This is a story of a man and the pill. No, not that pill. I’m talking about a little hair-growing pill named Finasteride (aka Propecia), which slowly turned my sex life upside down.
Since I was a little boy, I’ve been preoccupied with my hair. I had (and still largely have) soft, thick, chestnut-colored hair, which would cause nearly every barber I was plunked down in front of to coo that I should have been a girl –such hair was wasted on a boy. It was simultaneously flattering and distressingly emasculating, and was perhaps the origin of my deep-seated phobia of eventually losing my tresses (my therapist and I are currently working on that). By the time I was a teenager, I would regularly spend hours staring in awkwardly-angled mirrors trying to figure out if the crown of my head was just a little more visible than it had been a day, month or year before. The prospect of going bald was terrifying, and since both of my grandfathers were sporting the cue-ball look, I was certain, absolutely certain, that I would follow in their hairless footsteps.
And yet, for a couple of decades, I somehow I managed to escape that fate. I’m not sure how – perhaps sheer willpower kept the hair firmly rooted to my head? Eventually, however, even the most obstinate must bow to genetics – and at 39, I started noticing winking flashes of skin at my crown. A beach photo set off panic–was that a hint of pink, sunburned scalp I was seeing? I quizzed my then-girlfriend, who laughed off my distress. It was cute, nothing to worry about! What? Cute? This was a 5-alarm fire! Something needed to be done! There was no way I’d stand idly by while my hair withered and died.
I won’t even try and defend how irrational my reaction was. Plenty of guys would be thrilled to have as much hair as I had then and still have now. I was reacting like some aging starlet who just spotted her first wrinkle. And just like a vain Hollywood-type, I rushed to a doctor who was more than happy to give me a prescription –Propecia - with the assurance that it would fix my problem right up. And you know what? It did. Within a few months, I noticed that my hair had visibly thickened, restored to its former glory. And so the problem was solved, and all was right in the kingdom again… except…. What was the tag line from that old margarine ad? Oh yes, that’s right. You can’t fool Mother Nature.
It should be noted at this point that I was in a long-term monogamous relationship that had just about run its course. What had started years earlier as a passionate affair had evolved into a sad battle of wills; she wanted to marry and start a family, and I was still stubbornly clinging to our original no-strings agreement. It was a bitter place, one that left everyone feeling hardened and miserable, and yet neither of us could let go. Well, we did let go of one thing – the sex. So it was no surprise that the question of potency didn’t even come up (so to speak) for me anymore.
In the midst of the relationship’s downward spiral, the handy little hair pill was surreptitiously casting its evil spell, but I was so preoccupied with work and working out that I didn’t even notice my growing lack of interest in sex. Masturbation, despite Betty’s tutelage and encouragement, fell to once or twice a month maximum. I figured my anger surrounding the decaying relationship was causing a sexual shutdown, but even after my girlfriend and I finally broke up, the idea of sex remained a guttering candle in some distant mental backroom.
In time though, I started to realize that something had to be wrong. The doctor who gave me the prescription decided to run some tests; if nothing else, I appreciated his thoroughness. Could I still have an erection? Yes, but it was weaker and less steady than before. Was my testosterone level normal? No – surprisingly, it was far higher than average. So, according to the official statistics, I was experiencing no adverse effects. Perhaps I was just getting older? Softer? Less virile? Sure, you have a little less ejaculate when you’re on the pill, but that’s “normal.” Lucky I wasn’t one of those poor guys who fall into the small percentage with serious side effects, like total permanent impotency!
A brief note here on that high testosterone level: one of the interesting side effects of Finasteride is that it increases normal testosterone production while suppressing the mechanism by which it’s converted into the hair-killing variety (dihydrotestosterone), so you still have an overall abnormally high level of testosterone. Supposedly, this hormonal switch up is harmless, but if so, why would nature design us with different types of testosterone? It seems like a classic example of medical hubris; if we don’t know what it does, it must do nothing.
