At first glance, Sebastien Smith looks like a young man in the prime of life. The 29-year-old goes to the gym most days, has never had a health problem and — thanks to his athletic physique — is popular with female acquaintances.
He is a long way from the image of a typical Viagra user: greying older men rendered impotent by weight gain and heart problems.
Yet in fact, Sebastien is one of a growing number of healthy men in their teens and 20s using the drug recreationally, to meet their own high expectations — and those of the women they meet.
As this investigation uncovered, an unwholesome combination of a dating scene based on casual encounters, and expectations of impossible stamina got from pornography, have left these chaps convinced they need pharmaceutical help just to be ‘good enough’.
Sebastien, from Newcastle, says: ‘I always keep a Viagra tablet in my wallet just in case. I started taking it six years ago — all my friends do, too.
Sebastien Smith, 29, (pictured) from Newcastle began taking Viagra recreationally six years ago to have a sense of security that he's able to satisfy the girl he's sleeping with
‘If I drink too much on an evening out, it means I can still perform, however much I’ve had. It gives me confidence.’
Sebastien admits he first viewed pornography at the age of 15, and it’s perhaps no surprise this has coloured his idea of what intimacy should be.
‘Sex is a performance,’ he says in a matter-of-fact tone. ‘You feel like you’re being reviewed by women. They expect a lot, and you don’t want them to talk about you negatively afterwards.
‘I’ll always take Viagra because I’d always rather have the security of knowing that the girl I am sleeping with was satisfied at the end of the night.’
You may well ask if popping a pill is really the best way to a woman’s heart — but there’s no doubt Viagra — active ingredient Sildenafil citrate — has had an enormous impact on sex lives since its creation 20 years ago.
It works by widening the blood vessels to improve blood flow on arousal, and is extremely effective in treating forms of erectile dysfunction, typically suffered by men aged 50 and over.
Until recently, it was only given by doctors to men with a genuine medical erectile problem — so Sebastien used to buy his supply from online pharmacies, which have come under fire for failing to perform the necessary checks before dishing out prescriptions.
But this spring, Britain became the first country in the world to allow Viagra to be sold without a prescription, meaning he can buy it at Boots along with toothpaste and razors.
The decision was taken by the Government’s drugs watchdog, the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), partly to counteract the flood of potentially dangerous fake pills on the market. Sildenafil is now the most counterfeited drug in the world.
Vincent Turner, 25, from South London began taking Viagra two years ago as he says men feel pressure to meet women's expectations
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society had no qualms about the decision, saying the drug has been proved safe. However it seems that its free availability means it’s also now being taken to improve stamina by men who don’t need it and to counteract the effects of binge drinking..
So, how have even healthy young men come to feel sexually inadequate in the first place? Invented by accident by scientists at drug company Pfizer trying to find a treatment for angina, Viagra’s release in 1998 coincided with the early days of the internet and the spread of online pornography.
In a toxic alignment of the stars, the little blue pills helped porn actors film ever longer, more unrealistic scenes, while faster internet speeds made pornography easier to watch. Later, smartphones allowed it to be easily viewed by young boys, shaping their impression of what making love should be like.
Sadly, the ‘ideal’ young men risk their health for may not match what women really want.
Psychosexual counsellor Murray Blacket, of the College of Sexual And Relationship Therapists, says: ‘I think the majority of women want connected, emotionally charged sex, not a constant diet of the athletic, superhero kind. Men need to ask women what they want, not assume they know. There will always be men and women with a high sex drive. But I think if porn becomes the measure for how we should have sex, then we’re all in trouble.’
Harley Street counsellor Raymond Francis, worries normalising Viagra could give men the idea that they should perform like what's seen in pornography (pictured: Sebastien)
Another youngster who started looking at pornography at 15 is Vincent Turner from South London, now 25 and an office manager. For him, viewing those Viagra-fuelled clips has now come full circle. For the past two years, he has been taking the drug himself to impress women he meets through online dating sites.
