Comes Naturally #74 (August 28, 1998):
Viagra and the Pursuit of Perfection

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COMES NATURALLY #74 (August 28, 1998)
Copyright (c) 1998 David Steinberg


Helen saw it coming long before I did. When the first reports began to appear in the press of an easy-to-take drug that could effectively treat men who were unable to have erections -- a good year before Viagra hit the drug stores -- Helen said that this drug was going to change the sexual landscape in a radical way. She wanted to buy Pfizer stock.

I was more skeptical, and more naive. I thought of the drug as being for men who were unable to have intercourse, at all or very often. I was glad that there was going to be a drug that would help these guys have erections without having to go through relatively unpleasant procedures like penile implants or injections, but I didn't see that as changing the sexual face of the nation. I was equally skeptical about Pfizer as an investment opportunity. "No one drug makes or breaks a drug company," I intoned wisely.

Of course, I was wrong on both counts. In the year before Viagra came out, Pfizer stock more than doubled in price. And since then it has become clear that for every man who takes Viagra for erection problems severe enough to prevent pleasurable intercourse there are a thousand or so taking the drug because they have been dissatisfied with their erections in far less dramatic ways.

I'm a member of the latter group. At 54, my penis sometimes does not get hard as easily, as quickly, as reliably, or as completely as it once did, or as I would like. While this does not keep Helen and me from having what I would have to describe as consistently wonderful, passionate, often mind-altering sex -- with and without intercourse -- it does make certain ways of being sexual difficult or impossible. As sexually enlightened and understanding as we really are, this can nevertheless be frustrating and limiting. Like when we've got fifteen minutes, max, in the morning before Helen has to get up and go to work. Or when we're both exhausted but want to have an easy connection before dropping off to sleep. Or when we'd like to have intercourse in certain positions that Helen particularly enjoys but that make maintaining full erections more difficult, at least for me. What tends to make things stickier is that Helen has a hard time remembering that the slowness and sometime reluctance of my penis to get hard is not a sign that I don't find her attractive or want to be sexual with her. I can explain to her as often as I want that this is just the way my body works, but somewhere she feels that this must mean that something is wrong with her.

Also, although my erections have become more of an issue as I've gotten older, the truth is that I was no Johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to erections, even when I was younger. In my life I have rarely had spontaneous erections (without some sort of touching or kissing or other physical contact). And, while erections with my primary partners has only been an issue recently, my penis has always been decidedly shy with other sexual partners. Given that I have been non-monogamous for the past thirty years, this has been a definite issue in terms of sexual partners other than my mates.

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, and in many ways I have been glad for the physiological push to be creative sexually. Not being so focused on intercourse has encouraged me to pay attention to ways of being sexual that have become aspects of my sexual personality that both I and my partners most strongly appreciate. Still, there have been times when not having an erection has been disappointing or even downright embarrassing, and just having to wonder whether I will have an erection in some sexual situations is at best distracting. The entire issue has certainly given a distinct color to my sexual concept of myself.

I think there are many men out there who are in positions similar to mine. Collectively, we are the primary market for Viagra, and for the similar drugs that will follow Viagra into the marketplace before long -- men who are not clinically dysfunctional because we are able to have happy, fulfilling sex lives, but who would nevertheless like to be harder, sooner and more reliably, than we are. And now, in true American pill-popping fashion, we can be.

It is the male equivalent of breast implants, albeit without the physical trauma, permanence, or (as far as we know now) medical side effects -- the ability to meet socially defined standards of sexual desirability by artificial means. People seem amazed (and amused) that so many men want this assistance, even as they were once amazed at how many women were opting for larger, firmer breasts. But the truth is that in a culture that puts such heavy emphasis on sexual performance and desirability, while simultaneously berating both men and women to feel bad about who we are sexually, neither is very surprising.

Whatever skepticism I had before Viagra became a reality did not keep me from hopping down to my doctor to get a prescription within a week of when it became available. My doctor, an old friend who is well aware of and supportive of both my writing and my sexual explorations, was just learning his way around the Viagra frenzy. He was glad to have a guinea pig who, he knew, would be comfortable reporting my experiences back to him.

