8 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 56

Soft option

Jeremy Clarke

years ago I dated a woman whose body, when I first clapped eyes on it, was so amazingly well proportioned that it intimidated me and I was unable to function properly. The only thing to come out on stalks were my eyeballs. When this happened again the next time I was permitted to see it, I was shattered. I sincerely believed my life was now over and that I might as well top myself. Going to see a GP about it was out of the question. I would have felt like a bloke in a doctor joke.

Friends advised me to bypass the medical establishment altogether and order a packet of the celebrated Pfizer Riser anti-impotence pill on the Internet. This, too, was a non-starter. At that time I possessed neither a computer with Internet access nor a credit card with which to pay for it. The lady in question expressed her sympathy, but she was a hard cow and said it was going to be a case of three strikes and I was out. I'd had a relatively easy life till then, and it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. She delivered the three-strikes-and-out ultimatum on the Wednesday.

A friend mentioned that when the same thing had happened to him he'd been helped by a private doctor who specialised in sexual heath. On the Friday afternoon I was lying on this private doctor's couch while he examined my genitals. 'Nothing physically wrong with you,' he said, washing his hands in a small sink in the corner of the room and speaking to me over his shoulder. 'Obviously what you need,' he said, 'are a couple of anti-impotence pills to get you over the psychological hump. I can write you out a prescription right now.' It was almost certainly anxiety that was causing my problem, he said. Therefore I had nothing to worry about. 'When we are anxious we produce adrenalin,' he said. Adrenalin inhibits the chemical that triggers erections. Have you ever seen a man with an erection fighting, for instance?'

I got dressed. But as the doctor reached for his prescribing pad, a thought struck him so powerfully it actually made his head jolt back. He was conducting a clinical trial on behalf of a drugs company, he said. The aim of the trial was to test the merits of a newly discovered anti-impotence drug, which its makers were advertising as 'super Viagra'. In return for six months' supply of the new drug, all I had to do was to fill in an initial questionnaire, obtain written consent from my partner and keep a detailed diary of our sexual encounters. Once started on the trial, he said, I was under no obligation to continue and could withdraw at any time.

Now a packet of four 100mg tablets of Viagra costs £33 at Boots and £29 at Asda, he said. If I opted for the trial, however, my treatment wouldn't cost me a penny. The only snag was that I would have to wait until the drugs company had checked my blood samples and given me the goahead. If he took my blood there and then, and sent it off straight away, I would probably get the thumbs-up by Wednesday.

This was a major drawback as far as I was concerned. I was nearly out of mind with depression and anxiety. Next Wednesday seemed like next year. Another thing he ought to mention, he said, was that the trial was a 'double-blind' trial. A small minority of the batches of tablets supplied to trialists were chemically inert placebos. Placebo is Latin for 'I will please', he explained. A double-blind clinical trial is where neither he nor I know whether the batch of drugs he gives me are placebos or not. If he were a betting man, he said, he'd rate the odds against my being given placebos at about 20-1.

I had a think. I could have either four Viagra tablets in my grubby paw in less than an hour for £33. Or, if I could live with myself till next Wednesday, I could have a cupboard full of the high-octane variety for free. The rules of the trial strictly precluded both. The drugs company forbade the use of all anti-impotence drugs for two weeks before the start of a trial. Cheapskate to the last, I said I'd go for the free ones and hang on till Wednesday till my bloods were cleared.

I was on a knife edge all over the weekend. The woman whose body was the cause of all the trouble signed the consent form in a puddle of spilt lager on a table in the pub. When she circulated the document among her mates, there was considerable merriment. 'It's not funny,' I said. She and her mates said they completely disagreed. At kicking-out time she said, 'See you Wednesday, then.' It was more of a threat than a promise, the way she said it.

If she thought I was in a state because I couldn't manage it with her, though, she was kidding herself. I was traumatised because I was convinced I'd never be able to form a sexual union with anybody ever again. That was the nightmare I was living in till the Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning it felt like Christmas morning used to feel when I was five years old. In the afternoon the doctor's receptionist rang to say that I could go ahead. (She didn't know with what, she said; she was just passing on a message.) On the Wednesday evening I broke the seal on one of the pill packets and swallowed two just to make sure. The drug would be active for about five hours, it said on the instructions. About an hour later the woman with the body took one as well, and said something like, 'OK, cowboy, let's ride.'

And guess what happened. Nothing. 'Odds of 20-1 against, and I get the bloody placebo,' I said with my head in my hands. 'And a placebo is?' she asked, all sarky like. 'It's L2tin,' I said, 'for "I will please".' She didn't ask me to elaborate„ She just stood up, got dressed and walked away for good, taking the causes of my impotence away with her. Touch wood.