June 8, 2013

Testosterone & Sexual Desire: What’s The Link?

A new study supports the idea that there are a lot of predictors of sexual desire other than testosterone to consider.

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A lot of recent media attention has been paid to another potential sexual desire drug for women. If you haven’t seen the coverage, you can check some of it out here, here, here, and here (I could have included multiple more ‘here‘ to the list if I didn’t think it became obnoxious). This potential pill comes after a long run of about a decade of the pharmaceutical industry racing to a quick fix for female sexual desire.

One version of the drug, Lybrido, is a mix between testosterone and sildenafil, which is the active ingredient in Viagra, and the other, Lybridos, a mix between testosterone and the antidepressant buspirone. All of the attention has been pretty similar. Responses to the potential pill have included, but aren’t limited to: fear of the pill turning women into nymphomaniacs, promise of the pill saving monogamy, and fear of the pill causing “crazed binges of infidelity” in women, as noted by the lead developer of the pill, Dr. Goldstein.

Research on testosterone, one of the main ingredients to both versions of this latest pill in the race to the pharmaceutical jackpot, has not consistently demonstrated a direct link to sexual desire in women or men.

A paper recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior written by Dr. Sari van Anders, an Assistant Professor at University of Michigan in Psychology and Women’s Studies, examined the link between testosterone and sexual desire in a sample of 105 healthy men and 91 healthy women.

What Dr. van Anders found was rather interesting, especially in light of all of the hype around the potential for this pill.

First, testosterone was negatively correlated with sexual desire for partner in women. What this means is, the higher a woman’s testosterone was, the lower her sexual desire for her partner. This is entirely counter to what the makers of this pill are basing their formula on. Dr. van Anders attributes this finding to gendered sexual socialization, in that women (more than men) have been sexually socialized to restrict the expression of their sexual desire.

Second, the study found that testosterone was positively correlated with solitary sexual desire. What this means is, women with higher testosterone expressed higher sexual desire for solitary acts such as masturbation. This is interesting considering the makers of this potential pill are entirely focused on desire for partner; no one has ever talked about using testosterone to increase frequency of masturbation in women (nor do I anticipate we’ll see that anytime soon!).

Third, testosterone wasn’t significantly related to sexual desire in healthy men. There are services starting to pop up attempting to supplement testosterone in men who are feeling sluggish or like they want a boost in sex drive. This study is scientific evidence that the link between drive and testosterone in healthy men doesn’t exist.

Fourth and finally, masturbation frequency, not testosterone, accounted for gender differences in sexual desire. This indicates that there does seem to be a link between testosterone and masturbation, but not so much desire for partnered sex. Despite this finding, the efforts to develop a drug for women’s sexual desire thus far have been pervasively heteronormative and partner-centric.

When scientifically sound research like this comes across my desk, it really makes me question where the pharmaceutical industry is getting their information for the basis of their drug development. One thing is absolutely confirmed by this research – sexual desire is complex. And this complexity isn’t unique to women; men’s sexual desire also exhibits complexity.

I will be paying close attention to the outcome of the FDA trials of this potential pill. Although it would be rather convenient to have a pharmaceutical fix to low sexual desire, I am unconvinced the complexities of desire (that include relational, sociocultural, emotional, political, social, psychological factors, etc.) have a pharmacological solution.