The Viagra myth

How medicine and marketing made sex the benchmark of successful aging

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:15:35 PM

In 1998, a little blue pill called Viagra lifted the spirits of middle-aged men around the world. But, according to researcher Barbara Marshall, it may also have created the unrealistic expectation of eternal sexual youth.

“Viagra changed the way we talked and thought about sex,” says Marshall, a sociology professor at Trent University. “Suddenly, it wasn’t just a dirty topic…It was a public health concern.”

With almost 16 million men prescribed Viagra in the past six years, its marketing success has given rise to a whole new area of medical research.

“Sexual health used to be about reproduction and the absence of sexually-transmitted disease,” explains Marshall. “But now, especially with our aging population, sexual performance and desire are being redefined as markers of healthy living.”

But despite the nine Viagra tablets dispensed every second, Marshall notes only half of all Viagra prescriptions are ever refilled.

“These new drugs make it physically possible for almost any man to have sex,” she says. “But they don’t create sexual desire.”

The 1994 Massachusetts Male Aging Study discovered that while men in their 60s had less sexual intercourse, they reported the same level of satisfaction with their sex lives as younger men in their 40s.

“This demonstrates that sexuality isn’t purely mechanical,” says Marshall. “And the science of desire, rather than of mechanics, has now become a keen commercial interest.”

Armed with the knowledge that testosterone levels and libido are linked, testosterone patches are now routinely prescribed to men with age-related declines in the male hormone, and are in development for menopausal women with low levels of sexual desire.

“But should we really label changes in sexual activity over our lifetimes, or over the lifetime of a relationship, as dysfunctional?”

Changes in sexual behaviour are an understandable response to changing life circumstances, says Marshall, and a natural (and healthy) part of aging.

While some people do suffer real physical and emotional problems related to sex, Marshall hopes her research will encourage people to question the new sexual “norms” being pushed by market-driven medical research.

Barbara Marshall’s research on the medicalization of sex is funded through the SSHRC’s Standard Research Grants program.