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Is.muni.czSex and the Senior Woman: Pleasure and Danger in the Viagra Era
The online version of this article can be found at: http://sexualities.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/7/3/303 can be found at:
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2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
Abstract This article reveals women aged 67 to 86 making senseof sexuality in the Viagra era. Drawing from interviews, surveydata and content analysis of newspaper advice columns, I arguethat senior women use Viagra as a vehicle to discuss and critiquesexualized masculinity, sexualized culture, sexual obligation inmarriage, and sexual health and pleasure. This data complicatesand fills out existing qualitative research on aging and sexuality,while rejecting popular assumptions that the elderly are asexual.
These women use Viagra to discuss pleasure and danger in theirlives, to tell sexual stories, to build community, to critiquesocial institutions, and even to promote social change inthe 21st century.
Keywords aging, masculinity, sexuality, social institutions, Viagra,women In 1997, Newsweek ran a cover story introducing a new pill for impotencethat was soon to be approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Adminis-tration).2 Soon afterwards, letters to the editor, many penned by women,expressed concern about the arrival of this new drug, Viagra. One letterread, ‘We don’t need more virile senior male citizens thinking they arevirile teenagers. We have enough of that already. What about birth controlfor men, that’s what we really want!’3 What seemed like a lone critical voiceon Viagra in 1997 was joined by many in the years to come. Many of theseletters, addressed to magazine editors and newspaper advice columnists, itturns out, were written by senior women.
Women’s perspectives and opinions are largely absent when it comes to the Viagra phenomenon. Sex is still seen as male terrain, with women silentpartners at best.4 In part, this silence is due to the equating of ‘erectiledysfunction’ with heterosexual masculinity and male responsibility, leaving Sexualities Copyright 2004 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) Vol 7(3): 303–326 DOI: 10.1177/1363460704044803 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
little room for women’s experiences. But by leaving women out of thepicture, we are only seeing half the story. Several months after Viagra’sdebut in the United States, I set out to discover how women have beenaffected by erectile dysfunction and Viagra. In order to find out I talkedwith some of the wives and partners of senior Viagra users, as well aswomen who have no direct relationship with the drug. These seniorwomen had different experiences with and opinions about Viagra, andeach had important, and often surprising, things to say about sexuality inthe Viagra era. Their comments shed light on how elderly women viewsex and pleasure, and whether they would like to have a ‘female Viagra’pill.5 Senior women discuss Viagra in terms of their own pleasure anddanger, as well as their partners’ and, rather than confirming stereotypesabout masculinity, they often question social expectations related togender, sexuality, marriage and health. Most importantly, the introductionof Viagra seems to have provided senior women with a rare opportunityand permission to discuss their sex lives.
I met these senior women through two senior citizen organizations insouthern California: a singles social club and a seniors-only summerschool.6 I surveyed about 80 male and female seniors, 38 of whom werewomen and, of that group, I conducted eight follow-up in-depth inter-views by phone. These women, Agnus, Annette, Bette, Doris, Hilda,Nora, Pauline, and Sally are the focus of this article, coupled with anony-mous survey data. 7 At the time of the interview, they ranged in age from67 to 86 years of age. Most were living either in Florida or southern Cali-fornia, approximately half were Jewish, and all were white, heterosexual,middle or upper middle class American citizens. What they all had incommon was an interest in discussing Viagra. They all had differentrelationships to Viagra: four had partners who had tried Viagra, others hadfriends who used the product, and a couple only knew of Viagra throughnews reporting or conversations with friends. Importantly, all but Bette,who was divorced, were widows. At the time of our conversations, Betteand Doris were actively dating, while the others were not.
In open-ended conversation phone interviews, I asked senior women to discuss what the availability of Viagra meant for women, men, and societyat large at the turn of the century. Not once did I ask a question aboutsexuality. Despite this, my questions about Viagra were seen as invitationsto discuss, critique, and construct sexual desire, health, obligation, genderroles, and culture. Thus, Viagra provided me with a non-threatening entréeinto women’s sexual lives and stories, something I had not anticipatedwhen I set out to collect women’s perspectives on Viagra.8 Additionally, 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
this article charts women’s more public Viagra-related sexual storytellingthrough a small purposive sample of Dear Abby and Ann Landers advicecolumns and various news reports found through focused internetsearches. Secondary sources such as advice columns yield crucial infor-mation about the social construction of personal problems and counsel.9 The ‘sexual stories’ I collected through advice columns and interviews are personal experience narratives around Viagra use, which may or maynot elicit stories about intimacy (Plummer, 1995: 7). For example, Viagranarratives reveal just as much about aging, science and technology, healthand medicine, and gender, as they reveal about sex.10 As sexual stories,they ‘flow from the culture and back into it’; thus they are major resourcesfor comprehending a culture and its dynamics, values and changes(Plummer, 1995: 176). Additionally, these stories take the form of ‘claims-making’ in the sense that these women are making claims, constructinggrievances, and locating sexuality within a matrix of social problems theytake issue with (Spector and Kitsuse, 1977).
In the tradition of grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967), this article is organized around common themes that naturally emergedthrough interviewing and data analysis, rather than pre-selected ideas.
Thus, this article explores and analyzes senior women making sense ofsexuality in the light of the Viagra phenomenon. It is organized aroundfour recurrent themes that senior women named as salient in the Viagraera: (1) women’s sexual health and pleasure, (2) sexual obligation inmarriage, (3) sexualized masculinity and (4) sexualized culture. First, areview of existing quantitative and qualitative data on sexuality and agingis helpful to further place these women within a social context.
Senior women’s willingness to speak openly about sex is a marked differ-ence from years past. In fact, the idea that senior women are having sex,much less talking about it, cannot be divorced from the legacy and gainsof women’s movements. Two decades ago, two books were published thatchanged how most sexuality scholars understood women’s sexuality:Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality (Snitow et al., 1983), and Pleasureand Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality (Vance, 1984). These volumesmarked a complex historical moment in women’s lives and feministorganization, representing themes and sentiments that existed at a contro-versial feminist conference held at Barnard College in 1982.11 Theconference and ensuing volumes symbolized a growing discussion aboutthe importance of women’s sexuality, empowerment and safety as import-ant personal and political goals during late ‘second wave’ feminist organiz-ation, gelling for many the idea that women’s experiences of sexuality can 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
be both dangerous and empowering. These themes are clearly reflected inmy senior informants’ stories.
Unfortunately, the assumption that sexuality declines and disappears with age has led to gaps and silences in the few landmark national sexu-ality studies that have been conducted (Goodfellow, 2004).12 Research byKinsey in the 1950s and Masters and Johnson in the late 1960s areexamples of such negligence as there is little to be learned in these studiesabout senior sex (Levy, 1994). 13 Such assumptions about lack of sex mayeven have informed the latest Sex in America survey (Michael et al., 1994)which included only those aged 18 to 59. One notable exception came in1976 with Shere Hite’s The Hite Report on Female Sexuality that receivedquestionnaire responses from women aged 14 to 78. According to Hite,one of the major findings was that age is not a factor in female sexuality,or in other words, ‘Older women are NOT less sexual than youngerwomen – and they are often more sexual’ (Hite, 1994: 29).
