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Cupid's Broken Arrow
Performance Anxiety and Substance Abuse Figure Into the Increase in Reports of Impotence on Campus

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 7, 2006

Adam Skrodzki, a tall, redheaded senior at the University of Maryland, bench-presses a respectable 280 pounds. He fights fires in Howard County as a volunteer and plans to join the Secret Service in the fall. In short, he's a man's man.

Or so he thought until last fall, when he hooked up with a sophomore -- at her urging.

The girl really wanted to make a go of it with him. On learning earlier that he had no interest in pursuing a relationship, she had offered to be his "friend with benefits," and he had agreed. In his mind, that decision was a no-brainer.

But on this night, their first in bed, his body was telling him something else. She used every trick she knew, with no success. Adam panicked.

"I've had no problem with this before," he thought. "What if this gets out? What if she tells her girlfriends? My reputation will be ruined."

Skrodzki is far from alone. It seems that for a sizable number of young men, the fact that they can get sex whenever they want may have created a situation where, in fact, they're unable to have sex. According to surveys, young women are now as likely as young men to have sex and by countless reports are also as likely to initiate sex, taking away from males the age-old, erotic power of the chase.

"I know lots of girls for whom nothing is off limits," says Helen Czapary, a junior at the University of Maryland. "The pressure on the guys is a huge deal."

Combine performance anxiety with binge drinking and the abuse of drugs on campus and it's no wonder that problems are showing up at college clinics in numbers that give the lie to the adage that impotence is reserved for the old (Bob Dole) or crazy (Jack Nicholson in "Carnal Knowledge"). The younger models who now appear in commercials for Viagra and its pharmaceutical clones reveal that the drug makers know (hope?) what the rest of us don't: Some members of the Game Boy generation are losing their game.

As the band Weezer sings it:

What's the deal with my brain?

Why am I so obviously insane?

In a perfect situation

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.

Those in the first years of testing their manhood may particularly see it that way.

When the tools work, there's nothing like it, says Devin Jones, a sophomore at Maryland, who read several how-to books about sex before going all the way with his first girlfriend. "When she got an orgasm, I felt like the man," he says in an interview, pounding his fists on his chest. Will Skelton, who graduated from George Washington University last year, says good sex "is all about self-worth. If you know you're a helluva lover, you're more confident with women and men."

James Daley, a senior at GW, used to enjoy that confidence. He has all the creds of a player: tall and good-looking with dark hair and gray-green eyes, member of a fraternity so bad and so much fun that university officials refuse to sanction it. Unlike other guys buying beer on Daddy's money, he works at a bank and has a job lined up after school -- a fact that the ambitious women at GW love. He has charmed probably two dozen girls away from bars and into his bed over four years at school, all consenting partners, he says. His success astonishes him, as he remembers being very shy in high school and most of freshman year in college.

His late-blooming self-assuredness was little in evidence on one recent afternoon in the GW food court. He shifted in his chair, took off and replaced his Yale baseball cap repeatedly. How to admit that his stock was falling fast?

Three times recently he tried to get it on with a girl he likes, he finally says. The first time, he got really angry, he recalls, "and she was getting frustrated. She said, 'This really sucks.' " Not surprisingly, system shutdown ensued.

Three nights after his first attempt, he tried again with the same girl. After a few minutes, he told her he was having "a little problem." She tried to be sympathetic. Nothing happened.

The third night, things worked, sort of. But it took an hour. "I told her, I don't know what is going on."

Thinking maybe it was the particular partner, he hooked up with another girl he had known since freshman year. But he soon realized the situation hadn't changed. "That's when I knew I had a problem."

He is taking a class in human sexuality, has read that men's sexual performance is at its best in their twenties. "I'm starting to think I'm on the down slope, that I've peaked already and if I find a wife, it's going to be a problem."

He places his left hand on his chest. "I feel a lack of desire here and in my stomach," he says, and he is not smiling. "I have all this love to share and it's not what it used to be."

'What If? What If?'

Sexuality consultant Judith Steinhart has met a lot of young men like Daley. A sexual-health educator for years at Alice!, Columbia University's health education program, she tried to get students to understand that it was normal for men, on occasion, to be unable to get or keep an erection.

Many heard her, but some didn't. She remembers a graduate student visiting her office and saying that his last four liaisons had been disasters.

"I said to him, 'Your partners want to be with you because you're a man, not a machine.' He said, 'But I want to be more of a machine.' Talk about rip your heart out."

