The Science of Sex is a column from Broadly exploring the tech behind the complicated and fantastic ways we get off—because sex is sexy, but science is sexier. This week, we learn whether libido cures can really work.
I never used to understand all the advice online about increasing your libido. Thinking about sex more than I already did sounded… distracting. And when I didn't want sex, I could just not have it—where was the problem?
But after being in a relationship for almost two years, I get it. Over time, my sex drive has diminished. I still want to have sex regularly, though, and getting back that early passion could only make it more enjoyable, right?
I’m not alone. Libido-boosters have been around for thousands of years. In one of the earliest recorded references, Rachel eats a mandrake root in the Old Testament—considered to be an aphrodisiac and early fertility drug—to conceive Joseph with Jacob, her husband. In a rare instance in which the early Church fathers got it right, St. Thomas Aquinas recommended wine and meat to people hoping to spice up their sex lives. Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s character Falstaff praised the aphrodisiac powers of potatoes (specifically, sweet potatoes or yams).
Today’s libido remedies are often just about as useful as the humble potato. One of the few pharmaceutical offerings for women, so-called female viagra Addyi, was shown to give women just half an additional satisfying sexual encounter per month—which sounds even more disappointing than no encounters at all.
Do any of the devices, substances, and treatments out there claiming to increase sex drive actually work, though? I tested out four of them so that you don’t have to. Here’s what I learned.
The O Shot
In 2009, Dr. Charles Runels injected blood into his partner’s clitoris using a method he’d been testing on his own penis for bigger, stronger erections. “The next afternoon, she came to see me, and her orgasms came more quickly–very strong, ejaculatory orgasms,” he told the Guardian. The O-Shot was born.
The procedure, which is widely available across the US (you can have it done at 102 locations across New York and California alone), can cost up to $2500. It’s not for the faint of heart. After drawing blood from your arm, a doctor spins your blood to isolate plasma-rich platelets, puts numbing cream on your vulva, injects it with Lidocaine to numb it some more, then injects your blood into your clitoris and the inside of your vagina. The end result? The O-Shot claims to makes your vagina tighter and wetter, increase your sex drive, and make orgasming easier.
It would be rude to say no to strong, ejaculatory orgasms, so I took myself down to my local clinic to try it out.
Although the O-shot sounds about as excruciating as another Sex and the City reboot, I didn’t feel much because I was so numbed out—just a bit of pressure and a slight soreness afterward. But I also didn’t feel much when I took my new vagina for a spin. So, five months later, I got a top-up shot at the clinic’s recommendation. Two months after that, I was working when a sudden wave of horniness washed over me I masturbated and came in about a minute. Maybe it was the shot? I thought. Or maybe I was just horny. Either way, as it never happened again, I’m going to say I was just horny.
Watch: The History of the Vibrator
The science behind the O-Shot is shaky. “Research has suggested that plasma injections have been effective in orthopedics and wound healing,” says fertility specialist Dr. Aimee D. Eyvazzadeh. “However, there are no animal or human data showing that injecting plasma into the vagina or clitoris is safe or proven to positively impact sexual health.”
Runels published one study on the O-Shot in the peer-reviewed Journal of Women's Health Care in 2013, reporting a 64 percent improvement rate in the majority of subjects, and no adverse side effects other than “extreme sexual arousal.” However, as he only tested the procedure on 11 women, the research is far from convincing. As of now, there’s not enough evidence to say whether the shot is safe, says Eyvazzadeh. “Until further research is done—a randomized double-blind placebo controlled study—I would not recommend this for my patients.”
A PR email lands in my inbox promising me an “O-worthy Valentine’s Day.” The secret? The NeuroGASM energy drink. “With a moderate dose of natural caffeine to provide more vigor, NeuroGASM just may leave you playful, passionate, and satisfied,” its marketing materials promise.
“May,” it turns out, is the operative word here—because when I receive the NeuroGASM bottle, a label describes it as “not a sexual performance product.” ("NeuroGASM increases the body's drive to perform and the stamina to satisfy,” the PR rep told me, by way of explanation.)
