Impotent men make better lovers - which is why Viagra will not answer every woman's prayer, says Sarah Litvinoff

VIAGRA, the "impotence pill", is a breakthrough. It's a boon for men who can't get an erection because of diabetes, spinal injury, prostate surgery and so on. But, doctors say, organic causes account for the minority of erectile problems, and the demand for Viagra inevitably includes those whose impotence is psychological, and probably some who are not impotent, but whose erections are less reliable than they used to be. That's not to belittle the misery. Impotence is devastating. As Bernard Zilbergeld says in the definitive bible of male sexuality, Men and Sex, (Harper Collins pounds 7.99): "Nothing except perhaps the loss of his job can make a man feel more worthless and hopeless ... Men have securely tied their self-respect to the upward mobility of their penises and, when their penises do not rise to the occasion, they no longer feel like men."

But there's a feeling that, amidst all the Viagra glee, women are jumping about in as much excitement as their men. Not necessarily. Let's deal with the irrational first: many women take loss of erection personally. He may be stressed, anxious, tired or not in the mood, but she can't believe it. Popping a pill to produce an erection in these circumstances is not going to make her less anxious.

The woman's reaction is not entirely irrational. His erectile failure may be nothing to do with her, but the instinct that it could be connected to his emotional state can be spot on. The trouble is, most men use the behaviour of the penis in adolescence as a yardstick: then it was hard whenever they wanted it to be, and even when they didn't. Later, it becomes more capricious and demanding of the right conditions, which includes the way the man is feeling. Men either don't recognise this, or don't want to. Zilbergeld says, "When problems develop we look for mechanical aids and advice to help us do it better, much as we read manuals on how to care for our cars. The more we do this, the further we get from our feelings, ourselves, and our partners. The more this happens, the better the chances that sex will become boring and grim or that a dysfunction will develop."

A man who turns to Viagra when no physical cause can be found for his problem can be missing a signal from his body that something else is wrong - and yes, it sometimes is the relationship. Using chemicals avoids the real problem.

There is another reason women might not welcome Viagra. Men still tend to believe that penetration is the most important element in sex. Zilbergeld believes this is destructive for men. "Many men, when asked how it felt to touch their partners or be touched by them, have said that they didn't know because they were so busy thinking about getting to intercourse. In this way we rob ourselves of pleasure and of fully experiencing the stimulation necessary for an enjoyable sexual response."

For a woman, there is often a surprising bonus when a man's virility flags. When he can't get erect so often, or become so hard, he can turn into a better lover. Quite simply, he usually needs more time, and if he is (needlessly) humbled by less efficient erections he can take more care in seeing that she is satisfied in ways that he might have thought a waste of time before.

I'd heard this from sex therapists when I was writing a series of books for Relate. A man who can get it up at will and go on endlessly thinks he's a fantastic lover. He certainly won't take kindly to advice. But, if he's prepared to go into therapy when his potency is waning, he's open to learning the joys of sensual sex - joy to him, as well as to his woman.

Sex therapy is a voyage of self-discovery, and sex therapists tell me that some permanently impotent men have said that sex is more enjoyable than ever, and that their dazed and grateful partners have agreed.

The downside of Viagra, therefore, is that a man may reach for the prescription before trying other methods or digging more deeply into the secrets of his own and his partner's sexuality. The more focused he is on his penis, the less likely he is to worry about the woman lying next to him. She misses out, and although Zilbergeld wrote his book before Viagra, it's implicit that the man also misses out when penetration is the pinnacle of love-making. No wonder there's a disgruntled feeling among women that Viagra has not been fully tested on us and, therefore, is only legally available to men. It's supposed that its properties of speeding blood- flow to the sexual organs will help women become aroused more quickly. Speed has never been of the essence in female sexuality, but it will remain an issue so long as a man believes that diving in with a rock-hard erection is the best gift he can give the woman in his life.

Sarah Litvinoff is the author of `The Relate Guide to Sex in Loving Relationships' (Vermilion, pounds 9.99)