Twenty years on, Viagra sheds light on male attitudes in the Arab world

A box of Viagra, typically used to treat erectile dysfunction, on display at a pharmacy

Twenty years after anti-impotence drug Viagra hit the market, it is more popular than ever in the Arab world.
Arabic media reports stated that the Middle East has the highest per capita share of Viagra users in the world, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt topping the list.
In 2012, Saudi newspaper Al Riyadh reported that men in the country spent as much as $1.5 billion annually on Viagra and similar medications.
While more recent estimates vary, Viagra’s trademark blue pills, which have proven through studies to significantly improve men’s sex lives around the world, obviously remain in high demand throughout the region.
Sociologists said the phenomenon has as much to do with cultural norms as it does with medical need.
Arab men suffer from erectile dysfunction and other sexually debilitating conditions at similar rates to the rest of the world but they live in a culture in which male virility and fertility is a foundational component of masculinity. The practice of polygamy in some Arab countries is also thought to further drive men’s desire for anti-impotence and aphrodisiac drugs.
Tunisian sociologist Tarek Belhadj Mohamed said: “These attitudes reflect the psychology of a frustrated man.”
“[In Arab societies], ‘sexual performance’ is seen as validating the worth of both the woman and the man as the man is defined primordially in our society by the sexual and reproductive functions,” Belhadj Mohamed said in e-mailed comments. “This is rooted in a narrative that sees sex as either shameful or a competition in which one must not fail.”
Along with the high demand for anti-impotence medication is social stigma, Belhadj Mohamed noted, with many in society viewing it as unnatural or perverse.
This view, Belhadj Mohamed said, is exacerbated, by a “hypocritical society that refuses to recognise the evolution of sexual practices of a large part of the population.”
Speaking about Tunisia, Belhadj Mohamed said: “Life seems modern and open but the reality is the opposite: Our society and even our elites are tolerant of sexuality and sexual freedom in theory but, when they are concerned, the subject becomes taboo and shameful.”
Viagra was banned in Tunisia until 2012, shortly after the revolution. Today it is sold in pharmacies for $12-$16 for a four-pill pack.
While Viagra has had a largely positive effect on men’s sex lives and marriages, there have been risks, particularly as cheap counterfeits flooded the markets and as some experimented with the drugs recreationally.
Medical practitioners caution against such uses, saying Viagra should be taken only after careful consultation with a physician. Side effects can include headaches, nausea, vision loss, nasal congestion, back pain, muscle pain and dizziness.
Viagra (medical name Sildenafil), developed by pharmaceutical company Pfizer in the 1990s, quickly became a worldwide sensation upon its release, earning hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. The Guardian recently described it as “the little blue pill that revolutionised our sex lives.”
Facing competition from generic brands across the world in recent years, Pfizer introduced its own generic Viagra brand in Europe in 2013 and in the United States last year, leading to a drop in the company’s revenue.
Pfizer said Viagra sales for its emerging markets category, which includes Asia (excluding Japan and South Korea), Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Central Europe and Turkey, were $300 million in 2017.
Stephen Quillen is an Arab Weekly correspondent in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.