Thanks in part to Viagra and Bob Dole,14 seniors’ active sexual lives are becoming more visible, legitimate, and accepted by American society.
A 1999 article in Time International summed it all up in its title; ‘OldGoats and their Libidos: Ever Since Bobby Dole Did that Viagra Ad, TheSenior Class Has Been Acting Up’ (Morrow, 1999: 78). But several of myinterview subjects were eager to point out that seniors were sexually activeprior to the Viagra era. As Agnus put it, These days seniors are still falling in love and feeling young and sexually activeagain. Is this new? Probably not. It has probably been the case for some timenow, but people didn’t talk about it. (Agnus, 67) Understandably, this exposure is creating some discomfort, but it also offers some welcome changes in social expectations. It is in the spirit ofthis newly expanded dialogue and the new visibility of the sexual senior,that Modern Maturity Magazine, the official magazine of the AmericanAssociation of Retired People (AARP), commissioned a report on the sexlives of seniors (Jacoby, 1999).15 This ‘Exclusive Post-Viagra SurveyReport’ was a ‘study of the sexual attitudes and practices of Americans 45and older in the first nationwide inquiry into midlife and old age’. In brief,their findings revealed that ‘At every age, sex seems to hold greater import-ance for men than women. According to this survey, nearly 60% of men –but only about 35% of women – say sexual activity is important to theiroverall quality of life’. Other important results with relevance for this studyinclude: 70 per cent of baby boomers and seniors with regular partnershave sex at least once or twice a month; 5 per cent of men 75 and older,and more than 35 per cent of women in that age group say they would bequite happy if they never had sex again; among women in their 40s and50s, only 9 per cent are sanguine about such a prospect. Additionally, the 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
survey found that for seniors, a major ‘partner gap’ exists, revealing thatmore men than women have partners, and over half of the women above60 are alone (Jacoby, 1999).16 These data provide a larger context for understanding the voices of senior women in this article. For example, seven of the eight seniors Iinterviewed are widows reflecting on what Modern Maturity calls ‘the endof their sexual lives with the loss of husbands’ (Jacoby, 1999, 45), and, Iwould add, the potential for future sexual relationships. Furthermore, thefact that many senior women (35%) say that sex is not that important tothem as well as the same percentage claiming that they would be contentnever to have sex again is corroborated in letter after letter to advicecolumnists since Viagra’s debut. That said, in the interviews that follow,some of the senior women directly contradict this, in fact claiming that itis the men who cannot keep up with their appetites. Women’s sexualitiesare complicated, and context-dependent. Many of these women came ofage during a period when women were not supposed to concern them-selves with sexual gratification (and men were not supposed to be overlyconcerned with their wives’ pleasure), sex for them was officially formaking babies. More specifically, those in their 60s confronted a verydifferent sexual and social climate, having been born in the 1940s andcoming of age in the era of birth control, for example, than those currentlyin their 80s, who were born in the 1920s depression era and came of ageduring the Second World War, amidst more restrictive norms and atti-tudes. For many of these women, seeing their daughters and grand-daughters come of age at a time when birth control and Viagra use arenormalized allows them to redefine, and perhaps explore sexuality in newways. Comments that follow reveal much about women’s sexuality as wellas their sense of sexual pleasure and danger.
For the senior women I spoke with, Bob Dole’s erectile dysfunction wasnot the only Viagra story that existed. The effects of Viagra were not solelyabout men and their sexual lives. Viagra was also a rare opportunity tomake sense of their own sexual desires, pleasures, fears, and selves, manytimes in relation to the Viagra man. For many of the women I spoke with,then, Viagra proved to be an entrée into understanding and discussingtheir own sexual health.
Bette, an upbeat 69 year old, commented that sexual activity is crucial It is important, sex is. You see kitty cats and they are all fat and you know theyare not having sex. Really. And it’s the same with people. It is a really goodcalorie burner. My doctor told me to see my gynecologist about Viagra for 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
women. I would, but my SO [significant other] says I don’t need a thing. It’schemistry that turns me on, and maybe it takes me longer than when I wasyounger, but then again, it’s all between our ears, isn’t it? (Bette, 69) For many, Viagra and sexual health are viewed in the context of aging, as in Bette’s comment here, where she compares sexuality now to whenshe was younger. For senior women, like men, Viagra may represent theelusive pursuit of youth. One woman responded to my question, ‘Howhas Viagra changed your life?’ with, ‘It has allowed us to enjoy sex again– makes us mentally feel younger’. Here sexuality is equated with youth,reminiscent of the ways in which male consumers of the drug can constructViagra as a fountain of youth pill, enabling them to ‘feel 18 again’. Incontrast, very few of the women I spoke with longed to return to the sexu-ality of their teenage years. While some would just as soon forget abouttheir sexual pasts, Bette and Pauline volunteer that their ‘sexual prime’ waspost-menopause: With men they say the peak is at 19 and after that they go downhill . . . I think42 was my sexual prime. Some women say that the menopause is terrible, butI think it was great – not having to worry about pregnancy, just STDs [sexuallytransmitted diseases]. (Bette, 69) Well, menopause made sex less risky for me, and I didn’t have to put a diaphragmin every night or interrupt sex for that. The risks were much less, which madeit more enjoyable. (Pauline, 81) Several senior women volunteered that they had been feeling ‘sexual urges’in recent years. But for Bette and Nora, this desire is mitigated by concernswith appearing ‘oversexed’ or sexual in the context of widowhood, or byfrustration with finding a willing and able sexual partner in one’s age group.
I was appalled that six weeks after my husband died somebody would want tokiss me or I might want to respond because I don’t think truthfully that I waswhat I would call an oversexed woman. I had sexual urges but I never initiatedlovemaking too much. And . . . what should I say? I have a friend who had tohave a man. Not to sit across a table. But just had to have a man. She neededsex very desperately. It was part of her life to a large extent, without being anymphomaniac she just needed a man. That’s fine but I never had that intenseurge because for me there were far more important things in a man than whetheror not he could ejaculate. So it’s chocolate and vanilla or strawberry and lemon,who knows? (Nora, 74) I know that my [male] friend can’t take Viagra for health reasons and he’s sohandsome. He wants all of the young women, and the young women want sex.
I’m not trying to be horrible, I think it is frustrating as a young woman to wantit and be excited and then frustrated. And vibrators are not the same as men.
Right? . . . Each person is their own person. But when a woman needs a man,a vibrator just won’t do. She wants companionship. And cuddling. And 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
cuddling gets you hot and bothered sometimes. So you need a man there.
