The male body and sex

The male sex organs are mostly outside his body and include the penis and testicles. The chest, nipples and other areas can also be sensitive to touch.

When you feel sexually aroused, your body goes through different stages. This may start with feeling turned on and build up to a sexual climax (orgasm). Cancer or its treatment can cause physical and emotional changes that affect your desire for sex (your sex drive). This can make it harder to reach orgasm.

Changes in the level of sex hormones in your body can cause:

  • a lower sex drive
  • tiredness
  • erection difficulties
  • tenderness in breast tissue.

Your doctor or specialist nurse can advice you on different ways of coping with these physical changes.

Sex drive is very closely linked to how we feel. If you are anxious or depressed due to cancer, you may have difficulty feeling sexually aroused. It may help to talk to someone about these difficult feelings.

The male body

A man’s reproductive organs are mostly outside his body. They include the penis and the testicles (testes or balls). The end of the penis is covered by the foreskin, unless it’s been removed by circumcision. The most sensitive part of a man’s penis is usually the ridge on the underside of the head. This is called the frenulum. At the very top of the penis is a slit that opens to the urethra, which semen and urine pass through to leave the body.

At the base of the penis is the scrotum. This is a bag formed by wrinkly skin. Inside the scrotum are the testicles. These produce sperm, which are then passed through tubes (known as vas deferens), to mix with other fluids to make semen.

The rest of a man’s sex organs are inside his body. The prostate gland is deep inside the pelvis. It surrounds the first part of the urethra, as it leaves the bladder. The prostate gland produces a fluid that mixes with sperm to make semen. It also helps create the intense sensations a man feels during an orgasm.

Your penis, testicles and anus are erogenous zones. Your chest and nipples can also be sensitive, and you may have other erogenous zones on your body that respond to touch. The sensitivity of these areas will vary from man to man.

The male sex organs
The male sex organs

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Sexual desire (sex drive)


Sexual desire describes our interest in sex. Everyone’s desire for sex is different. It varies depending on events going on in your life, your relationships, your feelings and changes in your body. For example, you may find your desire for sex is low if you are stressed, tired or unhappy. 

Stages of arousal


  • Excitement or arousal is the awakening of sexual feelings, when we feel ‘turned on’ and ready for sex. These feelings can be produced by simply seeing someone you’re attracted to, thinking about sex, or touching or being touched by a partner. Your penis will become erect. Arousal may or may not lead to orgasm.
  • Plateau is the phase where the body maintains a heightened state of arousal. Your body is very sensitive during this phase.
  • Orgasm is the sexual climax. You will usually ejaculate semen from your penis and have feelings of intense pleasure that happen as areas of your body go into a series of rhythmic contractions.
  • Resolution is the phase that follows sexual arousal and orgasm. This is when the sexual changes in the body go back to normal. Men can’t usually be sexually excited again for a while. And as men get older, they normally lose the ability to become sexually excited repeatedly.

Physical arousal, plateau and orgasm will only happen if the body has a good blood supply, if the nerves to the pelvic area are working well and if the balance of hormones in the body is right.


Hormones

Hormones are substances that occur naturally in the body. They act as chemical messengers, which influence the growth and activity of cells. Hormones are produced by the endocrine system, which is made up of several organs and glands.

Testosterone is made in the testicles. Testosterone helps make sperm and influences sex drive. Men also make a small amount of the female sex hormone oestrogen, which helps the production of sperm and maintains sex drive. Changes in the level of sex hormones in your body can cause some physical symptoms that can affect your sexuality. These include:

  • reduced sex drive
  • erection difficulties
  • tenderness in the breast tissue behind the nipples
  • tiredness.


Emotional effects on sexual desire and sex drive

Desire and sex drive make us act in a certain way when we’re sexually aroused. Sexual desire isn’t fixed – it changes over the years. Lots of things can reduce sexual desire, including:

  • tiredness
  • stress
  • mood changes
  • anxiety
  • feeling unhappy about your body
  • relationship problems
  • traumatic sexual experiences in the past
  • excessive drug or alcohol use
  • boredom with your sexual routine.

Desire for sex is greatly affected by your state of mind. If you’re depressed, anxious or afraid about your cancer, its treatment or your relationship, you may find it more difficult to be sexually aroused. Your sexuality and sex drive will probably change at different times during your diagnosis and treatment, whether you are single or in a relationship.

In many relationships, one partner is more interested in sex than the other. Cancer can exaggerate this. If one partner’s level of desire changes, this can be upsetting when there’s the added complication of cancer.

Sex and Cancer - Graham's story

Graham describes how treatment affected his relationship with his partner and how he dealt with feelings of self-consciousness.

About our cancer information videos

Sex and Cancer - Graham's story

Graham describes how treatment affected his relationship with his partner and how he dealt with feelings of self-consciousness.

About our cancer information videos

Back to Effects of treatment on a man's sexuality