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Is the World Ready for Libido in a Nasal Spray?

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The funny thing is, it appears there’s a certain humanlike subjectiveness to the sex life of lab animals as well. When Jim Pfaus tested PT-141 on his female rats, he based his experimental design partly on the work of Raul Paredes, a fellow rat sexologist testing the effects of something more elusive: personal autonomy. That’s a tricky thing to measure, but it can be done. Paredes did it like this: First, he looked at rat couples living in standard, box-shaped cages and recorded the details of their sexual behavior. Then, he altered the cages in only one particular: He divided them into two chambers with a clear wall broken only by one opening, too small for the males to get through but just right for the females. Architecturally it was a minor change, but what it did for the females was huge. It let them get away from the males whenever they chose to, and thereby made it entirely their choice whether to have sex. Paredes then observed the rats’ behavior in this altered setting. Here’s what he found: The effects of giving a female rat greater personal control over her sex life are essentially the same as those of giving her PT-141. Autonomy, in other words, is as real an aphrodisiac as any substance known to science.

Is this really the kind of fix we want? To have desire available at any time, from the nozzle of an inhaler?

This doesn’t surprise Leonore Tiefer, who sees evidence for it every working day, in sex lives that suffer in direct proportion to her clients’ ignorance about desire in general and their own in particular. For Tiefer, striving to understand yourself is the sexiest sort of autonomy there is, and nothing betrays that autonomy like handing over the job to someone else, whether it’s your lover, your doctor, or, worst of all, Big Pharma.

Jim Pfaus, not surprisingly, sees things a little differently. As it happens, Pfaus and Tiefer are friendly acquaintances, and he’s sympathetic with her critiques of the industry. “She’s on a roll, and I think she has some valid points,” says Pfaus. But all the same: “What do we tell postmenopausal women who have lost their desire, despite being in a loving and caring relationship? ‘Sorry, there’s nothing we can do,’ or worse, ‘Sorry, but you shouldn’t be having sex anyway?’ ”

The argument is a strong one. But so is Tiefer’s. Each defends a vital sort of autonomy—the power of self-knowledge on the one hand; on the other, the freedom to grasp whatever tools of self-betterment are available to us. And if, after all the trials are done and the prescriptions are filled, PT-141 diminishes the former as much as it expands the latter, who’s to say which matters more? Add up all the pluses and minuses, and in the end the sum may be zero: a wash. In short, no net change one way or the other in the world’s total supply of sexual happiness.

But then, no one’s asking PT-141 to change the world. It’s enough to hope that someday, when you need it most, it just might get you through the night.


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