(Bette, 69) Bette implies that a relationship based on cuddling or self-pleasure with a vibrator is not enough. For her, Viagra may be necessary because some-times ‘you need a man’, not a surrogate. But actually finding a malepartner may be difficult with a ‘partner gap’ that leaves four out of fivewomen 75 and older without partners (Jacoby, 1999: 45), combined withsocial trends that lead older men to want to date younger women.
Doris, a witty, practical, sexually active 86-year old, is similarly vocal about her sexual desires as well as her concerns about the lack of poten-tial sexual partners in her age group. For Doris, men are not necessarily inshort supply, but healthy male sexual partners are. In her comments, givenhere, Doris describes her desire to have a sexual relationship at her age, asopposed to the platonic arrangements she sees her friends having.
Bear in mind that I am 86 years old, most of my friends are contemporaries.
Most felt that [Viagra] was going to be a real nuisance for the ones who werestill dating men, and now would have to deal with this new sexual situation thatwould be part of their relationship. In many cases, they had a ‘nice’ friendshipwith men that did not include sex, and as far as they were concerned wanted itto remain that way. They don’t seem to be concerned with the health hazardsinvolving sex with men who were dating other women as well as them . . . justnot interested in sex. I was not one of these. I am interested in sex under certainconditions. Clean bill of health is my number-one priority. Protection is right upthere with number one, and I don’t care if it does sound clinical . . . that’s theworld I live in. And I have to say that most of the men I have met have beeninadequate in performance, so my conditions didn’t either enhance or hinderthe act . . . I have about given up on the whole thing . . . not worth the effort. . . at least at the moment. I am satisfied to have someone for company atmovies, restaurants, concerts, short trips, etc. I find that the older I get, the lesssex has to do with my happiness. And since I am financially independent, I reallydo not need anyone living with me, I can manage my daily life very well, anddoing ‘wifely’ things is not something I would care to do. If things get to bedesperate, there is always a vibrator, which is ready to ‘go’, providing the batter-ies are new. Who could ask for more? (Doris, 86, emphasis added) Unfortunately, Doris’s pursuit of pleasure has been thwarted by male partners she has had that cannot ‘perform’, leading her to give up onfinding a sexual partner, and turning instead to her vibrator for pleasure.
I have gone through at least six men in the past 13 years since my husband died.
The first one talked nothing but sex, and he was certainly handsome, andthought his penis was the most glorious work of art ever created. With a lot ofwork, we could manage to get it to stand up for a few minutes, but when itcame to actually performing, it would collapse at the thought of what it wasexpected to do. I have a TV in the bedroom, so we got to see a lot of late night 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
TV before going to sleep. Number Two was full of ambition, but impotent inevery sense of the word. Also alcoholic, which could explain the impotency. Thethird man lasted for almost three years, with no sex at all. By that time I haddecided that it really wasn’t my problem, it was theirs . . . and a friendship wasjust as good as anything else, since we had other interests in common. And that’sthe way it has been ever since. I am no longer interested in relationships(whatever that is).
Perhaps these comments of sexual dissatisfaction are one reason we never heard from the likes of Elizabeth Dole and the other sexually frus-trated partners of senior men. This is the side of the story that Pfizer doesnot talk about – women’s desire for sex and men’s inability to respondpositively to these desires. These comments show the other side ofimpotency, that is, the sexual frustration for women. Again contrary to theideas about sex that we are used to hearing, these women appear to be thesexual initiators in these relationships.
At the time of these interviews, many articles in women’s and main- stream magazines had reported on the search for a ‘female Viagra’. Sucharticles quoted primarily baby boomer women saying, ‘If men have Viagra,women need something too.’ In this context, I asked the senior women Ispoke with if they had heard of such efforts to develop a Viagra-likeproduct for women. More than several claimed that such a product couldbe promising in helping women achieve sexual pleasure.
I do believe that sex is important to have an adequate quality of life. I person-ally miss the affection and companionship. But I would take a pill to be able toenjoy sex more because my medications may diminish sexual drive. See, life hasmany aspects and you don’t ignore one that will give you pleasure. If I foundthe right person, I’d try a pill. But I’m probably all dried up and squinchedtogether so I’d have to find a doctor to help me [laughing]. (Pauline, 81) You know, my doctor said jokingly that there’s a Viagra for women. And thenwhen I said, ‘Where do I get it?’ he got very embarrassed. I said ‘How did youhear about it?’ He said some women’s magazine. He’s a Chinese doctor. Buthe read about it somewhere . . . I don’t know what it is, but I would considerusing Viagra even though my SO [significant other] says I don’t need it. I can’texplain it. It would just make me a bit hotter, I think. (Bette, 69) Both Pauline and Bette make it clear that sexual satisfaction is somethingthat they would definitely enjoy and that both would be interested intaking such a pill. Though, in the following conversation I had with Hilda,it is clear that her interest in such a drug is not necessarily tied to her age,but is in response to her life-long lack of fulfillment with her sex life.
ML: Have you heard about women taking Viagra? I’ve heard of it. I think it’s a good idea. You know, if I had a partner, Ithink I might have taken it. Because we had a wonderful marriage, but 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
not a wonderful sex life. It was okay. But the ecstasy that people talk about– I have never experienced it . . . I don’t think he would’ve liked me doingthat [taking a pill] . . . At this point in my life, I don’t know if I’d chanceit. I’m 80, and I don’t want to hasten my, you know. So I might thinktwice about it.
I’d want to experience what I’ve read about. The ecstasy.
Yes. I have two friends who make reference to the fact that they have hadwonderful sex lives. They are both widows. And both very unusual formy generation since they’ve had more than one partner. One told me thatshe never experienced with her husband what she had with another man.
So maybe some guys do it better than others. I wouldn’t know – I’ve onlyhad one. And this is the way I’m going to finish. (Hilda, 80) Hilda’s coments illustrate one of the key differences between male and female desire for Viagra, or a Viagra-like drug: while men may need thedrug to help them continue their sexual pleasure, women may want thedrug to discover theirs for the first time. In a positive sense, then, thepublic discussions of Viagra clearly have enabled some women to openlydiscuss their sex lives, for better or worse, and to ask their own doctors forsolutions. Still, these women are also aware that sexuality exists in relationto the medication they and their partners take (with a growing list of sideeffects that require other medications to balance them out), and that thereare often trade-offs between sex and health. Particularly for Hilda, thepromise of sexual fulfillment and enhancement is tempered by the risk of‘chancing it’, or ‘hastening’ death, an issue that male consumers, particu-larly those with Viagra risk factors, must negotiate as well. Hilda andPauline conflate sexual hopes with health risks, unable to separate the two.
