Viagra — Before and After, Men and Women

Before Viagra, the training tour I gave new Good Vibrations store and mail order staff was a little different than it is now. B.V. (Before Viagra), I introduced mens’ toys like cock rings and pumps by talking about how many customers wanted to use them to affect their erections. Pumps operate by suction and can “vacuum” the penis into erection (though this erection tends to be soft and may not be accompanied by blood flow into the corpora of the penis, which is where a non-pumped erection comes from). Cock rings can help some men maintain their erections longer via a tourniquet effect, though this doesn’t work equally well for all men. For some men, including men with physiological conditions (like diabetes and blood pressure problems) that affect their erections, neither pumps not cock rings are advised. A sex educator/sales associate needs to be able to discuss anatomy, health and safety with male customers with erectile difficulties who are interested in using these things. (Among other things, we recommend a doctor’s okay when such a man is buying items of this sort.)

Now, I explain all this, and then I say, “Of course, we got these kinds of questions more often before Viagra.”

Viagra is the miracle blue pill from Pfizer that affects erectibility. Millions of prescriptions were written for Viagra in its first months on the market. It was the easiest-to-use erection modifier ever, and its release was accompanied by such fanfare, you’d think the penis had been reinvented altogether. (I suppose for men who hoped it would completely rejuvenate their sex lives, that claim wouldn’t be far off the mark.) But as with any miracle pill, it turned out that there were pesky (and occasionally deadly) side effects; in the long run people resisted popping a pill when they wanted to have sex, finding that too unspontaneous; and it turned out that many couples’ sexual issues weren’t all about erection after all.

I could have told you that much. Working at Good Vibes, we hear the stories of lots of men who were the target market for Viagra: the guys who’d decided that a penis pump would revive their marriage, who believed that erection problems were the root of whatever problems they were having with their partner or spouse. I was used to asking these shoppers (usually men over 50, sometimes much older), “Does you partner know you’re shopping for this pump? Have you asked her what effect your erection issues are having on her?” (The partners are almost always women; I’m sure the erectile capacity of many older gay men also begins to change, but perhaps they have an easier time talking about it with their partners.)

Nine times out of ten, the guys said no. They didn’t want to talk to their wives. They assumed that when their erectile capacity returned, their sex life would too. Some said they had no sexual contact with their partners at all. In the meantime, their wives didn’t necessarily miss their husbands’ erections so much as they missed the physical closeness and eroticism of lovemaking, whether it involved intercourse or not. The men (particularly the older men), on the other hand, saw sex as intercourse.

After Viagra, their wives started writing to Dear Abby. They weren’t always prepared for a husband with a brand-new hard-on, especially if they hadn’t kept up physical intimacy in non-intercourse modes. Apparently not all the physicians who cranked out Viagra prescriptions recommended their patients talk intimately with their partners about their sex lives.

But what if the physicians — and Dear Abby — had suggested that women use Viagra?

The notion that Viagra might affect women’s sexual response has been a rarely-discussed subtext of the male-oriented Viagra craze. It was, in the first place, developed for and tested on men. Many of the doctors asked to comment on and prescribe it don’t specialize in treating women at all, much less female sexual dysfunction. When I’ve been asked (by British TV and The Boston Globe, to name two of the mainstream media outlets who’ve contacted me for comment) about women’s use of the drug, I’ve had to carefully explain something the majority doesn’t seem to know: that female and male sexual functioning is actually more similar than different. Engorgement and erection are intimately involved with both females’ and males’ arousal and pleasure, and the penis isn’t the only thing that engorges and erects — the clitoris and the vaginal walls do, too. Males can’t perform intercourse if not erect; their erection issues are front and center, so to speak. But what about female pleasure?

I wasn’t the only woman who rushed to try Viagra when it was released. Susie Bright wrote about it for Salon, and Liz Highleyman began searching for women with Viagra experience for an On Our Backs article. The results are starting to come in, with or without clinical trials for women. For some women, Viagra leads to quicker arousal, greater engorgement, more vaginal lubrication. It’s possible that not all women would notice these effects, just as not all men seem to be strongly affected by Viagra. It is surely true that Viagra is dangerous for some women, as it is for some men. And it’s doubtful that it has any aphrodisiac properties for women: that is, it won’t turn you on if you don’t want to have sex to begin with.

But for some women — those whose arousal pattern has been affected by menopause, and perhaps those who experience sexual side effects from the Prozac family — Viagra might be one tool among several possible approaches designed to improve sexual pleasure and functioning. That is was not considered in those terms all along is sexist, but more than that it is evidence that even some scientists are not familiar with how women’s sexuality works. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another millennium for that to change.

Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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