Q&A: Why Men Don’t Talk about Their Struggles with Sex
I interview Angus Barge, the founder of a new sexual wellness platform for men, about the cultural baggage guys carry when it comes to issues in the bedroom.
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Many of you may already know that my path to writing began with an article I wrote for Men’s Health in 2019 about sexual performance anxiety. The reason that I spent so long (more than a decade) struggling in silence is that I was too embarrassed to ask for help.
Unfortunately, the way men are socialized to understand masculinity makes acknowledging a problem in that area extremely difficult. If we listed out the 10 commandments of “manhood,” Thou shalt be sexually powerful would be right up near the top. As a result, men generally play-act confidence around the topic, regardless of what’s going on beneath the surface.
I’m excited to share this interview with Angus Barge, the co-founder of Mojo, a UK-based sexual well-being platform. Mojo pairs men who struggle in the bedroom with experts and clinically proven exercises that help them get to the root of the problem. Angus and I discuss the broader cultural issue around masculinity, and he also talks about how the company came to be out of dealing with his own problem.
(Just a quick disclaimer, we get into some detailed stuff around sex, including some techniques that guys and partners can try when dealing with bedroom issues. So, if that sort of thing’s not interesting to you, consider yourself forewarned! Also, this interview has been editing for length and clarity.)
Can you tell me a little bit about your backstory? What led to your founding Mojo?
The Mojo project has been going for about two years, but it started before that with my own personal struggle. When I was 27 (I’m now 30), I was a successful, young guy working in London, and I guess I thought of myself as pretty mentally robust. I was one of those people who would go out and do stupid-long endurance events like the Mallorca 312, in which you cycle around the island of Mallorca in a day.
That year, I hadn’t done much training in the run-up to the race. Then, six weeks beforehand, I kind of panicked and signed up to a gym in London with specialized cycle equipment to help me get ready. The instructor encouraged us to sit down throughout the class, and I would often get a tingling and painfully numb penis. When I spoke to others in the class, some of the other guys were like, “oh yeah, I get that too sometimes.” So I did this class morning and evening leading up to the race and didn’t think much of it.
It wasn’t until a few weeks after the race when I was on holiday in Hong Kong that I thought about it again. I was out celebrating with my friends and went home with this girl I’d been chatting with for years that I thought I liked. And yeah, it didn't work (i.e., I couldn’t get an erection). I kind of put that down to being a bit drunk and questioned whether if I really cared about her as much as I thought I did. Sadly, I was kind of projecting.
Then it happened again with someone else in London. And that was when I really hit me like a train. It didn’t occur to me that I had just done a cycling race and could have damaged loads of blood vessels. So, I went down a Google rabbit hole, wondering whether my being a vegetarian wasn’t allowing me to get the right building blocks for testosterone or if I wasn’t feeling comfortable enough with the people with whom I was having sex. I gave up porn. And if there was a blog offering a new method for combatting the problem, I pretty much gave it a go.
It turned out that my issue was due to crushed blood vessels in my perineum, which normally takes six to 12 weeks to heal. However, I struggled with acute erection issues for nearly a year because the seed of doubt had transformed my issue from physiological to psychological. It wasn’t until I was starting to feel more comfortable and in control that I was able to speak to my cousin, Xander Gilbert (my co-founder at Mojo) on a car journey together.
I remember staring out the passenger window, so I didn’t have to look him in the eyes. It was one of those moments where words start flowing out your mouth, and you're not really sure why you're talking. I just got lucky in that I spoke to someone in my life who knew where I was coming from because he had struggled with performance anxiety on and off since he was a teenager.
And, yeah, I guess that's when we decided to do something about it.
I had a similar experience to you in the sense that finally opening up to my dad yielded a reaction I didn’t expect. He was like, “Yeah, I struggled with that too was younger.” Hearing that released so much pressure for me. It was I couldn’t fully breathe before, and then oxygen rushed back into the room. Can you talk about how that conversation with Xander made you feel?
Actually, my mom is a sex therapist, so perhaps she should have been my first port of call. But I don't think anyone goes rushing to their moms talk about sex and intimacy even when it is their profession. But yeah, it was totally the same experience for me on that car journey with Xander. I had been having thoughts like, I'm going to lead a life of sexless bachelorhood and no one's ever going to love me.
