The spirit was willing but the testicles were weak.
— The Wolf's Hour, Robert R. McCammon
When a character about to have sex cannot get it up. The cause is often a sexual version of Performance Anxiety, but may also sometimes be related to UST - for someone other than the person/people they're with at the moment. The "guy can't get hard for girl(s)" variation is the most common — the phrase "It's okay, this sort of thing happens to lots of guys" is closely associated with this trope.
Strictly a comedy trope, since the situation is usually temporary, and playing it for drama lasts longer. Double points if something like "I'm sorry, I swear this has never happened to me before..." or the above-mentioned "It's okay..." phrase shows up in the dialog.
Can be Truth in Television (and there are usually other ways to get the job done). One of the leading causes is the classic panic attack, which causes an adrenaline rush and in turn diverts blood flow away from the, erm, extremities. Other common causes of erectile dysfunction include age (it's four times more common among men in their 60s than those in their 40s), poor cardiovascular health, stress, smoking, and excessive alcohol consumption.
The Distaff Counterpart to this trope (in which a female character is incapable of getting properly lubricated) is not unheard of but, as the above description suggests, the male version is infinitely more common. There's an additional Double Standard in that male examples are almost invariably played for comedy with the man being the butt of the joke: female examples either tend to attribute the character's lack of lubrication to her partner's sexual inadequacy or unattractiveness, or to deep-seated psychological issues or traumatic sexual experiences.
Named as a pun for a song note "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" that has absolutely nothing to do with impotence, but the Double Entendre is too good to pass up.
Contrast Raging Stiffie, Speed Sex (for when the guy goes off too quickly rather than not at all), Something Else Also Rises. Parodies of the latter are occasionally used as a visual gag - e.g. a skyscraper collapsing. Think Unsexy Thoughts is an inversion of this.
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Anime and Manga
Maison Ikkoku: Godai and Kyoko's encounter in a Love Hotel, after Kyoko says she's thinking of Soichiro (meaning the dog, but Godai interprets it as her late husband).
Girl Friends: Akko's night with some random drunk guy after a party. Naturally, he begs her to keep it a secret.
Tomoe from Kamisama Kiss heads to the Red Light District after Nanami heads to a summit. However, it is implied that he does this because he is lonely while she is gone. So he merely gets drunk and falls asleep without having sex with any of the girls.
Kota Oyamada had this problem at one time. His girlfriend(s?) were worked up trying to fix this. Apparently, it was a problem with pent up youki that didn't come out from... the pipe and was instead released as sort of an aura outside. The ironic part? That aura down right seduced every female around him.
Happens in The Rise of Arsenal #3 when Roy Harper, who's strung out on drugs and grieving for his daughter, can't get it up to have hate sex with Cheshire. He then goes out to beat up some druggies with a dead cat. At least one fan has since gone on to coin the nickname of The Inability To Rise Of Arsenal for the series in the wake of this incident.
Marvyn from Donjon angrily lists all the reasons he doesn't want the power of Immortality. One of them is that he "didnt have an erection since the planet stopped spinning."
Dan Dreiberg aka Nite Owl of Watchmen suffers from this as he's trying to romance Laurie/Silk Spectre. He overcomes this after some back-into-superhero-costume experience.
Shining Armor experiences this problem after the birth of his and Cadance's daughter in Diaries of a Madman, resulting in him seeking advice from Navarone.
The central conflict of Cup of Tea is that Phoenix can't get aroused with Edgeworth trying to deal with it. While Phoenix is still a good lover despite this, it bothers Edgeworth that he can't reciprocate. Turns out Phoenix has a pretty good reason.
Spoofed in Top Secret!. Thanks to a subverted Sexy Discretion Shot, Hillary seems to be consoling Nick for failing to get it up, but then it turns out that she's reading a romance novel out loud. Then they get serious about the lovemaking.
Murder in the First: Not at all played for laughs when it happens to Henri Young (as played by Kevin Bacon).
The clear implication of Dr. Strangelove is that General Ripper's descent into madness began when he became impotent, which he blamed on Communists contaminating his precious bodily fluids by putting fluoride in our water.
Plays as a key point in The Departed as Colin's girlfriend, "Little Miss Freud," gives him the above speech, more or less. That doesn't stop her from getting some much deserved lovin' and a bun in the oven from Billy.
