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Cupid's Broken Arrow

I let love down the drain.

There's the pitch, slow and straight.

All I have to do is swing

and I'm a hero, but I'm a zero.

Keith Brodie, former chairman of the psychiatry department at Duke University, has been counseling male college students for 25 years. Fifteen years ago, none of his patients complained about having problems in bed. Now, he hears about them from as many as a quarter of them. Similar reports come from health professionals at Tulane University, the University of New Hampshire and the MIT Medical Center.

Statistical evidence is difficult to assess because surveys are few and vary in definition, from the occasional problem to the long-term condition. Jon Pryor, head of urologic surgery at the University of Minnesota, tells medical students that 30 percent of his patients with erectile dysfunction, or ED, are under 30 years old. Other specialists note that the proportion of men experiencing at least occasional problems increases steadily with age, to 70 percent of men over 70.

In certain young men, impotence can be a result of diabetes, cardiovascular disease or other organic problems. But for students such as the ones Brodie and other mental health professionals see, experts point to lifestyle. An increasing number of students arrive on campus taking antidepressants, some of which reduce libido and sexual function. They consume larger amounts of alcohol at one time than in years past, killing performance. Smoking, lack of exercise and anxiety also may be factors.

"We get reports of increased stress levels starting at younger ages. These are kids living on the extreme, drinking caffeinated Red Bull and beer and working very hard," says Thomas Jarrett, chief urologist at the George Washington University Medical Center.

Demands by their female partners also contribute, according to educators such as Robin Sawyer, who teaches human sexuality at the University of Maryland. Sawyer recalls a young man who came to his office after class one day confessing that he hadn't been physically aroused in more than two years. "He was 20 years old, good-looking," Sawyer says. "I told him once he was in a relationship, things would get better. He said he could never get to the relationship because when he went out with a woman, she wanted to have sex almost immediately. He never got comfortable enough to tell them he had a problem, so he stopped dating."

One can argue that a young woman speaking her mind is a sign of equality. "That's a good thing," says Sawyer, father of four daughters. "But for some guys, it has come at a price. It's turned into ED in men you normally wouldn't think would have ED."

A New Awareness

Certainly the uptick in reports of ED can be attributed in part to greater awareness: Ads for drugs like Viagra and Cialis have made it somewhat easier for guys to talk about a topic they'd prefer to ignore. There's a problem, though: Commercials leave the impression that sexual prowess is as close as the corner drugstore or the pill-pushing pal at the bar -- and many guys don't know that the pill only sustains an erection. It can't produce one for a guy who, for one reason or another, feels no desire.

Note the use of the politically correct acronym for erectile dysfunction. No physician or therapist would think of using the word impotence because its literal meaning -- lack of power -- is precisely the possibility their clients fear the most. Think of the way Salvador Dali painted a soft watch, proud possessor of time, drooped over a barren tree, or Claes Oldenburg's portrayal of a Good Humor bar on the verge of collapse. Recall Jake Barnes, Ernest Hemingway's narrator in "The Sun Also Rises," denied his great love, Brett Ashley, because a war wound damaged him permanently. Such images disturb because sexual performance is still, in the minds of many males, the sign of authority and dominance, perhaps the last such symbol in a society slogging its way toward gender equality.

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