Effects of Viagra on Women and Female Sexuality

Why Should Viagra Concern Women?

Viagra Pills
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When women go through menopause, the hormonal changes they experience often lead to a drop in libido and less interest in sex. This is the way women are built and programmed, biologically speaking. But today they have to contend with Viagra and other ED (erectile dysfunction) drugs advertised on television and in magazines. The effect these drugs have on men's sex lives also influences women's sex lives.

The Rise of Viagra

Meika Loe has pondered Viagra's impact on men and women alike in her book The Rise of Viagra: How the Little Blue Pill Changed Sex in America, and the answers she's uncovered are disturbing. An assistant professor of sociology, anthropology, and women's studies at Colgate University, Loe has written extensively about sex and senior women.

Viagra is marketed to aging men whose female counterparts are likely going through their own sexual transition: menopause. These women tend to want less sex, but their partners may want more. Isn't this counter-intuitive? Doesn't this turn the bedroom into a battlefield at a time when women are already vulnerable (e.g., empty nest syndrome, feeling less attractive with age, and physical changes due to menopause, including hair loss and weight gain.)

OB/GYN patients have reportedly complained that Viagra has not helped their sex lives. The advent of this drug has made sexuality, among other things, intercourse-focused and, thus, less satisfying for many women. Analyzing syndicated advice columns after Viagra's debut in 1998 reveals many negative responses to the pill from women. For example, women writing to Dear Abby were either no longer interested in sex (so Viagra created new unwelcome pressure to be sexually active again) or fearful that their husbands were having affairs because of their Viagra-fueled sexual potency. In addition to these concerns, some women experienced the sometimes painful physiological effects of reigniting their sex lives later in life.

Viagra raised quite a few questions for wives about marital sexual obligation. Then again, some women wrote about how excited they were to have husbands feeling healthy and confident after a period of impotence. In short, women's responses to Viagra have been quite complex. The drug has the ability to either exacerbate or throw light on already existing problems in relationships.

Given this, it's telling that roughly a decade after Viagra's debut, only half of the men who received prescriptions for it ended up refilling their prescriptions. The drug is not simply about a man being able to have pleasurable sex but about virility despite aging. It has been characterized in a way that allows men to deny that they're past their sexual peak.

Viagra's Cultural Moment

Viagra was the harbinger of things to come in the form of the pharmacology of aging and sexuality (sexual medicine is in expansion mode post-Viagra). This is due to a combination of changing demographics (e.g. aging population), direct to consumer advertising and consumer-based medicine (Viagra being one of the first drugs to be advertised directly to the consumer), and pharmaceutical expansion.

Viagra's popularity fits into a particular cultural moment in our history, and plenty of other products have followed (including medications) that emphasize the triad of youth, vitality, and performance. Sociologists view Viagra as a cultural product and, therefore, a window into our culture. It helps the public see where society stands in terms of sexuality, gender, medicine, and aging. But now that the initial curiosity about the drug has disappeared, it is unclear how successful sexual dysfunction medication really is. Viagra has spurred several similar products, such as Cialis and Levitra, but the refill rate on all three is low.

How Popular Is Viagra With Consumers?

It is difficult to find demographic information about who uses Viagra, but in internet chat rooms, doctors' offices, and pharmacies, men of all ages take an interest in discussing the drug. Some young men have even purchased Viagra out of insecurity, just in case they found themselves in a high-pressure situation where they "needed" to perform well sexually. In contrast, octogenarian men have taken the drug and felt like it gave them "life" again.

Author Meika Loe acknowledges that Viagra and other erectile dysfunction drugs create additional pressure in the already complex sex lives of men and women. She also noted how it underscores the sexual ambivalence present in our society about sex, a subject met with both obsession and disgust.

Accordingly, Viagra use has a dark side. John Jamelske, a 67-year-old man who held a number of young women captive as sexual slaves in an underground bunker, took Viagra. Two toxicologists, Harold Milman and S.B. Arnold, have stated in the Annals of Pharmacotherapy that "the drug has been suggested as a contributing factor in 22 cases involving aggression, 13 involving rape, and 6 involving murder." Clearly, Viagra is linked to violence against women.

"In the course of my research I found that Pfizer had consulted with quite a few experts about possible litigation down the line regarding Viagra," Loe said. "A pill for sexual potency can be a dangerous thing in a culture that is highly ambivalent about sexuality."

This ambivalence plays out along gender lines. Janet Jackson received widespread criticism when her breast was revealed during her performance at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, but the Viagra ads that played during the event seemingly didn't offend the public.

"Viagra was even posted over home base when Pfizer was the primary sponsor of pro baseball," Loe said. "Now we see Levitra and Cialis advertised just as often. It goes back to that Puritan ethic. We’re obsessed with sex and also offended by it—it’s a fine line. An African American woman’s breast crossed the line for some people. Sexuality in the context of medical dysfunction (complete with scientific imprimatur and legitimacy) seems to pass."

When we look at the way men and women 'use' pharmaceutical interventions, men focus on performance (Viagra) and women focus on appearance (Botox). Loe says this is not just a gendered generalization but that men are taught to identify with that they do, and women are taught to identify with how they look. "We reinforce this constantly in our society..., so it follows that our drug use maintains these gendered distinctions."

As for Viagra, in particular, it is important for women of every age to understand that such a drug doesn't define their sexuality. Medication simply can't remedy all of one's problems, but people have the power to attend to themselves, their relationships, and their lives. Quick fixes can do both men and women a disservice.

"Many men found that while Viagra may have helped them physiologically (although for many it didn’t work or came with a host of scary side-effects), it was no solution to general sexual or life satisfaction," Loe said. "In some cases, it actually exacerbated existing issues in peoples’ relationships or sense of self."