Store-Bought Erections

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Take all the predictions of Jules Verne, Nostradamus, and Ray Bradbury. Throw in the scary prophecies of TV evangelists, the best scammers of the Psychic Friends Network, and just for fun, Nancy Reagan’s astrologer.

None of these visionaries or soothsayers predicted one of the oddest medical breakthroughs of our age. No, it isn’t a cure for cancer or AIDS. It’s a pill that creates erections: a half-hour after taking it, if a man gets any mental or physical stimulation at all, he gets hard.

What would an intelligent person have said if this were predicted 100 or even 50 years ago? Can’t be done? Won’t be done? Shouldn’t be done? As a sex therapist, I have some predictions of my own. Most of them aren’t pretty.

To be fair, the pill, Viagra, will be good news for some people: elderly couples who miss sex, diabetics and others with neurological problems, certain couples who will now be able to conceive, virgins in their thirties and forties who have just been too anxious to manage their first intercourse. People struggling with the sexual side effects of anti-depressants, chemotherapy, and other treatments may also be helped.

These are the people who will most benefit from the drug, those for whom it was ostensibly invented. And they will comprise at least 1% of the customers for the drug. Who will the other 99% be? And what will happen when they take the pill?

It’s those 99% I’m concerned about. A lot can go wrong with a store-bought erection. Not with the erection itself, but with the person attached to the end of it. And with the relationship in which it’s used.

So before the black market in this pill is firmly established, I’d like to say a few things. Simply put, for most people, this pill won’t solve the problems they want it to. Oh, it will create erections, all right. It just won’t fix the problems that aren’t erection problems. And in my 19 years of treating erectile dysfunction, I’ve seen very few erection problems. I’ve seen relationship problems, religious problems, guilt, shame, anger, and anxiety problems, trauma, violence, and alcohol problems. These are often accompanied by lack of erection. And while a pill may create the missing erection, it won’t solve these other problems. In fact, it will actually highlight problems that people haven’t wanted to confront. Couples who aren’t having sex because they don’t enjoy it with each other won’t have the “we can’t” excuse. Men who aren’t having sex because they want to leave the relationship won’t have the “I can’t” excuse. Neurotic wives will suddenly start accusing meek husbands of having affairs, now that they “can.” In some unhappy houses, men will be chasing their partners around waving their new toy, wanting sex now. Again. In other unhappy houses, women will nag their partners to get a prescription “so we can finally have sex after all these years.” How will juries decide product liability when someone puts the stuff in a household (or campus) water supply? In my youth the questions were simpler. Terrified authorities only worried about LSD in the drinking water.

In a dramatic turnaround of their post-HMO reputations, doctors will once again be very popular–at least for a while. At first, many will prescribe the pill at the drop of a, um, penis. Most will do virtually no interviewing, won’t ask to see a man’s partner, won’t counsel him on recreational uses, won’t inquire about his overall sexual stability and self-image. Very few will ask, “will you tell your partner you’re using this?” For any given man, honesty about taking the medication will surely be one of the best predictors of the drug’s success.

Guys will discover the drug’s limitations–fast. It can overcome anxiety, but not the lack of desire. Many penises will continue to speak loudly with their refusal to budge under pressure. Other men will be able to get hard without desire, but then they’ll be faced with an existential project that would stymie Buber or Kant: dealing with the difference between desire and arousal.

Heads reeling from that, men will also be faced with other questions: what, now, makes me a man? What exactly am I needed for in a sexual situation? Am I any different than a dildo with a credit card? Is there any difference between a quick-and-easy erection and an old-fashioned one?

Women will be affected in strange ways, too. New kinds of female folklore will develop, as women share tips on “How to tell if he’s hard from you or the pharmacist.” Wives will commiserate about getting sore when their mates wouldn’t quit after more than a decent amount of stroking. At the end of the day, women will puzzle over new ways to feel validated, now that an erection is no longer reliable evidence that they are attractive or loved.

Ironically and quite unintentionally, the new erection pill is a perfect representative of our very special, uniquely tormented time: It can provide ability without feeling, orgasm without joy, virility without connection. This won’t be true for every user, of course. But for many men, using it as a singles bar talisman, backup insurance for unresolved psycho-sexual struggles, or a way of avoiding uncomfortable marital conversation, the pill offers to create at least as many problems as it solves.

What will men, women, and couples do when this magic pill doesn’t fix their sexual difficulties? It’s kind of like feeling restless after you’ve already moved to California. There’s no more ‘next frontier’ out there. The only ‘next frontier’ is internal, the place of emotions and self-examination. For too many people, it’s still a foreign country.

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