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Puzzling over the potency pill

It is a sign of the times that the only thing American men are more obsessed with than Viagra is why they didn't buy stock in Viagra.

My immediate reaction is: You guys can't have Viagra if we can't have fen-phen. Why is it that the "miracle" drugs for women always seem to have lethal side effects? Fen-phen caused heart trouble, and the new "cure" for breast cancer may cause womb cancer.

Meanwhile, the only serious side effects for Viagra seem to be the cramps urologists have developed from writing so many prescriptions, and the specter of insurance companies and the government deciding how often poor, but game, seniors can have sex.

I know my reaction is petty. So, I will try to offer a more sophisticated social analysis of what it means that doctors all over the country now have taped phone messages advising, "Press 3 for Viagra."

Until now, the last thing on earth men would admit to was impotence. But men of all ages are swamping doctors' offices, claiming flaccidity and begging for that little blue pill dubbed the "Pfizer Riser." You know all those men aren't impotent. A lot must think the pills will turn them into love machines and help them get more sex. But what's wrong with these would-be studs, pills can't fix.

This mass yearning for virility does illuminate a couple of things. It explains the infatuation with the swaggering Rat Pack and silly cigar bars. And it explains why the public never really got angry at Bill Clinton for his rapacious appetites. Americans, secretly so anxious about sex, were obviously reassured, perhaps even proud, to see their leader functioning at peak performance. (A guest on MSNBC joked that the Viagra ad jingle could be "Take the pill and be like Bill.")

Tom Brokaw predicted a senior sexual revolution. Will Sarasota change its name to Viagra Falls? But boomer guys in their 40s and 50s are helping to drive this craze, because boomers think the easy way is the best way, and are determined to turn back the clock on aging.

The sexual revolution that began with the pill in the '60s may revive with another kind of pill in the '90s. The generation of free love, eroto-pharmacology and psychedelic drugs is morphing into Gen V with a new recreational drug.

Men think women are greeting the arrival of Viagra, which promises to enhance performance if taken an hour before sex, with as much glee as they are. Sorry, guys, but it's more complicated than that.

An unscientific poll of my girlfriends found that they would rather have a pill that could change a man's personality an hour AFTER sex. A pill that insures that he always calls the next day and never gets spooked.

Women already think men are led too much by their anatomy. If Pfizer's rivals are smart, they are looking for the Viagra antidote. For each woman who celebrates Viagra, there's another who has nightmares about her 62-year-old husband undergoing a satyric transformation and chasing 21-year-old interns.

As men know, women like to think they're special. With Viagra, women will never know for sure whether it's their own allure or just chemically enhanced blood-vessel function. Viagra is in trials for women, and may win over female doubters if it is shown to have the same benefits. Then again, the answer may not be in our blood vessels.

But we are still dreaming of pills that would increase male self-awareness instead of self-indulgence. Or even cure our pet peeves. As one woman I know who works in television wickedly observed, "How about a pill that would stop men from giving Diane Sawyer seven million dollars a year?"

New York Times News Service