Pity poor man, asked to hold up the world

As women are in a process of liberation from sexual stereotyping, men are going in the opposite direction
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When, 30 years ago, a film called It's a 2'6" Above the Ground World was released, its title was deemed a witty reference to the sex obsession that was all the rage at the time. In that dawn of liberation, the personal had become the political and, for a few happy years, sleeping with lots of people became something of a civic duty among domestic revolutionaries.

As silly as such behaviour may seem today, this week's news suggests that, far from making progress in such matters, we are actually becoming less mature. Viagra, the great wonder drug that put lead in the pencil of millions of men, allegedly transforming and enlivening their intimate lives, has been revealed, in a new book called The Viagra Myth, to be causing more problems than it has solved.

Elsewhere in today's 2'6" above the ground world, that great celebration of female genitalia, Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, is showing at the Edinburgh Festival with none other than Christine Hamilton in a lead role, while the more disgusting tabloids compete with one another in the area of covert close-ups taken up the skirts of female celebrities as they get out of cars. Mysteriously (and I suspect that the new ubiquity of varying types of porn may have something to do with this), sex has been reduced to its component private parts. A weird, unhealthy disconnection is taking place between the body and what is happening in the heart or head of that body's owner.

It is revealing to note how differently women and men have responded to this new trend. The rationale behind Eve Ensler's theatrical monologues is that, in her words, "the story of your vagina is the story of your life". Far from being dismissed as fatuous and demeaning, this remark has been taken seriously by women across the world. Every kind of TV speakerine, on-the-slide actress and D-list celebrity has been given the chance to get on stage and be paid to read out fanny stories from cue-cards and talk dirty in public. Audiences have solemnly reclaimed the relevant four-letter swearword, chanting it together with all the reverence of evangelicals saying the Lord's Prayer.

Men, on the other hand, are in the grip of a profound genital anxiety. Problems in a relationship are invariably the result of sexual unhappiness, they have learnt, and it is their own limp dysfunctionality that is to blame. Where women have found new pride in themselves, men look down at themselves with an increasing sense of panic. Wicked Willie, once a joke but not any more, is letting the side down. Who could be surprised that a business of over £2bn a year has been built on these feelings of inadequacy?

The tragedies behind the erections are revealed in The Viagra Myth, whose author, Dr Abraham Morgentaler, argues that the drug's side-effects are not so much medical as emotional. Some men have discovered that the reason for their poor performance in the past was simple: they had no desire for their wife or girlfriend. Now they can actually do it, but wish they did not have to, an experience that must be confusing for all concerned.

Others found that they were blaming their body for hang-ups and miseries that had nothing to do with what was going on, or not, between the sheets. There were also cases of newly potent men who, having awoken the slumbering giant of their wives' libido, quickly regretted it and gave up their medication simply to get a rest.

It is an odd reversal. At the very moment when women have begun a process of liberation from sexual stereotyping, prejudice and insecurity, men are heading in the opposite direction. Just as women once pursued the having-it-all fantasy promoted in the 1980s by Helen Gurley-Brown and Shirley Conran, now men are being expected to conform to a fake ideal of masculinity.

A psychiatrist working at the Priory Clinic, Dr Tim Cantopher, has tagged this new development "the Atlas Syndrome". The modern male, he claims, is attempting, like Atlas, to support the sky, and it is those who try hardest who are most likely to crack up. Every day, they attempt to be successful in their career, to be helpful around the home, to be loving fathers. No doubt, at the end of the busy day, they feel the pressure, with or without the little blue pill, to be the perfect lover.

"There are too many balls being kept in the air by these people," was the way the doctor puts it, while a would-be Atlas confessed that "You can end up chasing your own tail."

Perhaps it is wise to avoid metaphors for the wilting of Viagra and better simply to remember that it is not, in fact, a 2'6" above the ground world, that sex is almost always part of a bigger, more interesting picture. In fact, men might usefully follow Eve Ensler's example and learn to be proud of what they have got.