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Why inciting arousal can be tricky

Forget Spanish Fly. Getting people in the mood is a lot harder than slipping someone a mickey.
Woman Receiving a Massage of Man
Alternately chaste and erotic at the same time, backrubs are a tried-and-true prelude to, ahem, more intimate relations. The theory is that once someone lets you knead their neck and shoulders they may let you satisfy other needs as well. Dann Tardif / Corbis
/ Source: Forbes

For as long as humans have been having sex, they've been struggling to get in the mood.

In ancient India, a young man who proved passionless in the sack might have tried goat testicles boiled in milk. The Roman satirist Juvenal was the first to note the seductive qualities of oysters. In The Arabian Nights, coriander was a quick fix for a merchant who'd gone childless for 40 years. Honeyed mead was the medieval equivalent of Bud Lite for loosening up carousing swains. Fresh snake blood is still revered as a stimulant in parts of Asia, as are bat blood, reindeer penises, shark fins and ground rhino horns. And what sad-sack hasn't at least contemplated Spanish Fly — no fly at all, actually, but the dried remains of beetles that irritate the urogenital tract.

Beyond their collective exoticism, the only thing the above have in common is that they don't work. Named for Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of sex and beauty, an aphrodisiac is just about anything that awakens or increases sexual desire — be it your own, or the object of your desire's. In reality, however, aphrodisiacs are folklore at best and hazardous to your health at worst. As the Food and Drug Administration has declared: "There is no scientific proof that any over-the-counter aphrodisiacs work to treat sexual dysfunction," while acknowledging that its findings "clash with a 5,000-year tradition of pursuing sexual betterment through use of plants, drugs and magic."

Despite five millennia of misses, however, humans still yearn for an aphrodisiacal quick fix because inciting arousal can be so tricky. Contrary to the ease with which bacchanals seem to unfold on reality television programs such as Temptation Island, sexual desire is a confusing issue for many, with complex psychological and physiological aspects and different solutions for just about everyone. "We're all unique individuals and we all respond differently to different things," notes Dr. Beverly Whipple, a professor emerita at Rutgers University and president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, who co-coined the term "G-Spot" back in 1980.

At the root of human sexual desire is the "core erotic personality" — a.k.a. "sexual template" — which, in a nutshell, is whatever gets you off. "Everyone has in their mind an image of someone or thing they find sexually desirous," explains Dr. William Granzig, dean of clinical sexology at Maimonides University in North Miami Beach and president of the American Board of Sexology. That image might be a person of specific age, race or hair color, or it might be every person. It could be a fondness for a particular style of dress, objects such as women's shoes or fur-lined handcuffs, or behavior such as cross-dressing or exhibitionism. Whatever it is in particular, the sexual template is believed to develop early on during a childhood erotic experience — perhaps as early as age three or four — and it sticks with you for life.

The difficulty of maintaining sexual desire over the long term, of course, is that if your partner falls outside of your sexual template — or you fall outside theirs — sooner or later one of you is going to lose interest. "Many people whose template is not, say, age-specific can have great sex throughout their lives," notes Granzig. "But if you're only attracted to 20-year-olds, once your partner hits 30, your desire will decrease. Unless, of course, you can figure out some ways to spice things up."

Wildy divergent needs
Spicing things up is where sexual desire gets complicated, because men and women are wholly different sexual creatures with wildly divergent needs. For most men, of course, sex is all about orgasms: it's culturally imbued in them to desire sex, and they possess a superb feedback device for letting them know when they're in the mood.

Yet most women have been conditioned to regard sex as more sensual, with sexual satisfaction often attainable without orgasm, and the desire for orgasms often reliant upon sensual needs being met first. As such, women are far more likely then men to emphasize psychological satisfaction in their sexual relationships. "There are just so many variables that go beyond the physical in sex for women," says Dr. Janice Epp, a clinical sexologist at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. "They want to be treated as equals, to be treated respectfully, to not be angry. Without all that women are not interested in sex."

There are also a host of external nuisances that weigh heavily upon sexual desire — and that may dampen the mood. Studies routinely rank American culture as one of the most sexually repressed in the world thanks to its forbidding Judeo-Christian origins, high incidence of sexual problems and dysfunction, and lingering tight-lipped discomfort with the very topic of sex.

The rise of feminism added its own share of wrinkles as changing gender roles revealed women to have greater sexual capacity than men. After all, unlike the wham-bam-snore capabilities of men, women can go not only go all night if they want to, but have more powerful orgasms: six to ten contractions on average, versus four to six contractions for the guys. "When it comes to sexual capacity, men are wimps," says Dr. Robert Hatfield, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist at the University of Cincinnati, who notes that many men are now confused about their roles in the sack. "Over the past 15 years I've notice a shift with my patients, with most of the 'I'm-not-in-the-mood' complaints now coming from men."

Add to all of this the cramping workaday demands of modern day, and it's little wonder the search for aphrodisiacs continues. "I see a lot of highly evolved, highly skilled people who are losing desire because they have such an overriding focus on their profession," says Epp, who works in Silicon Valley. "For them, the temptation to believe that there's a magic pill that will make them desirous of sex again is very strong."

Inspired by the phenomenal success of Viagra, which rang up $1.7 billion in sales for Pfizer in 2002, its perhaps not surprising that there has been a recent push to find a pharmaceutical remedy for flagging sexual desire in both genders. It's a focus that throws many in the sex field into apoplexy. "The idea that you can just give someone a pill and they'll be interested in sex is like putting a band-aid on a tumor," says Epp.

In the end, the only truly effective aphrodisiac seems to be that's been working for humans all along. "Your biggest sex organ is the one between your ears," says Dr. Granzig. "What is desire, after all, than the hope that you can fulfill your sexual fantasies. And that's all in your mind."