But then Xander told me he’d experienced the same thing, and I suddenly felt like I wasn’t isolated or broken. I remember actually laughing a lot during that conversation which seemed extraordinary considering this thing had been tormenting us both so much. But yeah, that conversation had so much power, and it has kind of changed the course of our lives.
So that served as the context for you two starting a company together. What happened next?
At that time, there was an explosion of new men's wellbeing startups with pastel-colored interfaces and handsome young models. And the main message they were promoting was that it was not only perfectly normal to take medication to solve the problem but also your duty in trying to be the best partner that you can be.
That was just something that didn't sit well with either of us. But it especially didn’t sit well with me, having had a sort of psychotherapeutic background that I do. As I mentioned, my mother is a sex therapist, but my little sister has a doctorate in child attachment theory, and I'm actually a certified counselor myself. The idea of covering the issue with medication felt like a Quick-fix plaster approach that grated on us and propelled us to come up with what we felt was a proper solution.
The start-ups you mentioned (e.g., Roman and Hims) create an interesting/polarizing tension. On the one hand, they are helping create a conversation about E.D. and other bedroom issues because they spend a crazy among of money on advertising. On the other, they (at least in the past) framed those ads in a way that I felt perpetuated the embarrassment factor. They would say things like you can order meds “for your friend” (i.e., yourself) or that you didn’t have to have that awkward conversation with your doctor and instead could fill out an online form. That’s counterproductive to the broader effort to get men to be more vulnerable about issues like this. How do you think about that issue?
Yeah, I totally agree; however, we don't like to demonize these kinds of online pharmacies too much because they have, as you said, opened the lid. One of the quite extraordinary things about any problem that you face in the bedroom, even as a young, healthy person, is that you feel broken and totally isolated. However, 35% of men under-30 have struggled to get it up, and 40% of all men suffer from premature ejaculation. So while you feel isolated, it’s extremely prevalent. It’s a strange paradox.
I actually lived in London until 2017, which was the period right before ED meds became available over the counter in the UK. I also would imagine that there’s probably a meaningful distinction in how ED and PE are talked about in the UK versus the US. Could you share thoughts on either of those factors?
I actually hadn't considered that there was much of a difference between the UK and US other than cost. Although those meds are available over the counter here, you still have to go through a quick consultation with a pharmacist, which is similar to the telemedicine approach of Roman or Hims in the US. However, name-brand drugs like Viagra are quite expensive in the UK. In contrast, I’ve heard that insurance companies in the US heavily subsidize Viagra, Sildenafil (generic Viagra), and Cialis prescriptions.
In terms of discussing the issue, I don’t there’s a big cultural gap. We host Mojo Connect sessions where guys from across the world come together to discuss their problems in peer-to-peer cohorts. So we get Americans mixing with Brits, Europeans, and Australians. And I actually think the difficult nature of actually talking about these issues and the embarrassment is fairly universal.
How did you personally get more comfortable talking about the issue publicly?
After Xanders and I had our initial conversation and decided to start this project, we made a deal to get comfortable being open about our issues. We agreed to talk about it with every single person with whom we had a meaningful conversation during a period of two weeks. Specifically, we had to tell each of those people that we were starting Mojo and that we had struggled with erection issues.
I remember going to kind of pubs and bars that week surrounded by a group of guys, and one of my mates who already knew about my past issue would nudge me and say, “go and then, tell everyone.” There’d be initially sniggers, but after a minute or two, I’d start to see some of them nodding. Afterward, people would catch up with me and say, “I think what you are doing is awesome” or “that really resonated with me.” I mean, the stats were always in our favor, right. If you're in a group of 10 people, at least three or four of them likely know exactly what you're talking about.
Besides speaking out and modeling the behavior of openness around these issues, is there anything that we can do to help encourage this conversation along in a broader sense?
I think leading by example is an excellent start. However, sexual issues often affect at least one and sometimes multiple other people (i.e., the man’s partner/s). And there’s also a wider education piece to be done around helping partners understand why these problems occur because men often forget that their partners often blame themselves.
