Sex pill addicts: Yemenis turn to Viagra-like drugs as war grinds on


Sales of pills such as Viagra are soaring in war-torn Yemen, and men say they are becoming addicted to their effects

A sex pill sold in Yemen. Users say they feel invigorated when combined with energy drinks (Nasser al-Sakkaf/MEE)
Nasser al-Sakkaf's picture
Last update: 
Monday 11 September 2017 13:05 UTC

TAIZ, Yemen - Rafat remembers the first time he saw his friends taking sex pills to get high.

"I was at a friend's wedding last October," the 25-year-old from Taiz says. "I saw them put Viagra in their energy drinks. They said it gave them boundless energy, and with no side effects. So I decided to try one."

So began Rafat's descent into what he freely describes as a "dependency" on a drug marketed to Westerners as a panacea for sexual problems. 

I saw them put Viagra in their energy drinks. They said it gave them boundless energy

- Rafat, sex pill user

But in Yemen, a country in the middle of a harrowing war - thousands dead, millions teetering on the brink of starvation, and cholera ravaging the weakest of the weak - growing numbers of men are turning to Viagra and its "generics" as a means of escape. 

And many users are increasingly reporting a psychological addiction to the drug.

Generic sex drugs can be bought for $1 each in the shops of Yemen (AFP)

Viagra was originally discovered in the search for heart medicine in the 1990s, and increases oxygenation to the blood, although it is unlikely to result in any noticeable "highs".

"In the first day, I hardly felt any sexual effects, but now the overall feeling is better than before," says Rafat.

"But if I do not take one for a week, I feel so tired, so I advise the youth not to take Viagra or any similar pills."

His plea appears to be falling on deaf ears.

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Yemen's health ministry reported in that 400 million Yemeni rials ($1.6m) of sex pills were sold In 2014, and the main users were men aged between 20-45.

But the ongoing war in Yemen has reportedly seen a huge increase in the use of the pills, with less oversight of the market.

Even in 2014, the pills were the third most commonly sold medicine, accounting for 13 percent of all sales.

The average price of sex pills like Viagra and similar pills is 250 rials ($1), and most of the pharmacies in Yemen sell them without prescription, though it is technically illegal.

A source in the health ministry confirmed to MEE that there are more demands on sex pills now than before the war, though he added that the health ministry cannot send observers to pharmacies because of the lack of budget.

"We know about the irregularities of selling sex pills without prescriptions, we know about smuggling of sex pills, moreover, we know about the factories and pharmacies that produce illegal sex pills, but we cannot stop them nowadays, as there are more important things than this for the ministry to do,” he explained. 

Some of the factories are located in Yemen itself, but other drugs are imported. 

War has ravaged Yemen to the point of collapse (AFP)

Akram al-Hwaish, a urologist based in Taiz, said that the war had exacerbated an already major issue.  

“Depression, marital problems, psychological pressure and work problems are the main causes of sexual weakness,” he told MEE.

“Many people are suffering from these problems amid the war and this weakness leads them to take sex pills."

Taiz has been the site of fierce clashes between the Popular Resistance, loyal to ousted President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and the Houthis, who are allied with another ousted president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has also sided against the Houthis and has used the power vacuum to assert its authority over the city, taking control of police stations and some hospitals.

The 'needy people'

Viagra is marketed in the West as a lifestyle drug (AFP)

Rasheed, 35, is a father of five children, one of whom suffers from autism.

In June 2015, several months after the war broke out, he lost his job in marketing and now he works as a building labourer in Taiz city, when work is available. The scarce work has made life very hard for Rasheed and his family, he said. 

"When I lost my job, I started to work as a building labourer and I found many colleagues were taking different kinds of sex pills," he said, speaking to MEE in a restaraunt in Taiz. 

They attributed the main reason to their suffering, Rasheed recounted, "and said the pills helped to maintain their good relationships with their wives".

“Any man without money suffers from domestic problems with his wife and this is my situation, so I decided to take sex pills to keep up a good relationship with my wife."

Although Rasheed said he buys only one pill a week, it has become a necessity for him - but many of his colleagues take more than one pill at once.

I do not think that rich people take sex pills like needy people

- Rasheed

"I do not think that rich people take sex pills like needy people, as those pills help needy people like us, who suffer from depression and they try to live happily even for one day a week," he said, adding that he had not taken sex pills back when he was earning a decent salary.

Frequent use of sex pills can lead to health risks, doctors say. 

Hwaish warned that the dangers of Viagra addiction increased if the pills were taken without a proper prescription.

"Those pills can kill old people and heart patients, so people should only take them on the advice of a doctor," he explained.

Rasheed remains convinced that his use of sex pills is a symptom of his current conditions - the war and underemployment.

"I hope this is a temporary period," he said.

"When I return my former work or find any new job, definitely I will give up taking sex pills."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.