‘The pressure starts when women ask you to send a ‘private’ picture,’ he says. ‘It’s all about size — I feel reduced to a measurement. Then that expectation is carried on if you sleep with a woman. You don’t tell her you have taken Viagra. But if you do, and afterwards she says: “Wow, that was incredible”, of course you’ll feel you need to keep taking it.’
Harley Street counsellor Raymond Francis says he sees about 15 men a month who feel hooked on drugs like Viagra, many in their early 20s.
He says: ‘In the last few months alone, I’ve noticed the age has dropped. Whereas before, the patients I was seeing were in their mid-30s, now it’s late 20s.’
Meanwhile, the drug’s makers seem well aware of their more youthful audience. Promotional material for Viagra Connect (the newly re-packaged version for the High Street, which comes in 50g packs of four) and other pharmacy advertising, features men who look younger than 50 — the average age when men start to suffer from erectile dysfunction.
High Street chemist Well Pharmacy, which offers discreet home delivery, shows a figure of a man in a blue cape on its website, reinforcing the message that popping a pill is all you need for a superhero performance.
Counsellor Raymond, warns pornography could also be leading women to a false idea of a man's stamina (pictured: Sebastien)
Promotional material like this gives the worrying impression men should use Viagra as a matter of course, says Raymond. ‘It’s normalising the product — and the idea that men should no longer perform at a natural level, but more like what is seen in pornography.
‘Women today are also exposed to pornography, and this can lead to a false idea of a man’s stamina. At the moment, I have two clients whose partners told them they were dissatisfied with their performance and needed to do something about it.
‘Psychologically, I’m concerned about the message we are sending to young people. You’re going to have a whole generation growing up with false expectations about sexual performance. We’re sowing the seeds of a major problem.’
One of Raymond’s clients, Michael Thompson, 36, an architect who lives near Bath, needed months of therapy to be weaned off his psychological addiction to Viagra.
‘I started taking it at 18,’ he reveals. ‘I had too much to drink at a party and it affected my ability to perform — and knocked my confidence. I never wanted to have the problem again, so I bought Viagra online.’
The drug worked well at first, but he took it so often — several hundred times in his teens and early 20s — his body stopped responding.
‘When I got in a relationship with the woman who was to become my wife, we started having sex three or four times a week. By the time we got married my body was resistant to Viagra and I couldn’t get aroused.
‘It was devastating. I needed therapy so I could make love without it on my wedding night. It took a lot to unravel my insecurity about my sexuality.
Last year 346 men went to A&E with ‘priapism’ or permanent erections. Michael Thompson, 36, from Bath who became resistant to Viagra warns the drug is not a magic pill (pictured: Sebastien)
‘I’d like to tell other young men that, just like any other drug, it’s not a magic pill. This comes at a cost.’
Physical as well as psychological problems can also arise. Used correctly, Sildenafil is safe, although side-effects can include blue-tinted vision, headaches and nausea.
But, when used recreationally the pills may be mixed with cocaine and ecstasy — and trigger disorientation, hallucinations and tremors.
Taking Sildefanil with ‘poppers’, or amyl nitrate, may lead to a sudden drop in blood pressure that can trigger stroke or heart attack.
Users of Viagra-type drugs should also be careful what they wish for. Last year 346 men went to A&E with ‘priapism’ or permanent erections — double the number in 2007.
Urologist Vivek Wadhwa of Birmingham’s Spire Parkway Hospital says this is a possible side effect of long-term use — and can be dangerous. ‘If this happens, it’s very important to get to A&E as soon as possible,’ he warns. ‘Never leave it overnight, because by then it’s too late, and function can be lost permanently.’
Whatever the risks, the use of drugs such as Viagra is likely to increase because Pfizer’s patent on the medication has expired.
Other pharmaceutical firms will be able to market their own versions of Sildenafil citrate, and will be able to flood the market with generic versions that will make a little chemical help cheaper and more accessible than ever before.
For the young men who believe they need a drug just to feel confident or make a woman happy, that will make breaking the habit even harder.
Some names have been changed. The Apex Practice (020 7467 8536, theapexpractice.co.uk).