talking about, their bodies in this way. There is little point in feeling squeamish or embarrassed about something that happens once a month. Women are aware from a fairly young age of the potential problems that could arise relating to their sexual health.

In contrast, men tend to receive very general sex education that is focused more on the biological and mechanical elements of sex, with little regard for issues such as erectile dysfunction. This could be because the general perception is that erectile dysfunction is a problem for just older men. Nevertheless, the lack of information relating to sexual health problems is a major contributory factor to the pervasiveness of the stigma. Add to this the traditional archetype of the strong, virile male provider and it is easy to see why the misplaced shame associated with sexual health disorders persists.

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