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London - To the casual observer, bachelor Daniel Atkinson looks like any other healthy, athletic young man in the prime of his life.
Six foot tall with chiselled cheekbones and a trim physique, Daniel admits he never has any difficulty attracting the opposite sex.
But Daniel, 32, has a very intimate secret. When he wants to have sex with a woman, he needs up to two Viagra pills to perform. The blue tablets, which are available on the NHS, have long been viewed as essential medication for men in their 50s, 60s and beyond.
But Daniel is one of a growing number of young men turning to the drug due to performance anxiety, triggered by a host of psychological issues from the proliferation of porn on the internet making ‘normal’ sex seem boring, to financial pressures.
Viagra was even blamed for its part in the suicide of a 24-year-old writer earlier this year, after his girlfriend discovered he was secretly using it.
James Andrews’s body was found on a railway line between Bristol and Bath on Valentine’s Day. An inquest into his death revealed how he’d rowed with girlfriend Eleanor Sharpe - a ballet dancer who appeared in the Olympic closing ceremony - over his use of the drug, despite the pair enjoying a “normal physical relationship”.
Daniel, now an entertainment promoter, was just 20 and on a weekend with friends in Amsterdam when he took his first pill. It was supplied to him by a friend, after he had picked up a girl.
Even though he had never had erectile problems, he was so impressed by the extra stamina it gave him he continued to take the drug with subsequent girlfriends.
On two occasions, he was even prescribed it by his GP, albeit with warnings about the long-term effects such as blue-tinged vision, heart problems and hearing loss.
Now Daniel says he always has a stockpile of the drug - on which he says he spends up to £1,000 a year - either by consulting private doctors or by picking up supplies when he travels to Spain for work. “The doctors there will prescribe them to you on the spot. Then you go to the chemist and get a supply. There’s always English people queueing who are after the same thing.”
Yet Daniel, who lives in London, is in despair over his reliance on the drug:
He says: “I diet, I exercise at the gym regularly and I am almost as fit as I was when I was a teenager. I love the company of women and always have. But now I am in my 30s, I have been exposed to so much sex, I sometimes find it hard to do without Viagra.
“No matter how I’m feeling, what’s going through my head, or how attracted to the woman I’m with, it makes no difference. Now, if I know I’m due to see a woman, I discreetly take two pills beforehand.”
By taking up to six tablets a week, Daniel is aware of the health risks.
The drug contains sildenafil citrate and works by improving blood flow in the penis. Daniel admits he sometimes experiences ringing in his ears. But despite the dangers, he feels as a single man he has little choice.
“I know it’s bad for my health,” he says. “I can hear my heart palpitating when I take the tablets, and I come out in cold sweats. Sometimes the beating is so loud, I think I am going to have a heart attack. I need some help to stop.”
So why is a drug, once linked to greying, paunchy men past their prime, now taking over the sex lives of the young and seemingly virile?
What’s more, what does it say about our sexualised society where even the natural prowess of youth is not enough for the young men of today?
Harley Street psychosexual counsellor Raymond Francis says he sees about 15 men a month who feel dependent on Viagra. The average age is about 32 - his youngest client is just 27.
But Raymond, who is based at the Apex Practice, says: “I think this is just a small sample of the problem. These men don’t have any physical problems that would cause erectile difficulties. Instead they feel they need it because they are putting too many expectations on themselves - based on what they believe women want in the bedroom.”
In many cases, Raymond says his male patients have been influenced by seeing internet pornography from a young age. “Sometimes these men will have deeply embedded and unrealistic expectations of the women they want to have sex with - or what they should be able to do.”
One such patient is Sam, 31, who was dependent on the drug throughout much of his 20s before he sought help two years ago.
Sam places the root of his problem on internet porn, which he says he started viewing when he was 12 - long before he lost his virginity. “Seeing all these studs going for hours on end seemed to underline what I couldn’t do,” he says.
“I felt so ashamed. I once mentioned it to my GP but he was very unsympathetic so I never dared bring the subject up again with anyone. I started ordering them on the web, even though I was never sure what I was getting.”
But though Sam found the drugs nearly always helped him perform, ultimately they became a barrier to him finding a long-term, intimate relationship.
Sam says: “When I had a girlfriend, I’d take Viagra first thing in the morning, so I’d get the sex over and done with under controlled conditions.”
