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Health and wellness

How Viagra changed the way the world thought and talked about sex

Created as a treatment for high blood pressure, Viagra has revolutionised the treatment of erectile dysfunction in the past 20 years, and has been credited with stiffening tribal support during the war in Afghanistan

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2018, 1:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 10:16am

In the annals of the frustrating fight against impotence, men have ingested rhino horn dust, performed elaborate dances, employed vacuum hydraulics, and chanted what one historian called “protective spells” that went like this: “Get excited! Get excited! Get an erection!”

But none of those remedies were as successful – or crazy – as what one doctor did at a urological conference in 1983. Before presenting his research to hundreds of doctors, Giles Brindley injected – yes, injected – his penis with papaverine (which caused an erection). On stage, he dropped his trousers to demonstrate the results.

“There was not a sound in the room,” a urologist recalled in a scientific journal. “Everyone had stopped breathing.”

It is quite possible that audience members, having “dispersed in a state of flabbergasted disarray,” did not exhale for another 15 years, when federal regulators approved Viagra – the little blue pill that made it a little easier, and certainly less humiliating, for men to make everything work as intended.

Viagra, approved 20 years ago on March 27, 1998, became a pharmaceutical and cultural phenomenon at a very odd moment – amid former US President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal involving intern Monica Lewinsky, when one of Clinton’s fiercest and oldest political enemies, Bob Dole, the conservative Republican senator from Kansas became an evangelist for the drug.

“Dole may have lost the presidential election,” Meika Lee wrote in The Rise of Viagra, “but this time he returned victorious,” capturing the country’s attention – and late night TV jokes – as “the one bringing respectable sexuality back to America and American politics.”

And you thought things were strange now.

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The moment, in retrospect, came about from a virile accident.

Pfizer was developing a chemical compound sildenafil citrate for high blood pressure. It was not going well.

“It was so close to failure that people weren’t coming to the meetings,” says Pfizer chemist David Brown. “I mean, you know how people sort of smell failure and disappear? It was that close.”

The scientists kept going, hoping for a breakthrough. Then, finally, one emerged when they tested the drug on miners. But it had nothing to do with their blood pressure.

“Is there anything else you noticed you want to report?” Brown recalls asking the miners. “One of the men put up his hand and said, ‘Well, I seemed to have more erections during the night than normal,’ and all the others kind of smiled and said, ‘So did we’.”

The side effect wasn’t really a side effect; it was the jackpot.

Pfizer switched gears, studying the compound for its potential impotence. Men were given the drug in laboratory settings and watched erotic films.

“They were fitted with what was called a Rigiscan – you can imagine what that does,” says Brown.

“At the end of the week, we had to get the drugs back from them, anything that was unused. Some of them would not give the drug back.”

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The drug wound its way through the approval process. The jokes began almost immediately. “You must have heard them,” says Lee. “In nursing homes, Viagra keeps male patients from rolling out of bed. Did you hear about the first death from an overdose of Viagra? A man took 12 pills and his wife died. Viagra is now being compared to Disneyland – a one-hour wait for a two-minute ride.”

And so on.”

But Viagra really worked wonders. It became such a hot commodity around the world (about 65 million prescriptions have been filled worldwide for the drug). The CIA used it in Afghanistan to influence tribal elders in need of a little lift.

According to the retired operative who was there, the man was a clan leader in southern Afghanistan who had been wary of Americans – neither supportive nor actively opposed. The man had extensive knowledge of the region and his village controlled key passages through the area. US forces needed his cooperation and worked hard to win it.

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After a long conversation through an interpreter, the retired operator began to probe for ways to win the man’s loyalty. A discussion of the man’s family and many wives provided inspiration. Once it was established that the man was in good health, the pills were offered and accepted.

Four days later, when the Americans returned, the gift had worked its magic.

“He came up to us beaming,” the official said. “He said, ‘You are a great man.’ And after that we could do whatever we wanted in his area.”

The scientists who worked on the drug, along with historians and cultural scholars say Viagra has changed the way America talks about sex – more open, less puritanical.

The bar for sex talk is so low that during the last election, Donald Trump felt OK referencing the size of his penis and, apparently, the fact that he didn’t need a prescription to make it even larger.

“I guarantee you there’s no problem,” he said. “I guarantee.”

In Hong Kong, men too embarrassed to take Viagra in front of their partner have the option of an alternative anti-impotence drug. Introduced in 2003, Cialis works the same way as Viagra: blocking an enzyme called PDE5 to relax smooth muscle cells and increase blood flow to the penis. The maker of Cialis claims it is effective for up to 36 hours, compared to Viagra’s six hours.