When it comes to science and sex, men come out ahead. Carolyn Abraham reports on why women get the short end of the stick
So, it’s come to this: in the gaping absence of any federally approved treatment to help North American women with sexual problems – when, for men, there are twenty and counting – a California company hopes to fill the void with a cannabis-infused lubricant for the vagina.
A spray-on blend of coconut oil and THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, Foria is touted as a woman’s sexual aperitif; it’s to be applied about half an hour before sex to whet the appetite, relax, stoke desire and heighten arousal and sensation. Pioneers of California’s medicinal pot industry, a collective known as the Aphrodite Group, launched it in that state last summer and, in January, it went on sale in Colorado, where medical marijuana use is also legal.
Beyond those regions, however, the spray can be hard to get, while demand seems to be, well, hot. The company reports email requests from 30 countries, from Sweden to South Africa, and the web is abuzz with chatter on how best to track it down. On Saturday Night Live, the so-called “pre-lube” has already been a naughty punchline.
The idea of using cannabis as an aphrodisiac is an old one, stretching back, in tantric fashion, thousands of years, from ancient China, to sultans’ harems and smoky dorm rooms. But Foria, which sells for $88 for a 30-millilitre bottle, appears to be the first commercial effort to combine sex and cannabis. Online, reviews range from “meh” to raves about multiple rolling orgasms. There’s also breathless mentions of heat, tingling, hyperawareness and inhibitions melting away. Or, as the headline in Cosmopolitan put it: “I tried that cannabis lube and got high as a horny kite.”
It’s hard to read any of it and not wonder … will it require snacks on the nightstand?
But no, says Aphrodite’s Matthew Gerson, who cooked up the sex-pot recipe in his kitchen while hiding it from his mother. In a recent podcast on thehash.org, a bi-weekly radio show on cannabis and culture based in San Francisco, Gerson says Foria doesn’t make women reach for the Doritos: “The overwhelming majority are responding that they’re not feeling any type of high,” he said.
While a partner who has mouth contact with the product may experience psychoactive effects, he said women report that “all the medicinal effects of the product are sensually based, tactile … specifically localized in the genital region.” This, he says, could lead to a more “full-bodied” climax.
But therein lies the rub: company reports about the physiological impacts are all there are. The clinical effects (long-term or otherwise) of smearing a vagina with THC-spiked coconut oil have not been scientifically studied. Yet in the minefield that is female sexual research, this is par for the course.
Fifteen years after Viagra was approved, the treatment of men’s sexual health problems has swelled to a multibillion-dollar global market. There are testosterone patches and pills to crank desire, drugs to treat erectile dysfunction (with combined sales surpassing $4 billion), vacuum devices, implants, a penis-numbing spray to counter premature ejaculation. Last December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a drug to treat men with “bothersome curvature of the penis.”
According to Even the Score, an online campaign backed by consumer advocacy groups and drug companies fighting for women’s “sexual health equity,” the FDA has approved 26 sexual aids for men. For women, the number is exactly zero, despite several applications to treat women, including a testosterone patch that was given the go-ahead in Europe. In Canada, the score is similar: Health Canada has approved 20 treatments for men’s sexual problems, all of them for erectile dysfunction, while none have been approved to treat women.
Demographics make the discrepancy a touchy subject: with a Boomer population that refuses to see its sexual function decline with age, demand for treatment is likely to grow. As Vancouver psychologist Lori Brotto points out, “Many people say they can’t wait for retirement so that they can have more time for sex.”
Brotto, an associate professor of gynecology at the University of British Columbia, says studies show sex is not only good for mood but overall health. So while studies of sexual activity used to look at subjects between the ages of 19 and 65, the recent global health survey included people up to age 102. What’s more, she adds, negative sexual side effects are the No. 1 reason people cite for not taking other medications they need.
In a New England Journal of Medicine study of sex and seniors, University of Chicago researchers interviewed more than 3,000 men and women and found half of those sexually active reported at least one sex-related problem. (Erection trouble was the most common complaint among men and, for women, it was low desire.) Untreated, the researchers wrote, sexual problems can have hazardous health effects, including depression and social withdrawal. Yet while one in seven men in the study took medication to treat their sexual problems, women didn’t – and still don’t – have the same option.
Most recently, the FDA turned down an application from Sprout Pharmaceuticals to market flibanserin, a drug to be taken daily to boost female libido by working on brain chemicals involved in mood, pleasure and reward. It had been widely billed as the female Viagra, and its rejection (now under appeal) prompted blistering protest.
Writing in last November’s issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine, editor-in-chief Irwin Goldstein said: “The fact that the process of FDA approval is so different in women than it is in men with sexual health problems is frustrating, concerning and dismissive to women.”
So what’s behind this gender gap (which Gerson says he deliberately stepped in to fill with a cannabis-laced lubricant)? Is there sexism among drug regulators or in sexuality research? On this debate, there may be as many positions as there are in the Kama Sutra.
