Erectile Dysfunction in Law Enforcement

Dr. Heather England discusses sexual dysfunction in law enforcement.


When our communication or connection breaks down, it can break down our sexual drive or our sexual connection with each other. When our sexual connection breaks down, it can also spill over and impact the rest of the relationship. It’s difficult for us to talk about sex. Most couples don’t have regular sexual conversations.  When couples are so uncomfortable talking about sex with each other or other people, it winds up impacting their relationship. With the added struggles of stress, sleep, and trauma that law enforcement couples or first responder couples deal with, it can be difficult to be able to connect and find time to have sexual intimacy.

These same struggles can also lead to sexual dysfunction or erectile dysfunction, which in turn becomes shameful and impacts our connection and our relationship. Dr. Heather England, sexologist and sex therapist, talks about how we as first responder and law enforcement couples can keep the fires burning and keep our sexual relationship.

What causes sexual problems or dysfunction for first responders?

When you have sexual and erectile dysfunction in your relationship, it’s hard on both partners.  This can impact our sexual relationship and spill over into other areas of marriage. The dysfunction comes down to what the stress response and anxiety does to erections.

There’s a higher correlation between erectile and sexual dysfunction in those that have experienced trauma or PTSD. In law enforcement and first responder families, exposure to trauma and PTSD happens more often than not.  When you have a stress response, typically the fight or flight response is activated. We are biologically wired for all of the blood flow to go to all of our major organs. It’s a survival mechanism. Think about the caveman and the mammoth. When the caveman sees a mammoth, he needs blood to flow into major muscle groups and organs in order to run away from danger.

When an erection happens, the smooth muscle tissues of the penis relax, and it allows blood to engorge and get hard. If stress or anxiety exists, the body gets tense and blood flows away from the penis and the small parts of our organs, into the bigger organs like our lungs, our heart, and our major muscle groups to “run away” like we are biologically programmed to do.

While sex is a need that we all have, law enforcement and first responders’ fight or flight system is more sensitive due to trauma and therefore more likely that erectile dysfunction will happen.

How does hypervigilance impact sex?

There is an added aspect to sexual and erectile dysfunction with first responders because of the hypervigilance cycle. As a reminder, hypervigilance is what keeps officers safe on the job. When they come home, it takes on average 18-24 hours to come down from the cycle. Add hypervigilance to stress and anxiety and law enforcement families are far more likely to be impacted by erectile dysfunction.

Sexual performance anxiety in first responder relationships

With sexual and erectile dysfunction, all it takes is one occurrence for the thought of future incidents to happen. You become hyper-focused on the situation and develop sexual performance anxiety. What happens when you worry and stress? Your flight or flight system is activated, and blood flows elsewhere.

When performance anxiety happens, you can miss out on all the other sexual cues going on because you are not present in the moment. If you’re hyper-focused on the ability to get and maintain an erection, you might not be paying attention to how good your partner’s skin feels, how well they smell, how they’re touching you, and how it feels.

This type of hyperfocus can also create the tendency to rush into having sex before you’re really ready. Then you lose the erection and reinforce the entire negative cycle of performance anxiety.

Traps that couples fall into after experiencing sexual dysfunction.


There is a misconception that men should instantly get an erection regardless of age. A 40-year-old penis is not the same as a 30-year-old or an 18-year-old. As you get older, there is a need for more physical stimulation and erotic stimulation to get hard. By erotic, it could be verbal, it could be visual, it could be what your partners doing or wearing or how their body looks. It can even be the sensuality of lighting a candle, the setting, or the mood. Bottom line is that you need more and more stimulation as you get older.

Intercourse = success

A big mistake couples make is having the mindset that intercourse equals success and that without intercourse it’s not successful sex. For those suffering from erectile dysfunction, sex may not be an option. You may have to rely on other things you and your partner find pleasurable for success to happen.

Avoidance of communicating about sex and erectile dysfunction

There is a stigma of shame when it comes to erectile dysfunction. Many times, men do not feel like men if they cannot perform sexually. A feeling of failure arises and failure is the number one shame in men. A huge mistake that’s typically more on the man’s side is they will avoid sex and avoid any display of physical intimacy, with fear of erectile dysfunction happening. Avoidance-based shame can happen when men go beyond avoiding physical intimacy to then avoiding any type of intimate event that could lead to sex. Maybe they don’t want to go out on date night, or maybe they stay up extra late watching the ballgame because they don’t want to go to bed at the same time as their partner, in case their partner initiates sex. Men can become so afraid of failure because they’re in that past fail mindset of intercourse.

For their partner, they may not want to bring up the elephant in the room because they don’t want to hurt their spouses’ feelings. Sometimes this is all out of love that keeps people from communicating about sex, but at the end of the day, if you aren’t communicating about sexual desires, needs are not being met.