I decided to start by taking 50 milligrams at a time (the "medium" dose), although I had my doctor prescribe 100's since the pills cost $8 each no matter what the dose. (A handy-dandy pill slicer to convert 100's into 50's or 25's can be had for a mere $3.95.) He called in a prescription for ten pills, with three refills. "After you go through these, come back and see me," he said. If it's working well for you I'll write an on-going prescription."

It was a Friday afternoon. By the time Helen came home from work I had a nice little vial of blue pills ready and waiting. I hadn't told her about getting the prescription, thinking it would be fun to surprise her. The weekend lay ahead of us, full of new possibilities. I was surprised at how excited I was. And also how nervous. Pop a pill and change something that has been a central part of your sexual makeup for a very long time. Who would I be if I wasn't exactly me any more? And besides, it all seemed just to easy. What if I was one of the 16% on whom Viagra has no effect? Somewhere there had to be a glitch.

Helen, after first being annoyed at being taken by surprise, got into the anticipation of a new sexual experience. We had dinner, did some evening things. Should I take it now? Ok. First drug experiences being what they are, I decided to start with a full 100 milligrams instead of 50. We looked at each other and laughed. We watched television while we waited. Fifteen minutes went by.

"Feel anything yet?" Helen asked.

"Nope." I didn't know what feeling I was waiting for. The press on Viagra was quite clear about it not producing erections on its own. Still, I kept checking my body for signs that something was going to happen. The feeling of intense expectation was not unfamiliar.

"It's like waiting for acid to come on," I remembered out loud to Helen. We laughed again. Another fifteen minutes went by.

"Anything?" Helen asked again.

"Not that I notice," I shrugged.

Somewhere I still thought it was all going to be a dud, and nothing in how my body felt suggested otherwise. After about 45 minutes we decided to go upstairs, get into bed, and see what happened. I still didn't feel anything dramatic going on in my body, although there was a vaguely heightened feeling down around my perineum. When we went into the bedroom I did notice that the light from the tensor lamp by the side of the bed was startlingly bright and very blue-white. I took that to be a good sign.

We got undressed and began to touch. "Just lie back and see what happens," Helen suggested. Sure enough, within a few seconds my penis was completely erect and, Helen insisted, larger than usual as well. She was completely delighted. I was delighted to see her so enthusiastic, and relieved that the drug was actually working for me.

That a full erection was happening without any mental participation from me was both exciting and disorienting. For the first time in my life I experienced the sense of separation from my penis that men so often talk about, the one that has people giving their penises by their own names. I was quite turned on, but I also felt a little like a spectator watching from the sidelines while Helen and my penis had a good time together. I think my mind could have drifted elsewhere and Helen would hardly have noticed. What pleased me most was that I could lie back and she could get on top of me without my erection receding at all. That and just seeing how thrilled Helen was with her new toy. We played one way and another, and eventually we both came. I can't say my sensation was heightened as compared to sex without the Viagra, although it was certainly pleasurable not to have to wonder whether my erection might come and go. My orgasm, if anything, was a little less intense than usual.

All in all, we were both delighted and started making all sorts of plans for future experimentation. Would I be able to get hard and be sexual again in a matter of minutes? (I wasn't.) What would happen if I only took 50 milligrams? (Same effect, only less pronounced.) Would there be any residual effects in the morning? (I was indeed more quickly responsive than usual, although not like the night before.)

Over the weekend, we had a lot of sex. One time I took a pill without telling Helen, which she didn't like, so we agreed that I wouldn't do that in the future. We also agreed that we had to avoid thinking of my taking a pill as meaning that we then were obliged to have sex lest we waste a precious eight bucks. Better to just include some "wasted" pills in the cost of living.

After a few days we realized that we were reaching for Viagra every time we wanted to be sexual, as if we couldn't have good sex without it. We began to mix in non-Viagra sex as well, and Helen remembered that in many ways she liked how we fit together better without the drug. She also liked knowing, sometimes, that it was just me she was playing with, not my biologically enhanced penis. For a while we focused, almost exclusively, on Helen paying attention to my penis in one way or another. I began to miss having her be the center of attention, or getting turned on by playing with her body with my hand and my mouth in addition to my penis. We began integrating new possibilities with old pleasures and I realized that, bionic penis aside, it was still a lot of our old ways of being sexual that pleased me most deeply.

