A few months ago I was at a party and, as it reached the early hours of the morning and just I and a few other hard-drinking males remained, I somehow got onto the subject of impotence.
An eerie silence fell over the room and as I related some of my personal experiences with this affliction I half-expected everyone to start laughing. Instead something else happened - whether moved by my own account or by the copious ammounts of alcohol consumed, one by one, each of the men in the room cautiously admitted that they'd also had similar troubles at some point in their lives.
While each of them was careful to make it clear that everything was in working order now, I felt almost like a priest as they confessed their imperfect virility for the very first time.
Impotence and erectile dsyfunction are somewhat taboo topics in the modern world. In a world where sex is the predominant theme of most commerce, entertainment and bar room banter, to admit that you might not be always up to the job is tantamount to doubting your right to exist.
Replacing a fuse and carrying logs is all well and good but the inability to get an erection puts your manhood in serious question. Yet with around 30 million men reporting dsyfunctional erections (and how many more staying quiet?), it's something that most men face at one time or another.
Impotence vs. ED
To be clear, impotence refers to the inability to get any kind of erection, even during sleep. There can be solid medical reasons for this, including the side-effects of medications (such as anti-depressants, in particular) and in this case it's definitely worth getting a professional opinion.
Erectile dsyfunction, on the other hand, refers to the inability to get a full erection on demand or losing the erection halfway through sexual intercourse. Talk about frustrating.
A few years ago a girlfriend finally convinced me to give up traveling for a while and move in with her. It seemed like a dream rest cure until after a few days I found that man's best friend was letting me down and the bed became a torture chamber.
I started going for morning runs to get the blood flowing, adopting a vegetarian diet to make sure my veins weren't being blocked up by saturated fats and even sneaking a look at the lingerie advertisements in my girlfriend's fashion magazines in the morning to get me in the mood.
In desperation, I spent hours on the Internet researching ancient herbs that purported to help with problems of virility and headed down to the health food shop to see what was on offer. Although pretty poor at the time, I spent most of what meager income I had on packets of Korean ginseng, packets of Ginko Biloba and an African herb called Yohimbe - the latter prompted some promising tingles but caused such palpitations of the heart that I almost called an ambulance.
So much for alternative health, at least on this occasion.
I eventually found a cure but I'm going to make you wait until the end of the article to find out what it was.
The Pharmaceutical Solution
In any case, according to the likes of Pfizer with their best-selling drug, Viagra, impotence and erectile dsyfunction should be a thing of the past. Having isolated the active components that stimulate blood flow to the penis, all our troubles should be over. And Viagra does, in fact, work.
Head to any red light zone in South East Asia and outside the bars and discos where old Americans and Europeans go to pick up girls half their age or less, you'll see vendors touting Viagra pills alongside cigarettes and chewing gum.
Independent drug manufacturers weren't slow to realise the potential and for a while Asian-produced copies of Viagra were the No. 1 export item for the average traveler with space in his backpack.
So why is there still any problem? If popping a pill is all it takes we should all be living in a world of great sex and guaranteed erections, right?
Well, aside from the risk of having a heart seizure if you're prone to any cardiovascular issues, Viagra is a perfect example of the modern world's urge to treat the symptom and not the cause.
According to Darwin and any scientist who believes that life on this planet has been going on for rather a long time, sex has long been an essential component of evolution. Our bodies are designed to have sex, reproduce and have a good time along the way.
Impotence is rarely a problem amongst animals so why should it be any different with human beings?
Just for fun, yesterday I walked into town to see how often I'd get exposed to sexual imagery in the course of a half an hour walk. I'd barely stepped outside the apartment where I was staying before I saw a billboard where the advertisers had come up with the ingenious strategy of placing a beer bottle next to a rather prominant cleavage. The word "association" becomes redundant.
Then I passed a newspaper stand where there were no less than 7 men's magazines for sale, each with a super model in a bikini on the cover. They were outnumbered only by the magazines focusing on cars and motorbikes and all but one of them again had a girl in a bikini sprawled on top of the hood.
Just as I was about to conclude that drinking and driving really is all it takes to get laid, a car passed playing Snoop Dogg's rap about turning a girl into his sex slave. Damn, you need to be a gangsta rapper, too.
In any case, you don't need me to let you know that sex is a more likely candidate to make the world go round than love but it is striking how little we really understand it.
If we were to go by the lyrics of the songs in the charts and the passionate scenes that we see in Hollywood flicks, sex would seem something like a performance or a contest between two highly-skilled opponents.
Devastating looks are a prerequisite to good sex, it would seem, and the whole deal is to give maximum performance, conquer your opponent and generally score lots of points in the arena of the bedroom.
Small wonder that so many people find real sex to be so utterly bewildering, challenging and utterly out of their depths. But instead of rushing to pop a pill, you could pause to go a little deeper into the mysteries of physical intimacy and burst some of the sex myths that are so abundant in our society.
