It took me more than a month to use the RigiScan four times, and by then, of course, Erica and I had broken up. To celebrate my 27th birthday, my 53-year-old father, his two brothers from the Lower East Side, and my 16-year-old cousin took me out for a sangria-fueled dinner in Chelsea. My father had come in from Potomac, Maryland, to surprise me. He couldn't have imagined the surprise I had waiting for him. This is why I called former Senator Bob Dole: I needed some help in breaking the news. "Your dad is younger than I am," he said. "Be honest. When I did the Pfizer spot, I knew I'd catch flak. But it's more important to get the word out. To help people. So I said, 'Okay, let her rip.' Your dad will understand." He paused a beat, and added, "It's your mom I might not tell." And so I told Mom about breaking up with Erica; I told Dad about my ED.
"Your grandfather would roll over in his grave!" he said at my birthday dinner. Grandpa Matthew was a fur trader, a Polish immigrant whose pinochle-playing friends flooded his Knickerbocker Village apartment with tequila and cigar smoke. His three sons -- Kenny, a court clerk; Chet, a music teacher; and Lester, my father, who works with the Housing Opportunities Commission in Washington, D.C. -- were liberal family men, but still gruff: The air-conditioning drip didn't fall far from the fire escape. My father broke the long silence: "You mean you have a problem with your prick?"
"I don't know what the problem is," I said. They were drop-jawed, silent, staring at me as if I'd sprouted eight heads or just told them I was gay. My cousin couldn't understand. But then a strange thing happened. My dad said, "The truth is, I remember your grandfather telling me about when it happened to him." He smiled, and then he added, "I also remember when it happened to me." And so the conversation went, everyone clamoring for an opportunity to tell about the time he couldn't get it up.
"I think the number of young men complaining about erectile dysfunction caught doctors by surprise," says Ed Laumann, a physician and supervisor of The National Health and Social Life Survey, the bible of erectile dysfunction. "We did a population survey in 1999, and 7 percent of 30-year-old men said they suffered from ED for at least two months in a row. Now, young people aren't rushing up saying, 'I'm impotent!,' and I think this could be underreported by about 30 percent." And that is young men suffering ED for at least two months. That excludes the whiskey-dicked, the Mister Softees who can't get hard on a shame-inducing Saturday night. Two years ago, Laumann conducted a test in China, adding the word intermittent to the questionnaire and again asking 30-year-old men if they'd experienced ED: Over 35 percent answered yes. That could mean up to 65 percent of 30-year-old men experienced episodic ED in the past year. But no one is studying this, and we aren't speaking out. Nobody wants to admit it.
"Everyone keeps erectile dysfunction private because it relates to their self-esteem," Laumann says. "Young men aren't coming forward because of their egos -- but I think that's beginning to change." Evidently, Pfizer does not. It repeatedly ignored interview requests for this story. Perhaps this is because it has been widely reportedly that men (and sometimes women) are taking Viagra, its $1.2 billionayear drug, for recreational purposes. Whatever the case, Pfizer recently commissioned Laumann to conduct a national erectile-dysfunction poll, and the age demographics begin at 40. If the leader of the erectile-dysfunctionary revolution doesn't want to help my demographic, where is a young man to look?
"Sex for life!!" reads the advertisement in the Daily News for the Boston Medical Group, on 37th Street near Second Avenue. ERECTION PROBLEMS? PREMATURE EJACULATION? IMMEDIATE RESULTS, the ad also purrs. I call Boston Medical on Tuesday, and on Friday I am waiting in a small, cream-colored office surrounded by full-color diagrams of penises; there's a latex glove on the floor. It feels like an abandoned inner-city sex-ed classroom. I fill out a short form that asks about diabetes, heart disease, cancer. I check no to every question except smoking and booze, sign a release, and wait, flipping through a worn, five-year-old issue of Sports Illustrated. And then I see Farhad Mohebban.
Mohebban is a chatty Iranian Jew whose eely bedside manner makes a routine exam seem perverse. "You should marry in the faith," the doctor says as he palms my testicles and inspects my penis. His are the fifth and sixth male hands I've had on me since this problem began. I think I may never have an erection again.
And then, because the next set of tests has to be conducted with an erection, he injects the side of my penis with protein. "You can play, of course you can," Mohebban continues, "but when it comes time to marry, it should be with one of your own."
The intracavernous pharmacotherapy (ICP) doesn't hurt, but what nearly kills me is watching a needle be inserted into my defenseless prick. After the shot, which sends a rush of oxygen and hormones called a vasodilator directly into the tissue, I pull up my pants and waddle into a different cream-colored room. I brace myself as a thunderous erection involuntarily rises while I read about a young golf rookie named Tiger Woods. My penis feels like it's carrying dumbbells. It feels like a dumbbell, leaden and strained -- uncomfortable, like an erectile migraine. The injection makes Viagra feel like a kiss. After 25 minutes of raw, scared regret, I'm back in Mohebban's office.