Given this misleading advertising, I wasn't surprised to find that the drink tasted like Red Bull and had about the same effect (read: non-effect) on my sex life. About half an hour after drinking it, I initiated foreplay. But I felt so unaroused after a few minutes of fingering, I told my partner I’d rather get back to work than continue. The upside was, it gave me a boost in energy without the jitteriness or insomnia I get from coffee. I just had no desire to use this energy for sex.
“The ingredients it contains are similar to an energy drink: caffeine, L-theanine, Alpha GPC, and loads of vitamin B,” says Eyvazzadeh. “It also contains phosphatidylserine, which has been shown to assist in cognitive function.”
Sexual health expert and OB/GYN Dr. Angela Jones is also a sceptic. “If you like fruity drinks and need an extra jolt in the morning, this might be the drink for you," she tells me. “Otherwise, I’m a bit leery of the increase in libido claims.”
Kratom, a stimulant made from the ground-up leaves of an Indonesian tree, is legal under federal law, but the FDA advises people not to use it due to fears that repeated use could prove addictive. In 2016, the DEA has also announced plans to make kratom a Schedule 1 drug, although this has not yet been enforced.
Despite this, Kratom is used for everything from pain relief to anxiety reduction, and sexual enhancement. I ordered a package from Red Devil Kratom and swallowed what’s considered a small dose of four grams. I took another two grams after half an hour, when I felt a slight mood and energy boost. Then, I took a shower with my partner, and we moved to the bedroom.
While he was going down on me, I kept getting lost in my thoughts and forgetting he was there. Focus, I thought. I tried fantasizing to get myself in the mood, but then I started analyzing my fantasies in a detached, cerebral way. Since fantasizing didn’t work, I got out my LELO sex toy, which usually makes me come in less than two minutes. But this time, it wasn’t doing shit. It must have taken me 10 minutes to orgasm, and it was one of those lame ones you barely feel.
At least we went on a great date after that. I felt happier and more talkative than usual. But afterward, I felt jittery and had trouble sleeping, so that’s the last time I use kratom.
In fact, jitteriness is just one of several potential side effects of kratom. “This substance works as an opioid receptor agonist and has been shown to potentially cause several unwanted side effects including hallucinations, depression, chills, and seizures,” says Eyvazzadeh, adding that it's difficult to be sure exactly what you're consuming as kratom is an unregulated substance. And, as Jones puts it, there’s no evidence proving its alleged libido-boosting effects.
The Fiera, a device you hold over your vulva to increase blood flow to the genitals before sex, is sort of like a sex toy—except the vibrations are subtle enough just to turn you on, not get you off. It was created with the input of OB/GYNs to help women get more aroused and combat dryness.
The thing was annoying to figure out—the vibrations kept stopping if I didn’t hold it down hard enough—but once I got it to work, it produced a pleasant buzz that I could increase with controls on the device or a remote. After holding it there for five minutes, I hopped into bed feeling not out-of-control horny but pleasantly turned on and came after a couple minutes of oral.
So, of everything I tried, this was the only thing that worked. But the idea that something vibrating on my genitals would turn me on didn’t exactly seem like groundbreaking science. What was special about this thing?
“While the effects could be similar to a vibrator you can get off Amazon, there are women who would definitely be comforted to know how much work and time has gone into the research and development of this device,” says Eyvazzadeh.
One study of 14 premenopausal and 12 postmenopausal women in the scientific journal Menopause found that the temperature of the external genitalia increased in both pre- and post-menopausal women after using Fiera, and all subjects reported an increase in sexual arousal. “Having a drug-free, hormone-free way of improving one's sexual health is empowering,” says Eyvazzadeh. “Rather than relying on drugs that have all sorts of side effects, whether it's steroid hormones or other prescription types of drugs, having an easy-to-use tool you can use in the bedroom that is safe and effective is beneficial.”
What did I learn? Don’t spend your money on products that make baseless claims about increasing libido. And if you’re going to get something, go for something that actually feels good on your genitals. Which means, it’s probably best to avoid putting a needle in them.