The Viagra ConundrumI’m of a certain age – if you don’t know what “certain age” means, then you’re not there yet – and I tend to watch television programs geared toward my demographic. With these shows I am inevitably treated to a barrage of commercials featuring impossibly attractive middle-aged and older couples looking unusually romantic in some wonderfully bucolic setting. Most often they’re either cuddling by a lake at sunset or sipping Chardonnay on the veranda of a remote mountain cabin. Whatever the locale, these doe-eyed twosomes are very clearly in the process of kindling and/or rekindling the flames of their relationship. Suddenly, before I can start to feel too badly about the fact that neither of these people has even an ounce of extra belly fat, they look into one another’s eyes and they experience “the moment” – the instantaneous realization that a bed is nearby and they both want to use it for a purpose other than sleeping. Then the ad’s voiceover screams: “Hey old guy! Yeah, you with the aching back! If you take one of these pills, you can become the sexual dude that you were 30 years ago!”

OK, I made that last part up, but that’s pretty much the message. And guess what? I’m happy to know there are medications that can help me recapture the sexual potency of my younger self. That said, I’ve noticed that all of these “relive your teens” products are for men. And I wonder: What about women who are struggling with sexual arousal? Where is the pill for them? Do pharmaceutical manufacturers not see the profit potential of a pill that heightens sexual desire in women?

In point of fact, Big Pharma does see the profit potential, and they’ve worked tirelessly to develop the female version of Viagra/Cialis/Levitra/etc. They’ve actually expended countless millions of dollars in this effort. Without success. Primarily because their R&D departments have somehow failed to realize that male sexual desire and female sexual desire are vastly dissimilar in both nature and causation, and addressing deficits therefore requires equally dissimilar tactics.

Earth Guys Are Easy

In the late-1980s Hollywood delivered a painfully silly movie entitled Earth Girls Are Easy. The film was a hit, but the title got it all wrong. It’s not the girls who are easy, it’s the guys. Put simply, male sexual desire is fairly uncomplicated and relatively easy to manipulate. Essentially, if a guy feels psychologically turned on, even a little bit, he’s almost certainly physically turned on too (and vice versa). Of course, as men age, their private parts don’t always respond the way they did in late-adolescence, which can make it difficult and less enjoyable to consummate sexual interest.

This is where erection enhancing drugs come into play, as they can turn even a little bit of physical arousal into a rock-hard erection that sticks around until the deed is done (by increasing blood flow to the penis). Heck, research shows that a small hit of Viagra will even help cut flowers stand up straighter for as long as a week. In short, Viagra and similar medications allow a man’s physical arousal to match and possibly even enhance his psychological arousal. So in today’s world if a man is even a little bit aroused psychologically, he can achieve and maintain an erection – even if he is of a certain age, as I am.

And it’s not difficult at all to get a man psychologically sexually aroused. Put simply, male psychological sexual arousal is a matter of OR. A man will get turned on if a woman has nice breasts OR a nice caboose OR a reputation for being sexually aggressive OR a great recipe for chocolate chip cookies OR just about anything else that he likes. His attraction could be to a character trait (a nice personality), though more often than not it’s to a specific body part. Thus, the stereotypical statement about men being pigs is relatively on target. Sexually speaking, men (straight, gay, bi or anything else) will belly up to the trough and chow down on pretty much anything that is served, so long as there’s at least one yummy little ort tucked in there somewhere. This is why erection-enhancing drugs like Viagra, Cialis and Levitra work so well. A man doesn’t need to be in love to want sex. In fact, he doesn’t even need to find his partner overly attractive, so long as that partner has at least one characteristic that the man finds sexy.

Women are Not Even Remotely Easy

The process of psychological sexual arousal in women is nothing like the process for men. In truth, it is much more difficult to get a woman psychologically interested in sex because, for her, it’s not a matter of OR, it’s a matter of AND. Women want a deep voice AND a hairy chest AND big biceps AND a good job AND a sense of humor AND a desire to live in the suburbs and fix up a house together…. As such, you can pump a woman so full of vasodilators (medications that increase blood flow to her genital region) that physical arousal is utterly undeniable, yet she still won’t want sex – not until her many conditions for psychological arousal have been met. This is why Big Pharma’s attempts to create a Viagra-like drug for women have failed so miserably. A woman can be physically sexually aroused to an extreme degree and still not experience a desire for sex.

