By msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/9/2011 9:01:22 AM ET 2011-08-09T13:01:22

A man needs a little guy-on-guy interaction without his woman interfering if he wants to perform well with her in the sack.

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That’s the conclusion of a study published online this week in the American Journal of Sociology, which suggests that when a woman steps between a man and his network of pals and then forms friendships that are as strong or stronger than his own, the guy is more likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction.

That may seem contrary to what most men say they want: a woman who can hang with his friends. But the study, by sociologists Benjamin Cornwell of Cornell University and Edward Laumann of the University of Chicago, discovered that among the youngest men in their nationwide sample, what they describe as “partner between-ness” has “an association with erectile dysfunction that rivals that of prostate trouble,” Cornwell said.

Maybe he feels less manly
“We think one possibility is that men [in this situation] feel less manly,” explained Cornwell, an assistant professor of sociology. “This has to do with masculinity and feelings of masculinity.”

Cornwell was not referring to a man's fear that a close friend will take over his romantic relationship with his wife or girlfriend. That wasn’t the point of the study, which included more than 3,000 men from ages 57 to 85 who participated in the massive National Social Life, Health and Aging Project survey.

Instead, the study found that men look to their male friendships as sources of independence, privacy, confidence, autonomy. When a partner forms a closer link to one of the men in his network than the man himself has, all these are eroded and, along with them, a bit of his male identity. That diminished male sense of himself, in turn, can lead to psychogenic (it’s all in your head) erectile dysfunction.

This does not mean that men ought to book airline tickets and reenact scenes from “The Hangover.” But it does seem to reflect the “No Girls Allowed” policy little boys tack up on plywood clubhouses and big boys tack up on, say, Augusta National Golf Club.

We do want the women we love to be friendly with our guy pals and our male work colleagues, or at least tolerate them, but we also want a testosterone zone of maleness.

Older men don't mind so much
This changes as we get older, Cornwell speculated, which may explain why “in betweeness” represents a bigger risk to younger men. “As men age, they develop different relationship priorities,” he said. “Older men shift to family as a priority rather than control and independence.”

Grandpa wants to mentor and impart some wisdom to his relatives; he doesn’t care quite so much about how his buddy the purchasing agent can boost his career, or whether or not he can comment on the glories of the gym receptionist’s breasts to his workout pal without his wife hearing about it.

“Older men develop a different sense of what masculinity really is,” Cornwell said.

Cornwell cautions that the study’s findings are not proof of cause and effect. But it does show impacts on sexual health can involve more than the usual suspects.

“We have to look outside to external relationships,” he said. “One’s broader social network can play a role, too.”

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