Also, empowering men to talk about problems before they occur can be really helpful. It often diffuses the situation and actually leads to a much more open conversation around sex, generally. I actually spoke to a guy last night during one of our peer-to-peer sessions about this. He'd been on a couple of days with a girl and had plucked up the courage to tell her beforehand, “sometimes this doesn't work for me, and I'm a little bit nervous about our first time.” And that really opened up a forum for her to talk about some of her own anxieties, which led to what they both felt was better sex when they eventually were intimate. That’s why I think promoting the “better sex” message versus the “avoid shame and embarrassment” message could really help people open up about it.
It’s also the reason that we’ve built a Partners Portal, which is a free section of our platform, where anyone who’s been with a person who’s experienced issues can come to learn about the root causes. Often, there's both a desperation and a shame factor such that partners don’t know how to bring it up or help. And the reality is that there are many ways; however, we don't commonly know about them.
Totally, when I first shared my issue publicly, I got a ton of messages from partners asking how they could help because it was taking a toll on the relationship. Could you talk about a few of the things you encourage partners to think about or do to but supportive?
Yeah, I think relationships really differ in how involved a partner wants to be. Quite a few guys on the platform have really encouraging partners; however, they might range from somebody who's proud of the person struggling for speaking out but doesn’t want to be involved, to a partner who’s really keen to get involved in the exercises. We’ve even had some that have adapted some of our solo exercises into partner exercises, which we think is quite innovative.
However, you can start very small. We've created specific meditation courses for anxiety that include a lot of visualization. And doing those exercises together is a good starting point. On the more involved side of the spectrum, there’s a series of programs that Masters and Johnson developed in the 1970s. Most of them are based on the idea of Sensate Focus, which a series of touching exercises (sort of like sensual massage) that build up in intensity but keep sex off the table. They have the ability to create a new kind of connection and sensitivity with your partner.
The exercise that I mentioned has been adapted is one I'm really proud of. Soft penis pleasuring is an exercise commonly used in psychosexual therapy for men who get anxious and find that they don't get it up straight away. It’s super simple, so much so that when we tell users how it works, they often raise an eyebrow. But, basically, you try and touch your own flaccid penis for 10 minutes without getting hard. The idea is to be very curious and try different types of touch.
It works because guys generally don't pay much attention to their penis unless they want to have an erection or are masturbating. That’s especially true of a flaccid penis (unless they're going to the bathroom) because they either feel shame because it’s smaller or doesn’t look the way we are accustomed to seeing it in pornography. But if they can become more comfortable with their penis in that state, it’s less anxiety-provoking when they get into bed and don’t get hard right away. They are less likely to enter that fight or flight state in which an erection is basically impossible.
So, as I mentioned, one of our members adapted that exercise to include partners. And while it’s a straightforward progression, I don't think anyone has ever promoted it before. The progression includes having our partner be the one doing the soft penis pleasuring. The goal remains trying to stop yourself from getting an erection. However, flipping the scenario around seems to have really worked for a few of our members.
This may seem like an obvious question at this point, but could you talk about how men’s hesitancy to talk about sexual difficulties interlinks with our cultural understanding of masculinity?
Yeah, there's a really broken narrative around sex, in general. It’s very heteronormative and usually includes some foreplay followed by penetrative sex (i.e., penis in vagina). Hopefully, one or both participants climax, and if that happens, it’s considered a successful sexual encounter. As a result, I think that men have taken on the idea that it's a performance, and they should be running the show. Even the fact that we call it “performance anxiety” inherently feeds into this idea that sex has to be spectacular and driven by the man.
There are parts of masculinity that are not serving us at all. A much more open conversation around sex would help encourage more people’s sex lives to flourish and better relationships overall. It's a tricky one, but I guess what we're trying to promote is what we're calling “radical openness.” Guys should be willing to be vulnerable. And, to be honest, there's a really sexy element about finding strength in that. And we have to advertise that that more.
