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SANDY BANKS / Life as We Live It

New Cure for an Old Problem

April 27, 1998|SANDY BANKS

News accounts are calling it the hottest debut of a drug in history. Doctors are being flooded with frantic calls from patients they haven't seen in years. Pharmacists are struggling to keep the medicine in stock.

In only two weeks on the market, Viagra--the first pill to treat male impotence--has catapulted to the kind of pop culture status it took other popular drugs months or years to attain.

I remember the debut of Prozac and fen-phen, and how their growing popularity spawned soul-searching discussions among my women friends over whether our lives could use the boost that those so-called lifestyle-enhancing drugs could provide.

So I polled my male friends and co-workers last week to gauge the popularity of Viagra. Surely they were debating its merits--and their needs--at the gym, on the way to Dodger games, over lunch at the office.

It seems there aren't many locker room chats that include a guy admitting to less than stellar performance in the bedroom . . . or a need for something to boost his . . . er, stature.

No, my friends and colleagues say, impotence--or erectile dysfunction, as it's medically known--isn't something men are likely to admit to, even to their closest friends.

And, of course, none of the guys I talked with have even thought about trying the new drug.

"Don't need it," a friend said curtly. And I glimpsed his wife over his shoulder, rolling her eyes.


Not surprisingly, centers specializing in impotency treatment are being flooded with calls. And many of those inquiries are coming from women.

Some call secretly, said the receptionist at a Northridge clinic that signed up 20 new patients in just one morning last week.

Other times, "You can hear the guy in the background, telling the women what to say. They're too embarrassed to ask, so they get their wife or girlfriend to call."

It's clearly an issue in which wives and girlfriends have a vested interest.

Advice columns often carry letters from women complaining about their partners' inability to perform in bed. They are sympathetic, frustrated, resentful, frightened . . . but mostly reluctant to push a partner toward treatment. Understandable, with treatment options previously limited to penile injections, cumbersome balloon-type pumps, or surgery to implant permanent penile rods.

Viagra's makers realize that and plan to pitch the drug directly to women, via splashy magazine ads touting the $10 pills as a way to rev up a sex life gone stale and restore a partner's self-esteem.

And though it's too early to tell, doctors expect interest to grow as men try the drug and recommend it to friends.

I guess men who would never have admitted to impotence are quite willing to brag, post-treatment, about what studs they've become.


Twenty years ago, talk of impotence was whispered. And the number of men who suffered from it--defined then as the inability to have or maintain an erection--was deemed minuscule.

But a federally funded study of male aging a decade ago changed the way we view impotence.

Rather than asking the traditional question, "How often do you fail to produce an erection?" the study polled men about the quality of their sex lives. "How satisfied are you with your sex life? Is the frequency of sex with your partner as much as you desire. How satisfied do you think your partner is?"

And impotence went from an all-or-nothing medical problem to an affliction of the guy who just wasn't quite the animal he used to be in bed.

Today, urologists claim 50% of men over 40 suffer from some degree of erectile dysfunction--which could range from occasional disappointment after a stressful day at the office to permanent impairment from diabetes or heart disease.

Already some insurance companies are balking at paying for prescriptions of Viagra. Is the treatment really medically necessary? they ask. Why should they foot the bill--$300 for a one-month supply--so some man in the midst of a midlife crisis can be equipped for sex every night?

"Maybe some men would rather have this than a Lexus," one medical benefits consultant said. "But they should have to do it with their own money."

* Sandy Banks' column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is

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