Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/23/2021
Not being able to get an erection that’s firm enough to have penetrative sex with your partner is a surprisingly common issue. It’s also one that can affect men of any age or background.
While it’s far from uncommon to occasionally find it difficult to get or stay hard, if you often lose your erection before penetration or struggle to maintain a firm erection, you may be affected by erectile dysfunction (ED).
Contrary to popular belief, ED isn’t something that only affects older guys. In fact, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, ED affects an estimated 30 million men in the United States.
Although it can be stressful to deal with ED when it happens, options are available to help you successfully get and maintain an erection when you want to have sex.
If you often find yourself not hard enough to penetrate, read on. Below you’ll find information on how and why ED happens, as well as how it may affect your ability to maintain a firm erection during foreplay and penetrative sex.
Below, you can also learn what you can do to improve your erections and stay firm enough for better, more satisfying sex — from ED pills to healthy habits and lifestyle changes.
First, let’s get one important thing out of the way: real life is not Pornhub, and no guy gets a perfect erection every time he wants to have sex.
A huge range of different factors — from the quality of your relationship to the amount of stress you experience on a day-to-day basis — all have the potential to affect your mood, sex drive and performance in bed.
Put simply, your erections and sex life will vary from one day to the next, especially if you’re a busy person with lots to think about.
However, researchers have formulated a system for working out how hard an erection might be, as well as how severely you may be affected by ED (if your erection isn’t hard enough for sex).
This system is called the Erection Hardness Score (EHS), and it consists of five options, scored from zero to four:
0: The penis does not enlarge.
1: The penis becomes larger, but not hard.
2: The penis is hard, but not hard enough for penetrative sex.
3: The penis is hard enough for penetration, but not completely hard.
4: The penis is completely hard and fully rigid.
Although we often associate erectile dysfunction with a complete inability to get an erection, the reality is that ED can vary in severity.
For example, you may be affected by erectile dysfunction when you can only get an erection firm enough for penetrative sex sometimes, or when you can initially get an erection with sexual activity but can’t maintain it during sex — and, of course, when you’re unable to get an erection at all.
These issues may be a short-term problem that comes and goes, or a long-term one that occurs whenever you have sexual intercourse with your partner.
A wide range of factors can cause erectile dysfunction, including mild ED that causes your penis to become semi-rigid but not quite hard enough for penetration.
Getting and keeping an erection requires several parts of your body — including your nervous system and vascular system — to work together.
When you’re sexually aroused, your nervous system relaxes the muscles that control blood flow to the corpora cavernosa — a pair of sponge-like areas of erectile tissue inside your penis.
As blood flows to the corpora cavernosa, your penis expands and becomes harder. This blood is then held inside your penis by a fibrous membrane called the tunica albuginea, which helps to sustain your erection during sex.
ED occurs when one or several factors either prevents this process from happening, reduces its effects or disrupts it.
Some of the factors that can cause ED are physical. For example, you may find it difficult to get hard enough for penetrative sex if you have a condition that affects your vascular system, such as atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in your arteries) or heart and blood vessel disease.
These conditions may affect your body’s ability to supply enough blood to your penis to get and sustain a firm erection.
Conditions that affect your nervous system can also make it difficult to develop and maintain an erection. These include type 2 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and injuries that damage the nerves around your spine, pelvis, prostate, bladder or penis.
ED may also be caused by psychological factors that stop you from feeling relaxed during sex, affect arousal or reduce your sex drive. These include anxiety, depression, worries about your sexual performance or stress.
In some cases, ED may occur as a result of the medications you use. Medications associated with ED include antidepressants, sedatives, medications that affect your hormone production, ulcer medications and certain medications used to treat high blood pressure.
Finally, certain habits and aspects of your lifestyle, such as being overweight or obese, excess alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking or limited physical activity, may also increase your risk of developing ED.
You can learn more about these issues and their effects on your sexual performance in our full guide to the causes of erectile dysfunction.
When you’re consistently not hard enough to penetrate during sex you’re likely to feel frustrated — especially when it happenss often and affects your ability to connect with your partner.
Luckily, there are several things that you can do to improve your erectile function and stay hard (Why can't I stay hard?) during foreplay and sex.
If you often find it difficult to maintain a hard enough erection for penetrative sex, you may want to consider using ED medication.
Several medications are available for ED, including well-known options like sildenafil (the active ingredient in Viagra®), tadalafil (Cialis®), vardenafil (Levitra®) and avanafil (Stendra®).
These medications work by increasing blood flow to the erectile tissue inside your penis, making it easier for you to get and stay hard during sex. Most ED medications should be taken about 30 to 60 minutes before you have sex for optimal results.
Sometimes, even a low dose of ED medication can increase your confidence in bed and make it easier to maintain a firm enough erection for satisfying, pleasurable sex.
We offer several medications for ED online, following a consultation with a licensed healthcare provider who will determine if a prescription is appropriate.
Sometimes, the best way to overcome erectile dysfunction and improve your sexual health is by improving your mental health.
Common psychological causes of ED include stress, anxiety, depression, relationship problems and feelings of guilt or low self-esteem. These issues can also affect your sex drive, which may make you feel less interested in having sex.
Research suggests that sexual performance anxiety — a common cause of psychogenic ED — may improve with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation.
For issues such as depression and anxiety disorders, it’s best to reach out to a licensed mental health provider for assistance.
The link between porn and erectile dysfunction isn’t crystal clear. However, some research has found that avoiding online porn may help to improve real-life sexual arousal and reduce the risk of experiencing sexual performance issues like ED.
If you watch porn habitually, try cutting it out of your life for a few weeks to see if your erections and sexual function improve.
You can learn more about the relationship between porn and sexual performance issues in our guide to porn-induced erectile dysfunction.
If you’re currently prescribed medication that can affect your erections and sexual performance, consider talking to a healthcare provider about making changes to your medication use.
You may be able to switch to a different type of medication that’s less likely to affect your sexual health and erectile function. Alternatively, your healthcare provider may suggest making certain changes to the way you use your medication to reduce its impact on your erections.
Be sure not to stop taking any type of medication or adjust your dosage without first talking to your healthcare provider.
Erectile dysfunction is closely linked to issues such as obesity, lack of exercise and habits such as cigarette smoking.
For example, research suggests that a BMI in the 30 or higher range is associated with a three times greater risk of developing sexual dysfunction than a BMI in the normal range.
As we’ve covered in our guide to protecting your erections naturally, making simple changes to your lifestyle, such as exercising regularly, eating a nutritious diet, limiting your consumption of alcohol and getting enough sleep, can have a real positive impact on your sexual health.
Bigger changes, such as quitting smoking or maintaining healthy blood pressure, may have an even bigger effect on your erections and sexual performance.
Erectile dysfunction is a common issue that affects an estimated 30 million men of all ages and backgrounds in the United States.
If you have mild ED, you may find it difficult to maintain an erection that’s hard enough to penetrate during sex with your partner.
You can improve your erectile function and sexual performance using ED medications such as sildenafil (Viagra) and others.
Simple changes to your lifestyle, such as being more active and maintaining a healthy weight, can also reduce your risk of dealing with long-term ED.
Our full guide to erectile dysfunction goes into more detail about the most common causes of ED, symptoms and the science-based steps you can take to maintain good sexual health and function throughout your life.