Men who experience erectile dysfunction are more likely to engage in sexually coercive behaviors, such as pressuring their partner to have sex, according to new research published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. In addition, the study provides evidence that the risk of sperm competition plays a role in the relationship between ED and sexual coercion.
In recent years, scientists have increasingly turned their attention to the phenomenon of sperm competition. This is when multiple males compete for the opportunity to fertilize a single female’s eggs. Research has shown that male animals, including humans, often adapt their mating behaviors in response to sperm competition.
While there is some evidence suggesting a correlation between ED and the use of sexual coercion, the study authors were interested in testing whether this link would be particularly strong when men perceive themselves as being at greater risk of sperm competition.
“I initially kind of stumbled into erectile dysfunction research by picking up a study that one of my graduate cohorts had started, but didn’t have the time to finish,” explained study author Gavin Vance, a graduate research assistant at Oakland University.
“After publishing our initial study on ED, suspicious jealousy, and partner-directed behaviors (e.g., verbal and physical abuse), I wanted to follow it up with something similar. Past research has already established a link between men’s risk of experiencing sperm competition, and their use of sexual coercion with their intimate partners. Because our previous study had already provided some preliminary evidence that ED might increase a man’s chances of experiencing infidelity (or at least, thinking he is at greater risk), this research was able to serve as a more direct test of these ideas.”
The researchers used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to recruit a sample of 202 heterosexual men between the ages of 18 and 45 years who were currently in a romantic relationship of at least 6 months duration. The men completed measures of ED and sexually coercive behavior. To assess sperm competition risk, the participants reported whether their partner had cheated on them, the amount of time their partner spends with other men, and how physically attractive their partner was.
Men with greater ED symptoms tended to perceive more sperm competition risk. ED was also strongly associated with sexual coercion. The researchers found that perceived sperm competition risk mediated the relationship between ED and sexual coercion. “This suggests the intriguing possibility that men who more frequently experience ED may perceive greater sperm competition risk which, in turn, may promote the use of sexually coercive behaviors,” the study authors explained.
The findings, however, were based on self-reported assessments, leaving open the possibility of self-serving biases. Previous research has indicated that men tend to underreport their symptoms of ED. To account for this limitation, the researchers conducted a second study with 151 women between the ages of 18 and 45 years who were currently in a romantic relationship.
The female participants completed a similar set of measures. They reported their partner’s ED symptoms and sexually coercive behavior. The participants also indicated whether they had fallen in love with someone other than their current partner, how much time they spend with other men, and how physically attractive they were.
The findings were mostly in line with the previous study. ED was strongly associated with sexual coercion and sperm competition risk. Interestingly, the researchers found that sperm competition risk moderated the relationship between ED and sexual coercion.
Moderation occurs when the strength of the effect of one variable is determined by the level of another variable. Mediation, on the other hand, occurs when the effect of one variable is explained by another variable.
“It was a bit surprising that sperm competition risk moderated the association between ED and sexual coercion according to women’s reports in Study 2, but this result did not emerge for men’s reports in Study 1,” Vance told PsyPost. “That is, for women only, the association between ED and sexual coercion was especially strong when women placed their male partners at greater risk of experiencing sperm competition. However, it is important to keep in mind that these were separate samples of men and women (meaning, the women in Study 2 were not in relationships with the men in Study 1), which may partially account for the discrepancy.”
The authors noted that the main limitation of their research is the cross-sectional nature of the data. “The average reader should be careful not to read too far into this study’s results, not least because they are correlational in nature,” Vance explained. “Although we did find evidence for a direct association between ED and sexual coercion, we cannot say with any certainty that difficulties with normal sexual functioning lead to sexually coercive behaviors.”
“It is important that this research be replicated using a dyadic sample of men and their romantic partners. This would allow us to determine whether any discrepancies in results might be due to underreporting on the part of the male partner. The issue of causality should also be addressed, possibly by collecting data from a clinical sample of men receiving treatment for ED, or by employing a longitudinal design.”
“I might add that ED (and other problems with normal sexual functioning) seem to have wide-reaching consequences for men’s psychology, and their romantic relationships,” Vance added. “Thus, this is an area of scholarship that deserves more attention in psychological research.”
The study, “Erectile Dysfunction and Sexual Coercion: The Role of Sperm Competition Risk“, was authored by Gavin Vance, Virgil Zeigler‑Hill, and Todd K. Shackelford.