Viva Viagra?

How the decade-old drug has affected the way we think about sex, aging and masculinity

Published August 17, 2009 4:18PM (EDT)

It's been over a decade since Viagra hit pharmacy shelves, and in that time, the little blue pill has become everything from a saving grace for elderly couples to a coveted recreational drug to a pop culture punchline. We've argued about its safety and whether it should be covered by health insurance, at a time when many companies won't pay for women's birth control. And we know that Viagra (and its younger cousins, Cialis and Levitra) has increased our ability to stay sexually active through illness and old age. But is the pill also changing how and why we have sex? 

An article in today's Telegraph argues that it is. The piece cites a massive 20 percent rise in Viagra prescriptions over the past year in Britain. These days, the UK is dispensing over two million doses of the drug, at an expense of £70 million to taxpayers supporting the nation's universal healthcare program. And according to the Telegraph, the Viagra vogue has less to do with an increase in medically sound erectile dysfunction diagnoses than with a cultural obsession over "Hollywood sex." 

"We live in a world where there is no longer naïve fumbling behind the bushes or that sense or [sic] learning from experience. Sex has been fundamentally changed," Frank Furedi, a Kent University sociologist, told the Telegraph. "There was a time when people got sex advice from their friends but now the attitudes and images of sex come straight from Hollywood – such as Sex In The City and Entourage – and they make people expect the best." Furedi believes that we can blame the epidemic of recreational Viagra use (as well as doctors prescribing the pill to healthy patients to prevent men from buying dangerous, potentially tainted, imitations of the drug online) on our unrealistic expectations of perfect, carefree and busy sex lives.

The Telegraph's explanation, which doesn't include any statistical evidence that "Hollywood sex" has much to do with skyrocketing rates of Viagra use, is a bit overly simplistic. (Doesn't "Hollywood sex" pre-date Viagra? And wasn't part of the point of "Sex and the City" that the characters openly discussed even the embarrassing, occasionally impotent, details of their own intimate relationships?) Infinitely more convincing is a recent article from RH Reality Check (re-posted Monday by AlterNet) on Viagra's missed opportunity to change the way we think about sex, masculinity and aging. Meika Loe, a professor of sociology and women's studies at Colgate and the author of "The Rise of Viagra: How the Little Blue Pill Changed Sex in America," breaks it down:

Over ten years of Pfizer advertising Viagra, the individual ad campaigns may have changed but the themes have stayed the same. Ideal sexuality is youthful ("18 again"), heterosexual, penetrative, and erection-centered. Apparently, being a man, and a healthy happy successful one, depends on these things. Thanks to Viagra, mankind now stands at a crossroads: either invest in that teenage erection - or in a broader, richer definition of manhood.

Loe reminds us of America's earliest Viagra ads, which notoriously featured Bob Dole opening up about his E.D. "Here was a war veteran, an elder statesman, on TV, talking about this sexual dysfunction problem," she writes. "This was a radical thing for a lot of reasons. It was one of the first (if not the very first) direct-to-consumer ad for a pharmaceutical product broadcast for all Americans to see. Even more shockingly, this was an older man talking (indirectly) about sex." In the years that followed, elderly men lined up for Viagra prescriptions without first consulting their wives, and Pfizer, the drug's manufacturer, discovered that the pill was dangerous for men who'd had prostate surgery.

This lost market, combined with increased knowledge of and interest in Viagra from younger men, led Pfizer to promote the drug to a wider audience. And that meant removing any trace of honesty about sex and aging -- and the vulnerability that entails -- from the advertising. That's when, as Loe writes, "the Viagra man became either professional baseball or NASCAR spokesmen talking about all-around performance, or those handsome age-ambiguous (thirty, forty, or fifty-something?) guys with a touch of gray in their hair, impressing their coworkers with their new confidence, caressing a lovely younger-looking woman, jumping in the street to the tune of 'We are the Champions,' singing Elvis tunes with friends, and sprouting devil-horns while 'getting back to mischief.'"  She argues that these ads have put us right back where we started: "Except for middle-aged men graying at the temples, we're back to denying aging and elder sex, and selling medication with anti-aging branding." And instead of addressing the insecurity we all feel about sex, the ads attempt to cover it up with the quick fix of a sexual fountain of youth.

At a time when the U.S. is so divided about healthcare reform and debate rages over what the government should and shouldn't pay for (if anything), it seems inevitable that we'll keep discussing Viagra. And while it's unlikely that taxpayers will ever be in the same situation as British citizens (whose public health plan I admit to daydreaming about), it's important that we understand the reasons behind men's use and abuse of the drug. But it may be even more beneficial -- both financially and for health reasons -- to stop giving into the influences of "Hollywood sex" or Pfizer's hyper-masculine marketing machine and start re-examining what a healthy, satisfying sex life might realistically entail, in middle age and beyond.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

MORE FROM Judy Berman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadsheet Health Sex