Does anyone remember life before Viagra? In 1997, no one had heard of or used the term erectile dysfunction or ED--nor would most men have admitted to having the condition. Before the sanitized term debuted, ED was known by doctors as "impotence" and by the rest of us as "not getting it up." It was usually blamed on circumstances like too much to drink and men and their partners rarely talked about it.
In fact, erection-challenged sex lives were a lot like what Betty Friedan called "the problem that has no name" 30 years earlier, referring to women's malaise of unfulfillment: A problem millions had but no one talked about because they thought it was "just them."
Pfizer's Viagra, launched in 1998 just as direct-to-consumer drug advertising began, changed all that. Just as valuable as giving an ED sufferer hope of a treatment, it brought ED out of the closet, shedding sunlight on the problem and removing the taboo. Suddenly, couples were able to talk about "it."
It did not hurt that former presidential candidate Sen. Bob Dole and soccer star Pele further destigmatized ED when they served as Viagra pitchmen.
Of course most people know the social and financial phenomenon ED drugs turned out to be. Thirty-five million men have used Viagra alone which still claims almost half the market, shared with Cialis, Levitra and other drugs. When news of an ED drug first hit the airwaves, Dr. Jed Kaminetsky, a New York University urologist, said he had to add weekend hours to accommodate all the men requesting prescriptions. In 2012, Viagra sales were still $2 billion a year.
ED drugs do not work for everyone and, of course, have side effects. But they have transformed the very way people think about their sex lives by establishing the right to a good sex life, even as people age.
"More than any pill ever to be dispensed, Viagra has played to the yearnings of American culture: eternal youth, sexual prowess, not to mention the longing for an easy fix," wrote the New York Times a few years ago.