Some argue that it’s old-school social conservatism trying to put a new lid on female sexuality. Others feel the FDA is doing its job, keeping ineffective or potentially harmful drugs off the market. Some argue the gap is actually the happy result of efforts to keep drug companies from “medicalizing” the female libido for profit (i.e., she doesn’t need a drug to get her groove back, she needs a day off; or it’s not a pill she needs but a new partner).
Others cast it as the new frontier in the pro-choice movement, as in, if she wants to take a drug to boost her sex drive, it should be her call. “Some women may have relationship problems. Some may have deep-seated psychological problems. Some may just have way too many inhibitions to enjoy the moment because they’re looking at the paint chipping on the ceiling,” says sex researcher Jim Pfaus, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Montreal’s Concordia University. “But what’s wrong with taking a pill that can give you back horniness for half an hour?
“If you’re pro-choice, you have to give women the choice.”
The gender gap in approved sexual aids, he says, has made for “strange bedfellows” in which traditionalists are on the same side as many feminists who feel drug companies are trying to create a medical need for a social problem.
The only point that seems to be shared by most camps is that for too long, too little has been known about the complex sexual workings of the female body, making it harder to develop drugs for women when the root causes remain unknown. Men’s problems tend to be seen as biological, easier to spot and treat. Women’s are more often regarded as psychological. In other words, it’s like comparing apples and bananas.
“It’s a very difficult area of study,” says Brotto, who specializes in helping women with sexual problems. Female sexual function involves an interplay of physiological, emotional and social elements, she says, and even trying to diagnose a woman with low sexual desire is tricky: “There’s no blood test for it, and experts can’t even agree on a definition.
“Is it about feeling an attraction or feeling horny? What if you’re not attracted to your partner anymore? Is that low desire? What about if you’re desiring your neighbour but not your partner? Is that still low desire?”
So much about the female libido remains a mystery, says Brotto, even testosterone. Considered the prime hormone driving desire in men and women, testosterone levels in a woman are actually no indication about the strength of her libido. Studies show a woman with high levels may have a low sex drive, says Brotto, and a woman with low levels may have a sex drive that’s high. “Testosterone in women is not one-to-one (in terms of correlation),” she said. “Yet we give it to women, and it’s shown it can improve desire. But it’s like an Aspirin given to a woman will ease her headache, but that doesn’t mean she has an Aspirin deficiency.”
A low desire for sex is the most common sexual problem women cite. A 2005 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found 35 to 40 per cent of Canadian women had a low libido, but only about 12 per cent of them were concerned enough to try and increase it. The National Health and Social Life Survey from the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals found that 33 per cent of women lacked interest in sex for at least a few months in the previous year.
Yet despite its prevalence, sexual dysfunction has been tough to study because any research with the word sex attached to it tends to turn off funding agencies. This has made drug companies a common funding source, says Brotto, but generally, they’re mostly interested in backing research that tests their drugs. (Indeed, a report in Slate magazine argues many doctors criticizing the FDA’s record on sex aids for women receive drug company money.)
There are, however, signs of a research upsurge. For one, says Brotto, more sex researchers have entered the field, and more of them are women. The aging population is also driving interest – and dollars – into the area. Meanwhile, scanning tools to see the working brain in action are giving researchers a much better view of what’s happening inside what Brotto calls “the body’s largest sex organ.”
To treat sexual problems, especially those related to desire and arousal in women, Brotto teaches an eight-week program in mindfulness. “My team has shown in hundreds of women that it works,” she says. People, women, are so used to multi-tasking they don’t turn it off during sex, Brotto explains. “So they might be having sex but are they thinking about what to make for dinner?”
Practising mindfulness, she says, helps them to focus, to feel “fully in their skin” and hyper-conscious of their sensations. In that regard, Brotto says a cannabis-infused lubricant “sounds interesting” because it may have similar effects.
At Concordia, Pfaus has conducted rat studies on more than 20 potential drugs to boost sexual desire and arousal in women, but few of them have worked. “Rats don’t talk,” he says, “but they don’t lie either,” and desire is hard to miss: the female rat kicks the male in the face and runs away. What follows is a quick game of chase, catch and mount.
But now he believes that there is a promising candidate for a female libido-booster that may soon come to market. Made by Dutch biotech company Emotional Brain, Lybrido, says Pfaus, is essentially a drug that mimics what happens on ovulation day, when a woman’s desire is at its peak – “You don’t even need the dinner date.”
Lybrido, he says, is a mix of low-dose testosterone, to seed desire in the brain, and sildenafil (the medication best known as Viagra), to boost blood flow to the genitals. Like Viagra, he says, it could be taken on demand or a few hours before sex.
Pfaus, who has been working with the Dutch firm, describes it as the first drug deliberately designed to tackle the female model of sexuality, in that it addresses the psychological and physiological aspects of women’s desire. (The drug also has a sister medication in development called Lybridos, a combination of testosterone and the anti-anxiety medication buspirone to counter inhibitions).
There are high hopes of an FDA approval since neither drug involves new compounds, he says, and there’s even talk of fast-tracking it.
