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Is the World Ready for Libido in a Nasal Spray?

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Tiefer is just as dubious about PT-141, which, as she sees it, is merely the latest expression of a “big wish” that “we could just bypass everything we want to bypass” on our way to sexual happiness, skipping the complicated, often lifelong work of sorting out all the emotional, physical, and autobiographical triggers that turn us off and on. Her prognosis for the discovery of a drug that will make that work unnecessary? “Sorry, it’s never going to happen.” And in the meantime, she suggests, there will always be some “promising” new treatment that captures our minds and our money long enough to half-convince us the problem’s been solved. “And then it will be forgotten, and then a few years later something new will come along,” says Tiefer.

Perhaps, perhaps not. Yet even assuming that PT-141 ultimately performs every bit as well in broad use as it has in trials, even granting that it can improve sex lives as effectively as a lifetime of erotic exploration, the deeper challenge posed by the prospect of a sexual techno-fix remains: Is this really the kind of fix we want? To have desire available at any time, from the nozzle of an inhaler?

Good things would come of it, to be sure. Marriages would be saved, fun would be had. But sexual Utopia? PT-141 seems just as likely to usher in the age of McNookie: quick, easy couplings low on emotional nutrition. Sex lives tailored to the demands of a jealous office or an impatient spouse. A dark age of erotic self-ignorance tarted up in the bright-colored packaging of a Happy Meal.

Think it won’t happen? Think again, then, about those moments when your sex drive stalled and your mind filled with anxieties that you ultimately managed to talk yourself out of. Now imagine that you failed, in the end, to talk away the anxieties; imagine you instead found yourself obliged to listen to them, and that they told you things about yourself, your life, that you hadn’t wanted to hear but finally had to acknowledge were true. Imagine that as a result of all this listening, you understood at last that you had to, for instance, leave your husband, your wife, the man or woman you’d first slept with on that third or fourth date, the one full of rich food, hard liquor, etc.; and that now that you thought about it, the voice inside you that night that had wanted you home watching television had sounded a lot like the one now telling you to leave your marriage, and that, all things considered, you probably should have paid more attention to it then.

Now imagine the whole story all over again, except that at the very moment these anxious voices start to pipe up, you find yourself with an inhaler of PT-141 and a decision to make: You can either take your sexual dissatisfaction seriously and learn from it, or you can take a hit of PT-141 and write off your anxieties as nothing more than fallout from the mild case of sexual-desire disorder the drug will soon have under control. Which do you choose? Self-knowledge or self-content? The awful truth or the convenient fiction?

Take your time.

Deep in the postindustrial hinterlands of New Jersey, about a mile and a half from Exit 8A off the turnpike, 100 snow-white Sprague-Dawley rats await the coming of darkness. Darkness comes each day at exactly 6 p.m., when an automated switch turns off the fluorescents and sets off a rustling din, like the sound of a sudden downpour, as all at once the rats rouse themselves and start to feed. They live in see-through high-rises: small Plexiglas cages stacked eight by eight in portable racks, one rat per unit, each unit connected to the outside world by its own HEPA-filtered ventilation system. Other perks of life as a lab animal at Palatin Technologies’ Cranbury, New Jersey, headquarters include immaculate bedding, healthy supplies of food and water, bone-shaped plastic chew toys, and, screwed into the top of each animal’s skull, a small, white, almost stylish ceramic orb, the injection port through which the rats’ brains are regularly dosed with a close chemical cousin of PT-141.

The drug they’re testing now is an obesity drug—designed to block the appetite for food in much the same way PT-141 stimulates the appetite for sex—and its distinctly human goal of weight loss serves only to heighten the pervading Stuart Little effect here in the lab. Crowded in their little Plexiglas apartment buildings, sporting their natty little orbular skullcaps, undergoing surgery from time to time with little rat-nose-shaped anesthetic-gas masks strapped to their little faces—if you didn’t know better, you might start to think of these sophisticated rodent urbanites as simply little people with fur and whiskers. Which, in a way, is just what Tiefer accuses Palatin of doing: confusing the lush subjectiveness of human sexuality with the black-box behaviorism of lab animals.


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