In the original movie of Mash, camp dentist Painless Pole Waldowski (known to all as the "best equipped man" in the Army Medical Corps) becomes suicidal after he finds himself unable to rise to the occasion. He comes to Hawkeye asking for some pill that will make it quick and painless (the suicide), but instead is given a weak sleeping pill and provided with a friendly nurse who is shipping home the next day. He's back to himself by morning and the nurse is seen smiling uncontrollably as her chopper departs.
In Death Becomes Her Madeline accuses Ernest of this. He doesn't deny it, just tells her to shut up. Since he's a middle-aged alcoholic and she's turned into a shallow bitch he no longer loves, this is pretty well justified.
In Being There, the President suffers from this, as a literal reflection of his corresponding "impotence" as a political leader.
Dr. Herbert Bock, George C. Scott's character in The Hospital, claims he's been "impotent for years," then goes into a rant where he declares, "Impotence is beautiful, baby!" The impotence Bock speaks of, however, goes beyond the physical. He goes on:
"When I say impotent, I don't mean merely limp. Disagreeable as it may be for a woman, a man may lust for other things, something less transient than an erection, some sense of permanent worth. That's what medicine was to me, my reason for being. When I was 34, Miss Drummond, I presented a paper before the annual convention of the Society of Clinical Investigation that pioneered the whole goddamn field of lmmunology. A breakthrough! I'm in all the textbooks. I happen to be an eminent man, Miss Drummond. You know something else? I don't give a goddamn. When I say impotent I mean I've lost even my desire to work. That's a hell of a lot more primal passion than sex. I've lost my reason for being. My purpose. The only thing I ever truly loved. It is all rubbish, isn't it? Transplants, antibodies, we manufacture genes, we can produce birth ectogenetically, we can practically clone people like carrots, and half the kids in this ghetto haven't even been inoculated for polio! We have established the most enormous medical entity ever conceived and people are sicker than ever! We cure nothing! We heal nothing! The whole goddamn wretched world is strangulating in front of our eyes. That's what I mean when I say impotent."
Happens to Frank in Far From Heaven when he tries to have sex with his wife Cathy—he's drunk, but there are otherproblems as well. She tries to comfort him by saying she doesn't care and that he's "all man," but it doesn't quite help.
The '60s British comedy The Family Way concerns a newly-married couple who are forced by economic necessity to share a flat with the husband's parents, which leads to the young man's failure to consummate the union.
Marcus of Bad Boys 2 suffers this as a result of getting Shot in the Ass by Mike during the first shootout of the movie. He only gets better after accidentally ingesting some X (the drug whose traffic the two are trying to fight) during a trip to the morgue, leading to one of the most hilarious scenes in the movie.
In Victor/Victoria, King Marchand finds himself distracted by thoughts of "Victor" and suffers from this while trying to have sex with his girlfriend Norma.
Alpha Dog: Johnny Truelove can't get it up in a scene with his girlfriend near the end, because he's terrified of getting caught for Zack's murder.
Tonny in Pusher 2 hires two prostitutes for a celebratory orgy after getting out of prison, but is completely unable to perform. This is just one of an entire film's worth of indignities that he suffers.
The Australian film The Boys has the Villain Protagonist get aggressive towards his girlfriend because he is unable to get erect after returning from jail.
Brandon from Shame is another tragic example. Usually performing very well with Anything That Moves, he can't get it up with the woman he's emotionally invested in.
In The Real Blonde, a soap opera star cannot perform after seducing a coveted "real blonde." After she humiliates him, and he gets his revenge, he goes back to a fake blonde.
In the 2006 Sweeney Todd film Sweeney, due to his Tragic Backstory (read: Madonna-Whore Complex resulting from the death of his mother) has, shall we say, issues with his sexuality.
Played for Drama in Cast a Giant Shadow. A women mentions that her husband suffers from impotence. It's implied to be a result of trauma from the Holocaust (he is a survivor).
The titular character in You Don't Mess with the Zohan experiences this while trying to pleasure yet another elderly female client and is surprised and embarrassed. The client tells him it's fine. They really only come in to get their hair done. The screwing is just a bonus. Later, he realizes it could be because he's falling for his boss and doesn't want to be with anyone else.
