The Insane Side Effects Men Will Endure Just to Keep Taking Viagra

There have been studies linking Viagra use to skin cancer, but men still use the medication. We asked a masculinities scholar why.

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Apr 8 2016, 7:35pm

Photo via Stocksy by Andrey Pavlov

In 1998, Viagra became the first oral treatment approved by the FDA to treat erectile dysfunction in the United States, but now there's mounting evidence that the most famous name in male performance enhancement might have serious, life-altering side effects.

Viagra has a typical list of potential side effects, including headache, nausea, indigestion, muscle pain, nasal congestion, and abnormal vision. But a 2014 study also found that men who used the erection-enhancing drug were 84 percent more likely to develop melanoma over a period of ten years. According to former executive editor of Harvard Men's Health Watch, that data showed a connection between Viagra use and diagnosis of skin cancer, not a direct causal relationship, but another recently published study is linking Viagra to cancer yet again, and this new research might explain the 31 federal cases currently filed against Viagra's maker, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, 11 of which made the claim this week that Pfizer failed to warn about Viagra's potential to increase risk for skin cancer.

In an effort to understand why some men would continue taking a potentially dangerous drug, we reached out to Michael Kehler, a masculinities scholar and a professor at the University of Western Ontario. In an interview with Broadly, Kehler indicated the immense pressure that men are under to perform "heternormative masculinity" in North American culture as a potential reason for Viagra. "Men regularly practice, perform, enact routinized ways of being men," Kehler said, adding that men learn to be men and prove to themselves and others that they are men publicly by enacting "outward expressions of masculinity" that include everything from the way a guy walks to how he speaks.

Read More: What It Feels Like to Take the Newly Approved 'Female Viagra'

It's self-regulating, Kehler noted. Men are "bound" and "confined" by "rules of engagement" that are produced and maintained by men and boys collectively. There are negative consequences for those who don't conform to gender norms, norms that also govern one's sex life. Ultimately, a man's dick is part of the way that he is personified as a man, Kehler says. "The phallus, the erect penis, and the ability to 'perform' connects to being virile," he explained. So "being virile" is an aspect of the heteronormative masculine ideal, and failing to meet that ideal reaps negative results, socially, for men.

Kehler says that the societal expectation for men to be sexual beasts "relies on our understandings of hypersexualised masculinity," which basically whittles away at the margins of manhood until the "ideal man" is so narrowly defined that few can meet its demands.

According to Kehler, men's use of masculinity-enhancing methods, such as steroids or erectile dysfunction medication, is related to the oppressive ideas that dictate what constiutes normal and ideal manhood. "Whether in the locker room, the gym, or on the streets, there is a hyper-visibilized and increased surveillance of men's bodies as projects of masculinity," Kehler said, adding that "many men work at maintaining and actively projecting a normative masculinity that confirms they are real men."

On why men would pursue potentially harmful methods in order to reach hyper-masculinization, Kehler said: "The intersection of health and masculinities is not new. Risky behavior to 'prove' masculinity is often connected to the need to convince others of sexual prowess, of toughness, of virility, and, moreover, it is done to gain respect, to maintain or assert oneself among boys and men as 'real men.'" He says there is an endless push to be stronger, more sexually active, and more masculine than one's peers, which is relative to the insidious messages distributed by the media about what makes a man a man. So, a man might take Viagra, possible side effects and all, because he believes the risk outweighs his perceived social gains.

"Boys and men need to be supported to question—to interrogate—what it means to be a man," Kehler said. "Men and boys are willing to take risks, to prove they are men, because they understand that to do otherwise, to do less than that, leaves them open to surveillance, to being questioned, and the threatening homophobic attacks of others who seek to maintain dominance, control and heteronormative views of masculinity."