The party’s in a semiconverted industrial loft in Dumbo, on the third floor of a former factory with scabbed plaster walls and thick pillars and huge windows admitting both the vaporous light of street lamps and the ambient, hungry-organism thrum of the nearby Manhattan Bridge. The gooseneck lamps clamped to the columns are covered with gel strips to moderate the incandescence. On the floor is a series of interlocking rubber mats of the type you’d associate with kiddie playgrounds. Atop those are futons and plastic sheeting and scattered rolls of Bounty towels bought in bargain eight-packs this afternoon at the Astor Place Kmart. Two linked Bose systems are pre-set to play four hours of ambient music, mostly trance and a kind of global dance mix in which vocals by Pygmies and Bulgarian choirs and anthemic white soul divas are digitally reengineered as aural fragments-chirps and melismas and guttural diaphragmatic moans-overlaid on an accelerated beat. The feeling is of being close to the pulse in a mechanical womb. “Mood music for the new millennium,” says the cheery host of tonight’s event, billed to a small group of people as an inclusive boy – girl – boy sex party themed around a blue pill shaped as a rounded diamond. The pill is Viagra. The party is named for one of its not-unpleasant side effects: The Blue Flash.
Not long from now the loft will be comfortably filled with bodies. The bodies will be joined in a number of predictable ways. There will be men with women and men with men and women with women and geometric extensions of these possibilities, etc. The couplings and triplings won’t have the hokey, throwback hieratics of some Kubrickian fantasia. The fucking will be straightforward and good. The women will all be lubricated. The men will all be ostentatiously erect. Given their ages—roughly 25 to 39—there’s no particular reason to imagine things otherwise. But the point—the point, at any rate, that lifts this party out of the image murk of swinger mythology, from Playboy Mansion to Plato’s Retreat and the Mine Shaft—is that everyone present will eventually get off.
“Sex follows culture,” explains the party’s host, Chip Baum (not his real name), an artist and sometime body worker. “This kind of thing has been predicted for a long, long time. Our culture isn’t satisfied anymore with the prospect of failure and delay. If you’re engineering genes, why not tinker with desire?”
Viagra was first pitched to the market as a palliative for impotence, that hoariest of male sexual stigmas, now recast and smartly medicalized as Erectile Dysfunction. What’s happening, says Baum, “is that people are starting to realize there’s a way to guarantee better sex when you want it. It’s not just about old Bob Dole’s limp dick.”
Emphatically it’s not. In the year and a half since Viagra was introduced to the public, U.S. doctors have written 14 million prescriptions for over 6 million men. Last week, Pfizer Inc., the drug’s maker, posted a phenomenal 36 percent increase in third-quarter operating income, up to $906 million on overall annual corporate sales of nearly $4 billion. But that, in all likelihood, is just the beginning. Despite Pfizer’s strenuous efforts to control both the image and use of the popular drug, Viagra is skidding off on a separate trajectory, carried along Internet vectors beyond the target niche of graying boomers and into places unintended by corporate planners, much less by the scientists who stumbled on the drug while trying to find a treatment for angina.
Viagra is now routinely being used, in other words, by private partyers posting at sites throughout the Web; by ravers as an additive to weekend drug cocktails (Ecstasy, GHB, Special K) that leave them euphoric but too stoned to function; by circuit queens as date insurance; by bodybuilders to counteract the testosterone-reducing effects of decadurabolin and other popular steroids; by porn actors once reliant on Caverject syringes or fluffers; by armies of male escorts; by scores of clubbers on the island of Ibiza who last summer staged a Viagra bacchanal as a world-famous DJ spun music for a crowd that once would have found itself too tired and stoned after a night of flailing to be grinding each other into the sand at daybreak. And it’s increasingly being used by women alerted to the fact that clitoral engorgement is one of Viagra’s delightful effects.
“Obviously we can’t track these kinds of usage,” says Pfizer spokesperson Mariann Caprino. “We’re a responsible developer and maker of medicines, advocating the appropriate use of our medicine for what is potentially a serious medical condition.” While it was once widely thought that impotence was psychological in origin, “we know now that the vast majority of cases can be linked to some organic cause.” It remains very important, adds Caprino, “to see a doctor in person. We don’t have a single ad out there that says, ‘Do it yourself.’ ”
Still, when the huge multinational pharmaceutical corporation introduced Viagra, in April 1998, it did so with an ad campaign that largely bypassed traditional medical media, marketing the impotence drug directly to consumers instead. The $185 million Pfizer allocated for Viagra ads targeted at the public represented a 27 percent increase over the company’s previous promotional budget. The ads urged the 30 million who suffer from some degree of erectile dysfunction in their lives (half of all men 40 to 70) to consult a physician and “Let the Dance Begin.” A great many obviously took the advice, although skipping the office visit and copping their Viagra the easy way, by clicking a mouse.
As even a cursory scan of the Internet shows, there are now thousands of cyber pharmacies dispensing Viagra. (One major search engine has links to 600 sites.) Potential consumers for Viagra are screened with a medical questionnaire, which is reviewed and, one assumes, almost invariably approved by an online physician; the pills are then prescribed in 50- or 100-milligram doses and delivered by overnight courier.