For them, sexuality occurs against a backdrop of continuous aging andhealth concerns. Additionally, this bleeding together of promise and riskdiscourses is relatively common, revealing women’s confusions about whatViagra can offer in the realms of sexuality, health, and aging.17 Finally, forBette and Hilda, consumption of a Viagra-like product would take placein the context of a relationship, where husbands or boyfriends may ‘disap-prove’, clearly complicating and constraining their choices.
While some of the women discussed fears for their own health in relation to a Viagra-like drug, they clearly had concerns about men and Viagra. Inthe next extracts, Nora and Doris evaluate the health risks for male Viagrausers in the light of what they view as male desire for potency: You have to be so careful with meds because of the side-effects. Especially withthe Viagra, I understand that if men are on nitrates, they can’t take it. Who wouldwant a man to have a heart-attack in the middle of enjoying sex? (Nora, 74) 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
As for my thoughts about taking medication for sexual prowess, I can see thatit might be a useful tool for younger people with a problem. As for older men,especially with Viagra, which has a spotty medical history at best, with heartattacks and sudden death as some of the side effects, I think it is unacceptable.
My own feeling is that it is not all that safe, and if I were a man I would nottake it. It was not originally invented for this use anyway . . . I think it was forhypertension or something . . . Having said that, I also know that some menwould risk anything to prove how manly they are. (Doris, 86) Like most Americans, Nora and Doris have been exposed to media reports warning that if taken in the wrong circumstances, Viagra can befatal.18 Despite such warnings, each woman balances potential for physicalrisk with potential for masculine potency, something they felt theirhusbands greatly desired. Nora and Doris find this a dangerous balancingact with ramifications for men and women. Nora is concerned abouthaving a male partner die during lovemaking. Doris also highlights therisks for older men, but concedes that ‘some men would risk anything toprove how manly they are’.
While Viagra encourages discussions of individual health, it may also prove to be a risk to the health of senior communities. For example, therehas been much recent concern about increased sexual activity among olderpeople leading to the spread of HIV in senior communities.19 Because ofthe new-found attention on sexually active seniors, and recently launched‘preventative’ efforts, I was not surprised to find seniors discussing thespread of HIV in their communities. The following extract is from a large-group discussion between a group of senior women (SW) from Floridaenrolled in a summer education program and myself (ML), about Viagraand its social implications for senior communities: ML: Do you agree that seniors are more sexually active than ever? [some heads At a Barnes & Noble presentation, they gave out condoms to the seniorsand told them to be careful.
The HIV is coming from widowers who aren’t ready to give up sex andso they find prostitutes. Those are the ones spreading HIV among seniors! Here, senior male Viagra-users are seen as the disease carriers, and are thus blamed for rendering senior communities at risk. Interestingly, prosti-tutes are not to blame; instead it is members of the senior community whoare at fault. These women express concern that senior men are moresexually active than ever in the Viagra era, an assumption that, as Agnuspointed out earlier, may be based on increased discussion of sex and agingrather than actual increased behavior. In addition, sexual activity anddesire is publicly equated with the widowers in the community, furtherreinforcing gendered stereotypes of women as asexual or sexually passive, 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
and men as (out of control) sexual initiators. As we’ve seen in earliercomments, such stereotypes do not always prove to be the case.
Men’s sexual desires can be threatening in the senior community as wellas in the home. Two anonymous senior women suggested that the intro-duction of Viagra resulted in sexually rejuvenated husbands, and unpre-pared, sometimes fearful wives: ‘I would wonder how many women arerelieved that their active sex lives are over, and are petrified that their mateswill take Viagra.’ The other said ‘It [Viagra] has rejuvenated some men –women are not prepared.’ In response to my survey question, ‘How has Viagra affected seniors’ lives?’ the second most common response by senior women was toemphasize danger over pleasure, expressing concern about Viagra as apotential risk to women’s emotional health in the context of a relation-ship. In this section women talk about Viagra in the context of (changing)marital and sexual arrangements and obligations. Specifically, they useViagra to critique and respond to traditional marriage scripts and ideasabout marital duty.
Two months after Viagra’s debut Jane Brody, writing for the New York Times, reported on ‘Facing Viagra’s Emotional Ripples’, or how Viagrahas contributed to exposing marital conflicts that otherwise might haveremained buried (Brody, 1998). This article was in response to an articlepublished earlier that month in the New York Times, entitled, ‘SomeCouples May Find Viagra a Home Wrecker’ (Nordheimer, 1998). Thispiece emphasized the risk Viagra represents for the health of the marriedcouple, including ‘devastating side-effects on relationships’ such as newsexual pressures sometimes leading to divorce and extramarital affairs.
Whether Viagra represents hope or danger, the existence of such aproduct, and the increased sexual pressures that follow its use raise newconcerns for women regarding marital obligation and sexual duty. In thenext extract, Bette discusses Viagra in the context of what she sees as awoman’s obligation to please her man.
My SO [significant other], he uses Viagra, and you know, we are not sexmaniacs, but we do enjoy this. And he’s such a nice person. I’d never tell himno. Sometimes you have to give a little, when you know what they want. Butonce or twice he’s seen blue lights, and that is a little bit of a problem. But Ithink it really does help for the man. It must make him feel so great to be ableto hold an erection. And you know the woman has something to do with it too. . . I’m learning so much about men now. Sex was so taboo when we wereyounger. But now I’m learning so much. I talk about it all the time. Talk to mySO. See, life is about sharing and socializing. It’s not necessarily about sex or 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
not. But you do have to put in a little bit of effort in terms of what men wantto do. (Bette, 69) Similarly, Annette points out that women will ‘go along with it’ in thecontext of a good relationship; otherwise, they may wonder why theyshould bother. Several years after Viagra’s debut, some women are nowfinally communicating their lack of interest in sex.
For men, it’s a put-down if they can’t have an erection. Women cansimulate it and if they are happy with their man, they’ll go with it evenwhen it’s not the height of enjoyment. They’ll do it to make theirhusbands or lovers happy. You know, as the jokes wore off you were ableto have a more serious discussion related to Viagra. So you’re getting tofeelings now, which [women] didn’t dare express before. I don’t have thistype of conversation amongst men, unfortunately. But I do discuss thiswith women. Now they are looking at it more realistically than when itcame out. They were ashamed. Too many years of being ashamed if theyweren’t a willing hot sex partner. But – now it is coming out that theycould live without it.
Not in the older age group. (Annette, 81) How far does one have to go to make a husband happy in the Viagra era?Concerns about ‘pleasing one’s man’ have surfaced in the Viagra era, notonly in interview transcripts, but more visibly in advice columns.
Confusion about a woman’s sexual duty to her husband in the Viagra era led many senior women to write to Ann Landers for advice in 1998.
