The human sex drive is complicated (duh). It is closely tied with mental processes, both biologically and by association within our culture, that we often forget how simple hormonal or physical “problems with the plumbing,” as it were, can mess things up.
There are hundreds of reasons that one person might be sexually attracted to another person but not physically and/or mentally aroused. One of the most infuriating is timing. Simply put, one person might be horny and the other might not be. Despite mutual attraction and no chronic problems, two people might just not sync up due to their schedules. It is a problem.
Of course, given our culture’s weird mystification of sexuality and romance, we then proceed to make an already frustrating situation far worse. We pretend that things have to be passionate, instant, and awesome every time, so we force the situation, with neither person really all that happy. Ok, most of us have come to the conclusion that they don’t need to be and are actually very practical about the whole situation. Sometimes it’s just meh but that’s alright because hey, nobody’s perfect. Yet the idea of taking sex enhancing drugs that alter our mental state of emotional arousal are far more controversial than mere physically arousing drugs, despite our reasonable knowledge of how day-to-day life can go and that mental states are more often the real problem.
The shocking, or at least confusing, part of this mental-physical split is that we generally accept physically altering drugs (e.g. Viagra). Viagra’s chemically active ingredients do not do much for one’s mental state. Actually, its ingredients have the somewhat humorous effect of working regardless of one’s mental state, resulting in the dreaded four-hour situation in which it is recommended that one go and see a doctor. Because of the obviousness of male physical arousal – in addition to its propensity to malfunction even in healthy, young men and therefore cause tremendous angst in already insecure individuals – there is a significant amount of focus on how to make sure the penis works no matter what. The assumption, of course, is that men are always mentally aroused (the apocryphal “men think about sex every 12 seconds”), so that never needs to be addressed, but occasionally get over excited, nervous, and/or are old, therefore sometimes need a pill to make sure mind and body are in sync when the opportunity presents itself – such as when you have access to two claw-footed bathtubs on a bluff overlooking the ocean. That, my friends, is a perfect time to make sure everything is working, better take some sex enhancing pills.
While men are allegedly always mentally ready, there is a reverse cliche for women, which is that they are always physically ready for sex: a falsehood of serious magnitude. It is noteworthy that the female physical arousal process is actually more complex and involves more bits and pieces activating than the male body. The myth that women are always physically ready (because there is nothing to become erect) is a corollary to the other cliche: the myth that women are rarely in the mood for sex. Our culture paints female libido as lower than male by definition. There is no cliche about women thinking about sex every 12 seconds. There is a cliche about women getting headaches as excuses or needing bouquets and chocolates to get in the mood. Women who are seen as being as sexual as men are labeled deviant, slutty, unbalanced, etc. Obviously the centuries of describing female sexuality as dangerous, dirty, seductive, controlling, out-right sinful, and pathological being embedded within the most basic aspects of our culture has nothing to do with that perception – but I digress. My point is that it is even conceivable in our culture that a woman might not want sex, where as that condition (not wanting sex) is obviously alien to all men at all times.
As you can see, it is comical that we would ascribe men has having primarily physical arousal problems and women as having primarily mental arousal problems. It makes far more sense that both sexes would be afflicted by either problem about the same amount, despite the differences in biology and mentality. Yet here comes the interesting part – and I think it is an excellent example of the male world view affecting not just TV and movies but science as well – the “Viagra for women” is more appropriately a sexual anti-depressant than it is physical power boost.
There have been lots of articles about the new little blue pill for women, but my favorite reaction was actually over at Broadsheet, where each of their savvy writers added another wrinkle to a debate far too smoothed over. Most interesting are the links to articles about the medicalization of “female sexual dysfunction.” It is important to note that these articles are not implying that there is no medical form of female sexual dysfunction, but instead are arguing that the efforts by current studies and drug companies are pathologizing common and non-dysfunctional reasons for low libido. In short, when men want to have sex and their penis does not work, it is an obvious problem that Viagra fixes. When women don’t want sex, however, it isn’t just a question of what might be causing the lack of desire, but begs the question is it a problem with her or with her partner? Does her low libido even need correction or is it an appropriate reaction?
In summary, our culture generally sees male sexual dysfunction as a physical issue (unable to have sex) while female dysfunction is mental (unwilling to have sex). The reverse (men-mental, women-physical) goes not just unconsidered, but is treated as irrational/impossible. Men always want sex! Women don’t have to worry about “getting it up!” Basic biology! Science!