In Austin Powers:The Spy Who Shagged Me, the titular super groovy super spy suffers this problem. While shagging it up with an enemy spy named Ivana Humpalot, Austin's mojo (literally his libido/sex drive) is drained out of his body back in 1969, causing him to immediately go limp in 1999. In order to save himself from perpetual erectile dysfunction, he therefore has to boogie on back to the Swingin' Sixties. While there, he gains a new encouragement to retrieve his mojo when he meets sexy CIA agent Felicity Shagwell. The groovy hippie chick's desire to compete in the bedroom Olympics with the International Man of Mystery only increases his desire to cure his impotence and retrieve his precious mojo from Dr. Evil so he can finally take Felicity to bed.
Not entirely a comedy trope. In the oft-banned novel Lady Chatterley's Lover, one of Lady Chatterley's reasons for her affair with the gardener is because her husband is impotent due to an injury from World War One. The marriage is also lacking adequate emotional intimacy, which is at least as important. The book is a cross between straight drama and an erotic romance novel—few laughs to be had at all.
In Rage, the protagonist recalls a time when he tried to have sex with a girl at a party and this happened to him.
In Apt Pupil, where Todd Bowden has a girlfriend, because he wants to look normal. However, by this time, he is a misogynistic, hateful monster, and he's only able to perform when he's thinking of rape and abuse; eventually not even then.
Perhaps not coincidentally, King once confessed in a Playboy interview to suffering periodically from this in Real Life.
Done without a trace of comedy in Biting the Sun, to the point of the impotent character committing (temporary) suicide over it.
In Cetaganda, Barrayan noble Ivan Vorpatril gets himself into a threesome with two Cetagandan ghem-ladies during a diplomatic mission, and finds out that his host had slipped him an anti-aphrodisiac in his drink earlier, resulting in great personal embarrassment until he finds a way around his little problem, involving the aforementioned "other ways to get the job done" and some bluffing about Barrayan sexual mores worthy of his craftier cousin Miles. In a minor Crowning Moment Of Awesome for Ivan, his performance is so impressive that he ends up becoming a Memetic Sex God among the ghem-ladies in spite of his drug-induced setback.
A very popular trope in libertine poetry of the English Restoration.
In Last Watch an Uzbek Other named Afandi (who is over 300 years old but a very weak mage) curses Edgar to have this happen to him the next 77 times he lies with a woman. Anton notes that this is a very Eastern thing to do.
The impotence of the main character of Ousmane Sembène's novel Xala is used a metaphor to satirise the similarly impotent, inept and corrupt élites of post-colonial Africa.
For the first time in their relationship—in any relationship—Chaz had heard that most hollow and dreaded of consolations: "Don't worry, it happens to everybody."... Even digitally remastered, "Bad to the Bone" could not rally Chaz's bone to its usual badness.
Encolpius, the main character of the Satyricon by Petronius, Nero's Arbiter of Elegance, suffers from impotence for a large part of the story. It's a punishment inflicted for disturbing the rites of Priapus, the personification of erections.
Jack Ryan has this problem in The Sum of All Fears, as a combination of job stress and drinking to much.
In Blood Rites, novice porno actor Bobby reacts badly to Harry's joke about being hired as a stunt man for Arturo's latest skin flick. Jake explains that it's because "stunt man" in the porn industry means an understudy penis, used in cases when this trope strikes the intended actor.
This turns out to be a plot point in Harry's Game by Gerald Seymour. The protagonist realises an IRA suspect was involved in the assassination he's investigating because Harry hears he couldn't 'perform' with his girlfriend the night before, implying he was nervous about what was going to happen tomorrow.
Live Action TV
In Wings, Brian starts dating one of his old teachers. Yet she was a grade school teacher (or junior high), so Brian had trouble seeing her as more than a crush, and when they were about to have sex, he had what he called, "an incomplete." In another episode Joe and Helen go on their first date in years, but between Brian's putting a subliminal "stuttering" suggestion in Joe's head and Helen's inability to see Joe as anything other than a childhood pal, the loins sleep.
Elliot and Maya had an accidental wedding in Just Shoot Me!, and when he tries to ignore it (the circumstances were weird) and sleep with a model, he can't.