In each of these letters, these 60-something female authors are concernedabout their husbands using Viagra, stating that they are ‘tired’ and unin-terested in sex. Despite their strong stances on not wanting their husbandstaking Viagra, these women are hesitant to bring their concerns to theirhusbands as it is contrary to what they have been taught about maritalobligation. Instead, they suggest that they have ‘earned a rest’, and thenask for Ann’s comments. Here are two examples: Dear Ann: I am 62 years old and the mother of six grown children, and I wasthrilled when my 64 year old husband began to slow down (if you catch mydrift) about two years ago. I never was crazy about sex, but being from the oldschool, I listened to my mother. She said a woman should never refuse herhusband because if he isn’t taken care of at home, he will look elsewhere . . . Sonow what happens? A pill called Viagra is invented and the old goat is back inthe saddle again. I do love my husband, Ann, but I believe I have earned a rest.
Besides, these pills cost $10 each. Last week he took four. Do you have anyadvice on this subject, I would like to hear them, and I’ll bet thousands of otherwomen would too. – Nameless in Ohio (Landers, 1998a.)21 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
Dear Ann: My husband (age 68) got all excited when he read about that Viagrapill. He has been dead as a doornail for five years. His doctor said it would beOK for him to take the pill, but not to expect miracles. Well, so far nothing haschanged regarding his ‘condition’ but he is wearing me out trying to prove thathe is a frisky young colt again. Please tell those smart-aleck scientists and thosebig drug companies to work on a cure for cancer instead and quit running thelives of millions of women who have earned a rest. Thank you. – No name inAbilene, Kansas (Landers, 1998a. See note 20) In these letters Viagra is constructed as a ‘wonder drug’ that turned inactive husbands into sexualized animals (an ‘old goat’ and a ‘frisky youngcolt’), leaving their wives frustrated and ‘worn out’. While their husbandsmay embrace Viagra’s promise, these wives see only risk in buying intofrivolous scientific solutions, and expensive drugs. Questioning maritalduties gives these women a way out of the Viagra trap. Both wives imaginethat they are not alone in their hesitation about Viagra’s role in theirmarriage. Their letters may be motivated by desire for emotional supportfrom Ann Landers, but it is Landers’ female readership that the authorsseem most interested in engaging in a dialogue. Rather than hanging theirheads in shame, authors see their letters potentially reaching thousands,and use their personal troubles to invite other ‘tired’ women (like them)to make themselves known, insisting that such a community exists.
Landers responds consistently in a detached way, avoiding the question of marital duty. Bypassing these women’s concerns and complaints, sheresponds with positive accounts regarding Viagra use and warnings aboutViagra’s health-related side effects.
Dear Nameless in Ohio: I have already received a ton of mail about Viagra. Mostof the readers are calling it a ‘godsend’ while about one-fourth of those writingsay they wish their husbands had never heard of the drug . . . The pill is enjoyingwidespread acceptance but this miracle drug may have some [health-relatedside-effects], so, my friends, beware. (Landers, 1998a. See note 21) Dear Abilene: You told ’em but don’t be surprised if nobody listens. While youmay or may not be thrilled with your husband’s renewed interest in sex, let meassure you that a great many women are grateful for Viagra and have written tosay so. (Landers, 1998a. See note 20) By avoiding the marital concerns raised by a minority of her letter- writers, Landers focuses on the Viagra-as-miracle and medical danger storysupported by the mainstream media. In the process, she reinforces the ideaof duty associated with marital love. In a further letter to a woman inPhiladelphia, Landers espouses her own beliefs on marital duty, uphold-ing the idea that love for a husband requires helping him enjoy the ultimatein marital bliss. Landers seems most interested in helping these Viagrawives attain happiness or relief through pleasing their husbands. The 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
‘downside’ here is not the erasure of women’s sexual desires, but thehealth-related risks for the man.
Despite Lander’s traditional views on marital love and obligation, and the thousands of letters that seem to agree with this and the promise ofViagra, an almost equal amount of letters written to advice columnists ingeneral reveal a letter-writing movement made up of Viagra wives opposedto Viagra and what it represents, collectively rethinking marriage, malepotency, and traditional gender roles in the Viagra era. Dear Abby, anothermajor national advice column, posted this letter from a female babyboomer in September of 1998, which ends in a call for honest data onhow women are feeling about sexual duty.
Dear Abby: My husband is of the opinion that if a woman doesn’t enjoy sexright up to the grave, there must be something wrong with her. At age 50, after30 years of marriage, I would like to forget sex altogether. Believe me, I’ve paidmy dues. Where is it written that a woman should be ready and willing toperform every time her man beckons? I suspect that many women just gothrough the motions because they want to do something for the men they love.
I can’t believe I’m the only woman who feels this way. Please poll your readers,Abby. If they are honest, I think you will find that I am right. – Tired in Lincoln,NE, (September 1998. See note 20) Dear Tired: I invited women to send me an anonymous postcard statingwhether they agreed or disagreed with Tired. Here were the results: Disagreed 113,601 (Van Buren, 1998. See note 20) The responses Dear Abby reports reveal how salient the issue of duty must be for women in the Viagra era. In stark contrast to Viagra-relatedpleasure as modeled in Pfizer promotional materials (revealing happyheterosexual couples dancing and touching), it turns out that hundreds ofthousands of women are writing in to their local papers to talk back toproducts like Viagra – which can exacerbate various social pressures to besexual – insisting that they are ‘tired’, they have ‘earned a rest’, and theyhave ‘done their duty’.
Saying no to marital obligation has many possible outcomes. For some, it means ending a marriage. For others it means negotiation: I know some women stop sleeping in the same bed with their husbands. Butobviously there was no longer a desire or a need. These women, if they everencountered a husband who suddenly woke up and said here I am and I can dothis, they find that they don’t want to. It’s everybody’s right to say yes I do orno I don’t. If they feel strongly about the relationship, they’d probably hang inthere. (Sally, 75) And in extreme cases, forced sexual obligation may lead to murder, as 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
explained by the editor of Ladies Home Journal in a comment on publictelevision’s talk show, To the Contrary (KCET Television, 2002). According to this magazine editor, some Viagra wives ‘aren’t so thrilled’with their husbands’ newfound potency, pointing to the case of the ‘NewYork woman who shot her husband after he used Viagra and forced herto play along’.
While women may disagree about whether Viagra represents for themsexual pleasure or danger, most agree that Viagra cannot be disentangledfrom masculinity. In interviews and anonymous surveys, womencommonly discuss Viagra in regard to men wanting to achieve confidence,youth, vibrancy, and normalcy. In the following quotations anonymousfemale respondents to my survey comment on the promise of Viagra forthe ‘old guys’.