Since I've been using Viagra, I've also been talking about it with lots of my men friends. "I'll give you one if you want to try it out," I tell many of them, always ready to be helpful. To my surprise, almost everyone has taken me up on the offer, calmly but with obvious enthusiasm just below the surface. These are people I've known and talked to about sex for years, but who have never said a word to me about being unhappy with their erections. As it turns out, that doesn't mean they don't have concerns.

One friend, now in his 40's, confided to me that he has had erection issues since his 20's. Another wanted his pill right away because he was going out on a hot date that night. A third was sorely disappointed when I forgot to bring the promised pill the next time we had lunch. Only one friend was uninterested in even trying the drug. "My penis is the one part of my body that works well these days," he said. "I don't want to take any chances on messing that up."

The flood of deprecating jokes that have accompanied the appearance of Viagra has been, I think, an indication of just how many people are insecure about their erections, one way or another. People using humor to deflect an issue they feel uncomfortable addressing. Hopefully, as it becomes clear just how many men are interested in Viagra, the stigma attached to erection difficulties will drop away somewhat. What is being decried as recreational use (or abuse) of the little blue pill is, I think, more than an issue of new fun and games. There seem, rather, to be a lot of men who inhabit the gray area between complete erectile dysfunction and complete erectile satisfaction who take Viagra in a way that is neither strictly medical nor strictly recreational. With a little luck, Viagra will bring the whole issue of how we feel about our erections out of the closet and into the light of day, so that we can all be a little more truthful with each other and, consequently, a little less hard on ourselves.

On the other hand, Viagra certainly is going to up the ante with regard to everyone's expectations of themselves (if they're men) and of their partners (if their partners are men). If everyone can have quick, hard erections at the drop of a pill, why should anybody do anything else? It's reminiscent of the way women feel that they have to compete with breast implants. Indeed, since taking Viagra is so much easier than having surgery, the expectations are likely to be more pronounced. Will anyone with even the most slightly hesitant penis -- age 25 as well as age 40 -- go without Viagra when all the other guys are enjoying its support? If Viagra becomes completely commonplace, not having fast, hard erections every time out will really become an embarrassment.

Forget the breast implant analogy for a moment. Think about orthodontia, hair dyes, face lifts, nose jobs, and other minor plastic surgery. If everyone can fit themselves to heightened standards of beauty and sexual performance, how will we feel about anyone who doesn't want to play that game? The question is not limited to physical and sexual characteristics. Think about Prozac. More and more we have the ability to remold ourselves, physically and emotionally, into the person everyone else wants us to be, or who we think they want us to be and therefore want to be ourselves.

Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, everyone can now (for a price) have blonde hair, firm breasts, straight teeth, perky noses, a continuously cheerful demeanor, and reliably hard cocks. We can, more and more, all be just the same! Do we even know how to tell the difference between who we want to be for ourselves and who we want to be because it brings praise and attention from the people around us?

Viagra enthusiasts are proclaiming the little blue pills as the answer to all erection-related sexual difficulties. Sex therapists are saying that erection issues are expressions of underlying relational dynamics, and are going to have to be dealt with emotionally rather than chemically. The truth, I suspect, is somewhere in between. No amount of Viagra is going to fix the anger, distancing, sexual phobias, and general lack of trust that take their toll on the sexual interactions of so many people. Yet Viagra can give people some new sexual possibilities that can in turn be used to build confidence and good feeling about themselves, and better sexual and emotional connections with their partners.

As with other sexual, relational, and emotional tools, some people will use this one wisely and improve the quality of their lives, while others will use it foolishly and be disappointed when nothing important changes. As for me, three months and forty or so pills into the New Age, I'm glad to have the opportunity to sort it all out for myself.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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Santa Cruz, CA 95063
(831) 426-7082
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