“Pfizer Made Me Do It”

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The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is suing Pfizer for allegedly promoting “recreational use” of Viagra. They say that such promotion has led to risky sexual behavior, leading to an increase in HIV and other STDs.

There is some evidence that men who have sex with men are increasingly using drugs like Viagra to overcome the erection problems caused by alcohol, ecstasy, and crystal meth. Nevertheless, the lawsuit is a chance to revisit some questions we think are raised by erection drugs.

For starters, what exactly is “recreational use” of Viagra? No one “needs” an erection (not even to conceive, although it makes it easier), and in that sense virtually every use of Viagra is “recreational.” Of course, some men–such as diabetics–have erection problems for reasons beyond their control, while others choose the circumstances in which they can’t get it up or keep it up. But this is hardly the way to allocate health resources. We don’t say, “your knee operation is less important–‘recreational’–because it was necessitated by too much tennis rather than arthritis or a car accident.”

Any time a man wants an erection but can’t get one, there’s a reason. Physicians and psychologists disagree on whether physical or emotional causes are more common, but all agree that something is interfering, whether it can be diagnosed or not. In that respect, use of erection drugs can be seen as either all legitimate or all recreational.

The great sin of the pharmaceutical erection cheerleading squad is not that they imply that most men can have great erections (and therefore great sex); it’s that they imply that most men need great erections for decent sex. They also imply that the ultimate solution to unreliable erections is reliable erections. It isn’t. For most men (i.e., those with intact vascular and neurological systems), the ultimate solution is resolving whatever emotional, relational, spiritual, or cultural issues make getting erections difficult. If hating your wife, your body, your priest, or your life makes it hard to get erections, you don’t need better erections. You need something much more important. And you can’t get it at a drugstore.

Some people say that Viagra is more proof that men run the world, and that our culture’s default model of sexuality is the male model. That’s exactly wrong. Men are participating in their own exploitation, believing that when they’re too anxious, sad, lonely, angry, or conflicted to get an erection, getting an erection will make them ready for sex. It won’t.

Emotional connection and self-acceptance will get you through times of no erection better than erections will get you through times of emotional isolation and self-rejection.

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