I think there's this perception that once you overcome the issue, it's like it never happens again. But the reality is that every person has moments in which they're not feeling sexual or experiencing stress. Personally, there are still times when I’m not in the best mindset, and I have to say to my wife, “Hey, can we just try this a little later.” Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah, I think that also feeds into this perception of masculinity—that sex is a performance. There’s this cultural expectation that men are always up for sex and have to be ready to go. In actuality, being tired, stressed, or not in the mood is totally ok. And the moment you try to force through any of those things is often when you'll run into difficulties because you're not listening to your body. Often that one time that you try to have sex when you’re not feeling good is the first time the seed of doubt plants itself in your mind. Then, the issue only grows from that point.
Brene Brown often talks about getting “vulnerability hangovers” after sharing really personal stuff. When I first started talking about my past issues, I experienced that effect; however, soon after, I noticed that, while there were still some awkward moments, I had gotten used to talking about it. I’m sure you’re having lots of conversations like this one. Do you get emotionally fatigued talking about it so often? Or are you at the point where it doesn’t feel vulnerable anymore because you’ve built the internal muscle and vocabulary to just power through?
Yeah, it’s more of the latter, so much so that I don't think of it as vulnerability anymore. It's something that I'm kind of able to wear with pride. But even at the beginning, it didn't feel like fatigue. I actually felt kind of energizing because I’d moved from this place of feeling really isolated to one where every conversation brought new connections. I was also often receiving the opposite feedback that I was expecting—that is, something that I felt vulnerable or embarrassed about was actually received very positively with both male and female friends. So, perhaps that's why I don't mind speaking publicly about the topic and having my story out in the open.
How has starting Mojo impacted your own personal relationships?
My girlfriend and I were just interviewed by a reporter writing about how sex has changed during the pandemic. And I feel like “thank God I've been working on these kinds of communication skills” because I think this lockdown threw the relationship rulebook out the window. I met Catherine last September and our getting together was not about how many dates we went per week or meeting each other’s family. It was much more intense, and I think we really had to rely on good communication to get through that. She actually ended up coming home for Christmas ten weeks after we met, which seemed crazy.
You are two years into the Mojo journey. How are things going so far?
We officially launched in September/October of last year. And we had designed to product to be the kind of thing that we wished we had had when we were struggling—that is, something that could help us kind of remotely, so we didn't have to go through the process of kind of speaking about it with somebody. We also wanted to make it low cost and something that people could access wherever they needed.
So, we offer these weekly video courses with world-class experts in that field. And that's how it started. But we've had a kind of roller coaster of six months in which we've built up an almost evangelical following of really engaged, wonderful members that are driving product development in ways I've already mentioned. And, yeah, we're really excited by the kind of traction we're getting. We now have members of 36 countries across the world, and we're closing in on 10,000 active users. It’s going better than we could have ever imagined or hoped.
That's awesome. Well, congrats on your progress thus far. I'm sure you're making a meaningful impact on lives around the world.
Yeah, thanks very much. We just built something we wished we had had when we were struggling. We actually thought our demographic was going to be 25-year-old to 35-year-old guys. But what we’re really proud of is that we have a wide range of users mixing together in our community. On one side of the spectrum, there are 16-year-olds who are losing their virginity and struggling with performance anxiety or an unhealthy relationship with porn. On the other, there are guys in their 70s who say, “I've struggled for 20 years, and I’ve known it's not something physical, thank God I found you.” Quite often, those are the guys who burst into tears in our user interviews. It’s been exhilarating to bring in this kind of cross-generational element to a problem like this.
Department of Links
Boys Do Cry — Hip hop artist Piff Marti recently went viral on Tik Tok with an extremely catchy song about men & vulnerability. Some lyrics: “To be a real man, you don't need no one to prove, fuck who told this to you, cause boys do cry.” It’s so great. I want more. — Tik Tok
Trans Joy — Author and journalist Thomas Page McBee interviews Elliot Page about the actor’s new life following coming out as trans. One quote really stuck in my head — Page McBee says, “I wasn’t born in the wrong body—I was born in a trans body.” So well said. — Vanity Fair
Everything-Pilled — The Atlantic recently published a great piece about devolution of expression “redpilled,” which originates from The Matrix but later became widely used by Manosphere and MAGA nuts as an anti-feminist slogan (read: ad for misogyny) — The Atlantic
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