When Dr. Irwin Goldstein, a well-known expert in sexual medicine, presented recent research findings to a scientific meeting, he said: “It is rare for me to stand in front of an audience and say, ‘This is a manuscript that has changed my life.' But this one has done that.”
At first glance the study, printed in the Journal of Sexual Medicine (edited by Goldstein), seems like the most obvious thing in the world. When you hear the results, you say to yourself, “Well, duh!”
The results showed that female sexual partners in committed relationships with men who were treated with an impotence drug (in this case Levitra, made by Bayer, which also sponsored the study) had better sex. That’s the “duh” part. But get this: The women didn’t just like sex better because they could, you know, have sex. They liked sex better because their own bodies worked better. Lubrication improved. Orgasm improved. Desire improved.
In case you’re still not catching on, the women’s bodies reacted as if they were receiving the drug, as if they were the ones being treated. So a drug they didn’t even take affected their bodies.
“Her physiology is linked to him,” Goldstein says. “Men share problems with women, and the solutions … It totally intrigues me. I can change someone’s physiology without treating them. It’s the wildest thing!”
In fact, the better a man’s response to the drug, the better her response to him.
There’s a concept in the world of physics called “entanglement.” It refers to the weird fact that subatomic particles have “partners” — other subatomic particles — with which they can be entangled, sometimes over great distances. If a physicist tinkers with one particle, the change affects the other particle. Strange but true.
I find Goldstein’s study a strong indicator that humans can be entangled, that the romantic ideal extolled by poets and Dr. Phil exists in real life. We really do change when we fall in love. We become a unit, at least sexually. “There are no other physiologic abilities of men and women that are shared, and that is what is so fascinating about these data,” Goldstein says.
One sexual unit?
He is reluctant to speculate beyond his data, but when I asked if he knew if the effect could work the other way, he says that he has some evidence that when he successfully treats women who suffer from dyspareunia, or pain with intercourse, their men get better erections and have more sexual satisfaction. And he suspects that male partners of women with low libido have poorer erections and that if those women could be treated, the men would improve, too.
Is this really possible? Do we really meld into one sexual unit?
Could be, says Jerry Phelps, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, who has studied and treats couples with sexual problems.
When Phelps worked with postmenopausal women who were counseled on the changes they might experience, given treatment options for any sexual dysfunction, and taught how to talk it all over with their partners, both partners benefited.
Phelps, who also treats young people at the school’s counseling center, says the theory isn’t just for middle-aged marrieds. “I would like to see joint treatment in most cases [of sexual dysfunction]," he says. “I would encourage the partner to be included,” whether the caregiver is a psychologist, psychiatrist, urologist or ob-gyn.
'A couple's condition'
Goldstein says much of the existing paradigm for treating sexual dysfunction “is hopeless! It is penis-focused, male-oriented. There’s no involvement of the couple. That must change. Correct management is to treat this as a couple’s condition.”
He suggests using infertility medicine as an example. “When people cannot have a child," he says, "the medical conclusion is you must evaluate both members. But when a man has erectile dysfunction, we’re only treating the man!”
He’s not just being a romantic, either. One of the findings of his research is that in addition to all the good stuff that happened to the female partners of men treated for impotence, they also suffered more pain with intercourse than they did before the drug gave their man the woody of a titan. So by treating both people, women could be counseled on what to expect and ways to prevent pain.
I am not a scientist, nor a medical doctor, so I’m perfectly willing to go beyond the data to speculate on what’s going on, and here’s what I think. I think, and the questions submitted over and over again to Sexploration show, that people in long-term, committed relationships really are “entangled” in most if not all aspects of life.
It's always about you
This might seem obvious, yet we often deny it. We use the phrase “It’s not about you,” when we talk to our partners, but it’s ALWAYS about them. If we change jobs, it’s not just us being affected. If we suddenly feel depressed, we’re not the only ones suffering. Sexually speaking, if we gain lots of weight, dress like a slob, it’s not just about us. We don’t have to look at ourselves.
Accepting the joys of love — great sex being one — also means recognizing the responsibilities and one of those responsibilities is keeping yourself appealing to your partner. Sounds shallow, yes. But doing it shows you care about your partner. Your partner gains self-esteem as you do. Your partner loses it when you do. He feels sexy when you do. She feels in the mood when you do.
“This is intuitive, yes,” says Goldstein. “But that is what’s intriguing, that this is part of a relationship, the sharing of psychological issues. We get into each other's head.”
When Viagra first came out, Goldstein recalls, Pfizer was surprised that, even though the drug was a blockbuster, sales were lower than expected. Turned out many men with impotence weren’t going to get it on their own. Those who did were often spurred by their wives who recognized that his sexual problem was her problem, too.
So remember, it’s not only that we want to get into each other’s pants. It’s that we already inhabit them.
Brian Alexander is a California-based writer who covers sex, relationships and health. He is a contributing editor at Glamour and the author of "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion" (Basic Books).
Sexploration appears every other Thursday.