Viagra Man, A Decade Later

Meika Loe

Thanks to Viagra, mankind now stands at a crossroads: either invest in that teenage erection - or in a broader, richer definition of manhood.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles on sexuality
and aging, co-produced by the National Sexuality Resource Center and RH
Reality Check. Check back in the coming weeks for more on seniors and
sexuality. Read the first article: How Are Your Orgasms, Mom? and the second, Older, Wiser, and Sexually Smarter.

If you want to get a good sense
of where we stand as a society when it comes to aging, sexuality, and
manhood, think about those erectile dysfunction ads. They feature men
singing and dancing in the streets, others strumming "Viva Viagra"
on their guitars, and handsome straight couples in side-by-side tubs
with twinkles in their eyes. Over ten years of Pfizer advertising Viagra,
the individual ad campaigns may have changed but the themes have stayed
the same. Ideal sexuality is youthful ("18 again"), heterosexual,
penetrative, and erection-centered. Apparently, being a man, and a healthy
happy successful one, depends on these things. Thanks to Viagra, mankind
now stands at a crossroads: either invest in that teenage erection – or
in a broader, richer definition of manhood.

There was great potential here
to shift the way we, as a society, think about aging; the way we think
about elder men (and their partners!) and sex. Just imagine an ad campaign
(and a society!) that truly embraces aging, sexuality, and vulnerable
masculinity. It would feature a wide range of variation when it comes
to bodies and disabilities. Intimacy would be broadly defined, and men
would learn how to be great lovers. Men would be comfortable discussing
fears and anxieties associated with sexual performance. Viva Vulnerability!
Pfizer could still make billions. And we might all be happier and healthier,
or at least more realistic. 

In fact, Pfizer came close
to shifting our ideas about aging and sexuality way back in 1999, when
Bob Dole became the company’s spokesperson for erectile dysfunction.
Here was a war veteran, an elder statesman, on TV, talking about this
sexual dysfunction problem. This was a radical thing for a lot of reasons.
It was one of the first (if not the very first) direct-to-consumer ad
for a pharmaceutical product broadcast for all Americans to see. Even
more shockingly, this was an older man talking (indirectly) about sex.
Specifically, Dole was talking about not being able to get it up,
and this occurred in the months following endless media attention to
President Clinton’s seemingly opposite problem. The social ramifications
of this ad campaign, along with the "Let the Dance Begin" campaign
that followed it (featuring white-haired individuals dancing), were
truly amazing: men of all ages going to doctors offices in droves.  

Appreciate our work?

Rewire is a non-profit independent media publication. Your tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

DONATE NOW

My grandfather was one of these
men who asked his doctor for the pills. He was in his early eighties,
and dating, and he wanted his "manhood" back. A committed Democrat,
Gramps was nonetheless heartened to see another man around his age on
television who had a similar dilemma. He was now open to pursuing new
options for enhancing sexual intimacy. He might have benefitted from
learning about how to communicate with a partner about his concerns
and about sexuality in general.  

However, what happened next
was where the so-called "Viagra revolution" stalled. Men "asked
their doctors" (generally as the doc was leaving the examining room),
but many didn’t talk with their wives. And many doctors, out of discomfort,
didn’t ask questions. Some doctors commented later that they were
disgusted by octogenarians asking for blue pills. Bob Dole became the
butt of every joke on late night television.  

Meanwhile, Pfizer realized
that Viagra generally did not work for men post-prostate surgery – men
like Bob Dole and my grandfather. Now that the American public knew
about erectile dysfunction, Pfizer could now move to market the drug
to men in a wide age spectrum who were curious and anxious about sexual
performance. In short, the sexual status quo was tested, and then youthful
sexy manhood quickly took center stage again. Ageism, heterosexism,
and medicine triumphed. 

From that point forward, the
Viagra man became either professional baseball or NASCAR spokesmen talking
about all-around performance, or those handsome age-ambiguous (thirty,
forty, or fifty-something?) guys with a touch of gray in their hair,
impressing their coworkers with their new confidence, caressing a lovely
younger-looking woman, jumping in the street to the tune of "We are
the Champions," singing Elvis tunes with friends, and sprouting devil-horns
while "getting back to mischief."  

In the age of direct-to-consumer
pharmaceutical advertising (only legal in the United States since 1997),
drug ads proliferate, and to some degree, they reflect culture. But
they also help to construct and reinforce cultural values. Since its
debut, Viagra has been hailed as a sexual revolution for men. In reality,
I’m not sure we’ve progressed at all. A new approach to aging? Except
for middle-aged men graying at the temples, we’re back to denying
aging and elder sex, and selling medication with anti-aging branding.
A new Viagra man? I’m seeing a whole lot of confidence and bravado
in these ads. Where’s the vulnerability and insecurity we all feel,
especially after being barraged by these images? Revolutionary sex?
Straight couples and an emphasis on erectile performance – show me a
woman who thinks this is new. Now Viva vulvas…that would be something
different.  

Over the last decade millions
have stepped up to the plate and swallowed the youth, vigor, and vitality
message. Who can resist? But I have also met a good number of courageous
men over the years who chose not to refill their Viagra prescriptions.
They have used the Viagra era as an opportunity to explore what manhood
and aging means to them; they talked to friends and family about these
things; and they learned how to be better lovers. It turns out they
were onto something. A study just published in the Canadian Journal
of Human Sexuality points out that among the ingredients for great sex
after sixty is vulnerability, as well as authenticity and good communication.
So maybe the revolution is still to come.

Load More

Freedom of the press is under attack. You can fight back by supporting independent, quality journalism.

Thank you for reading Rewire!