‘Viagra restores feelings of normalcy and confidence, I think –.’ ‘Bob Dole claims he has benefited from it.’ ‘It gave the old guys a chance for their last hurrah.’ In contrast to the empathetic voices revealed here, some senior women have been openly resistant to the efforts that scientists and pharmaceuticalcompanies have made to promote male virility, as revealed in the letter tothe editor highlighted at the beginning of this article. Whether womendraw on humor, empathy, or anger, most agree that Viagra, from the verybeginning, was about promoting a kind of sexualized (youthful) mascu-linity. Widows Pauline and Doris laughed as they recalled when and whatthey first heard about Viagra. For them, Viagra creates a perfect caricatureof sexually out-of-control men.
That it makes you want to have sex if you are older. As a matter of fact,there was even a sitcom, Mad About You, where he had taken a Viagraand he was running around trying to connect with her. The idea is, itmakes you have the urges and the erection and it lasts supposedly longeror certainly more frequent. And that was what I heard. I think that MadAbout You probably helped to popularize it even more. That was a greatprogram. (Pauline, 81) The first time I heard about Viagra, it did not have a name . . . We havea female talk show host in Florida who I listened to on the car radio prac-tically daily, since she was on from one to three o’clock and ordinarily Iwould be going shopping or doing my volunteer work, and about threeyears ago, she started talking about this new drug that could be taken any 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
time by men, and would give them arousal and erection. I almost wentoff the road into a tree when I had this mental image of all those menleaving work at 5 o’clock, taking their pill, and having an erection on theway home, timing it to be most effective. Just thinking of all those carswith men and their penises pointing north even now gives me a chuckle.
(Doris, 86) By mixing advertising and television images with humor and stereo- types, Pauline and Doris, sexually active seniors, associate Viagra with aparticular performance of sexualized masculinity that paints a picture ofmasses of men led by their erect penises. Such associations fit nicely withcommon, yet potentially damaging cultural expectations about sexuallyunrestrained men.
At times during our conversations, Viagra humor turned serious when senior women discuss their male peers empathetically as vulnerable victimswho need Viagra, or mockingly as desperate, ego-driven individuals whothink they need Viagra. In the following, Agnus, Pauline, and Bette try toimagine what it feels like for a man to suffer from impotence. Agnus saysher friend uses Viagra to feel ‘complete’ again: He told me, ‘You can’t understand how it makes a man feel’. When he can’tperform he said it makes him feel like not a whole man. Once he started usingthe Viagra . . . he feels like a whole man again. (Agnus, 67) Pauline compares the loss of penile functioning for men to loss of a breastfor women, a comparison that several of my male interview subjects madeas well.
I had a breast lump when I was 55 years of age. And I was hysterical because Ididn’t know what that lump was and I said if I get my breast removed, youwon’t love me anymore. I think that women have a very keen sense of breastimportance to their bodies. And I think that the breast is very importantemotionally to a woman . . . The same thing is true when a man has prostatesurgery and so frequently men become impotent . . . I think that the male feelsthat that organ’s function is very important to his machoism, or whatever youwant to call it. That is why Viagra has become so important to the male mental-ity. (Pauline, 81) And Bette sees manhood as continually tested by history, with impotenceas yet another test of male success.
When you think and read about US history – what these men have gonethrough. Korean War, Vietnam, or WWII, they have had these experiences andhave sustained injuries too. I guess when they are at the height of passion theydon’t want to worry about failing . . . And what do they call that where theycan’t control their bladder? It really is sad – so few men around and the oneswho are around, they may have these problems. So what do you do? (Bette, 69) 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
While some women empathize with men and their need for Viagra, other women construct male Viagra consumers as ego-driven, desperate,and penis-centered. In this way, Doris and Nora use Viagra as an oppor-tunity to mock masculinity.
Among the older population, impotency is very real, and since men judge theirsuccess in life to the activity of their penises, you can see how they would drinkhemlock if it gave them an orgasm. (Doris, 86) Men feel so much of their manhood is involved in sex. And if they can’t performthey just are devastated. They can’t hide it like a woman can fake an orgasm. Sothat’s my thinking. . . . [But] some of the lengths that a man would go tomaintain an erection is amazing. Like that pump thing. I don’t know howanyone could have a pleasurable encounter by pumping it up. For me that wouldbe a terrible turn-off. But it is very important for a man. (Nora, 74) Together, these senior women explain Viagra’s popularity among men by focusing on the importance of masculinity. For Nora and Doris, Viagraexposes men as needing to be ‘macho’, wanting to ‘show off’, and goingto ‘great lengths’ to produce and maintain erections. While each womanprojects different motives for men using Viagra, most agree that Viagra’ssuccess is due to male vulnerability and insecurity, and the perceived roleof sexuality in proving one’s masculinity. This characterization certainlymatches up with the earlier comments made by the male users of Viagra.
In this sense, one can certainly see why Pfizer would repeatedly choose tosponsor male sporting events like car racing or baseball.
While most seem to agree that Viagra produces and reinforces sexualizedmasculinities, some of the women I spoke with located Viagra and sexu-alized men under a larger umbrella representing potentially dangerous,large-scale cultural changes that affect everyone. In the followingquotations senior women conflate this quick-fix pill culture with height-ened emphasis on sexuality and the sexual fix. In this way, they associatethe increasingly sexualized culture they live in with an over-emphasis onmasculine ideals. As a result, sex is used to demonstrate physicality andefficiency, rather than romance and feelings.
Let me tell you my objection to Viagra. Number one, the whole sex act hasbecome more physical than emotional. All of that preparation an hour inadvance, it makes sex not grow out of a loving feeling. It becomes planned andpurely physical. And I just don’t like that. The whole idea of sex has become sophysical. Such gymnastics involved! And while I’m not opposed to experimen-tation and variety – not at all – it’s become only that. The love is missing. Theaffection! (Annette, 81) 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
When I was growing up, sex wasn’t something you admitted you enjoyed.
There’s a lot of change in the generations. As to what was talked about, known.
Today it is almost too open. Today they don’t leave anything to the imagin-ation. Some of it is charming when it isn’t all revealed. (Nora, 74) Annette and Nora both construct stories about how American cultural norms and sex roles are changing in dangerous ways in the Viagra era. Forthem, Viagra is the instigator of, or the scapegoat for, changing sexualnorms. Nora links this cultural change to a generational shift in sexualdiscourse, which is ‘too open’ today, leaving no sexual mystique. Concur-rently, Viagra is to blame for an increasingly sexualized culture thatpromotes promiscuity: The culture is teaching younger women that a violent physical sex act is part ofthem. And if they feel that is what they want, they will look to the pill to giveit to them. And maybe it will, I don’t know. But for older people, if they don’thave a loving relationship, of which sex is an outgrowth, I don’t think they areinterested in the pill . . . It satisfies a man to have an erection and perform. Itdoesn’t satisfy a woman because all of that other stuff – the loving stuff – ismissing. (Annette, 81) Viagra itself is not the only factor to blame in a culture dangerously focused on the sexual fix. In the next extract, Nora mentions women’smovements as central in the increasing masculinization of sexuality insociety, leading women to act too much like men and ignore romance,intimacy, and emotions: Today a lot of the romance and closeness has been eliminated from our culturebecause of women’s liberation. Not that women shouldn’t be entitled to enjoysex as a man, but its different. There is too much promiscuousness. I don’t thinkyou have to sleep with somebody every time you go out on a date. I think we’velost some respect for the sanctity. I don’t say people shouldn’t live together, I’mnot a prude, but I just think that sleeping around has become sort of common-place. It is bad emotionally for women, especially. It has changed men’s view ofwomen. And I also think it’s a danger as far as pregnancy and contractingsexually transmitted diseases. There it is in a nutshell. (Nora, 74) A move towards masculine sexual ideals is also implied by Agnus: What is important to me is being in love. I wouldn’t be with someone just forthe sex. This is a woman’s point of view. That love and affection are moreimportant than sex. A man would say the opposite. That sex is most important.