In the meantime, Pfaus said he isn’t surprised to hear women are turning to a cannabis-infused lubricant to do the trick. The few compounds that have worked to boost female sexual desire in his lab, he says, all had the common effect of increasing dopamine in a brain region of the hypothalamus called the medial preoptic area. Located just behind the eyes, this brain area, says Pfaus, “has an enormous number of cannabinoid receptors,” which THC acts upon.
A 2001 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that while THC could lower sperm counts and testosterone levels in male rats, it made female rats more receptive to the males’ sexual advances. But given too high a dose, the females were too intoxicated to perform. The researchers, from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, followed up with experiments that found cannabis interacts with the female hormone progesterone and with dopamine to form a kind of “neural love triangle.”
With Foria, explains Pfaus, it may be that the THC is somehow being absorbed through the vagina and getting into the brain. He thinks it’s worth testing. But for now, it remains yet another experiment for the bedroom.
The History of Sex
Humans are a lusty lot. Across cultures, continents and most of recorded history, the hunt for aphrodisiacs has driven lovers to astonishing lengths – and also, their deaths. They’ve swallowed sparrows’ brains, munched the feet of skink lizards and rubbed their hair with ambergris, a.k.a. whale dung. But most things to jumpstart libido have proved no better than snake oil (which has also been sold as a sex aid over the centuries). Still, there’s enough excitement around aphrodisiacs that science sometimes steps in to offer insight. Here are a few of the more famous examples, the deadly and the everyday.
What It Is One of the oldest and most storied of aphrodisiacs, it’s not a fly nor does it hail from Spain. It’s made from the crushed bodies of meloid, or blister beetles, which can be found worldwide.
History Used for thousands of years for medicinal purposes and in the boudoir. There are references to it from ancient Greece and in traditional Chinese medicine. In 1869, it came to wide attention after French troops in Nigeria inadvertently ingested the insect while eating frog legs. The doctor who treated them discovered the soldiers were not only suffering from painful digestive problems but also persistent erections.
Claim to Fame Despite politically incorrect jokes about using it to spike ladies’ drinks, Spanish Fly only works on men. Its active ingredient is cantharidin, and even a minor dose may result in such a long-lasting erection that medical intervention may be necessary. It may also kill you. The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, and legions of other lovers, are rumoured to have died from a cantharidin overdose.
Efficacy It works, in so far as it irritates the urethra in men, causing priapism, an erection without the pleasure. Consider that it’s been used to remove warts and blisters, and ingested it can wreak deadly havoc with the digestive system. After all, the meloid beetle secretes cantharidin as a poison to deter predators. The male insect also offers it as a mating gift to the female, not to stoke desire but for her to use as a protective coating on their fertilized eggs. In other words, there are safer ways to sport an erection.
Love Stone, Black Stone, Piedra or Rock Hard
What The dried venom or secretions from the bufo toad, or cane toad, which contains a dangerous stew of biologically active chemicals.
History For millennia, it’s been used for various medicinal purposes. In traditional Chinese medicine, it has been prescribed as both an anesthetic and an aphrodisiac. When it appeared in New York City in the 1990s, purported to increase sexual prowess, it sent five men to hospital. Four of them died.
Claim to Fame The toad’s psychoactive secretions, despite its dangers and status as a banned substance, have inspired decades of toad lickers from hippies to Homer Simpson.
Efficacy None as an aphrodisiac but definitely as a poison known to cause serious gastrointestinal side effects and be toxic to the heart.
What Bivalve mollusc usually found in beds or reefs in shallow, salty waters
History Perhaps because in texture and appearance, it evoked the vagina, references to oysters as aphrodisiacs stretch back to Romans in the second century.
Claim to Fame Casanova, the legendary 18th-century lover, used to eat 50 for breakfast.
Efficacy Their high zinc content, which is associated with sexual potency in men, has been thought to play a role in oysters’ long-rumoured aphrodisiac qualities. But a study presented to the American Chemical Society in 2005 found that the molluscs are rich in two rare amino acids (D-aspartic acid and N-methyl-D-aspartate) that boost sex hormones, or at least they did when injected into rats. The Italian-U.S. research team concluded the aphrodisiac effects are real and most pronounced when ingested raw.
What One of nature’s sweetest foods, made by bees with the nectar sucked from flower blossoms.
History The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates prescribed it for sexual vigour. The Egyptians used it in potions to treat impotence and sterility. The Vikings consumed it as a fertility booster. And honey promoters say it’s been brewed into a lusty beverage even before beer or wine came along.
Claim to Fame The word “honeymoon” stems from an ancient European custom that involved newlyweds drinking honey wine for a whole month after marriage. It’s been called the Nectar of the Gods.
Efficacy Honey contains the mineral boron, which is important for the production of testosterone in men and estrogen in women. Some research has also found that it kicks up the body’s levels of nitric oxide, which enhances blood flow … possibly to all the right places. -CA
Zoomer Magazine, April 2015