The Rebel Girl: The Potency Power Pill

Catherine Sameh

VIAGRA IS SUCH a ridiculously easy target, it seems a waste of time to address it. But it keeps popping up, so to speak, so I have to take it head on (OK, last pun).

My initial reaction to the announcement of Viagra’s FDA approval was one of disgust. In a country with multiple health crises—HIV and AIDS, breast cancer and malnutrition to name a few—the frenzy around erectile dysfunction illustrates the skewed priorities of our national health and consumer organizations, and the massive neglect of the health and well-being of women, children and the poor.

Since its approval on March 27—it was submitted only six months earlier—pharmacies are well-stocked with Viagra, many insurance companies are paying for it and, lo and behold, Viagra tours to Hawaii are in the works.

The joke that “if men needed estrogen, it would be in the water supply” never seemed more a propos.

The more I read, however, the more nuanced my response became. I read, for instance, that erectile dysfunction, “the inability to achieve and/or maintain an erection sufficient for sexual activity,” affects an estimated 30 million American men. That’s a minimum of 60 million sexually dissatisfied people, many of them presumably women.

As someone who thinks that a good amount of good sex is good for everyone, my disgust turned to concern for my fellow countrypersons. No wonder such a pervasive cynicism has swept our land!

I had to read further. As with any big news, the intelligent discussions are held in intelligent sources, and those are few and far between. Yet buried beneath the hype were some fascinating discussions, not of Viagra per se but of sex in its real complexity.

Here were ordinary men (and some women) talking about the relationship between arousal, erection, the brain and orgasm; about congenital penile curvature and the urethra; about sex after prostate cancer, diabetes or heart disease; about the relationship between psychological and physical health.

They had genuine concern for their female partners, and legitimate questions about their own normalcy.

Could it be that Viagra had broken the shaming silence about male impotence and delivered men to the consciousness-raising table of sexual health, in much the same way that women’s discovery of clitoral orgasm had done for them?

Will the discussions about Viagra, more than the drug itself, replace the myths of male virility with more honest accounts of male sexuality?

Or will millions of frustrated men now be vulnerable to the promises of pharmaceutical companies who, along with their stockholders, stand to profit from male anxiety?

The result remains to be seen. If Viagra does not deliver on its promise, or proves to have serious side effects, perhaps millions of middle-age men will develop a sense of solidarity with women who’ve been betrayed by drug companies and the FDA.

Then again, maybe those Viagra tours to Hawaii—and other hideous promotions of male virility—really will take off, eclipsing the opportunity for honest dialogue about sexuality and keeping men stuck in locker room conversation.

ATC 75, July-August 1998