(Agnus, 67) Together, Agnus, Annette, and Nora blame Viagra for promoting new problematic cultural expectations and pressures related to sexuality. Theyconstruct women’s sexuality as emotional, mysterious, and romantic, asopposed to male sexuality which is non-emotional and physical. WithViagra, and larger social forces such as women’s liberation, these senior 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
women claim that masculine sexuality has set new and dangerous standardsfor women and society.
Despite the cultural shift towards masculine ideals and sexual pressures, Sally, Annette, Doris, and Hilda suggest that Viagra is representative of aproblematic quick-fix, ‘pill culture’, where a drug exists as a solution toevery problem or as an enhancement to every lifestyle. What these womencontribute to the conversation is a sense of being ‘caught’ in a pill culturethat both promotes and benefits from people’s limited tolerance forpersonal discomfort, as well as a culture that excludes people who cannotafford these solutions.
My feeling is that if Robert Redford wants to come get me, and needs Viagra(what an evil thought) I would get some for him. But on a serious note, no, Ido not believe in the pill being the answer to sexual problems. Today we havepills for everything . . . it seems to be a cultural thing now. (Doris, 86) The only thing that bothers me about this when I hear about all of thesewonderful opportunities is the price. I think the price is going to leave even themiddle classes behind. The insurance companies may not want to pay for someof these high-priced wonders. But I do think that the rich will have a greateradvantage in all of these things. (Sally, 75) People’s tolerance levels are really low. If it hurts, go get a pill. I’m not like that.
I figure you should fight it. Like here at the pool, I tell people with arthritis togo in the pool, because water is good for it. But they’d rather take a pill. Iwouldn’t. It’s too easy to take a pill. Even a diet pill. They’d rather take a dietpill than go to a gym. (Hilda, 80) In general, Doris, Sally, Hilda, and others are using Viagra to construct and critique changing cultural norms and values. Problems associated withthe Viagra era include harmful sexual norms and expectations, prohibi-tively expensive prescriptions, a quick-fix ethic, and an under-emphasis onromance and emotions. In this way, senior women storytellers suggest thatViagra offers more harm than good for women, sexuality, and relation-ships, butting up against medical and mass media constructions of Viagraas a solution to social and medical problems.
In the rush to praise and hype Viagra, most of us tend to forget about, orsimplify the ‘other side’ of the Viagra story. But women have much to sayabout Viagra, and their voices are worth listening to. Women in this articlereveal complex sexual identities, desires, and fears. This ‘messy’ side of sexand sexuality, for both men and women, is repeatedly obscured, simpli-fied, or ignored by scientists, journalists, and marketers. The women inthis article want us to question such cultural expectations, and to question 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
a cultural phenomenon that ends up reinforcing ideas about sexualityconflated with manhood and male desires. At the same time, they remindus that everyone is a product of their culture, and all of us have complexand conflicting ideas and feelings about sexuality in the Viagra era. Womenare caught up in the social realities of our time including medicalization,gender and sexual oppression, and increased commercialization, perhapseven to a larger degree than men. In addition, whether taking a pill ortalking about our desires, all of us are sexual agents, actively defining sexu-ality in our own lives.
In this article, senior women struggle to make sense of gender, sexu- ality, and health in their daily lives, a process that remains private and unex-plored in public discourse. They locate their own sexual lives, dreams, andconcerns in relation to the Viagra phenomenon, within a continuum ofpleasure and danger. And their stories reflect and reinforce changingperceptions about gender roles, marriage, sexual obligation, and health inthe Viagra era. Along with senior women writing into advice columnsnationwide, these women use Viagra to bulwark and butt up against socialinstitutions such as marriage, medicine, culture, and gender roles.
As we have seen, ideological remnants from past women’s sexual revolutions live on in these senior women’s critiques of obligatory ‘mascu-line sex’ and their calls for women’s sexual pleasures, permissions, and ‘sexon their own terms’. But their perspectives are more complicated thansexual liberation messages. Some emphasize social and personal danger intheir critiques of Viagra-related cultural norms and trends, includinggender and sexual oppression, as well as the commercialization, masculin-ization, and medicalization of sex. On the other hand, some see Viagra asan opportunity to empathize with men, tell stories about medical progress,and embrace the potential for medically-enhanced female pleasure anddesire. All in all senior women may use Viagra differently from theirrelatively silent male counterparts21 to construct dialogue, community,and even social action. As this article reveals, senior women use Viagrastories infused with pleasure and danger rhetoric to build solidarity amongwomen and/or to point to a need for social change.
1. An expanded version of this article can be found in my forthcoming book, The Rise of Viagra: How The Little Blue Pill Changed Sex in America, to bepublished by New York University Press in Fall, 2004. In this book, I arguethat the debut of Viagra in 1998, a ‘blockbuster’ erection drug produced byPfizer Pharmaceuticals, that works through increased blood circulation,made visible and contributed to shifting perceptions of ‘normal’ sex, gender,aging, and medicine. Thus, the Viagra era marks not only the availability of adrug, but more importantly, a marked expansion in discourse in the USabout for-profit medicine, the construction of masculinity, sexual standards, 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
and the medicalization of everyday life. It is in this context, against thebackdrop of the Viagra phenomenon, that senior women discuss and revealtheir own changing perceptions about social life and social institutions in theUnited States at the turn of the century.
2. See John Leland ‘A Pill for Impotence?’ Newsweek, 17 November 1997: 3. ‘Letters to the Editor’ Newsweek, 8 December 1997: 22.
4. The most common exception to this rule is when a wife speaks publicly about how Viagra has helped her husband (see 2001 Pfizer print andtelevision ads and promotional materials). Despite this, there is no doubtthat the phenomenon has touched women’s lives in numerous ways, as wecan see by the voices highlighted in this article.
