For over a decade, George, 33, has struggled on-and-off with erectile dysfunction (ED), a challenge that he says left him frustrated and embarrassed. “When I was nineteen, the girl I was seeing was polite about it, but it made me feel incredibly insecure and inadequate,” he says. He considered seeking out a prescription at the time, but a friend with medical expertise told him it was probably normal—that he just needed to get comfortable with the person.
Comfort alone, however, didn’t do it. Many years later, George, who spoke with Medium on the condition we not use his last name, finally mustered the courage to ask his doctor about sildenafil, which is better known as the little blue pill Viagra. “I went to the pharmacy to get it and the prescription my doctor wrote would have cost $150 to fill because it wasn’t covered by my insurance,” he says. Then, George read an article about the company Ro, a web-savvy startup selling affordable, generic forms of Viagra via an app, with a price tag closer to $6 per dose.
Erectile dysfunction, which is defined by the American Urological Society as “the inability to attain and/or maintain penile erection sufficient for sexual satisfaction,” becomes more common as men get older. Some research suggests that 40 percent of men experience ED by age 40; about 70 percent are affected at age 70. But the patient base for ED drugs may be changing.
Viagra, the first FDA-approved drug to treat ED, saw instant success when it came barreling into pharmacies and bedrooms in 1998. Viagra has made its manufacturer, Pfizer, tens of billions of dollars in the two decades since, including $1.6 billion globally in 2016 alone. But now that similar drugs are flooding the market, a new kind of pharmaceutical company is targeting a new kind of consumer: young men.
Two companies, Ro and Hims, both launched in late 2017 with advertising campaigns built for the Instagram set. Their ads are hip, clean, full of white space, more reminiscent of Everlane or Airbnb than, say, CVS.com. And while sildenafil is considered safe and effective for most men, experts warn that some young men may use them as Band-Aids for serious underlying problems, from chronic disease to sexual anxiety.
It’s really important to help these guys not feel like they’re the only ones, because they’re not.