The Zeitgeist of Love and Lust

The Zeitgeist of Love and Lust

How Viagra has affected our culture of relationships

By John Taylor 

Above photo by Ellie Pritts


It’s another bone-chilling wintry Monday night in Chicago’s infamous Viagra Triangle district, but record-breaking temperatures have done little to sway the faithful from their favorite watering holes on Rush Street. This nightlife hotspot, notorious for its glitzy cocktail bars, affluent, older bachelors and hustling, often-younger bachelorettes, draws a crowd that is nothing if not dedicated.

Just ask Chicago resident Lane Belson. When Belson first moved here in 1988, the area was simply known as Rush Street, and sildenafil citrate—sold over the counter as Viagra—was a decade away from hitting the market. Over drinks at Luxbar on State Street, Belson, 63, explains that while Viagra may have changed the rules of the game, it has done little in terms of reshaping his neighborhood’s swinging, fast-paced culture.

“It’s a scene,” says Belson, in between sips of freshly prepared Irish coffee. “There [are] nickel-and-dime hustlers, and there [are] professionals.”

Belson recalls one lady in particular, a Luxbar frequenter exceptionally gifted at squeezing every penny out of her admirers’ wallets. He points toward the highest visible shelf behind the bar. “You see that bottle back there?” Belson asks. “Sixty-five dollars a shot.” It was this same bottle, he says, that the bachelorette requested when two businessmen from Cincinnati were footing the bill.

New visitors continue to rotate in through Luxbar’s revolving doors: an older gentleman—salt-and-pepper hair—sits down at a table nearby. He’s wearing a crisp, tailored suit. Wrapped around his left arm, a lady in a fitted crimson dress. She’s at least 20 years his junior.

It’s hardly a surprising sight, given the Triangle’s reputation, but just how common is this scene inViagra country? I ask Belson to scan the room. By his estimates, how many men present have a Viagra prescription? He swivels his stool and without hesitation, says, “50 percent.”

Viagra has been a touchstone of popular culture since it was first introduced to pharmacies in 1998, but who are the faces behind the world’s most famous little blue pill? Urologist, reconstructive surgeon and University of Chicago associate professor Gregory Bales, MD, who prescribes the drug to patients in need, says that while the median age of his clientele is 55, there are exceptions.

Wait, young people using Viagra?

“There are some young people who really do need it,” Bales explains, “And then, there are the twenty-somethings who just want a boost.” Bales avoids prescribing to the latter crowd, as they’re known to mix the drug at parties with ecstasy and cocaine—or at the very least, use it as an upper at the gym. (To date, Viagra has not been proven to increase one’s ability to bench press.)

Shortly after leaving the Triangle, I reach out to friends, coworkers and people waiting in line at Starbucks in hopes of finding younger users of the drug willing to volunteer their stories. The question: How does Viagra impact their personal lives?

“The relationship ended partly because I was dissatisfied with the sex,” says Jen Williamson*, 27. “There were a myriad of other reasons, like in every relationship, but the sex thing was a deal breaker for me.” Although not yet aware that Viagra had entered the bedroom, she had sensed something was awry—their sex life was not as active as she would have liked. “He would try [to] make up for it by spending quality time and doing things for me,” she says. While searching for a lighter, she stumbled upon her partner’s little blue secret. “I pulled the drawer out all the way,” she recalls. “I saw the prescription in there.”

Williamson made no mention of the discovery to her boyfriend. “I was willing to try [to] be patient, and work through it,” she says. After weeks of failed attempts to revive their sex life—“I started getting demanding about it, and I guess the expectations and disappointment stressed him out too much”—the relationship eventually unraveled; a decision made not by her but by the boyfriend.

I ask her for her personal take on the drug. “It’s not intimacy in a bottle,” she says. “The pill doesn’t solve the lack of sexuality. The pill doesn’t automatically create passion.”

Viagra’s chemical application—returning blood flow to the penis by way of inhibiting the enzyme phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5)—has been well documented, but its impact on relationships remained a stone largely unturned; that is, until the publication of a breakthrough study published last November in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. The study, “Contemporary Treatment of Sexual Dysfunction: Reexamining the Biopsychosocial Model,” argued that usage of Viagra alone is not enough to relight sparks in the bedroom.

One of the researchers, Michael Berry, PhD candidate at University College London, writes by email, “When patients have unrealistic expectations about treatment, or when they do not attend to the relationship aspects of their sexual life, [erectile dysfunction (ED)] medication can have a negative effect on users’ satisfaction and/or relational happiness.”

The solution to successful ED treatment, Berry says, is a shift in perspective: “Many sex therapists who work with couples hold the perspective that the sexual relationship is the real patient.”

Berry’s words ring true for Adam Flynn*, 29. Thrilled to use what some call the wonder drug, Flynn had obtained a generic version of Viagra through a friend and was looking to test drive it with a girl he had recently met.

“I was watching the game when I got a text,” he recalls, “[She] wanted me to go over and smash [slang for having sex]. So I took two pills, and from what I remember, the results were horrible. I didn’t get the reaction I thought I would. I got extremely hot, sweaty and [had] a big headache. I never did end up at her place.”

Back at Luxbar, Belson has been recounting similar stories for nearly an hour. But it’s getting late, and he’s promised his wife his chicken-fried steak leftovers. Time to ask for the check.

Sitting with Belson, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the elephant in the room. He knows plenty about the Triangle, but I can’t help asking him whether he uses Viagra himself.

“[If people] who read your [story ask] me [that], I’ll deny it,” Belson says with a smile, reading over the bill. He pauses. “Used it once,” he says, looking away to a nearby television. The game is on. Bulls against Knicks. Third quarter. He speaks again as though he were whispering to himself. “Didn’t do a whole lot for me.”

Belson exhales, taking one last sip of foamy Irish coffee before putting his coat on. I ask why he stopped taking Viagra. He looks at me with a curved lip and a little bit of light in his eyes. It’s the most genuine glance I’ve seen from him all evening.

“I’ve been happily married for 30 years.”

Originally published in the Summer/Fall 2014 print edition.