News & Views » Cover

Viagra and the culture of manhood

Godsend ... and recreational drug of choice

by

2 comments

For millions of men who suffer from varying levels of impotence, Viagra has been a godsend. But for millions of others, it's become the recreational drug of choice.

Everybody wants some. I want some, too. That's why I'm perched on an examination-room table, head bowed, shoulders slumped, feigning what I imagine to be some semblance of impotence, hoping to wheedle my doctor out of a Viagra prescription.

For millions of men who actually suffer from some sort of impotence -- or erectile dysfunction (ED), as it has come to be known -- Viagra and similar drugs, such as Levitra and Cialis, developed within the past decade have been a godsend, dramatically raising long-dormant members.

However, for millions of other men who have no trouble "getting it up," Viagra has become the recreational drug of choice. Such usage is challenging cultural notions of sexual intimacy, the practice of medicine and what it means to be a man.

I fall into this latter group of men, those who have no problem with erectile dysfunction. Even if I had a problem, I probably wouldn't tell you. Such is the nature of the beast, and, like many men, I've been curious about Viagra since it hit the market. In a culture where sexual prowess is akin to currency, who wouldn't want to fatten their wallet -- particularly when everybody else is doing it? Which is why I'm perfectly willing to lie to score some little blue pills.

The medicalized penis

Since the beginning of recorded history, man has searched for a more rigid tool, an aphrodisiac if you will. "Over time, there's always been an emphasis on male sexuality," explains Todd Migliaccio, a sociology professor who teaches a course in masculinity at California State University, Sacramento. "How do you prove your masculinity? Through sex. If you're not having sex, then your masculinity comes into question."

Thus, the historical quest for male sexual enhancement quite properly can be called an obsession, as evidenced by remedies for impotence from the past that most people nowadays wouldn't eat on a dare: centipedes, rotten fish, rhino horn, bear bile and the crushed testes of various animals. Egyptians enjoyed rubbing crocodile semen on their genitals. Herbs such as yohimbe and horny goat weed have been used for centuries and are still available at your friendly neighborhood sex shop.

"Most of these do nothing, but people have persisted in using them for centuries," says Richard, a Sacramento adult-bookstore employee who asked that his real name not be used. "Hope springs eternal. It's interesting to note that Viagra may save rhinos from extinction where all of the conservation efforts of environmentalists were failing." Judging from repeat sales, Richard notes that his customers seem to be having success with ginseng, yohimbe and saw palmetto.

In stark contrast to such natural remedies are modern medical treatments for impotence first introduced in the late 19th century. Author David Friedman, in his probing cultural history of the penis, A Mind of Its Own, reports that such treatments included shoving a metal rod into the urethra, transplanting testicles obtained from apes into humans and shooting an electric current through the offending appendage. Shock the monkey, indeed.

Pharmaceuticals arrived with great fanfare in 1983, when Dr. Giles Brindley, at a conference of urologists in Las Vegas, intravenously injected the drug phenoxybenzamine into his own penis and subsequently displayed his fully engorged member to a live and somewhat startled audience. Through experiments conducted on himself, Brindley had discovered that injections of the drug promoted erections that lasted for hours.

"Never before had so many penis doctors seen another man's erect penis," Friedman writes. "In this singular moment, human sexuality, the healing profession, and man's relationship to his penis underwent a huge transformation, the consequences of which are still being felt today."

Or, as Migliaccio puts it, the penis became "medicalized." Brindley's discovery turned out to be a boon for impotence sufferers, and injections of the drug Papaverine (it turned out that phenoxybenzamine can cause priapism, erections that last more than four hours and can seriously damage the penis) became the preferred treatment for the next two decades. Obviously, sticking your penis with a hypodermic needle isn't exactly for everyone. Fortunately, an accidental discovery by scientists at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer was just around the corner.

Erection perfection

That discovery was Viagra, sildenafil citrate, which debuted in 1998. The drug immediately sparked a frenzy as male patients suffering from varying degrees of impotency rushed to their doctors in record numbers. Up to 2 million prescriptions were filled in the first two months of its release; by 2005, 23 million men worldwide had been prescribed Viagra.

Pfizer, previously known as a manufacturer of cardiovascular medications, had truly struck the mother lode. With more than 100 million men worldwide estimated to suffer from different degrees of impotence, shares in the company's stock quickly doubled in price. The blue, diamond-shaped pills retail for $10 a pop and account for billions of dollars in annual income.

Tags

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment
 

Add a comment