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Interview: Sexy Oldies in a Viagra Age

 

Dr. Tiina Vares

Dr. Tiina Vares

Over a decade ago, Viagra made its debut as a hugely profitable solution to erectile changes affecting older men. The arrival of Viagra and similar drugs signaled a change in the media’s depiction of older people in advertising, television and film, sparking images of sexy oldies.

According to a study by academics from New Zealand, this change was not limited to media portrayals. Sexuopharmaceuticals such as Viagra have changed our notions of aging and our understanding of male and female sexuality.

“The implications for seniors of these changes have not yet been adequately researched,” says Dr. Tiina Vares of the University of Canterbury (Christchurch) and co-investigator on the project (with Annie Potts, Nicola Gavey and Victoria Grace). The three-year study, titled The Social Impact of Viagra was funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

The findings were reported in a number of journals including Journal of Aging Studies (Vol. 21, No. 2, 2007) and Sociology of Health and Illness (Vol. 28, No. 3, 2006).

To learn more, AHB caught up with Dr. Vares in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Ruth Dempsey: So a study on the social impact of the “magic blue pill.” Why?

Tiina Vares: When we began the study in 2001, there were numerous studies indicating the benefits and risks of medical approaches to Erectile Dysfunction. However, there was a dearth of information targeting the impacts of prosexual pharmacological treatments that were not related to biological outcomes. Indeed, we found there were few studies that focused on the social and cultural implications of medical approaches to male and female sexual difficulties. Our study was designed to fill this gap.

RD: The research examined Viagra use through different lenses. Looking at men’s experience. What did you learn?

TV: We found a diversity of responses and experiences.

Many men viewed Viagra positively and even as life-saving. It enabled them to resume sexual relations with their partners and regain their self-esteem.

However, some men found that Viagra didn’t work and it had adverse side effects. It was not a “quick fix” for relationship problems. Some discovered it was psychologically addictive and stopped using it. In fact, for some of these men there were positive aspects to dealing with on-going erectile difficulties. One participant, for example, was exploring different aspects of his sexuality (not focused on penetrative sex) and chose not to continue using Viagra.

Others also spoke of changes in their sexual relationships with erectile difficulties and how they enjoyed exploring these changes. For these men erectile difficulties did not necessarily signal the end of sexual relations and experiencing sexual pleasure.

RD: Looking at the studies of women whose partners used Viagra, some women described their sex life as “getting better all the time.”

TV: Approximately half of the women who participated in the study described their sex lives as “improving with age.” This clearly challenges the “declines with age” narrative of later-life sexuality.

In fact, many participants were keen to challenge this idea by talking about their enjoyment of sex. Yet, many of these women had not enjoyed sex as younger women. They spoke of never having orgasms, not knowing about masturbation and male partners being selfish.

As they aged, women were able to challenge sexual practices of male partners because they felt more confident and had gained more knowledge about their bodies and the ability to get pleasure from it (both alone and partnered).

For some women, “improvements” in sexuality included a greater variety of non-coital sexual activities. For others, coital sex was presented as a desired and pleasurable activity.

RD: And women identified problems with Viagra . . .

TV: That’s right. Not all women automatically benefit from their male partner’s use of Viagra.

Participants spoke about the following downsides:

Many female participants were not involved in medical consultations and some had not been included in decisions to start using Viagra.
When they were included in the medical consultation, some felt there was a “quick fix” approach that failed to consider the context of the relationship (i.e. the focus was on “fixing” the penis where there were relationship difficulties that needed attention).
Some women talked about unwelcome changes in their sexual practices as a result of Viagra. For example, the ability of a male partner to have multiple erections over 12-24 hours was not appreciated by some women who welcomed a closer relationship but did not want an increase in the frequency of coital sex.
Participants felt pressure to have sex (i.e. not to “waste” a tablet).
Some women experienced pain and discomfort with prolonged or repeated intercourse.
Participants talked about less time spent on other pleasurable sexual activities.

RD: Was there a recurring theme in the research?

TV: In our view, the accounts of our participants show that Viagra doesn’t produce a singular effect or response – rather it produces different effects and experiences (bodily, emotional and relational) for different individuals. In other words, Viagra impacts on relationships in a variety of ways. This calls into question the idea that failure to achieve an erection constitutes a “dysfunction,” which needs to be “fixed” so that both man and penis are again “functional” or “normal”.

RD: An active sex life is widely touted today as a metaphor for successful aging. Do you see a downside?

TV: Yes. The imperative to remain sexually (or more specifically – coitally) active in order to be seen as “normal” or “sexually healthy” marginalizes the experiences of many older people. It emphasizes youthful sex and discounts the positive changes associated with slowing down and exploring a variety of sexual practices or even abstaining according to one’s inclination.