This is an essay I wrote for a university course on understanding technology. I decided to write about Viagra because I’m doing my PhD on sex pills for women so thought I’d better find out all about what was on offer for men at some point. In case anyone’s dying to know, I thought I’d share it here, too.
The Viagra Man: Pfizer’s Creation of the Ultimate Male
When fully erect, the average human penis measures between five and seven inches. A highly prized commodity, the pursuit of it has led men to bathe their testicles in a mix of vinegar and wine, drink strychnine and phosphoric acid with either syrup of orange peel or syrup of ginger, receive electric shock treatment to their genitals, wear penis splints, attempt to increase blood flow using a penile vacuum pump, have silicon rods surgically implanted into their penises, and inject their penises with vasodilators. Then came Viagra.
This blockbuster drug was discovered in 1996, in the course of research by pharmaceutical company Pfizer into a treatment for hypertension and angina pectoris. Its effect on the conditions for which it was designed was negligible, but when participants in the trial refused to return their leftover pills and listed “erections” as a notable side effect, researchers were intrigued. They decided to discontinue research into the drug as a treatment for hypertension and angina pectoris, and focus, instead, on its potential as an oral one for erectile dysfunction (ED). With an estimated 18 million ED sufferers in the USA alone and no non-invasive treatments on offer, Pfizer knew that the market potential for a pill was immense. The drug was rushed through the Food and Drug Administration approval process and released onto the American market in 1998.
It was an instant success: the little blue pill launched $411 million in sales in the three months following its release and went on to be used in the treatment of over twenty million patients, to be the subject of over two thousand abstracts, and to be prescribed one hundred million times in the first five years of its existence.
But Pfizer wanted more than just another blockbuster drug. That had already been achieved with their cholesterol-lowering medication, Lipitor. What they wanted was a revolution. In order to achieve this, they created a Viagra paradigm. The process began with the branding of ED as more than simply a medical condition. Pfizer wanted their name, and that of their drug, to be analogous with ED, so closely intertwined that one would not be thought of without the other. Using quotations apparently taken from sufferers of ED from their clinical trials, Pfizer imbued their marketing materials with the language of sexuality and masculinity. Men spoke of feeling depressed and inadequate, unable to satisfy their partners and incomplete as men. Pfizer rewarded them with an advert by former American Presidential Candidate and prostate cancer survivor Bob Dole, leaning into the camera and telling people about his ED and how important it was to talk about it. “It may take a little courage to talk to your doctor about erectile dysfunction,” he says. “But everything worthwhile usually does.” This was the Viagra paradigm phase one, with the drug marketed at men as a treatment for a medical condition, giving them a comforting yet proactive message that they weren’t alone and that it was important to talk about erectile dysfunction – specifically, to their doctor about getting a prescription.
Though Pfizer maintained its insistence that Viagra was to be used only as a treatment for a medical condition, in the next phase, it began to incorporate the notion of fun into its marketing material. A television advert featured men running and jumping in a suburban street as Queen’s “We Are The Champions” played in the background. Courtesy of the little blue pill, these everyday American men were champions – to themselves, if no one else. Using a song performed by a gay man is, incidentally, the closest Pfizer has ever come to publicly associating the drug with homosexual men. The only other time it has had any interaction with the gay community was in contacting AIDS.org and the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association to warn them about possible interactions between Viagra and other drugs common in gay clubs such as poppers, crystal meth, and ecstasy. This action was undertaken after a number of deaths were reported caused by combining Viagra with other drugs.
In phase three came romance. The couples were older, the lighting tinted, and the music soft. One advert showed an elderly couple getting out of a car, going into a lift and gradually getting younger as it ascended, emerging as teenagers with the tag line “Like the first time”. Not that everyone recalls their first time favourably, but the intent was to evoke youth and its attendant virility rather than painful, awkward intercourse. Another showed a man dreamily being reminded of Viagra pills by the shape of plastic lids as he helped with the dishes and then using them to float candles in the pool, surrounding the couple with soft light.
The Viagra paradigm is currently in phase four. These are the manly men. They’re ruggedly handsome, all-American, they “never back down from a challenge”, and they’ve reached an age that they “know a thing or two”. One is shown fixing printing machinery and smiling at a picture of his female partner. Another harnesses the horses in the trailer to pull the car out of the mud before either heading home or building a campfire. There is some slight ambiguity in the advert in which the man builds a campfire because a previously unseen person of indeterminate gender can just be seen setting up the tent. In another advert the man replaces his car with a motorbike and whisks his female partner off to a cabin. Pfizer’s most recent release shows a group of middle-aged Americana guys singing about Viagra in a bar before they head home to their partners and wives.
This is the man sold along with the pill. He is strong, bold, in command, virile, heterosexual, and monogamous. He is also, it’s implied by the fact that he got a prescription for Viagra, willing to talk about sexual problems and, therefore, far from the taciturn, depressed figure of the ED sufferer. This is the component of the campaign with which Pfizer has sought to appeal to women, suggesting they encourage their partners to talk about sexual problems – if not to them, then to their doctors.