A potential problem with this system is cost, since a recent University of Pennsylvania study of 46 Internet sites selling Viagra online found fees as much as 10 percent higher than at pharmacies. The average fee for consulting an Internet physician is $70, roughly 16.7 percent higher than a typical doctor’s visit, the study found. Add the price of the drugs-$10 a pill, usually dispensed in lots of 30-and an $18 FedEx charge and, as FDA commissioner Jane Henney notes, consumers not only hazard paying more for medicines purchased online, but “bypass state and federal regulations,” thereby risking greater side effects and possibly missing diseases underlying a failure to achieve erection. “You often don’t know what’s in the drug you order, who made it, where it came from, where the online physician is, who is prescribing the drug, or even if he is a physician at all,” says Bernard Bloom, research professor at Penn’s department of medicine and lead author of the online pharmacy study.
To an enormous number of consumers this is valid but apparently irrelevant information. “Who needs Viagra?” asks Eric Thom, whose 18-month-old confimed.com and viagraguys. com are leading online suppliers of the drug. “No one needs it the way you need streptomycin. Medically, no one requires an erection. Do I have the kind of erection at 42, the same ability to go as long as I did at 17? Probably not.”
The ways consumers are now dosing may have less to do with being middle-aged than with being overworked, overstressed, overstimulated, less than fit, sometimes inebriated, occasionally stoned-in short, being average American males. In a sense, says Thom, Viagra is already “a lifestyle drug. It’s about staying 17 longer. People use it to counteract lack of sleep, stress, alcohol, legal or illegal substances that affect them becoming erect.” Even Pfizer’s literature has a tacit tendency to indict the masculine quotidian: When the organ in question stops producing its magical transformation, is the cause undiagnosed adult-onset diabetes or latent prostate cancer? Or is it that its owner is “working late at the office or spending hours in front of the TV as a way of avoiding sexual intimacy,” as one Pfizer fact sheet suggests? Either way, there’s an easy fix for that lazy broken-down penis: Take a blue pill and rub.
“I know a lot of guys 25 and under who are taking it now, for insurance, or if they’re going out to play,” says 29-year-old Jonah Falcon, a local actor and sometime escort renowned for a penis once likened to a loaf of Wonder Bread. “They’re also taking drugs to concentrate it in the system, stuff that makes the effects last a much longer time. I’ve used it myself, of course, but I should point out that it doesn’t just work on its own. The spirit has to be willing. It doesn’t work if you’re not turned on.”
In simplified form what sildenafil citrate, the active chemical in Viagra, does is set in play a series of chemical hydraulics. Released into the penis under stimulation, nitric oxide activates enzymes that relax the penis muscle and allow a sudden welcome inflow of blood. By inhibiting a second enzyme responsible for degrading the first-and for keeping men from walking around with inescapable hard-ons-Viagra produces a rush of local blood flow and the desired effect: an erection. Surprisingly, this biochemical response isn’t limited to men.
As Dr. Julia Heiman, psychologist and director of the University of Washington’s Reproductive and Sexual Medicine clinic, noted in an online interview last year, the physiology of the clitoris is similar to that of the smooth muscle inside the penis, so “it’s likely that the drug will have some effect in increasing blood flow to the area.” Female sexual response, adds Dr. Gregory Broderick, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Male Sexual Dysfunction, “is a lot more complex than clitoral engorgement. So I think the thing that all women should be asking themselves before they take the drug is just how important clitoral engorgement is to their own personal sexual response.”
For women at the Blue Flash party, the answer doesn’t pose much challenge. “When I heard about it,” says one partygoer, a 31-year-old painter?performance artist who asks to remain unidentified, “I was like, bring ‘er on! And it’s an interesting sensation, kind of rushy. Your clit feels really, not throbbing, but full. It’s even more sensitive than before. But I’m interested in the drug for another obvious reason, which is that I find it really nice, whether I’m playing in public or at home with a partner, that I don’t have to worry at all about the psychology of a man’s erection. If I’m in a mental slut space I think it’s kind of lovely to know I never have to turn into understanding mommy the moment his dick goes south.”
As Peter H., a bisexual bodybuilder attending Blue Flash, says, “I always took the view that, if you’re going to do drugs, there’s a right and a wrong way. There was a while when I was taking too much X and the quality was down. It was cut with acid or it had heroin in it or sinus pills, who knows? The cumulative effect was a bad high. You go out wanting to party and hook up and then you get too trashed. So many people are cocktailing now that you can just get where you forget to have sex. Finally I realized that I could do less of the so-called love drugs, just enough to be really mellow, and then take a Viagra and I’d be sure to end the night in a, like, really pleasing way.”
Framing Viagra’s future in terms that alternate therapy and recreation creates an artificial binary: After all, isn’t sex always one or the other, or both? To men who, for one reason or another, are unable to achieve an erection, Viagra appears to be a magic bullet, a wonder drug. For the rest of the population it’s become-to use a word Pfizer doesn’t like-an aphrodisiac. “I can easily see it becoming widely used,” says Johnny Dean, a 36-year-old Los Angeles escort whose Web site offers a Viagra link. “I use it. I try not to do it on an excessive basis, because I can see where psychologically it could become an issue. But, if I’m out dancing until 6 a.m. and I hook up with someone, I’m not going to wait until the point where the play starts to say, ‘Uh, this isn’t going to work.’ I can see where anyone planning a big night would take it along. For me, it’s like a switch. I’m there in 10 minutes. I don’t even need to be specifically stimulated. What man in the world doesn’t want that?”