An older man whose female partner is chummy with his pals is more likely to suffer from sexual dysfunction than men who keep their confidantes to themselves, reports a new Cornell study. However, this link disappeared among the oldest men in the study.

Benjamin Cornwell, assistant professor of sociology, and co-author Edward Laumann of the University of Chicago, analyzed data on 3,005 adults aged 57 to 85 from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project. About one-quarter of men in the survey reported that their female partners had more frequent contact with their male buddies than they did -- a phenomenon the researchers dub "partner betweenness."

These men, the authors report in the July issue of the American Journal of Sociology (117:1), were 92 percent more likely to report erectile dysfunction than other men; of men in the sample, 36 percent reported some trouble getting and/or maintaining an erection during the past year.

The findings, said Cornwell, show "that some men's erectile difficulties stem from the psychological and/or relational consequences of partner betweenness."

In other words, it is the men's positions in their social networks vis-à-vis their female partners that may be at the root of the problem, he said. Cornwell suspects that the sexual dysfunction was a result of the men feeling that partner betweenness compromised their "pre-eminent" position in their own social network, which rattled the mens' gender identity, resulting in a feeling of less control, independence and autonomy. These feelings, he said, could negatively impact sexual health.

This association, however, disappears among the oldest men in the sample, he said, suggesting that a woman's chumminess with a man's confidantes "ceases to represent a threat to men's gender identities at older ages."

The study is one of the first to look at how social networks might impact erectile dysfunction, said Cornwell, admitting that it is indeed counterintuitive that such a private, personal problem as erectile dysfunction would have roots in public social relationships.

While the study focused on older men, Cornwell said that "a key question is whether younger men today define masculinity in the same way that men from, say, the baby boomer generation do."

Cornwell said he plans to continue exploring the effect of social networks on personal health. "I am confident," he said, "that with more comprehensive data … you would find strong associations between network position and psychological well-being. This could be a new paradigm for social psychology."

The National Social Life, Health and Aging Project is supported by the National Institutes of Health, which also provided partial funding for this research.

Cornell Chronicle writer intern Paul Bennetch '12 contributed to this report.