Line Of Duty: We Need To Talk About The Emotional Impact Of Erectile Dysfunction

"The sudden pressure to perform stresses me out."

Please note: this article contains minor spoilers for Line of Duty.

“I won’t be a minute.”

We’ve watched Steve Arnott go through a lot in the five seasons of Line of Duty – from being framed as a “bent copper” to being thrown down several flights of stairs – but the pain and embarrassment in his voice as he spoke those five simple words was unmistakable.

On Sunday night, viewers watched as Steve headed to the bedroom with ex-girlfriend Sam Railston. It was soon implied that Steve was experiencing erectile dysfunction and we watched as he locked himself in the bathroom and, eventually, cried.

Some headlines after the show have described Steve’s “awkward sex scene” and reported “fans cringing” – with plenty of viewers making jokes about the character’s experience on Twitter. But erectile dysfunction (ED) is no laughing matter for the men who experience it in real life.

Adam, 26, from London, began to experience ED recently when his girlfriend moved in with him. The issue has put a strain on their relationship.

“My girlfriend thought I wasn’t sexually attracted to her which is not true. I was juggling my work and uni and felt increasing pressure to get erections once the problem had started,” he says.

“When it first happened, she seemed disappointed. I think I built it up in my own head and now the sudden pressure to perform just stresses me out. It’s like a vicious cycle. No-one talks about this stuff.”


Adam’s experience is sadly, not unique. Around 4.3 million men in the UK are affected by ED, according to men’s health charity Movember.

“Although there is now more openness about sexual health, far too many men are still not taking action either because of embarrassment or because they don’t know how to access advice and treatment. But failing to deal with it can have a negative impact on mental health and relationships,” Movember CEO Owen Sharp tells HuffPost UK.

Psychotherapist Lucy Beresford, author of ‘Happy Relationships: At Home, Work and Play’, says it’s common for ED to make men feel “inadequate or abnormal”.

“This is partly because there is still an expectation in society that men will be sexually competent, having erections on demand, even when this isn’t the case,” she says. “And it’s partly because in culture, especially porn, ED is never shown, so men fear they are unusual if they suffer from it.”

It’s unclear whether Steve’s ED is caused by work stress, his back injury following the attack or another reason in Line of Duty.

Jim Pollard, editor of, tells HuffPost the causes of ED can be psychological, such as stress or anxiety, or physical.

“Some of these can be serious like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and depression.” he says. “It’s important to see a GP so that any dangerous underlying causes can be treated, as well as the ED.”

ED can also be a side effect of cancer treatment. Elvin Box, 61, from Essex, was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 58. He was warned the surgery he required might affect his nerve endings and lead to ED, but that didn’t make it any easier to deal with.

“Emotionally, from the outset I was in a dark place,” he says, adding that he was advised to start masturbating again as soon as possible after surgery. “One of the horrible things is nothing is happening. The urge is there, the libido doesn’t go away. But nothing happens and it’s frightening, you wonder whether it will ever come back. It’s a horrible feeling.”

Elvin Box
Elvin Box
Elvin Box

Although ED is more common in men over the age of 50, it’s a common misconception that it only affects older men. This can make things harder for people such as Jamal, 19, from London, who began to experience ED at university. “Honestly, I feel like I lost my manhood and I am not confident around girls already,” he says.

Pollard points out ED can have “a major emotional impact on men and women”, adding: “No man should define his masculinity by whether he has an erection at a given moment nor should any partner define their attractiveness by the same measure, but in a world where we still can’t talk frankly about sex, it happens way too often.”

The stigma attached to ED means many men avoid seeking professional help for the problem. Previous research from Manual, a men’s wellness platform that sells erectile dysfunction products, found more than half (52%) of men would rather break up with their partner, shop anonymously on the dark web for a solution or avoid sex all together before seeking help for ED.

But ignoring the problem in this way, or self-diagnosing and prescribing treatment, can cause anxiety over ED to increase, making the problem worse.

Lewis, 33, from Essex, got caught in this cycle and says his ED was something “that was dragging for years”. “I was severely depressed. It affected me to the point I questioned whether I am fertile even and whether I could have kids one day,” he says.

He avoided seeking professional help for a long time but eventually spoke to a clinician through Manual. “My cause was thought to be ultimately psychological, and my depression and stressing about my fertility was really not helping the situation,” he says. “I am now seeing a therapist to help with my mixed anxiety and depression. I never thought there was a solution to my ED but I was wrong.”

Sharp says it’s important men see their GP if they regularly suffer from ED. “GPs can arrange for some basic blood tests as they may need treatment for something other than sexual dysfunction,” he says.

Beresford advises men suffering from ED to talk to loved ones they trust, working with their partner to “make sex less goal-driven and more about intimacy”.

She believes realistic depictions of ED on popular shows such as Line of Duty are important because it’s helpful for both men and women to be reminded that sex “isn’t perfect and tidy”. She adds: “Such scenes help sufferers feel less alone, which helps address any stigma.”

Box agrees the more men seen speaking about ED on TV and the wider media, the better. “If there were more men like men who are prepared to explain why they have erectile dysfunction – because there are many reasons – it would be easier,” he says. ”We need not to shy away from it, we need to rush towards it and find better ways to overcome such a challenge.”