Personalizing the dysfunction

One of the biggest traps and mistakes couples make when dealing with erectile dysfunction is that the partner will personalize the dysfunction as thinking something is wrong with them. Am I not sexy enough for them? Do I not turn them on? They may even wonder if their partner is having an affair. For women, our bodies change as we get older. We have babies, we gain weight, and may have some extra pounds in different places. This can cause insecurity in the way women view themselves and play a big part in thinking they are not good enough to sexually arouse their partner. Most times, these thoughts are not communicated to their partner, and they can’t reassure them otherwise. Personalizing erectile dysfunction to explain the lack of intimacy will continue to happen and create a disconnect in the relationship without proper communication.

There are several ways to combat the impact of sexual and erectile dysfunction in your law enforcement relationship.

How to work through sexual problems as a first responder couple

Talk about sex! 

A lot of people struggle to talk about sex and sexual dysfunction. Rip off the band-aid and communicate your sexual wants and needs! Only 30% of women can orgasm from intercourse. Everybody else needs lots of other clitoral stimulation, so intercourse may not be what your partner needs. The only way to know is to ask! Be really honest with what works, what doesn’t work, and what can work as a couple to connect sexually. The more you talk about it, the easier it becomes.

Make a plan!

Have a plan in place should erectile dysfunction occur. When officers are finished with their shift, they come down from the hypervigilance cycle and decision-making is affected. They are tired and may be unable to plan in the moment if erectile dysfunction occurs. Decide ahead of time on other sexual things you and your partner can do to still satisfy your needs.

Know what turns you and your partner on and off

Emily Naski is a researcher and educator who came up with this really great way to understand this concept. Think about gas and brakes in a car. When you hit the gas, you accelerate. When you hit the brakes, you stop. If you think about arousal, you want to know what hits your gas, what turns you on and what hits your brakes, what turns you off. You can’t have a foot on the accelerator and have one on the brake and expect to go. Everyone responds a little differently and has different triggers for what arouses them, but everybody should know that and you should know your partners. That’s part of sexual communication.

Set up the right kind of context for sex!

By context, it’s the environment of having sex and whether it needs to be planned for. If you only have 20 minutes, what is something you can realistically do in that 20 minutes? If you aren’t in the place to have intercourse, what else can you do in that timeframe? Make sure you have the right setup so you can hit your gas and not your brakes.

Fatigue is one of the biggest brakes or turn-offs there is and it will naturally impact your ability to put the gas on. Find another time when both partners can be in the moment and focus on all the wonderful sexual cues.

This also includes how you’re feeling about yourself and how your partner feels about themselves. For arousal to occur and a have desire for sex, you have to be feeling good. Men and women experience love very differently. In many men, their pathway to love is sex. For women, their pathway to love is emotional intimacy and it’s about connecting before sex.  It could mean spending time together or affirmations, but it’s the feeling of being connected to their partner to even be interested in having sex. Women need to feel loved and valued in all of those kinds of pre-sex things. “A great way to think about sex and foreplay is foreplay starts at the end of your last sexual encounter.”

Set realistic expectations about limited time! 

If you don’t have a lot of time or are nervous that you’re going to get interrupted, realistically understand that your sexual encounter might get interrupted, and you have to make the best of it!

Make sex more playful and fun. Don’t put so much pressure on yourselves that it has to be the end all be all, most phenomenal kind of sex. Only 15% of the time, sex is the knock-your-socks-off kind of sex. Around 70% of the time it’s just okay sex and that is ok! That is normal! The other 15% of the time, there’s a problem. It can be someone doesn’t have an orgasm, you’re too dry, there’s pain or someone who has erectile dysfunction. Give yourselves permission to just have okay sex and realize you don’t have to give your partner a mind-blowing orgasm every time.

Redefine sex

Sex can be many things to many people. It doesn’t just have to be intercourse. Think of sex the same way you think of a buffet. Some days you want chicken, some days pizza, and some days you just want all the side dishes. Sex is the same way. If your mindset means intercourse equals success and that isn’t what your partner wants, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Create your sexual buffet with your partner and explore other meanings of sex. Sex is not a thing you do, it’s a place you go with your partner. It’s a place where you celebrate one another and strengthen the connection in your relationship.

Sex is so many different things for people. Sometimes you’re hungry for connection and other times you might be hungry for playfulness. Maybe you’re hungry for just the raw power of sex and for the really good. For couples, no one else is ever going to have what you have together. It’s something only the two of you share. It’s a place you go to together and where you celebrate the uniqueness and the specialness of your relationship, regardless of erectile dysfunction. When you can be vulnerable and trust your partner in that place, it’s incredible.

Dr. Heather England has a Ph.D. in clinical sexology. She is a certified sex therapist, an expert in erectile dysfunction, and a relationship coach who has helped countless couples rekindle love and sex. She graduated 5th in her class from West Point and served in the US Army as an officer.


Link to ED Course:

Questions for Heather, email her at: [email protected]


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