She continues, "When men worry about erections, the worry takes the place of any pleasure they could possibly feel. It's as if they're hearing that terrifying music behind the Wicked Witch of the West from 'The Wizard of Oz' -- you know, that 'dunh dunh dunh dunh' -- and thinking, 'What if? What if? She's going to leave me.' "

Stacy Shadrick, a senior woman at Maryland, sympathizes with the terror that guys can feel. "If a girl isn't turned on, the guy doesn't necessarily know it. With a guy, it's very clear," she says. While some young women may react negatively in that situation, "most girls I know are respectful." In part that's because they fear that the guy doesn't enjoy having sex with them, she says. That worry can be there even if you're having sex with your boyfriend, agrees Lauren Faust, a recent GW graduate. "You worry you've become boring."

To avoid such trauma, a young man may try to fake an orgasm if at all possible, says Earl Fitzhugh, a senior at Howard University. "You want to be able to say, 'Oh, man, I'm the pimp.' " And, he says, you don't want rumors spreading about your capabilities.

"Your partner will tell her friends, who will tell your friends, who will tell you. The worst thing is, you could have just been having a bad day, but it might ruin your chances with the next girl."

Power being largely a matter of perception, the last thing a guy wants are girls, and other guys, knowing he couldn't handle business.

Who Bats 1.000?

From his perch as psychiatry professor, then as Duke's president, and now solely in private practice, Keith Brodie has had plenty of opportunity to observe the demons that chase older adolescent males. One of those is the idea of sex as a Division 1 sport. Sawyer at Maryland says his male students talk about the same competition. Sex should be, at the very least, about pleasure, but "they're more concerned with how they compared to the last guy."

Primal insecurities, for sure, but heightened, both men believe, by the quick liaisons known on campus as hookups.

A hookup, or sexual act ostensibly divorced from feeling or relationship, can set a man up for disappointment. Partners think of it usually as a single event, a "pass-fail test," says Barry McCarthy, a Bethesda psychiatrist and co-author of the book "Coping With Erectile Dysfunction." "If they fail, it's a disaster. Even the best basketball player, if he gets 19 out of 22 free throws, thinks he's doing a pretty good job. Men think their success in bed should be 100 percent."

Consider all the things that may be going through a guy's head as the clothes come off. Maybe he wants to impress his partner and knows that she expects the sex to last until the sun comes up. Maybe she's not taking birth control pills or he doesn't know if she is and is afraid to ask. Maybe he or his partner or both of them have decided he shouldn't use a condom and he's worried about disease or pregnancy. Maybe someone will walk in the room. Maybe he has an exam the next morning and in truth would rather be studying but can't admit it because he's a guy and guys are supposed to want sex all the time, right? Maybe he worries that if he doesn't do it now with her, he'll never get another chance and she'll be infuriated.

You have to wonder sometimes how sex at this tender age happens at all. Even with someone you care about.

Peter Schneider, a sophomore at GW, had been sleeping with a girlfriend for several weeks freshman year when, one night, he failed to respond. The next night, the same thing happened. The morning after that, he woke up thinking, "This better not happen again." But it did.

Schneider, who lost his virginity at 15, was bewildered and upset. Almost two weeks passed until one afternoon, he plopped down on his bed, "torn up inside," and began thinking about his lifestyle. He was smoking cigarettes and marijuana, popping Adderall in order to work through the night to finish his econ papers. He was drinking a lot and not getting any regular exercise. His body was simply worn out.

He decided to drop his bad habits for a while, start taking walks outside and working out at the gym. He sat down with his best friend, Josh Rolf, and spilled his guts. Rolf told him no one is a stud every time. Almost immediately, his talents returned.

"The day after I talked to Josh, everything went back to normal," he says. He also credits his girlfriend. They had been dating a year, and "I didn't think she'd walk out on me. That was incredibly helpful."

Helen Czapary, the Maryland junior, has been in a couple of similar situations, and suspects she knows what Skrodzki's partner thought: "It was my fault. Maybe I was, like, pressuring him."

Skrodzki, the bench-pressing man's man, let his partner of last fall think these things after his malfunction. He's not particularly proud of that.

"She didn't know what to do," he recalls. "She said something like, 'I can't please you.' I let her think that to conceal my reputation."

Now, several successes later, with this girl and others, "I'll take my share of the blame."

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