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04.16.10

The Viagra Brigade

All across America, suspiciously randy old men are pushing their marriages to the breaking point—and beyond. Jacob Bernstein talks to the experts about Viagra and the Larry King Syndrome.

What hath Viagra wrought?

It’s a question dealt with in Wanda Sykes’ most recent HBO special, I’m a Be Me, in which the dirtiest female comedian alive blames Viagra for destroying the lives of married women all over America. “You know who I feel sorry for?” she says. “I feel sorry for these little old ladies who have been married 50, 60 years and these last two, three years all they’ve been doing is waiting for that dick to break, they just been waiting for that dick to die...And then he goes and gets that pill.”

“I think there’s a lot of women who are married to older men who now have to perform and they find it annoying,” says Judith Regan.

It’s a question that’s been asked by women all over L.A. in recent years, as they heard about their husbands’ trips to the Playboy mansion, where Hugh Hefner has been alive and kicking well into his 80s.

And it’s a question one might ask in the wake of the news that the 76-year-old TV host Larry King, split from—get this—his eighth wife on Wednesday amid claims that he was cheating on her with her younger sister. (Update: TMZ is now reporting that King and his wife have entered therapy to try and rescue their marriage.)

Of course, plenty of older men pull all this off without the help of the ED drug brigade. Indeed, Larry King himself may well be merely the world’s most ever-ready septuagenarian.

Gallery: Serial DivorcersNevertheless, he represents a growing phenomenon that didn't quite exist a decade ago: members of the first generation of old men who didn’t have to give up on sex, who didn’t have to put companionship first, who didn’t have to reconfigure their erotic lives around pleasuring their wives. And though the census does not measure divorce in a sufficiently meaningful way to allow us to deduce whether marriage split rates have spiked as a result of the drug, sex therapists and divorce lawyers around the country report stories of quote-unquote Viagra break-ups.

There’s the tale of the woman who walked into a Manhattan attorney’s office with a bottle of her husband’s little blue pills. He hired a P.I. and found that her husband was cheating.

At a retirement community in Florida a few years back, venereal disease skyrocketed as men popped the drug before going on field trips with street hookers and then came home with unwanted sexual hangovers that spread all over the place.

Says Raoul Felder, a New York divorce lawyer who’s handled breakups for everyone from Rudy Giuliani to Mrs. Patrick Ewing: “It’s definitely changed the landscape of divorce. We’re getting divorces from people we’ve never dreamed of before. Certainly it’s also because people are living longer, but the poison pill as far as marriage is concerned is Viagra.”

Felder should know. A decade ago, he took on a landmark case related to the drug in which a then-61-year-old woman sued her longtime companion in New York State for $2 million, claiming that he walked out on her two days after he took his first dose of the drug.

Out in Los Angeles, Mark Goulston, a psychiatrist and former professor at UCLA who handles couples in trouble, says he too has seen evidence from his patients that Viagra and its likenesses are impacting his patients’ marriages for better and worse. “Viagra can bring out the best in a person who’s a lover and a giver and the worst in someone who’s a user or a taker,” he says.

Another story he tells involves meeting with a couple who’d broken up. The man admitted that erectile-dysfunction drugs played into his infidelity. “Part of what he said was that he had a Madonna-whore complex and she was the woman who he’d watched give birth to his children. So you take a man who’s middle-aged, who’s lost desire for his wife, and then add Viagra into the mix. I don’t think it justifies his behavior but you can understand him being seduced by it.”

Laura Berman, a sex therapist in Chicago who works on the faculty of Northwestern University, says it gets even more complicated when you deal with women who are post-menopausal and don’t necessarily want to return a husband’s interest.

In many cases it’s hard to blame them.

Study after study shows that American men are getting fatter and fatter, and their ballooning weight hasn’t made them demonstrably more concerned with their partner’s sexual needs, which are different than their own.

According to Berman, women typically take longer than men to reach orgasm (7.5 minutes for men vs. 20 minutes for women, according to one study she cites). And it’s a discrepancy that only increases with time.

Says Berman: “She’s not even warmed up. There’s a disconnect there.”

Or as Judith Regan, the former editor-publisher and purveyor of the tastes of millions of American women, puts it: “I think there’s a lot of women who are married to older men who now have to perform and they find it annoying. They didn’t get married to have sex with these geezers. They married them for money, houses, and companionship. Sex with them is an irritation.” (As Regan sees it, women are “almost” as horny as men, though somewhat more selective about sex.)

Adds Abraham Morgentaler, MD, an associate clinical professor at Harvard Medical School and the author of The Viagra Myth: The Surprising Impact on Love and Relationships: “The pills and treatments have allowed men to regain their sexual abilities and that allows men to be in a different social area and have options they didn’t have before.”

He says that many older men pre-Viagra didn’t stray from their wives when they were unhappy because they lacked self-confidence. If they couldn’t “perform” they thought they were undesirable. “When men feel unable to perform sexually, they are more willing to stay in an unsatisfying relationship, they feel like they don’t have the goods,” he says.

“Men are as faithful as their options,” Regan concludes, adding that there is a bright side to the whole thing. “Without it, rich octogenarians would not marry young women.

“Think of Viagra as a positive for these women. Without it, where is the incentive to buy them clothes, house them in mansions, finance implants and guarantee alimony and child support? Without Viagra these women might have to work at Walmart and forgo botox. What kind of world would that be? Viagra provides financial security to hundreds of otherwise largely unemployable women. It's a beautiful thing.”

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Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.