These myths are hardly ever challenged as, whilst we pride ourselves in living in a free, open-minded country, most people are far too embarrassed to ever talk about it.
Nothing Lasts Forever
Take the myth of the ever-hard erection, for instance. Most men, including myself a few years ago, see a wavering of their erection and assume they're on the slippery slope to impotence. They do all they can to rise to the occasion, putting all the pressure they can on their libidos to perform and often completely withdraw from their partner in the process.
Their girlfriend ends up feeling ignored, shunned or left out in the cold and the beautiful dance of two bodies in the night becomes the frenzied efforts of one guy to maintain his image of a virile lover.
The truth is, just like everything else in life, erections come and go.
Sexual passion comes in waves and the only way to really make love is to go with the flow. If the feeling isn't there or it drops for a few minutes or hours, it's completely okay.
Ask most women and they'll tell you that if from the moment they meet for coffee that evening, the guy is completely focused on getting to the point of penetration, then the thrill is gone anyway. The whole expectation of the key moment kills the passion.
In a relaxed setting, making love can be just kissing, giving massage or even talking while spenting time together naked.
How did I solve my erectile dysfunction problem? Part of the cure was in realizing it wasn't exactly a problem in the first place - at least not as much as all the nervous energy I put into worrying about it.
The more I worked it up in my head, the more fearful I became that it would never get better. I began to imagine a life of not being able to maintain any kind of relationship and the stakes on performing well the next time I was in bed soared to dizzy levels.
Instead of sharing a beautiful moment with a loved one, sex became the Million Dollar Question and, unsurprisingly, with so much pressure placed on the act, it just got worse and worse.
Finally, one day I just broke down and told my girlfriend just how bad I felt about it and how I'd understand if she wanted me to move out and find a real man instead. She, in turn, looked at me disbelievingly and told me she imagined it was something she was doing wrong or that I no longer found her attractive.
We continued our mutual confessions for another few minutes before we were interrupted by an unexpected resurgence of a third party. All it took was some communication, honesty and allowing myself to just surrender to how I was feeling.
Of course, in a society where obesity is steadily becoming the norm, where almost no one walks when they could drive and where our diets are programmed in chemical flavoring laboratories, it's no surprise that our natural vitality and virility have decreased.
We take medications that affect our libidos, flood our brains with thousands of sexual images from every form of media and whilst we may think about sex most of the time, we rarely talk about it.
So if you do find yourself suffering from erectile dysfuncion, it's not a bad idea to make sure you're getting enough exercise and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.
More importantly, though, you need to make sure you're relaxing enough. Cut down on the pornogaphy and spend some quiet time every day to unwind. Go easy on the alcohol; it doesn't help. Getting into yoga, meditation or just giving yourself a foot massage before going to sleep at night might be all it takes for you to get out of your stress routine and back into your body.
The next step is to communicate with your partner.
Vulnerability vs. Virility
There are few things more attractive to a woman than a man who is able to be vulnerable. It's by admitting your fears and weaknesses that you show your real strength and courage instead of the act of the man who can, ready to rise to any challenge.
Alternatively, you might find that there are issues in your relationship which are blocking the flow of passion - maybe you forgot her brithday and she still hasn't forgiven you for it...
ConsumerAffairs.com's Dr. Henry Fishman agrees.
"Erectile dysfunction is common, tough to talk about, and may be in your head, not your groin," he said. "While you should have it checked out by a doctor, being relaxed, talking about it and being in a loving relationship can help a lot of men get active again," he said.
"Talking through the problem with a friend, loved one or therapist can help, in addition to popping pills," Fishman added.
Another stumbling block can be condoms.
While the AIDS Healthcare Foundation is suing Pfizer for allegedly promoting the spread of HIV by encouraging Viagra-fuelled recreational sex (since when did sex become a bad thing?), condoms can really cut off the sensation for some men.
But provided you're in a long-term relationship with a trusted partner, you could consider alternative methods of natural contraception such as the Bioself method and abandon the rubber.
Fishman, however, isn't so enthusiastic.
"The Bioself is simply a method to measure changes in body temperature, the so-called basal body temperature method for determining when a woman is fertile," he said.
"It is cheap, non-invasive, and has no side effects. But it is also time consuming, very inaccurate, and a poor method of providing birth control. It leads to lots of unwanted pregnancies," Fishman cautioned.
If all of that fails and you're climbing up the wall in desperation, well, there's always Viagra but don't make it your first choice.
The libido and sexual strength do decrease with age (remember those golden teenage years when you were probably too immature to get much action anyway?) but there's no reason why most people under the age of at least 40 should need to turn to the chemicals.
And for those over 40? Believe it or not, many men (even including some who are not in Congress) enjoy a vigorous sex life well into their 60s, 70s and beyond. Aging and death aren't the same, even though one eventually leads to the other.
In fact, older men have more reason to be careful with drugs than their sons and nephews. Stay fit, eat sensibly, go easy on the alcohol and talk to your doctor -- and your mate -- if you feel you need an extra boost in the virility department.