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Sun October 27, 2013
Health

Angina, Bob Dole, and NASCAR: How Viagra solidified its role in American society

1998 brought about many things: the invention of Google, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Winter Olympic Games in Japan and the film Armageddon. While these events took the world by storm, one little blue pill also made its way on to the scene, and has changed how Americans view sex in the 15 years since.

This week on Take Care, sociologist Meika Loe discusses the history and the effects of the drug Viagra. Loe is an associate professor of sociology and women’s studies at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., and the author of the book The Rise of Viagra: How the Little Blue Pill Changed Sex in America.

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Viagra was created by accident. Researchers and chemists at Pfizer, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, were testing a drug they hoped would treat angina. The results showed that instead of treating chest pains, the drug had the ability to induce erections by increasing blood flow to the genitals. The rest is history, and the drug, named Viagra, was approved by the FDA in 1998 with the purpose to treat erectile dysfunction.

While “erectile dysfunction” has become a household phrase, it wasn’t always this way. Once a taboo issue to talk about, “sexual impotence” in men was something looked upon with embarrassment. With the release of Viagra, the way the medical field looked at “impotence” changed drastically.

“[Viagra brought the term] erectile dysfunction, which is this new broad spectrum diagnosis. No longer was it impotence, but it was a dysfunction that ranged from mild to moderate to severe, so it included people who had medically created sexual dysfunctions, as well as people that were insecure or had lost sexual functioning after drinking one night. So this diagnostic spectrum is also a new thing on the scene,” says Loe.

This new way of looking at sexual dysfunction wasn’t the only factor in making Viagra such a popular drug. According to Loe, many things were in place in 1998 that made the Viagra so successful. “You have a sort of a sexualization of the culture, you have an aging population, you have increased medicalization, and then you have new laws about how drugs can be marketed,” she said. “The ban on direct-to-consumer advertising was lifted just before Viagra was approved in 1998, so now you have the potential to market directly to consumers.”

Pfizer’s advertising campaigns over the years for Viagra have been memorable. One of the first spokespersons Pfizer got on board was former U.S. Senator Bob Dole. Loe believes the combination of Dole’s elderly age and openness to speak about his struggle with prostate cancer brought “a respectable, type of sanitized sexuality back into the public realm,” causing many men to feel comfortable in talking about their sexual dysfunctions with their doctor.

More recently though, Viagra’s advertising campaign has focused on sports. Whether it’s baseball or NASCAR, Loe believes that also puts the focus on the idea of “performance.”

“What happens there is you have the association of sexual performance and health and vitality and masculinity with these celebrities that are the ultimate performers. So really, the messaging is about the ultimate sexual performance, and creating a market around selling the ultimate sexual performance,” she says.

While Viagra sales are as strong as ever, this type of messaging has had mixed results. With a focus on just performance, some men may feel anxiety about not being able to perform their best, even with the help of a pill.

“There was a great ambivalence about this idea of a pill for sexuality. Some would say it helped them to enhance control and enhance their relationships, and others felt like they felt a sense of loss of control. They felt like their bodies were out of control, and they didn’t like that,” Loe says.

As for the long lasting effects Viagra has had on American society, Loe believes that the drug has only reinforced how sexualized American society already is, as well as putting more and more pressure on the idea of sexual performance.

With this increased pressure on the ultimate sexual experience, Loe cautions, “I wonder and I worry about, are we losing an emphasis on affection and communication and respect when we associate full personhood with being sexually active and being sexually perfect?”

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