Wrong. It’s easy to blame the corporation for “inventing” a pathology (and they often are) but it is just as important to look at why they invent one pathology for men (erectile dysfunction) and one for women (low libido). Cultural framing guides their logic. Men can have low libido, women can have trouble becoming physically aroused. Let’s stop with the “Viagra for women” canard and recognize we all have issues now and then, shall we?
Given our busy lives and our complicated relationships, it’s unsurprising that in the small window available for hanky-panky occasionally one person or the other has a physical or mental hang-up that prohibits sexy-time. But here’s the rub: if it isn’t a disease or disorder, it’s hard to argue for a reason to develop a drug to treat it. Not commercially, of course, but to the FDA. Our legal system and general culture has made it so that if a company wants to develop a product that enhances or enables a person’s physical sexual ability or libido, they have to find (or “discover”) a pathology to justify research and FDA approval. Companies cannot simply make a chemical that makes our life better: they have to find a disease to cure first. Low libido and physical problems associated with sex are problems, and we should be able to take drugs to control those if we choose without the need to describe either as a disease state requiring a doctor’s prescription.
The result of their being available only by prescription creates a frustrating cycle. One who wants a beneficial drug must either lie to their doctor or must begin to see his or her natural hiccups as pathological. This cycle is one of the core reasons we should begin to advocate a health system in which prevention and enhancement are as valued as therapeutic and restorative medicine. A child who has trouble focusing in a boring class is not pathological, she or he simply might lack the coping methods other students have – for example, I doodled to cope with calculus. Drugs like Ritalin or modanifil should be readily available along with simple instructions on how to use them for cognitive enhancement. Most people don’t take fistfuls of ibuprofen because they are aware if two pills don’t do the job, five more aren’t going to help. Overdoses are prevented by information and education, not prohibition. Furthermore, in many cases cognitive enhancing drugs can make a frustrating class more tolerable and survivable, which brings up the quality of life and of education for the student using the drugs. Voluntarily taking the drug makes the student an active part of their education (instead of being compelled to both go to school and take a drug).
The logic of inventing a pathology to facilitate a drug has spilled into modern sexuality. Our absurd condition, where in any sexual problem is either a personal failing or a chronic illness, leads to an irrational cultural and personal nervousness and silence around how we could improve our sex lives with drugs. I drink coffee when I want to be more awake, I take pain-killers when I have a headache, drink alcohol when I want to relax and/or have fun. And I don’t even do recreational drugs. That’s a-whole-nother category of mood alteration. People take drugs to control their emotions all the time.
The same logic can be applied to sexual function drugs. Why can’t I have access to a pill that makes me aroused and a pill that lets me not think about sex? If men are constantly thinking about sex, which is an obvious distraction, why don’t we have a pill to liberate us from our own annoying biology? There is no reason an advanced society should not have the ability to control base urges.
Knee-jerk reactionaries will, of course, say that this takes the “magic” out of romance because it chemicalizes and “controls” the situation. False. The first time you meet someone, that random spark or connection that draws two people together, a great night where everything clicks: those are where the “magic” comes from in a relationship. Sexual drugs like the one’s I’m talking about aren’t designed to create false highs, but to prevent unnecessary lows. A pill that encourages arousal when taken intentionally and with purpose is no more ruinous to sex than drinking coffee is to have the energy to read a favorite book after a hard day at work. People’s bodily cycles are weird.
An example: Tom might get horny right before the end of work, but Jane might be horny first thing in the morning. Sadly, the only time the two have for sex is after 7pm, when they’re both home from work, and neither is all that interested. Now imagine if they could reduce their arousal during the day and boost it at night. Sexual frustrations resulting both from being aroused with no outlet and from having an available partner with low desire, would be largely eliminated. No pill is going to make Tom and Jane more compatible intellectually or personality-wise, but the right pills could help make their love life a lot easier and a lot better.
There are lots and lots of other potential uses of libido altering drugs, but the example above is far and away the most common problem. Like most mood altering drugs, they in no way have a totalizing effect. They aren’t love potions or hypnotic devises. Drinking a cup of coffee does not make a person love making excel sheets, but it does give him or her enough concentration and energy to get them over with more quickly. Another concern with sex enhancing drugs is that people might feel compelled to take them to improve a relationship or to mask a current problem. This problem is a real one, but is in no way unique to or exacerbated by sex enhancing drugs.
There are so many benefits available, it is baffling and infuriating that our culture cannot simply allow us to work on making little problems in our lives go away so that we can have more of what we enjoy just because it needs the help of a little pill.
Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.