Happens to Chandler in Friends ("In high school I failed Biology and tonight Biology failed me."). When he goes to Joey for advice, Joey confides that it happened to him once. "What did you do?" asks Chandler. "We did it anyway." Chandler is also involved in another conversation about this phenomenon:
Rachel (to Ross): "It's not that common, it doesn't happen to every guy, and it is a big deal!"
Chandler: I KNEW IT!
Scrubs has the episode "My Monster," in which J.D. finds out on a date with The Gift Shop Girl that his "peep was on the fritz." Another episode subverts this trope. It opens with Turk and Carla about to get it on, then the camera moves to the side...then back, to see them both laying in bed looking distraught, and Turk says, "That's never happened to me before." Later, as each is talking about what went wrong to their friends, it's revealed that Turk was fine, but Carla couldn't have an orgasm.
One episode of That '70s Show had this happen to Kelso. When confessing the problem to his friends:
Coupling: Patrick has this happen to him when Sally decides it's time they became more than friends, leading to much discussion about "the Melty Man," and the following exchange as a Darth Vader parody.
Veronica Mars did this with Mac and Beaver. At the time, it was a Woobie moment for Beaver, since the scene strongly suggested that Beaver was subconsciously cock blocked by his brother, Dick (who lived up to the pun). Let's just say when we find out the real reason, it's significantly less Woobie-ish.
Night Court had The Casanova Dan Fielding dosed with saltpeter right before a "big date," and a discussion about his inability to perform:
Harry (sympathetically): Don't worry, it happens to everybody.
Dan: Did it ever happen to you?
Harry : Hell no!
(Later repeated with Bull, then Mac, instead of Harry.)
Done metaphorically with Spike's inhibitor chip in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He tries and fails to bite Willow, and the conversation they have afterward could word for wordbe about impotence (well, except "bite," obviously). Until she realises "What the hell, I'm talking to a guy who just tried to murder me" and knocks him out.
Sure enough, in Season 6 when Spike discovers his inhibitor chip doesn't work on Buffy, his reaction is not to bite Buffy but to spend the entire night having rough sex with her. Buffy the Viagra?
Drop the Dead Donkey. Elderly hedonist anchorman Henry confesses to Dave (in confidence) that this happened the night before. Naturally this spreads over the office like wildfire, and when his despised co-anchor Sally quips in response to Henry's computer going down "Maybe it's your floppy" Henry bursts out with "YES, ALL RIGHT, I'M IMPOTENT!" right in front of a television crew who've come to do a This-Is-Your-Life style interview with him.
Herman's Head used this with Herman somehow hooking up with a supermodel, but couldn't perform because he was intimidated by her status (he gets over it).
Used as an ongoing plot point with Charlotte's first husband Trey in Sex and the City, one of the few cases where it is an ongoing issue rather than a one-episode gag. Also when Samantha has sex with a party guest when she sees that her boyfriend Richard won't commit to monogamy, he goes soft inside her and while he's blabbering that this has never happened before, this is the first time that she actually doesn't care that it happened.
In the M*A*S*H episode "Some 38th Parallels," Hawkeye experiences "The Big Couldn't" with a nurse:
BJ: Look, it's perfectly understandable. You've been going full tilt since you got here, and your nerves are brittle enough to use for kindling.
BJ: The war.
Hawkeye: Happens to everyone.
Hawkeye: Ever happen to you?
A more dramatic example happens in "U.N., the Night and the Music", when Margaret falls for a UN observer from Sweden who was wounded down there.
Happens to Roy in The IT Crowd when he finally is about to get in to one of the girls from fourth floor...'s pants. However he can't get the images of half naked nerds and old women out of his head, it's a long story.
Happens to Chuck in Gossip Girl. Since he has feelings for Blair, he cannot get it up for any other girl.
The Seinfeld episode "The Mango" has mango fruit be the cure for George and Jerry.
Burt has this long-term at the start of Soap because he feels guilty over murdering his wife's first husband. They eventually see a psychiatrist to help him and he confesses about the murder; the doctor says that, given the circumstances, it was actually self-defensive. This releaves Burt of his guilt and he's cured.
Prince Ludwig the Indestructible: Oh, on the contrary. We have met many times, although you knew me by another name. Do you recall a mysterious black marketeer and smuggler called Otto with whom you used to dine and plot and play the biscuit game at the Old Pizzle in Dover?