Still, none of these details really bothered me much. I was single and –for once- unencumbered by lust. My hair looked great, and my penis worked just fine for urinating. With no real sex drive and no girlfriend, its other functions were rarely challenged. And yet, the shadow of a slow decline into senescence (at age 43) hovered over me. Wasn’t I still too young to give up sex entirely? When I jerked off, I could barely maintain a hard-on, but was that even important anymore? Maybe this was what middle age looked like?
These rather abstract issues suddenly crystalized into a crisis a year ago June, when I met a ravishing young writer at a party in Brooklyn. (The event was designed for singles, but somehow I missed that memo, and nearly brought along an old college friend who was both married and 7 months pregnant.) The writer and I hit it off. A date was arranged, followed by a passionate tumble. My cock, previously allowed to lounge contentedly, was called into action. And thankfully it worked, although somewhat hesitantly. In the end, she came, I didn’t. But when the same thing happened on our second date, my self-confidence began to wilt a bit. She looked at my box of Magnum condoms with a sly smile that said it all: extra large? Yeah, right. Men!
The third time we had sex, I started to lose my hard-on right when I needed it most. Thankfully, applying the expert guidance of Betty Dodson, my tongue and hands worked just fine, and I managed to cover for Mr. Softee. But still, I was shattered. I have never had any illusions that my penis would be the main source of my partner’s pleasure, and yet I also never completely grasped how central a hard cock was to my own self-esteem. Yes, I’ve read that it’s possible to have a satisfying sex life without potency, but I was healthy, very fit and relatively young. And of course I still had a great head of hair. That had to count for something, right?
A few weeks into the relationship, I confessed my experiments in medical intervention to my new girlfriend. She was horrified that I was toying so blithely with my hormones – in fact, such concern about her own hormonal tinkering had caused her to give up the Pill years before and switch permanently to condoms and the rhythm method. She also mentioned that she had heard two of her girlfriends’ significant others had also tried Propecia with similar libido-killing effects. Sure, it was just anecdotal evidence, but maybe there was a pattern? She emphatically noted that I would look great even if I was totally bald, which was quite sweet of her to say, but still induced near cataleptic shock. Was I going to have to choose between my hair and my sex life?
I decided to experiment a bit and reduce my Finasteride intake from a daily dose to just three times a week. That seemed to help. My erections were a little longer and stronger, and thankfully my hair seemed to be holding on. Okay, time to really let go. I went off the stuff entirely for a trial three months. Within a couple of weeks of stoppage, my sex drive started to pick up, and pick up, and pick up. Suddenly, memories from my teens and early twenties came flooding back, when sex was a constant, insistent din hammering at my brain. I could think of nothing but my girlfriend’s spectacular ass, the luscious curve of her breasts, and how her pussy reminded me of beautiful lavender orchid.
And she noticed with amazement how my cock seemed to be actually getting gradually larger all the time, which culminated with her referring to my penis as a schlong and buying us a box of Magnums at her own volition.
What had I been doing to myself? What devil’s bargain had I made? Not only had I sacrificed an essential part of myself on the altar of vanity, I had potentially unleashed a slew of unknown long-term side effects. It took months before my sex drive stabilized at a healthy, strong, but not inconvenient, level. With Big Pharma ramming drugs of all sorts down our throats, it’s not surprising that rather than addressing core issues of body acceptance and awareness, I went the pill-popping route. And now I even question Finasteride’s impact on muscle recovery from exercise, body fat percentage, and my overall emotional state. Had I effectively almost castrated myself?
As it stands now, my hair is still doing fine, but I anticipate that it will thin over time. No, I won’t use drugs, toupees, weaves, surgical intervention, or any other crutch (fake spray-on hair in a can anyone?), though I might resort to the occasional hat if the weather’s appropriate. Having a partner that doesn’t insist that I look like Justin Bieber helps. But more importantly, loving and respecting my own body is a far more important life lesson.