Women Demand Pleasure, So Men Invent Stiff Pill

Viagra is the perfect American medicament. It raises the Dow Jones and the penis, too. If you were ever wondering whether the stock market was a metaphor for male potency, here’s your answer.

According to a venerable old Wall Streeter of my acquaintance, young Wall Streeters are predicting it will lower the divorce rate. That’s a major concern in the age of equitable distribution. If you can still fuck your wife, maybe you don’t have to give her (and her lawyer) half your ill-gotten gains.

To judge by the speed with which the new impotence drug is selling out, Bill Clinton may be the only man in this country who has the option of whipping out his dick. Walking through analyst-and-urologist-land on the Upper East Side, I spotted several “We have Viagra” or just “Viagra” signs on pharmacy windows.

Selling for a hardly accidental $10 a pill, this cure (nicknamed the Pfizer Riser) for what urologists and euphemists call “erectile dysfunction,” is being marketed directly to the consumer–in this case, the aging baby boomer whose significant other is threatening to get a younger man unless he shapes up. Pfizer Inc.’s stock prices surged 21 percent between Feb. 1 and March 28, posting the highest price-earnings ratio of any pharmaceutical stock in recent memory. By April 24, the numbers had risen even higher, and a split was rumored.

What amazes me about Viagra is this: Impotence is apparently so widespread that there are 30 million sufferers out there, but until the advent of Viagra, the condition was not one much talked about at cocktail parties, in trading rooms or in doctor’s offices. Internists report that they can tell an impotence-sufferer about five minutes into the interview because he is so tongue-tied and reticent. But all of a sudden, Viagra has smoked erectile dysfunction out of the closet and onto the information superhighway.

“Took just one before dinner Friday night at 7:30 and after dinner played with my wife, by 8:15 I had a raging hard-on easier than I’d experienced in the last 10 years,” reported a happy Internet correspondent. But there is a downside to Viagra for at least one virile e-mailer with the nom de guerre of “Billy B”: “I got sick to my stomach after each orgasm.” Undaunted, Billy B persevered: “Within the next half-hour of more playing, I was hard again.” Friday night was erection-packed, and Sunday morning was even better. After a weekend of trial and error, our guinea pig reported that the pill worked best on an empty stomach. “I did experience heartburn all Sunday night,” he added, but it didn’t seem to dampen his enthusiasm for the drug.

The pill has not been out a month, and already the Internet reports a rip-off called Viagro, which bills itself as the “herbal analog of the new impotence pill.” This pill claims “no severe or moderate side effects.” It goes on, however, to say that “the most commonly reported side effect was fatigue in the morning.” Are they warning or boasting?

“Man, is it refreshing,” raved a woman called Brenda, “to have an open discussion on such a vital yet sensitive issue.”

Things were not ever thus. Back in 1973, when my heroine Isadora Wing said in Fear of Flying that the ultimate feminist existential dilemma was “a liberated woman face to face with a limp prick,” critics were not always kind.

It was bad enough to encroach on forbidden male territory in writing of female sexuality (which Norman Mailer has appropriated with the upcoming novel The Time of Our Time ); to reveal the darkest male secret that even tough guys were not always hard was the ultimate literary faux pas. Men were in charge of literature then, and they also wanted to be seen as in charge of erections.

But erections were starting to get iffy as women were starting to demand sexual pleasure. The game had begun to change. Men were expected to please women as women had once been expected to please men. This made a lot of men very nervous–nervous enough to lose their erections. Frank O’Hara, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer had never had such problems–at least to hear them tell it. Apparently, all they ever had to do was fend off women raving over what indefatigable lovers they were.

The tricky thing about the penis, I am told by informed sources, is that it doesn’t always listen to reason. A man may be madly in love and his penis may not know it. A man may be madly in lust but his penis may be on strike. A man may distrust a woman, and his penis may be otherwise informed (think of Samson and Delilah).

In the 70’s, this was a big subject of discussion. I remember getting an urgent call from actress Bibi Andersson in Stockholm when I was vacationing in Capri one summer.