Keeping his reliance on the drug secret, however, placed unbearable pressure on relationships: “It meant I could never fully commit emotionally because I couldn’t be honest about this most basic thing. My relationships never got off the ground. It was all getting so stressful I started avoiding sex. The women I met seemed so confident, I felt I couldn’t live up to what they wanted. I felt like a failure.”
It was when Sam fell in love with his new partner Emily after they met at a party that he realised he needed help.
“The first time we slept together, I took it secretly, but the expectations were high because she was so special to me. So that time, even Viagra didn’t work. I could see she was worried and upset it was her fault, so I decided I had to be candid - and told her everything.”
Sam now has a normal sexual relationship with his partner. “It took six months of counselling, but thanks to her, I found the courage to look at the underlying issues.”
Raymond says another common thing is men reporting they feel intimidated by the sexual confidence and demands of modern young women.
“Women are now so empowered,” says Raymond. “They feel they have as much right as men to dictate the pace sexually. We are not just talking about girls who would once have been seen as promiscuous.
“These days a professional career woman who has been brought up in a culture of success wants to exercise that freedom and strength in her sex life, too.
“In just one or two generations, there has been a turnaround. Before, it was always the expectation that the man was the predator. Now ladette culture has turned that on its head. Faced with this pressure, young men bring performance fears to the bedroom long before any sex takes place.”
One such sexually confident woman is Nicola, an attractive finance worker in her late 20s who admits it was partly the sexual demands she put on her partner which helped trigger the anxieties that contributed to his impotence.
‘When the sex wasn’t great, I was honest about how frustrated I was from the outset, which made the problem worse,” she says.
“We tried Viagra, but it felt like a planned event. So now I don’t want him to tell me if he’s taken it or not. I just want to think the sex was naturally great.” Nicola says her attitude to sex is typical of her generation, and many of her girlfriends are reporting similar problems in the bedroom.
She says: “Women our age probably do have more of a sexual past. I’ve had 15 partners, while my partner’s only had five, so that’s another layer of pressure on him. Because I’m quite skilled sexually, he probably wonders where I learned it from and how he compares.”
Another reason male patients in their 30s turn to Viagra is the pressure on them to produce babies within a strict timeframe.
Raymond says: “These are men in conventional partnerships where the woman has chosen to defer birth until her career is established and then finds it difficult to get pregnant.
“These men feel pressured to perform at a prescribed time and the sex becomes mechanistic, rather than borne out of passion and desire. The pressure on the man becomes horrific and he feels he needs to have Viagra up his sleeve.”
As the drug’s manufacturer Pfizer points out, the drug should be taken only with a prescription from a healthcare professional and used according to the guidance on the label. It says studies have found it is not physically addictive. But even if the addiction is all in the mind, there is no doubt the drug is distorting lives.
Over the past six years, Janice Hiller, a clinical psychologist who heads the Sexual Health Psychological Services team at Goodmayes Hospital in Essex, says she has seen an increase in the number of male patients dependent on Viagra. Her youngest patient has been 22.
Janice blames the trend on an increasingly sexualised society and the unrealistic expectations raised by the internet.
She says: “Young men feel women expect sex very early on in a relationship, perhaps on the first or second date, and that creates performance anxiety if they are not really confident.
“After they have been exposed to a lot of internet porn, the major stimulus for men can become the pornographic image rather than the girl they are with. That can be damaging. These images go round in their heads and they then cannot become aroused with a real girl.
“Usually men seek help when they meet a woman they really like and are desperate for it to work. In those cases, we have to talk about how the length of a sex session is not the most important thing for women, and how they really want all sorts of other things in a relationship, too.”
For married couples, the discovery that a husband is secretly taking Viagra can also be devastating, says Janice.
“Women who do find out often feel they have become unattractive to their partners,” she says.
“Viagra is enormously helpful if used in a managed, thoughtful way among those who need it. But in younger men it does not solve a problem. More often than not it adds a new level of anxiety.”
Chartered Clinical Psychologist Dr Abigael San, who has treated patients caught in a circle of Viagra use, says: “These younger men believe they are only satisfying a woman because they are using the drug. The solution becomes the problem.”
The taboo around Viagra use among young men is so great that despite the embarrassment factor, Daniel is speaking up because he feels it’s time the issue was more openly discussed.
“I am not ashamed of my dependence - I know so many guys my age with the same issues who started off using it recreationally and now find it hard to stop.
“I think many of us wish we’d never taken it that first time. I, for one, would love to be free of it.” - Daily Mail
. Some names have been changed.