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cover of book

photo of Keith and Virginia Laken
with permission of
Ant Hill Press

A Review of:
Making Love Again
by Virginia and Keith Laken

Los Angeles Times 3/18/02

When Impotence Threatens Sex, Life - and Marriage

A couple's book chronicles how they reclaimed and redefined intimacy

By Kathleen Kelleher
Special to The Times

When Keith Laken was 49 years old, doctors discovered he had prostate cancer. Faced with the prospect of an operation that could cause permanent impotence, Keith announced to his wife that he would rather die. Over the next months, the couple argued intensely over what to do next. Virginia Laken, his wife of 25 years, insisted sex didn't matter, certainly not as much as life. Keith claimed that erectile dysfunction would make him as good as the walking dead. Ultimately, he chose life. He had a radical prostatectomy in February 1995. The operation did save his life but nearly ruined his marriage.

The Lakens chronicle their experience and offer graphic details about their struggle in Making Love Again: Hope for Couples Facing Loss of Sexual Intimacy (Ant Hill Press, 2002). The book was written by Virginia Laken and is interspersed with their individual journal entries.

"The book is so graphic and so gutsy," said Dr. James Talcott, director of the Center for Outcomes Research Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston. "The Lakens very nicely recapitulate the dynamic of initially responding to the threat of death from cancer and doing everything you can to prevent it and then dealing with the complex issues of how our identity--wrapped up in who we are sexually--is affected." The Lakens, who live in Minnesota, hope to help some of the 10 million to 15 million U.S. men who suffer from impotence. According to the Lakens' research, 1 out of 20 men do not seek help because they are either too embarrassed or prefer to avoid sex rather than seek treatment. "As we got healthy, we felt very sorry that there were so many couples who had given up on sexual intimacy and never pursued it again," said Virginia, a business communications consultant. "We wrote the book for people who want to give up. I think couples struggling with erectile dysfunction need to hear it from people who have been through it and succeeded."

The book takes place over the three years following Keith's surgery, a time when the Lakens were forced to redefine the ways they communicated, how they made love and the roles they played in initiating sex.

"No matter what you lose, a loved one or a physical capability, there is a certain amount of anger which then turns to mourning," said Keith, 56, an executive manager for Watlow Electric Corp. He felt emasculated and worried that he would be perceived as weak and ineffective.

"I was angry because I wasn't quite sure I had been presented with all my treatment options by doctors or all my options in the sex department," he said. "I was angry about the paucity of information about what is good sex for someone [like me]."

About four months after the surgery, it became clear that Keith would not regain spontaneous erectile function. They experimented but, eventually frustrated by limitation, Keith withdrew from physical intimacy. "I realized the hopelessness of ever getting it back to what it was before the surgery," he said. "It started to sink in."

For a while, penile injections, which restore erectile functioning for sustained periods, helped. (Viagra did not work for him.)

"The injections jump-started our sex life again," said Virginia. But soon Keith--like most men who use them--grew tired of them. He announced to Virginia that he no longer desired sex. "For me, that was the most painful moment," said Virginia, who is 55. "We had been married almost 30 years at that point, and Keith had always been a very sexual person. I had taken it for granted that he was turned on every time [he] saw me naked. Then like a light switch turning off, he said 'I don't need it anymore.' It made me realize how unattractive I felt."

The Lakens grew distant, and eventually stopped trying to be physically intimate. After nearly three months of no physical intimacy, the Lakens decided that their relationship was unraveling. It had been a little over a year after the surgery and they had stopped even touching one another.

In a stab at marital preservation, the couple discussed having "sex dates" at least once a week with a no-rejection rule. Virginia accepted that she would have to be the initiator. They agreed to redefine sexual intimacy to mean "giving each other physical pleasure, which may or may not lead to orgasm but will maintain their human connection."

But first they saw a psychologist who helped Keith deal with the emotional issues inextricably bound up with his sexual identity. "The psychologist affirmed that I still had a libido because I told him I think about sex about 90 seconds of every minute and that was a real confidence builder," said Keith. "The other thing I realized was I didn't want to be a victim, and I didn't want people to pity me.... I went back to taking control of my life. I moved the topic from the brunt of locker-room jokes in my mind to being in control and getting on top of my game with it. This turned it around for me.

"The no-rejection rule was the best way to get back into the relationship," he added. "Virginia coaxed me back into sexual intimacy."

The Lakens' therapy effectively bridged the months-long physical and emotional chasm that had chilled their relationship. Keith started using the injections again, which became smoother and less cumbersome with practice.

But most important, said Keith, was the realization that erectile dysfunction is a couples' issue, not just a man's issue. "When I said, 'I am not interested in sex anymore,' I opened up a big wound for my wife," he said. "That was the first time I had rejected Virginia. If she had gone along when I said sex didn't matter to me anymore, life might have turned out differently."

Today, sex may not be spontaneous, but the Lakens, who speak to support groups for couples, say it is much richer and more satisfying than before. "In hindsight, we realized more clearly what had happened when we looked at our sexual relationship today compared to the way it was," said Virginia. "We couldn't rebuild it until we let it go completely. Some of it from the past we could keep. Some of it we couldn't. We were forced to reinvent our sexual identity as individuals and as a couple."


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