“There’s a new Swedish book called Man Cannot Be Raped ,” she said with great excitement, “and only you can write the screenplay. Only you understand.” The idea was that men could boycott liberated women with the mutiny of their organs–and wasn’t it just awful? I certainly thought so.

What was a liberated woman to do? Viagra promises to change all that. Or does it? After all, we’ve been promised pills to change the world before, and the world has had other ideas.

I certainly remember all the talk (back in the early days of Ovulen) that the birth control pill would utterly change sexual behavior. It was even posited by pundits that women would stop having babies. But pills do not really change the mating game–except temporarily. After everyone had fucked around for a while and contracted sexually transmitted diseases, free love stopped looking like a panacea.

Researchers insist that Viagra does not constitute a sexual revolution, but nobody seems to believe them. It will not create “sexual virtuosos,” they warn. Or virtuosi. It “does not alter libido or desire.” The same was said about powdered unicorn horn, but human optimism is hard to quash. Americans believe in pills more than we believe in God. There are even people who go on taking phen-fen, knowing it causes heart-valve damage.

“Welcome to the post-pill paradise,” said a fictional adulteress in John Updike’s sexual revolution novel of the 60’s, Couples . There hasn’t been a pill to cause such excitement since those palmy days when the whole sexual landscape seemed about to change–and then we got Richard Nixon, who mostly wanted to fuck the country.

I have often argued that the sexual revolution was mainly a media myth. Despite the fact that women’s sexual standards have risen as male organs have wilted, it can still be demonstrated that young women like older men with money and that mating is as determined by economic imperatives as it ever was.

Twenty-five years ago, it didn’t look as if that would still be true today, but certain eternal verities seem to have reasserted themselves. Money is money and it remains sexy. Not all women have turned into Constance Chatterley as a result of the birth control pill, and I don’t expect that all men will turn into Mellors the gamekeeper as a result of Viagra. Even if rich old men can now dose themselves with Viagra, the drug may be a stronger force for sexual conservatism than for sexual liberation.

Indeed, rich old men may be the only ones who can afford it. No health maintenance organization except Oxford Health Plans will currently pay for Viagra. (They all claim to be studying the situation.) Apparently, America’s puritanism still dictates our definitions of health. Is the implication that sex has nothing to do with good health? Maybe things will change when hordes of angry, impotent men storm their H.M.O.’s with placards reading “Help Keep America Hard.”

You’ve probably heard by now that, like all great scientific discoveries, Viagra’s discovery was serendipitous. The active ingredient, sildenafil citrate, was first developed as a drug to alleviate angina. Though cardiac patients participating in trials for the drug still got chest pains, they were happily distracted by their newfound erections. They kept demanding increased supplies of the experimental drug. Apparently, sildenafil citrate boosted production of nitric oxide in the nerve endings in the penis, which in turn brought blood to boost the penis itself.

Researchers had stumbled on an impotence treatment that did not require nasty implants or injection into the penis. Those last-resort treatments have already been decimated by the arrival of Viagra. Now the little elves at Pfizer are trying to figure out a way to market it to clitorally challenged women as well.

But the name seems wrong. I suggest Pfizer conduct a contest for renaming the drug to sound less like Miracle-Gro. Viriltas, Virilissimo, Virilita–something like that. Or perhaps we should name it after our President, who appears to be one of the few men who doesn’t need it.

So the problem that once had no name now seems ubiquitous. Urologist Dr. Ridwan Shabsigh told a New York Times reporter: “The prevalence is stunning.” Impotence has become a dinner party subject of conversation. Will bowls of Viagra pills become the status symbol that bowls of cocaine were in the 70’s, or that bottles of Prozac were in the 80’s? Have we gone from searching from serenity to searching for stiffness?

Perhaps the pill of the 90’s will cause a revolution in fiction as well as one in the bedroom. Never, it seems, have young writers been so cynical about the delights of sex. But signs are everywhere that America is longing to cast off the sexual political correctness of the last decade. Surely it was responsible for endangering orgasms. The Viagra craze shows, if nothing else, that American men want their erections back. And so do American women.

Women Demand Pleasure, So Men Invent Stiff Pill