While the scenario presented publicly is the happy man and/or couple freed from the woes of ED, the central figure in the Pfizer treatment strategy is the penis. It is the penis – not the man or the couple – that Viagra treats. All treatment focuses on achieving what Viagra champion and leading ED researcher Irwin Goldstein refers to as “sufficient axial rigidity” through physiological means. The possibility that there may be any cause other than physiological for ED is ignored. Isolating a body part for medical treatment is, obviously, sensible protocol, but sex organs don’t fit the profile of others. Sex is complicated by sexuality and self. It isn’t simply a matter of organs functioning to full capacity, yet this is precisely the model applied to it by the Pfizer treatment strategy. In consultations with their doctors, erections are to be rated by patients in terms of “degree of penile tumescence (rigidity), penetrability (ability to penetrate the partner), sustainability of erection, and satisfaction with performance”. (Loe: 58) Such an approach is of use in determining the severity of a patient’s ED, but it adopts a restrictive view of sex, suggesting there is nothing of note other than the ability of the male partner to insert his penis into his female partner’s vagina. A sort of “insert A into B” approach to sexuality.
It also suggests that there are standards to which men must aspire in order for their sexual experience to be considered valid. Such an approach “lures men into believing there is a standard for erections to which they must adhere. By quantifying the normal erection – it has to be just hard enough to achieve penetration and last long enough to achieve ejaculation – medicalization forces men to conform to its specifications for masculinity. The results are twofold: first, men, like women, have their sexuality and desirability linked to physical parameters; second, emotion, sexual technique, and the role of one’s partner are rendered insignificant. By making the erection the man, science isn’t enhancing male sexuality, but sabotaging it.” (Luciano: 165) Sex is reduced to the strictures of hetereonormativity for both partners.
Really, it’s a model based on pornography: the priapic male and the insatiable female. Not that Pfizer would agree with such an analysis. Preferring to be associated with the pious than the promiscuous, before releasing the drug, it sent a delegation to the Vatican in order to ascertain the Catholic Church’s view. The Church gave the drug its blessing on the basis of its contribution to improving family relations and strengthening marital bonds. Whether any samples of the drug were left is not known. The Church of England gave a similar blessing and purchased $2 million worth of Pfizer shares.
But Pfizer didn’t invent hetereonormativity or markers of masculinity. It simply exploited their commonality. Viagra was created and exists in “a shifting coalition of actors – including scientists, doctors, patients, industries, media and consumers – operating within a cultural horizon of rationalization, medicalization, commodification and gendered hetero-normativity.” (Marshall: 146) There already existed a concept of performance culture both in and outside the bedroom, our selves primped and primed by medications and media manipulation.
What Viagra has introduced into the sexual arena is an interaction, at a visceral level, between the body and technology. “Viagra interacts with the “natural” body such that, with natural arousal, a techno-assisted erection is possible. The user is unable to tell where his body leaves off and the technology begins; it is a seamless, “natural” integration. Here the body, as a boundary concept, explodes the ideological distinction between the organic/natural and the technological/cultural and leaves in its place a reconceptualization of human bodies as techno-bodies.” (Mamo and Fishman: 17) The question is: is the pleasure less valid or real? Really, the means by which an erection is achieved is immaterial. What is of relevance, however, is the assumption that it is necessary – essential, even – to sex. The ”reconceptualization of human bodies as techno-bodies” is a fascinating notion, but one that Viagra only takes so far: those bodies are still expected to interact within the bounds of sexual pleasure that is sanctioned by their societal sex roles.
Such roles are internalised to the extent that, not only are they dominant, but they appear natural. Should an individual feel differently, the response is as likely to feel inadequate and insecure as to challenge them. It is these feelings of inadequacy and insecurity that Pfizer exploits in its Viagra publicity and clinical screening procedures. It promises the ED sufferer a return to the potency of his youth, reward for his wisdom, an unfading (so long as it doesn’t last more than four hours at which point he should seek medical help) erection, and the satisfying sex life he assumes his fellow men to have. These things maketh the man, Pfizer tells us.
It promises his partner the man she once knew, reinvigorated and aroused. Whether that’s precisely what she wants is immaterial: the Viagra man is the only model on offer. Actually, it only promises her his erect penis (and even then, only in 80% of cases), but that’s not quite how Pfizer phrases it. Intrinsically, it is the message, though. There is no room for creativity or exploration in the sexuality of the Viagra man. He is his penis and his entire being is contingent on the proper functioning of this single organ, specified as its ability to penetrate the vagina of his partner to a satisfactory level. Whether or not either partner enjoys this sex act is immaterial. It is a subject reduced to physiology and performance charts. “The “scientific” vocabulary of talk on sex is a lexicon enabling half a century of doctor-patient talk that treats sex as an object of symptom analysis and of a medical diagnosis.” (Grace, Potts, Gavey, Vares: 302)
Connell, R.W. (2005) Masculinities, Cambridge: Polity Press
Grace, V, Potts, A., Gavey, N., Vares, T. (2006), The Discursive Condition of Viagra. Sexualities, 9 (3): 295
Lamm, S. (1998) Viagra: The Virility Solution, Simon and Schuster: London
Loe, M. (2004) The Rise of Viagra: How the Little Blue Pill Changed Sex in America, New York: New York University Press
Luciano, L. (2002) Looking Good: Male Body Image in Modern America, New York: Hill and Wang
Mamo, L., Fishman, J.R. (2001) Potency In All The Right Places. Body & Society. 7:13
Marshall, B.L. (2002) “Hard Science”: Gendered Constructions of Sexual Dysfunction in the “Viagra Age”. Sexualities. 5:131
Potts, A. (2000) “The Essence of the Hard-On”: Hegemonic Masculinity and the Cultural Construction of “Erectile Dysfunction”. Men and Masculinities. 3:85
Reidy, J. (2005) Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing
Vaughan, S (1998) Viagra: A Guide to the Phenomenal Potency-Promoting Drug, New York: Thorsons