In September last year, official figures showed a startling rise in the number of young British men turning up at A&E with painfully persistent erections. The number of admissions for priapism, to use the medical term, has increased by 51 per cent on the previous decade. Medical experts suggested that the cause was young men taking Viagra in combination with other illegal drugs.
This may come as a surprise to anyone who assumed that taking Viagra was the preserve of older men who want to keep their sex life going for as long as possible. But now, 20 years after the famous blue pills were first approved, they are a lifestyle drug for young people. A reasonable question to ask is why younger men, in the prime of life, should need Viagra — or want to take it. Aren’t they virile enough already?
Marketing plays a big part in the story. In 2014, the branding agency Pearlfisher was hired to rebrand Viagra for the Russian market. The brief was to adapt Pfizer’s drug for a ‘changing consumer profile’. The ‘A’ at the end of the word was enlarged, to make it look more tumescent. The box was redesigned so it resembled a packet of chewing gum — to have a ‘snap, crack, pop’ feel. Viagra was repositioned as an aspirational drug, with ‘premium credentials’, to be offered to ‘powerful and dynamic’ men. The advertising babble sounds ludicrous, but the plan seems to have worked. Young Russian men now feel comfortable taking Viagra at the end of an evening — and discarded packets have become a common sight among the usual detritus that litters the streets.
The drug has not yet had the same rebrand in the UK. Still, a proliferation of adverts on the London Underground suggests a similar drive is under way. Viagra seems to be being pitched at British men of all ages; a jolly elixir to perk up one’s sex life. ‘Order online, deliver in bed,’ says one poster. ‘Firm up your plans for Valentine’s Day,’ reads another. For bargain hunters, Poundland sells ‘Nooky’: a ‘natural’ knock-off version of Viagra. Later this year, pharmacies will start selling ‘Viagra Connect’, an over-the-counter version of the drug that doesn’t require a prescription. Picking up a packet of Viagra will soon be as easy as buying a bottle of Night Nurse.
This will make Britain the first country in the world where Viagra can be bought without prescription. The aim, according to Pfizer, is to help men get hold of the drug more easily, without the embarrassment of having to go to the doctor to ask for it. Male embarrassment may explain the enormous black market for the drug in Britain. In the past five years, £49.4 million worth of counterfeit Viagra has been seized. Impotence drugs now account for 90 per cent of all captured counterfeit pills. A comparable story is playing out across the Atlantic. In a single week in 2016, Canadian police seized $2.5 million worth of counterfeit pharmaceuticals at the border, 98 per cent of which were for sexual enhancement.
In December, the first generic version of the drug appeared in the US, and Silicon Valley types sniffed an opportunity to profit. Zachariah Reitano, a 26-year-old entrepreneur, recently launched ‘Roman’, a men’s health ‘cloud pharmacy’. The app aims to provide a ‘seamless and affordable way’ for men to get hold of Viagra or cheaper, legal versions. Roman’s target customers are 25- to 45-year-old men. Which brings us back to the question: why are young men taking Viagra, or feeling under pressure to do so? The simple explanation would be that they are taking it recreationally, in order to perpetuate their hedonistic lifestyles. Viagra means that men can be intoxicated with all sorts of other substances, legal and illegal, and still perform sexually. But the paradox is that younger men are known to be more abstemious than their predecessors, more addicted to their smartphones than to hard drugs.
What is more likely is that smartphones are part of the problem. A generation of men have grown up with easy access to pornography. Compared with the exotic appeal of the internet, normal sex seems vanilla. ‘-Pornography addiction’ is a modern malady and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that men are seeking treatment because of it. One US study published last year showed that men who regularly watched porn were more likely to suffer from impotence. In 2011, an Italian study came up with the term ‘sexual anorexia’ to describe the divorce of sexual desire from real life.
The ease of access to pornography comes against a backdrop of girl power and female emancipation. Men and women find themselves pitched against each other in an increasingly vicious gender war. The #MeToo movement continues to topple prominent male figures who have misbehaved by the day; the battle cry is that women should no longer feel under pressure from men to behave in a certain way, especially when it comes to sex.
But this expectation culture cuts both ways. The rise in the number of young men taking Viagra — and Pfizer’s interest in pushing it towards them — hints at the fact that many feel they must also perform in a certain way. Our era is hypersexualised and hyperprudish: men are told to be macho, yet soft. It’s no wonder there is confusion. Jordan Peterson, the psychologist, has recently become a cult figure in large part because he addresses the subject of emasculation. ‘The West has lost faith in the idea of masculinity,’ he says. I suspect men feel this loss more keenly than women. Viagra just offers a temporary escape from impotence.