So what do we do about Viagra and the other ED (erectile dysfunction) drugs that are now commonplace and marketed directly to men in TV commercials and magazine ads?
It's an important question to ponder, because as every woman knows, it takes two to tango. Viagra's impact on men's sex lives also impacts women's sex lives.
Meika Loe has pondered this very question in her book, The Rise of Viagra: How the Little Blue Pill Changed Sex in America. And the answers she's uncovered are disturbing. Loe, who is Assistant Professor of Sociology & Anthropology and Women's Studies at Colgate University, has also written extensively about sex and senior women.
Loe spoke to About.com about Viagra (marketed by Pfizer) and how women's sexuality has been affected by the introduction of these ED drugs.
Viagra is marketed to aging men whose female counterparts are going through their own sexual crisis - menopause. These women want less sex but their partners now want more.
Isn't this counter-intuitive? Doesn't this turn the bedroom into a battlefield at a time when women are already vulnerable (e.g., empty nest syndrome, feeling less attractive as we age, physical changes due to menopause including hair loss and weight gain, etc.)
I recently visited my ob/gyn, and upon hearing about my research, she volunteered that many of her women patients have complained that Viagra has not helped their sex lives. The introduction of the pill has made sexuality, among other things, intercourse-focused and thus less satisfying.
I hear this kind of thing over and over. My analysis of syndicated advice columns after Viagra's debut in 1998 revealed many negative responses among women. Women writing to Dear Abby, for example, were either no longer interested in sex (and thus Viagra created new unwelcome pressure to be sexually active again), or fearing their husbands were having affairs in the context of their newfound sexual potency, and/or experiencing sometimes painful physiological effects of reigniting their sex lives later in life.
It seems that Viagra raised quite a few questions for married women about marital obligation, for example. Then again, there were other letters that reflected excitement about husbands feeling healthy and confident after a period of impotence, so the response to Viagra in the population is quite complex.
I would have liked to see an explosion of people communicating about sexuality after Viagra's release, but in our pill-for-everything culture, we tend to let the pill do the work and forget that it may not be an end-all be-all. Viagra tended to just exacerbate or throw light on already existing problems in relationships.
It should be telling that at this point, almost 10 years after Viagra's debut, only 50% of men who received prescriptions for Viagra end up refilling their prescriptions.
It's not simply about a man being able to have pleasurable sex. It's also about power and dominance, virility despite aging. It's a way for men to deny that they are past their sexual peak. What are the long-term implications for a society that has Viagra in its drug arsenal?
Viagra was the harbinger of things to come in the form of the pharmacology of aging and sexuality (sexual medicine is in expansion mode post-Viagra).
All of this is due to a combination of, among other things, changing demographics (e.g. aging population), direct to consumer advertising/ consumer-based medicine (Viagra being one of the first drugs to be advertised directly to the consumer) and pharmaceutical expansion.
It is important to see that Viagra's popularity fits in a particular cultural moment in our history, and there will be/have been plenty of other products to follow (including medications) that emphasize the holy triumvirate: youth, vitality, and performance.
In short, as a sociologist I see Viagra as a cultural product and thus a window onto our culture. It helps us see where we are when it comes to sexuality (and our ambivalence), gender (masculinity and sexual performance packaged together), medicine (quick-fix and lifestyle enhancement emphasis more than ever), and aging (we’re uncomfortable with it but do we all want to be 18 again?).
Pfizer has helped to reinforce these traditional and not-so-traditional ideals with Viagra and it has been fascinating to see how successful they have been here and around the world with this youth, vitality, and performance-based message.
Again, now that the initial curiosity factor has disappeared, it is unclear how successful sexual dysfunction medication really is. Viagra has spurred several like products – Cialis and Levitra. But the refill rate on all three is low.
Viagra is certainly sociologically significant as it has highlighted many social problems in the way we do health and gender and sexuality in our society.
Is Viagra use common within the general population - men of all ages? How does this affect behavior or alter men and women's sexual intimacy?
It is difficult to find demographic information about who uses Viagra, but in Internet chatrooms, doctors' offices, pharmacies, etc. you find men of all ages interested in discussing the drug.
I spoke with young men who had purchased Viagra out of insecurity - a 'just in case' situation where they felt they had to live up to some social standard their first time and had purchased the pills (or borrowed them) to have some assurance of adequate performance.
I also spoke with men in their 80s who felt like it gave them 'life' again.