“There’s something serious you need to know,” I said, pulling my pretty, ambitious 25-year-old girlfriend, Rachel, aside as we walked home from work. I was 33, trying to play the role of confident older man, but I was a wreck. I lit a cigarette. “Sometimes I take supplements — to help myself perform.”
“You mean like Viagra?” she asked. She looked totally calm, even relieved.
“Lately it’s just over-the-counter things, stuff you can buy at the Vitamin Shoppe: ginseng, L-arginine, maca root,” I confessed. “But the side effects keep getting worse. I get a headache every time, no matter how much I cut the dosage.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” she said. “I thought you were going to tell me something awful. If the headaches bother you that much, stop.”
Her nonchalance made me even more ashamed. “You don’t understand. Without the supplements, I may not be able to do it.”
She touched my arm and said, “It’s going to be fine.”
I tried to smile. Too often in my 20s, when I’d gone to bed with a woman, I couldn’t perform. Even if I did become excited, I usually got thrown off my game moments later. A touch I didn’t like, a word or glance I couldn’t interpret. Anything that made me think made me wilt.
Everything made me think.
The first time I enlisted pharmaceutical help, I was 28. I had become infatuated with a sexy mortuary science student, a sardonic redhead just emerging from what she called her “drunkenly whoring around New York” phase. Some men might have been irritated by their poor timing. I was actually relieved to get a chance to get to know her better before humiliating myself in bed.
We went slow at first, holding hands on the street, kissing on the subway as the train approached the station. Our chemistry was natural, undeniable. But alone in her bedroom in Park Slope, I fumbled tragically.
I gave up and rolled onto my back, staring at the ceiling. Neither of us spoke or moved. To my surprise, her pheromones in the dark and the stillness of the moment excited me. Maybe I wasn’t doomed after all. I went for it, thrilled that I’d salvaged the situation. But afterward, as we got dressed to go downstairs for dinner, she said, “Phew, we finally got that out of the way. Next time, we can do it properly.”
She was trying to be funny, but it sent me into a neurotic tailspin. At home, I went straight to the computer and ordered a bottle of Viagra from an online pharmacy. I couldn’t let another relationship be spoiled by my body’s unreliability.
I never told her the source of my newfound sturdiness. For a while, I was convinced I’d fixed everything. But she had a confusing tendency to create problems where I thought none existed. She complained that because we both had roommates, we never had enough privacy to be completely intimate. I moved to a one-bedroom apartment in her neighborhood. She began to fixate on abstract considerations, questioning my sincerity. Months and several terrible fights later, she confessed she had borderline personality disorder. I insisted that it didn’t matter. I loved her, and I hoped she would still love me if I ever revealed my own flaws. But I never did. She was already obsessed with the idea that I didn’t really love her. I worried that if I revealed there was a chemical component to our sex life, she would doubt my love more. Instead, we fought. I broke off contact.
I blamed my upbringing for my intimacy problems. My parents were both shy. My father was a Christian theology grad student from upstate New York. My mother, a beautiful painter from Connecticut. Their way of teaching my brother and me about sex was simply to ignore the subject. I was insulted by their vague, sentimental statements about how pregnancy “happens when two people are in love.” Did they really think I was that naive? By the time I was 20, I attributed my own difficulties with women to the timid way they had glossed over “the talk.” Now I knew what I’d always suspected was true: Love was not enough.
I enjoyed dating, but as soon as our clothes came off, I felt like I was standing outside of myself. I was too trapped in my head — all my girlfriends had pointed that out. But what was harder to articulate was that I was also trapped in her head. Of course, I couldn’t really know her thoughts, but I desperately wanted to. So I created my own version, concocting a story about what she was thinking. In it, she never truly desired the same things I did. The woman I invented was either offended, ambivalent or humoring me.
The drugs helped, but sex still seemed like a charade. Not only was I being dishonest with the women I dated, I was also being dishonest with myself. I’d always had fantasies of being totally in control in bed. Instead, I was timid, obsequious. With a woman who identified as submissive, I thought I’d have the freedom to be myself, although part of me feared I was a pervert. I had spent years believing pornography excited me in a way that was impossible in the real world. The voices of feminists I’d read reminded me: “Porn is not reality. It’s degrading. Real women would never enjoy it that way.”
I needed to reinvent myself — and my understanding of women. A month before my 30th birthday, I created an erotic online profile advertising myself as “a copy editor by day, burgeoning dom by night.” I told myself it was an experiment, but it was conceived out of desperation. After 12 years of dissatisfaction in the bedroom, it was either that or celibacy.
After creating my kinky alter ego, I was astonished by the number of women in New York having the same fantasies. In the past, I had worried about “using” women as sexual objects. But in terms of the dominance/submission game, that was not only permissible, it was desirable — for both partners. Having clearly defined roles freed us from the awkwardness of egalitarian lovemaking, so that deeper desires could emerge.
Outwardly, I was happier. I was finally enjoying myself, with more partners. But it was as someone else. At the core, my view of myself had not changed. I still saw sex as a performance. I was an actor, and I relied on a spectacular array of products to ensure I didn’t get stage fright.
Vigorplex, Capatrex, Ejaculoid, Python, Python Extra, Tribulus Terrestris Extract, L-Arginine, L-Ornithine, L-Citrulline, maca root, ginseng, zinc, Super Energy Up. I preferred these so-called natural products because they helped me believe the problem wasn’t that bad. Although I bought Viagra over the Internet, it embarrassed me that it was a prescription drug, even if I was the only one who knew about it. Over-the-counter treatments were easier to rationalize.
No matter what I took — Viagra or ginseng or anything in between — I got subtle, distracting headaches, either that night or the next day. In a way it was worse than if they’d been extremely painful, as if Poe’s telltale heart was throbbing in my head. I experimented with different pills and dosages, always searching for the perfect drug in the perfect amount that would give me the desired result without any side effects.
After three years, I had to admit it didn’t exist. Then I met Rachel, a petite, curly-haired brunette at the office. I gave up my Internet conquests to pursue her instead. She was quiet, slinky, catlike — different than the brash, emotionally unstable women I had dated in the past. We flirted for months. Usually, I considered dating co-workers verboten. The likelihood that my secret shame would be revealed was too great. But with her, I thought, perhaps I would risk it.
We circled each other slowly. I told her about my kinks, my double life on the Internet, the tumultuous way my past relationships had ended. I wanted to be understood. She accepted it all. More than that, she seemed charmed. But for months I stopped short of revealing my deeper anxiety and addiction, because I still feared some things were too embarrassing to talk about.
Even after finding the courage to speak honestly with Rachel, I stuck to my routine, taking a bit of L-arginine before she came over. I didn’t want her to know when my new drug-free life was going to start, in case it changed her attitude in some small way, which might throw me off.
Finally, I switched my L-arginine for sugar capsules. To my surprise, the sugar pills were just as good. Does the placebo effect actually work when you administer the medications to yourself? But after having repeated success with the sugar pills, I couldn’t rationally put the true test off any longer. The next time Rachel came over, I didn’t take anything at all.
My body didn’t know the difference. Everything was as good as it had been with the pills. I was amazed but didn’t tell Rachel yet. I needed to replicate the results to believe it. A week later, as we were lying in bed, I turned to her and said, “I finally did it. No supplements of any kind.”
She rolled onto my chest, smiling at me through long lashes. For the first time, I could believe what Rachel had already known: It was going to be fine. Being vulnerable and accepted by her was more powerful than any drug.