t an American Urology conference in 1983, the British physician Giles Brindley made one of the first convincing claims for impotence-treating drugs. Brindley, who had injected phentolamine into his penis moments before going on stage, stepped away from the podium, unzipped his pants, and displayed his prodigious erection. As one colleague put it, “it was a big penis, and he just marched across the stage showing it off.”
Brindley was of an era in which sexual problems were psychological problems, and his injection-induced erection — visual proof that the paradigm didn’t hold — marked the beginning of our belief in medicated sex. Now impotence (or for that matter, occasional softness, numbness, or insecurity) is a disease, inspiring the sale of more than 16 million blue pills, not to mention vacuum pumps, nasal sprays and chewing gums.
In The Rise of Viagra, Meika Loe mourns the “construction of a sexually dysfunctional populace” and worries that pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer are overemphasizing the body and forgetting about the mind (what happened to simply being turned off by your partner?). Loe wonders if soon intercourse will be unnecessary — we’ll simply take a pill instead. — Rachel Aviv
Ten years ago you were waitressing at Bazooms, wearing tight tank tops and hula-hooping between orders. How did you go from that to writing about Viagra?
While my friends who called themselves feminists were picketing Bazooms, I decided that to really understand what was going on there, I needed to get inside. As a Bazooms girl I was taught to smile, flirt, and flaunt it. The male customers, following a different script, ogled and consumed pitchers of beer. The corporate script for gender is something I find fascinating.
And what exactly is the script for Viagra?
What you see in the advertisements and Pfizer’s discourse is that men should step up to the plate, engage in the competition. In the ads, these men are leaping and jumping through the streets. You get the sense that this is the pill that can really bring you confidence. This is the pill that fulfills our sense of what it means to be a man in this culture. So in that sense, if you don’t step up to the plate, if you’re not concerned with maximal performance or the quality of your erections, then something is wrong.
Has Viagra elevated the importance of sex in everyday life?
I think it’s feeding into a sexualized culture. Viagra did not occur out of nowhere. I mean, if you think about 1998, the year Viagra came out, we had Clinton in the news caught with his pants down; erections were already in our public discourse. Pfizer came in at the right time and entered pretty fertile ground. But it has taken it several steps further. It has pushed our sexual lives closer into a dangerous zone.
Pfizer defines normal as having an extremely hard penis, feeling eighteen again and never having to worry about erections. Has Viagra raised the bar in terms of what we expect from sex — no one’s “normal” unless they can have sex like a porn star?
Sure. We’ve moved from impotence to "erectile dysfunction." And in the process, "erectile dysfunction" has become a very broad catch-all for anyone who has insecurity or occasional problems. So the idea of vulnerability, the ebbs and flows of life are no longer acceptable.
And dysfunction is blending with dissatisfaction?
I think that with all this emphasis on sexual dysfunction — it was on Oprah last week, the jokes are being told everywhere, the ads are everywhere — it’s not uncommon to feel like you are dysfunctional. And yes, it starts to blend with dissatisfaction. You think, maybe I do have a sexual problem, maybe it is wrong that I don’t have desire after a long day of work, or that I am not aroused by my husband or lover or partner at certain times, even though we have kids and all these other factors. With all these messages about sexual dissatisfaction, people start to think their sex lives need improvement. In other words, the Viagra phenomenon makes them feel sick, makes them feel dysfunctional.
If it’s the idea of the pill that makes people feel sick, is it the idea of the pill — and not its chemical effects — that also “heals” them?
There’s a strong placebo effect. One man in particular comes to mind. He was twenty when I talked to him. He purchased a bottle of Viagra over the internet and he just keeps it in his medicine cabinet. He said that that’s enough to give him the confidence he needs — it’s there, it’s in his life. That was enough to make him feel like he could be who he wants to be.
Is there anything new going on in the field of female sexual dysfunction?
It seems like every other week there’s something in the news. I’ve been interested in seeing what they come up with. Many of these conferences are focused on animal slides and rat vaginas, and I wonder if I’m the only one thinking to myself, "Is that really going to tell us a lot about women’s lives? By knowing that this product helps a rat?" And actually I just read an article today online about a new product that works on rats. It’s a nasal spray.
In your book, you write that Prozac is the female counterpoint to Viagra — one a corporate recipe for manhood, the other a corporate recipe for womanhood. Why the comparison?
It should be no surprise that more women are being diagnosed for depression and more men for sexual dysfunction. In our culture we expect that men will be sexual and in control of themselves and their surroundings in the same way we expect women to be happy and content. Many people say this is a sexual revolution for men. My response would be, is this really about revolution and freedom from constraints of society? Or is it further constraining us?
And what about the discrepancies between the money and attention given to erectile dysfunction versus female sexual dysfunction?
Many women have been aware of this inequality. Not only is there more money being pumped into Viagra-like products, but there is more insurance for Viagra-like products — some insurance companies still don’t even cover birth control. And we expect everyone to be heterosexual, of course, and involved in penetrative-intercourse-centered sex. Men are creating these products and marketing them, and it’s in their interests. In fact, a lot of the conferences on female sexual dysfunction are run by male urologists.
I was really intrigued by that picture exhibited at the FSD conference in 2000 — men are represented as a box with one on/off switch, and women as an ornate system of twenty or so knobs.
That’s yet another example of how the language of these conferences dictates that men are very simple — men are shake-and-bake. I think that’s disturbing. We all know men are more complicated; they have a lot going on in their lives. A man is not equal to his erection. And yet, the message from Pfizer and all these pharmaceutical companies is that he is his erection: the quality of his erection is his life, his personhood. That machine suggests there is one button and that if we could just find that for women, it would be so easy to have a culture of sexually satisfied individuals. But the truth is we’ll never be there. Because the standards keep getting ratcheted up.
With what as the end result?
We create robotic creatures. People that think they have to be superhuman, supersexual, superhard. n°
The Rise of Viagra,