erectile dysfunction drugs, cross-culturally
I’ve been silent on Culture Matters for way too long: first I was on a research trip to Egypt, and then I was recovering from a bug caught during said research trip to Egypt (Flagyl is my friend!). And speaking of pharmaceutical products, ever since coming back I’ve had a stack of drug boxes on the desk in my office that has elicited a lot of curiosity from visitors:
These are all the local brands of sildenafil that I found in a single pharmacy. There’s the Pfizer-licensed Viagra, but we also have Virecta, Erec, Kemagra, Vigorama, Vigoran, Phragra, and Vigorex. The Kemagra box features a tiger: Rrawr!
Why the stack of drugs? That’s between me and my doctor. No, seriously, I picked them up as part of a research project on several new reproductive health technologies in Egypt, including erectile dysfunction drugs. I’m looking at religious debates about the moral implications of new technologies, representations in popular culture, and the way RHTs are taught in Egyptian medical schools. Also interesting to consider is elisions between biomedical technologies and indigenous health beliefs. Take, for example, this restaurant’s “Viagra Sandwich” (would you like your Viagra grilled or fried?):
This takes traditional notions of the virility-enhancing power of seafood and rebrands it with the notoriety of a global pharmaceutical product. By the way, it seemed that every other restaurant in Cairo has some “Viagra” dish. At the annual date market, one variety of dates usually gets called “Viagra” for the same reason.
The office interactions I have with colleagues about the stack of drugs on my desk have given me new insight into the different cultural meanings attributed to erectile dysfunction drugs. You see, every male colleague that comes in has a laugh at the boxes, and then typically I say, “You’re welcome to a box after I finish photographing them.” This usually leads to louder laughter and a protest, as he backs away from my desk: “No thanks, I don’t need it!” The implication seems to be that by accepting the drug, one is admitting to some sort of sexual failure. Perhaps this seems natural — it certainly reminds me of all the ribbing former presidential candidate Bob Dole endured when he agreed to be the first spokesman for the product in the U.S.
But in Egypt, this logic just doesn’t work. There, men often give the pills to each other as gifts. According to my Egyptian colleague who is researching the phenomenon, they are sometimes given by an employer to his employees as a kind of reward or incentive. Instead of connoting a lack, it seems to imply the cheerful anticipation of an excess of virility. It may also speak to the history of the drug’s availability in Egypt: before the market was opened up to all the cheap generic brands, Viagra was expensive and in limited supply. Thus the enthusiasm for trading it around was part of the wider intersection between gift economies and the black market economy.
Perhaps my Australian colleagues simply disapproved of the idea that I should be offering them drugs for which they didn’t have a prescription. Of course I should clarify that my offers were all in jest: I know that it is illegal for someone who is not a medical professional to give someone else a prescription drug. No, boys, these drugs are MINE, ALL MINE!!