5. The ‘sexual stories’ I collected through advice columns and interviews are personal experience narratives around Viagra use, which may or may notelicit stories about intimacy (Plummer, 1995: 7). For example, Viagranarratives reveal just as much about aging, science and technology, healthand medicine, and gender, as they reveal about sex. As sexual stories, they‘flow from the culture and back into it;’ thus they are major resources forcomprehending a culture and its dynamics, values and changes (Plummer,1995: 176). Additionally, these stories take the form of ‘claims-making’ inthe sense that these women are making claims, constructing grievances, andlocating sexuality within a matrix of social problems they take issue with.
For more on claims-making, see, for example, Spector and Kitsuse (1977).
6. I had taught at the senior summer school for a summer. I described my project to the directors of three organizations in the Southern Californiaarea, the senior summer school in which I was employed, a senior singlesclub, and a retirement home in the Southern California area, explaining thatI was a doctoral student interested in seniors’ reactions to the Viagraphenomenon. Two of the organizations allowed me to distribute a one-pagesurvey to their members, while the latter, the retirement home, was notcomfortable with the subject matter of my research, explaining that it was a‘privacy issue’ for their boarders.
7. All names were changed to protect my informants. All interviews took place over the telephone in October and November, 2000. All were conducted bythe author and tape recorded.
8. If I had asked senior women to talk with me about their sexual lives, many might have been shy or intimidated, and it may have been even harder tofind interview subjects.
9. Of the four groups of claims-makers I have interviewed, I have argued that each group uses specific public sites to engage in Viagra-related dialogue. Inthis article, I argue that senior women use women-friendly sites such assyndicated advice columns, for public claims-making. In contrast, formedical experts, Viagra discourse thrives in spaces inviting medical dialogue– the pages of medical newsletters and journals, and conference roomsacross the country hosting medical conferences dedicated to sexualdysfunction. Male consumers use the doctor’s office as their primary site fordialogue about sexuality, gender roles, aging, and Viagra, many times 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
choosing to confide in the doctor over and above friends and loved ones.
(They also use collective spaces such as web chatrooms and support groupsfor support.) And marketers use mass media sites in the form of print, radio,and television advertisement space, as well as promotional materials, pressreleases, and physical displays to communicate about Viagra.
10. While these women rarely invoked the past in these interviews, it is worth pointing out that for all of us, memory construction is closely tied toidentity construction, and complex psychological and social processes andcontexts can affect construction processes. In this project, I am much moreinterested in these constructions of subjectivity and ‘truth’ than impossibleto find ‘objective’ truths. For more on the elderly and memory construc-tion, see Barbara Myerhoff et al.’s Remembered Lives (1992) and Kenyonand Randall’s Restorying our Lives (1997).
11. For more on the complex debates surrounding the 1982 Barnard College conference called, ‘Towards a Politics of Sexuality and ongoing historicaldiscussions about sexuality and feminism, see volumes edited by Ann Snitowet al. (1983) and Carole Vance (1984) as well as historical accounts byscholars such as Duggan and Hunter (1995).
12. The expectation that seniors were asexual emerged in many of my interviews with various Viagra claims-makers, including marketers, practitioners, andconsumers. For example, doctors would tell me that they were ‘surprised’,‘uncomfortable’, or even ‘queasy’ to see male patients in their 70s and 80sask for Viagra. Baby boomers commented to me with unease that theirparents were using Viagra. And even my colleagues reading drafts of thisarticle commented that the subject matter shocked them.
13. According to Levy, the Kinsey analysis published in the 1950s contained only 126 men and 56 women over 60 years old, out of a total sample of18,000 adults, and Masters and Johnson’s studies published in the 1970sincluded only 31 subjects over 60 years of age (Levy, 1994: 288).
14. Former US Senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole was an early promoter of Viagra, paid by Pfizer to do television spots discussing hisexperience with prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction.
15. The survey was completed by 788 women, and 596 men. It is important to point out that there are problems with this survey, e.g. limited reporting,small sample size, and simplistic quantitative findings.
16. According to the report’s authors, for men, ‘better health’ heads the list of priorities for improving seniors’ sex lives. Researchers found that a ‘generationgap in sexual attitudes’ between baby boomers and their parents, especiallyamong women, is especially apparent. In relation to the Viagra phenomenon,the report suggests, ‘If women had enjoyed sex in the past, they would enjoyit with a partner taking Viagra’. In terms of women’s pleasure, ModernMaturity reported that ‘More than half of women whose partners use Viagra(only 5% of the pool) say that Viagra increased their own pleasure’. Finally,authors of the Modern Maturity report suggest that for women 60 and over,‘better health for a partner’ and ‘finding a partner’ are top priorities.
17. Hilda and Pauline’s sexual health concerns are not unfounded. A minority of health-centered publications have addressed the risk that Viagra may pose to 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
women’s physical health. For example, The New England Journal ofMedicine, reported six months after Viagra’s debut that Viagra may not onlybe associated with health risks for men (heart attacks), but also for women(acute cystitis). According to a letter sent by three doctors in September1998, to the New England Journal of Medicine, ‘More and more olderwomen are suffering from frequent, urgent, burning urination – usuallyfound among women half their age, usually after prolonged sexual activity.’One of the doctors explained the growing prevalence of acute cystitis amongwomen to the New York Times, stating ‘Every one of their husbands hadbeen treated with Viagra.’ In 1999, health newsletters such as Johns HopkinsHealth Insider, strongly urged women with partners on Viagra to use alubricant, reminding readers ‘your bodies are not as pliable as they oncewere’. Linda Villarosa (1998) ‘Vital Signs: Update; Viagra and the OlderWoman’, New York Times, October 13: F11, and Julia G. Strand (1999)‘Viagra Wives’, The Johns Hopkins Health Insider, May.
18. Viagra is unsafe for men with heart conditions and those taking particular medications, but not a health risk for most men.
19. For examples of news reports on seniors and Viagra in relation to dating and divorce, and which mention HIV, see Lara (2002) ‘Sex, Lies, and Viagra’,and Koehn (2003) ‘The Late Divide’.
20. Permission to reprint this letter was granted by the Esther P. Lederer Trust 21. See my article in Sexuality and Culture (Loe, 2001) for more on male sexual ReferencesBrody, Jane (1998) ‘Facing Viagra’s Emotional Ripples’, New York Times, 26 Duggan, Lisa and Hunter, Nan D. (1995) Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture. New York: Routledge.
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Villarosa, Linda (1998) ‘Vital Signs Update, Viagra and the Older Woman’, New Biographical NoteMeika Loe is currently Assistant Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies atColgate University in New York, where she teaches courses on social problems,gender, sexuality, and medicine. Her new book, The Rise of Viagra: How the TheLittle Blue Pill Changed Sex in America will be published by New YorkUniversity Press in August 2004. Address: Department of Sociology andAnthropology, Colgate University, 13 Oak Drive, Hamilton, NY 13346. [email:[email protected]] 2004 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
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