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VIAGRA AND THE MYSTERY OF THE HONEST ERECTION

Question:  I was out with a group of work colleagues and the conversation eventually turned to sex.  One woman loudly announced that if “her man” was ever taking Viagra she would not stand for it (I don’t think the pun was intended).  She explained that in her mind an erection with Viagra is cheating, like he isn’t really into it or it isn’t real sex or something. Obviously I didn’t tell anyone that I’ve used it (along with trying Cialis), and I don’t tell my partner when I do.  This woman has me thinking that I may be a lying jerk.  If I need help sometimes should I be admitting that? Now I’m worried that if a partner ever found out they’d be pissed or it could get in the way of our relationship.

The ethical crux of your question is about disclosure.  Do you have a ethical responsibility to tell a partner if you are taking drugs prior to having sex with them?  It sounds like you’re being a bit swayed by your co-workers argument though, so I want to start with that, because I think it’s fundamentally flawed.

Who Needs an Erection?

She says that if her boyfriend “needs” Viagra to get an erection and have sex with her, he is cheating.  I put the word needs in quotes because I want to start there.  Who needs an erection?  Not in general but in this case, who needs that erection?  Because you can have sex without an erection. In fact there are way more sexual activities that don’t require an erection than sexual activities that do.  You don’t even need an erection for penile-vaginal intercourse.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with wanting an erection.  I’m not denying that the fun you can have with one isn’t super.  I’m all thumbs up about them.  But she’s calling him out without being honest about the fact that in this case it sounds like she needs the erection.

   Part of what I get from her is the idea that “real sex” requires an erection, and if a man doesn’t deliver that it’s his fault, he’s not a real man.  What she’s leaving out is that she is the one making the demands and definitions here.  I don’t mean to single her out, the contours of male sexuality are shaped by all encompassing social and cultural influences.  But it’s not nature, it’s not biology, and if you’re calling someone out on faking it you better be ready to explain what the “real” it is.

What’s an Honest Erection Look Like?

Which brings us to the question above. If using Viagra is cheating, then what is an honest eRection?

First a little relevant science.  Some treatments for erectile dysfunction work by producing an erection whether the person taking the drug is aroused or not.  Penile injections and the medication MUSE create an erection separate from how a man is feeling or what he is thinking. Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra don’t work that way.  Those drugs only work when there is also stimulation and some desire for sex.  If a man just takes Viagra and isn’t interested in having sex and doesn’t start engaging in stimulating sexual activity, then he likely won’t get an erection.

It sounds like your female co-worker thinks that Viagra provides some sort of automatic mechanical erection. It doesn’t.  So if the measure of an honest erection for her is that the person who has it is feeling turned on and wants to have sex, then it’s hard to see why we should distinguish an erection which was brought into being through desire and stimulation plus Viagra from an erection that materializes through desire and stimulation alone.

But science aside, I still think there are problems with her premise.  After all, an erection is just a physical response (and, I would point out, that as far as physical responses go, it’s one of the least dependable, most fickle, and difficult to control responses that penis owners have).

If she finds an erection that happens with the support of Viagra to be fake, how about an erection that her boyfriend gets because he’s thinking of someone else while having sex with her?  What about the erection that’s facilitated by a little marijuana which helps her partner relax enough to feel aroused?  For that matter, what about the one glass of wine that helps so many people tune into their bodies and desires and get down?  Are these erections “real”?  

Ultimately her theory about this is flawed because it’s based on the incorrect assumption that if a man is turned on and wants sex he can get an erection.  That’s not how bodies with penises work.  Certainly not as they age and not even when they are younger.  

Coming Clean?

The main ethical question here concerns whether or not you should tell your partner if you are taking Viagra.  Because we’re talking about ethics (and not morals or law) the answer is situation – and context – specific.  Let’s say you’re taking Viagra because a health condition makes it necessary for you to take it to get an erection.  In that case I might ask you whether or not you feel that you have an ethical responsibility to disclose all health conditions to a person you’re having sex with?  If those conditions won’t bring any physical harm to your partner, why would you be required to disclose them?  

A partner might say they have a right to know, but acting ethically doesn’t mean acting in a way that will always satisfy your partner.  In this case I would say that you don’t have an ethical duty to disclose your Viagra use to your partner.  

How might this change if you are in a long term committed relationship?  That depends on the understanding you and your partner have about disclosures and health in general.  If you’ve talked about health issues and you know that your partner expects you to tell them what’s going on with your body, then ethically it could be considered your duty to disclose.  From an ethical perspective, in this case, there is little reason to treat sexual health differently from other aspects of your health.

If we wanted to consider your ethical duty to yourself, you might want to take a moment to think about the fact that Viagra can sometimes result in severe side effects.  One benefit of having a partner is that you have someone else who can be paying attention to your body and your health.  If your partner doesn’t know about a medication you are taking, they may be less prepared to support you if you experience an unexpected and difficult side effect.

There’s another issue which is not ethical but medical.  If you are using Viagra because you are having erection problems, you should know that difficulty getting or keeping an erection is often only a symptom of some other problem (for example, cardiovascular disease).  Whether or not you tell your partner, you should talk with your doctor about your erections so that your doctor can rule out any more serious underlying causes.

The Bottom Line

In the situation as you describe it, I don’t believe you have an ethical responsibility to tell a sex partner you are taking Viagra.  Providing that your drug taking doesn’t put them at risk and doesn’t pose a significant risk to you during sex, we treat health information as private in this society and you shouldn’t feel obliged to disclose.

Which is not to say that disclosing your Viagra use might not be good, for your health, for your relationships, and for the sex you want to have.  On many levels I believe it would.

On an irregular basis the Doing It Decent column answers questions about the ethics of a sexual situation from our readers. Grappling with a touchy sexual ethics issue? Send me an email and be sure to put DID in the subject line. All questions will be posted anonymously with identifying information removed.

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