In their book A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us About Sexual Relationships authors Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam posit an evolutionary cause for women’s general tendency toward sexual temperance, writing (pp 71-72):

When contemplating sex with a man, a woman has to consider the long-term. This consideration may not even be conscious, but rather is part of the unconscious software that has evolved to protect women over hundreds of thousands of years. Sex could commit a woman to a substantial, life-altering investment: pregnancy, nursing, and more than a decade of child-raising. These commitments require enormous time, resources, and energy. Sex with the wrong guy could lead to many unpleasant outcomes. … A woman’s sexual desire must be filtered through a careful appraisal of these potential risks.

This explains the female’s focus on AND rather than OR. A woman needs, in addition to physical attraction, an emotional connection (or at least the illusion thereof) before her psychological desire for sex kicks in. (Yes, mothers in today’s world are perfectly capable of surviving and even thriving without a man’s assistance, but the shackles of evolution are not so easily discarded.) Ogas and Gaddam aptly call this feminine need to thoroughly vet a potential partner’s physical and character traits before becoming psychologically turned on “Miss Marple,” referencing Agatha’s Christie’s crusty yet astute female sleuth. They note that a woman’s internal Miss Marple is not willing to approve sexual arousal until multiple conditions are met. Miss Marple says, “Sure, he’s cute, but does he have a good job? Is he interested in marriage? Does he have a history of cheating? Is he a heavy drinker? Has he ever been abusive? Etc.”

Men do not have a Miss Marple. Nor do they have a Hercule Poirot. This is because, evolutionarily speaking, there just isn’t a reason for it.

Mommy Porn vs. Hardcore Porn

If you’re struggling to understand the difference between male and female sexual desire, consider the difference between hardcore pornography, which caters to a mostly male audience, and romance novels and movies, which cater to a mostly female audience. Most male-oriented erotica is little more than an endless stream of body parts and sexual acts. There is no storyline, and no emotional intimacy. Usually there isn’t even any kissing. Erotica created for women, however, sometimes skips the sex act entirely, focusing instead on the nature and intensity of the couple’s emotional interaction and connection – because that is the driving force in female sexual desire.

Even the recent plethora of sexually graphic romance novels, sometimes referred to as “mommy porn,” looks more at emotions and intimate connections than hardcore sex acts. The most obvious example of this is the bestselling novel (and forthcoming movie) Fifty Shades of Grey, which traces the rocky relationship of beautiful but naïve Anastasia Steele and her uber-sexy bad boy billionaire boyfriend Christian Grey. Does this plot sound like a Harlequin romance? If so, there’s a reason for that. In fact, the only real difference between Fifty Shades and the pulp romances of yesteryear is that in traditional bodice rippers the sex scenes fade to black immediately after said bodice is ripped, whereas mommy porn tracks the action all the way through its “light the fireworks” conclusion.

Furthermore, it is clear from both reader reviews and anecdotal evidence that Fifty Shades appeals to its mostly female readership not because of the graphic BDSM sexuality, but because of the developing relationship between Anastasia and Christian. In particular, female readers are turned on by Christian’s slow transition from cold, dominant master to loving husband and partner. (Male readers most likely skip to the sexual portions of the book, ignoring the romantic plotline.)

The Viagra Conundrum: Redux

At the end of the day, male and female sexual arousal are hugely different processes. Men require very little incitement before becoming both physically and psychologically aroused. This is true regardless of a man’s sexual orientation. Conversely, women require both physical and emotional attraction before their psychological desire kicks in – and without that, physical arousal is pretty much irrelevant. Again, this is true regardless of sexual orientation. Sure, Miss Marple can sometimes be fooled by a couple of cocktails or a lavish gift, and she may short-circuit entirely in women with a history of sexual abuse, but for the most part women don’t respond to Viagra-like drugs thanks to her curmudgeonly instincts. As such, Big Pharma is doomed to failure in its (still ongoing) efforts to address low sexual desire in women. And this will continue until drug developers finally recognize that sexual arousal is more than just physical in females; it also involves both emotional and practical considerations. And there might never be a pill that adequately addresses those issues!

 

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