Wide Open

Friday, August 22, 2008

Question

My lover of five years—my excellent, giving, innovative, stamina-to-the-end-of-the-earth lover—has discovered he has cancer and has begun chemotherapy. It's knocking the shit out of him (hopefully knocking the cancer out as effectively). We are both still very interested in sex, and he's still, even in his present diminished capacity, keeping me pretty damned happy. But keeping an erection has become difficult and his sexual satisfaction has dropped. Maybe a cock ring is all we need to counteract his lack of stamina, and maybe we just need to be educated about types of male sexual satisfaction that don't center on (eventual) ejaculation. But I'm afraid it's more emotional than physiological. He's never doubted his ability to perform in any arena and this damned disease has thrown his whole sense of self into question. We both consider sex a big part of a life worth living. We've had a fucking awesome sex life till now regardless of what shit was going down around us. So not being able to count on and take comfort in pleasuring each other now when we want to be celebrating living more than worrying about dying is especially difficult. Any suggestions?

Answer

Has your husband been able to talk to other men who are facing a cancer diagnosis? Most cancer treatment wards, centers, or HMOs offer such meetings. You are, of course, his primary source of support. But I think that there's something valuable to be gained by being with other people who share your hopes and fears, especially if there's space to talk about how the diagnosis and the treatment is affecting one's intimate life. If he hates groups, maybe it's time to think about getting some short-term counseling. He probably has some emotions that he'd be more comfortable exploring if they don't affect you in a negative way. I strongly recommend you look into some extra support for yourself, too.

I'm glad that your husband is keeping you happy sexually. That's probably one of the anchors for his sanity right now. He can continue to feel good about himself in part because he's satisfying you. But it would be unreasonable to expect him to continue to perform at his former level, just for now, because chemotherapy is exhausting and can feel like being poisoned. Every time he goes for treatment, he not only has to deal with its physical consequences, he's being reminded he has a potentially fatal disease. He may need other forms of physical care more than he needs sex right now. Offer him massage, cuddling, warm baths, and nutritious food he can tolerate. Let him know that all he really has to do is love you. The two of you have a very strong relationship, and you can get through this detour.

Maintaining an erection can be hard for a variety of reasons. A cock ring is certainly worth a try. The heavier rubber "O" rings sold in the plumbing section of a hardware store are inexpensive and work just as well as a $50 chrome ring. They are also useful to find the right size. Measure around the base of his penis and scrotum and bring home a few different sizes. Then, if you both like the way it feels and find that it does the job, you can take the cheap one to a sex shop and see if there are more fun variations you'd like to try out.

Cock rings work by restricting blood flow out of the penis. Whatever blood enters it tends to stay there, so you get a swollen organ that has a unique texture. Veins become more prominent. It may or may not make his penis rigid enough for intercourse. But he still might enjoy the way it feels to be stroked or sucked. In fact, this is true with any non-erect penis. As long as stimulation feels good, he doesn't necessarily have to get erect or ejaculate. Some men report feeling a wave of growing intensity that ends with a burst of sensation and gratification if they persist in sex with a soft penis.

Learning how to have an orgasm without shooting can be challenging for some guys, however. Most of us prefer to see our cocks getting hard and enjoy the pleasure an erection gives our partners. Vibrators are another potential means of helping him to get erect. He might also enjoy pumping—but use some discretion with these devices. You don't want to bruise his penis; I don't know if he is getting the kind of chemotherapy that makes it hard to heal such things.

You can also talk to his doctor about Viagra and its cousins. There's no shame in getting some chemical help when it's modern chemistry that's screwing you up in the first place.

A threat to one's continued existence is the single most stressful event a person can go through. He will probably never confront a more difficult situation. This is time to give each other a lot of slack. What was normal before cancer can't be expected to continue now. Sometimes you can prove you love somebody best by not expecting sex. Continuing to have honest communication is key. "I'm not in the mood right now, but I bet I could get excited if you do (fill in the blank)." "I'd rather just get a back rub and spoon you. Maybe I could hold you while you masturbate?" "If I don't have sex right now, I'll lose my mind." These are all perfectly fine things to say to each other, depending on what's up in the moment.

I will be thinking of the two of you, and wishing you strength and full recovery. I hope everyone who reads this letter will do so, too.