Edmund Blackadder: My God!
Ludwig: Yes! I was... the waitress!
Blackadder: I don't believe it! You? Big Sally?
Ludwig: (falsetto) 'Will you have another piece of pie, My Lord?'
Blackadder: ...but I went to bed with you, didn't I?
Ludwig: For my country, I am willing to make any sacrifice.
Blackadder: Yes, but I'm not! I must have been paralytic!
Ludwig: Indeed you were, Mr. Floppy...
Blackadder: Yes, alright, alright. Now, would you mind—
Ludwig: (falsetto) 'Such a disappointment for a girl...'
Blackadder: Yes, alright, you've had your little joke.
Ludwig: (falsetto) 'It really doesn't matter — we'll try again in a few minutes. Have a look through these naughty parchments.'
One of Naomi's former partners in Skins had this problem. Seventeen times.
Naomi: I was getting tennis elbow!
Of course, that may be because Naomi's heart wasn't really in it - she was trying to convince herself that she wasn't in love with Emily...
Happens to Simon in The Inbetweeners when he attempts to have sex with Tara. However, this was down to taking Jay's rather poor advice of having a "tactical wank" very shortly beforehand. He does manage to get it up again, but not before he has totally scared her off and is subsequently dumped.
A chronic problem with Charlie "Lucky" Luciano in Boardwalk Empire (probably because of the syphilis). He gets better with Gillian, however.
On The Young and the Restless, when a woman's husband couldn't perform (which needless to say, put a crimp into their plans to have another baby), he blamed it on stress from work, and then eventually, cruelly blamed it on her nagging and pressuring him. It turned out he was cheating on her and therefore too exhausted from having serviced his mistress all afternoon to come home and make love to his wife.
In episode 5 of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Lucretia tries to sleep with Crixus, but he can't get it up. He says it's because he's nervous about his big gladiator match the next day, but the real reason is because he doesn't have feelings for her anymore and he's in love with Naevia. A few minutes later, he has sex with Naevia.
Takes a much, much grimmer turn on Criminal Minds, where one serial killer was an ex-swinger who'd become impotent due to complications from prostate surgery. Quite a lot of Killers Of The Week are implied to have similar problems.
Becomes a major plot point for most of season 3 on Downton Abbey. With Matthew rendered paraplegic and unable to function due to a War wound, there is no one to carry on the inheritance and the whole fiasco was set to start again. But he got better long enough to have a son by Mary, before dying in a car wreck.
In Peep Show, Jeremy has fallen on hard times and has resorted to sperm donation for income. However, he just can't get it up in the cold, clinical public toilets they provide for him, and he is forced to try and get it up over an image of the Queen from a fiver in his wallet.
Don Draper, generally the alpha male of Mad Men, suffers a bout while on a Valentine's Day date with Betty at a hotel. She goes out of her way to flirt with an auto mechanic soon after.
Mindless Self Indulgence (who'da thunk it?) have a song about this, named appropriately "Get It Up." In the middle is a short section of dialogue:
"Uh, Jesus... eh, I-I never had this problem before, it's just a... hold on a second, give it a minute, alright, just give it a minute. Uh... do something sexy! I don't care, do something sexy, just... whatever you do don't talk about your fucking boyfriend while we're having sex, how 'bout that?"
Elastica's 'Stutter' is from the point of view of a woman having to deal with her boyfriend's failure to rise to the occasion.
Happened in an early story arc of Least I Could Do, before Rayne became, ahem, omnipotent. Solved with the simple and sensible expedient of Viagra.
In one strip of Sexy Losers, Indiana Jones survive the usual shootouts and adventures, only to say, "Today I am not a man" when he's with a woman and things don't quite work. This is borderline NSFW, but safer than most strips from that series.
In Survival of the Fittest version 4, Dustin Royal suffers this embarrassment when attempting to have sex with Maria Graham. Comedic, but also a relief, given he was taking advantage of Maria's highly distressed state at the time to make a move on her.
In the Family Guy episode "Big Man on Hippocampus," Peter gets amnesia, and acts like a bachelor. Lois eventually leaves him, and almost has sex with Quagmire; however, when she says she trusts him, he gets impotent from guilt, and tries to "resuscitate" himself with increasingly drastic measures.