FORGET BOB DOLE’S CONFESSION ON LIVE TELEVISION. to me, the proof that Viagra has become part of the national fabric was demonstrated conclusively in a conversation I overheard at Big Steve’s Gym in Austin. Some hypermacho bodybuilders in the fifty-year-old age group—more than half of whom would be statistically likely to suffer from some degree of erectile dysfunction—were openly discussing the famous blue pill and marveling at the way it had restored the prowess of their teenage years. One remarked that he was having sex three or four times a day, thanks to his Viagra-induced erections. Another told of having sex before church, only to discover shortly before noon—as his attention began to drift during the doxology to more-temporal matters—that his erection had returned. “Shaking hands with the preacher at the door,” he confided to his companions with evident pride, “I was crossing my legs and trying to cover the damn thing up with my Bible.”
Like millions of others my age, 63, I can testify from personal experience that Viagra is everything those guys say it is. For the first time we have a pill that can restore sexual function to men suffering from erectile dysfunction ( ED), or impotency, as it was known to earlier generations. Other dependable remedies have been on the market—from penile injections and inserts to the still-handy vacuum pump—but none as cheap or as easy to use as Viagra: Pop a fifty-milligram pill and in less than an hour you’re ready for action. And it’s only going to get cheaper and easier to treat impotency. Other drugs are already being tested or are awaiting Federal Drug Administration approval, including a pill called Vasomax, which was developed by Zonagen, a biopharmaceutical company located in the Woodlands, north of Houston. If all goes well, Vasomax will be on the market by the summer of 1999. At least two more potency therapies are being tested in pharmacology laboratories in other parts of the country. In a few years Viagra may become as generic as aspirin—itself once a trade name wonder drug—and hopefully as inexpensive.
Viagra’s real contribution to the common psyche is that it has coaxed out of the closet the most embarrassing of all male sexual problems. Thirty million American men have at least occasional problems achieving or sustaining a full erection, but until the avalanche of publicity brought on by the Viagra revolution, less than 5 percent had summoned the courage to consult a physician. My generation came of age at a time when nobody talked about such delicate problems. A power lifter at Big Steve’s was more likely to acknowledge that he squatted to pee than confess he had occasional trouble getting it up.
What little we knew of the problem came from reading Hemingway: Impotency was the reason Jake Barnes couldn’t connect with Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises. It was something you got in the war or something psychological. Though seemingly remote from our own lives, impotency was the most terrifying of prospects: It destroyed the sufferer’s claim on manhood. Worse still, the condition was permanent, or so most men were taught. Our forefathers believed that poor erections were simply nature’s way of telling us that people aren’t supposed to have sex once their reproductive years have waned. And so they faded softly into the night, never dreaming that men (and women) can enjoy sex well into their nineties—with a little help from medical science and a few practical hints about romance.
Remarkably, only in the ï¬nal decade of the twentieth century have we agreed that most sexual impotency—including a woman’s inability to have an orgasm—is physiological, not psychological, and that most often it should be treated as a vascular problem. The same vascular ailments that lead to heart attacks, strokes, and numbness in the legs—clogged arteries, high blood pressure, hardened vessels, and damaged nerves—contribute to sexual malfunctions by depriving the penis and the clitoris of oxygen-rich blood. A small percentage of impotency is attributable to injury or trauma-induced nerve damage, and other afï¬‚ictions are indicators: Men who have had their prostate removed and people who suffer from diabetes or hypertension will more commonly experience sexual problems. ED is also made more acute by drinking, smoking, stress, and physical inactivity.
There are, to be sure, psychological aspects to the problem. “We grow up with the myth that a real man can always get an erection,” Harry Croft, a San Antonio psychiatrist, sex therapist, and lecturer told me. “When a man fails to have an erection, these myths surface. He begins to speculate on future failures and gets anxious thinking about his sexual performance.” Masters and Johnson, the sex therapist pioneers under whom Croft trained in the seventies, called this situation performance anxiety. Even after the primary causes of ED are addressed, fear of failure may continue to take the starch out of a guy.
IT TOOK ME A LONG TIME TO FIGURE IT OUT, but sex isn’t about erections; it’s about relationships. My libido has always been excessively active, even more so after I married my sex bomb wife, Phyllis, 22 years ago. Both of us had been married multiple times before, and we came together with no illusions. We each knew of the other’s adventurous past and were open and honest about our needs and desires. In acknowledging a bond of selï¬shness and weakness for the ï¬‚esh, we advanced our own love affair in new and exciting directions. That’s the way we viewed it—as a love affair, with all the attendant risks, thrills, plateaus, and challenges the term implies. We made out on moonlit beaches, in cornï¬elds in the shadows of interstate highways, and in darkened 747’s over the Atlantic. We had been searching separately and shamelessly for fulï¬llment all those years, and we found it in each other, as one ï¬nds an answered prayer.
About ten years ago I noticed that my erections were less dependable and that orgasms took longer and were less intense. I didn’t regard this as