Little Blue Pills: Viagra Use And Gay Men

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Survey Says: It Depends Who You Ask
Measuring the actual extent of recreational Viagra use among gay men is difficult, though not for lack of trying. Many surveys have been conducted, especially in big cities, but few are scientific because they were designed by researchers with a Viagra-as-villain bias. The most notorious example is a 2004 survey trumpeting that one in six gay men uses Viagra, although the fact that the questions were asked at a sex resort went unmentioned in the many news reports. "It's like going to a Broadway show and concluding that one in six gay men like musical theater," said Gay Men's Health Crisis' Noel Alicea.

More counting has been done in San Francisco's gay community than anywhere else in America, not least because of Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, who has a mission to end Viagra's use as a lifestyle drug. Before his endorsement last week of AFH's lawsuit against Pfizer, Klausner's boldest move had been petitioning the FDA to list the ED drugs as controlled substances, making them easier to track and harder to prescribe. In response, AIDS advocate Jeff Sheehy opined that the STD maven was angling to keep "the dicks of people with HIV in his back pocket—and he wants us to ask him permission to use it." To dramatize what he sees as a conspiracy of commercial, sexual, and moral irresponsibility implicating Pfizer and the city's gay doctors, gay sex establishments, and gay Viagra users, Klausner often recalls how shocked he was on the day in 2002 when he discovered empty sample packages of Viagra on the floors of a local sex club.

A San Francisco study of gay men "in bars and on street corners" in 2001 found that 10 percent had used Viagra—among poz guys, more than 40 percent. By 2005, a phone survey had found that one third of all Frisco homos had recently used Viagra—and that men who had HIV, men who had more sex partners, men who had more unprotected anal sex, and men who took more party drugs (or some or all of the above) were more likely to pop Vitamin V. The largest national study confirmed these general trends. Of some 1,200 gay men interviewed at bars and nightclubs in 10 states in 2005, 11 percent reported recent Viagra use. More than half had used it while on a second party drug. Twice as many had had unprotected anal sex while on Viagra, and rates of HIV infection were significantly higher.

Vroom Vroom: Straight Guys Like It Too
Of course, gay men are by no means the only men playing with Viagra. Straight men in their twenties, thirties, and forties were quick to deploy the drug to deal, as the media put it, with the anxieties of dating a postfeminist wave of demanding women—dubbed the "Samantha complex" in reference to Sex and the City. TV ads began reflecting this new younger face of the exploding Viagra market, abandoning tasteful white-haired couples with slogans like "Let the Dance Begin" for NASCAR drivers declaring, "Gentlemen, start your engines!" and thirtysomething dudes with the brand logo's blue V behind their heads like a pair of devil horns—and the slogan "Get back to mischief!"

When Levitra, made by Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline, hit the market in 2003, it seized on sports metaphor for the hard sell, purchasing the most expensive ad time in TV and proceeding to run, during National Football League games, including the Super Bowl, images of a man trying to toss a pigskin through a tire. "When you're in the zone, it's all good," quipped the hip voiceover. (ED ads have since been banned from prime time.) Hot on the heels of Levitra came Cialis, Eli Lilly's extended-version of sildenafil that lasts for up to 36 hours and seemed made to order for sexual bingeing. The pill's street name was The Weekender.

And the street was where more and more PDE5-inhibitors were passing hands, from online pharmacies and local dealers listing in web site classifieds to nightclubs, sex clubs, and college frats. Ravers and circuit queens began supplementing the Ecstasy and Special K—which juiced their all-night dancing but left their penises limp—with Viagra for a reliable morning-after stiffy. "Those of us really close to the street see what's going on," Alan Brown, who runs the Electric Dreams Foundation, a national group that promotes health and safety in gay nightlife, observed in 2001. Viagra, he explained, is a "prolonger," considered a natural companion to the "disinhibitors." These disinhibitor/prolonger combos were packaged and sold under names like Sextasy, Rockin' and Rollin', and Trail Mix.

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