The moment might strike while antiquing; their eyes meet over a mid-century modern divan, and the sparks fly. Both middle-aged partners are ready for some empty-nester afternoon delight… thanks to the pharmaceutical industry.

That’s the picture we get from the ads for erectile dysfunction medications such as Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra that pepper late-night TV programs. A new batch of commercials for the drug Osphena target women who experience painful intercourse, or dyspareunia, due to the hormonal and physiological changes at menopause.

For many, these products have lived up to their promises to enhance intimacy—countering the effects of other medications, alleviating sexual performance anxiety, and extending sexually active years beyond what most of our forebears could have imagined. But I wonder how 15-plus years of such ads have affected our understanding of “normal” sex at midlife.

Physiological changes that accompany the aging process increasingly appear to us as medical problems to be treated with costly medical solutions. (Viagra is not a cheap date; it retails for about $40 a dose.) Commercials featuring husky-voiced sexy grandmas or rugged 50-something men driving vintage convertibles tell us we’re supposed to perform in bed as if we’re half our age, even if it takes a pharmacist’s help to do so.

Nearly 8 million prescriptions were written in 2012 for those famous little blue pills alone, our own version of the fountain of youth. That figure doesn’t include any of the other ED drugs prescribed for men or the new class of drugs like being offered to menopausal women. Our government is a major customer of ED drugs; last year, the Defense Health ...

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