Aphrodisiac? For What?

According to The New York Times, the Chinese are buying up the world’s supply of maca, an exotic root grown in the Andes. Their demand has driven the wholesale price of maca powder from $4 per pound to $20 per pound. Soon the indigenous Indians won’t be able to afford it as a nutritional staple.

Why? Along with the horn of the rhino (now practically extinct), the penis of the tiger (now practically extinct), and the fin of the shark (heading toward extinction), maca is believed to be an aphrodisiac.

That’s men for you: searching, century after century, for “aphrodisiacs.”

And after 34 years as a sex therapist, my response is—why? Why this mad rush, why this willingness to exterminate innocent species and now to vandalize Peru’s agricultural patrimony?

Aphrodisiacs are supposed to increase libido–magically, within minutes after ingestion. They’re not about erection or orgasm, just desire (thus Viagra is NOT an aphrodisiac, since it addresses erection, not desire or even arousal).

So guys, let’s say you can eat, drink, or chew something to increase your desire. Then what? If your mate (or harem, for that matter) hasn’t taken it, will they be so pleased at your explosive libido? If your partner is agreeable but doesn’t delight you in bed, will your enhanced libido be a blessing? If your partner typically turns you off with her moods, her words, or her demands, will you really enjoy wanting her?

And if your flesh is weak, once the spirit is more than willing, will your flesh rise to the occasion? That’s not generally how things work.

Historically, some cultures (like China) have believed that a big sexual appetite—whether ultimately sated or not—is an expression of masculinity. The philosophical question for men in such regimes is not simply how much sex are you having, but how much are you wanting? How much are you ready for? Bragging about feeling hungry or deprived is an odd definition of masculinity, but by no means rare. We should feel sympathy toward men who are culturally instructed in this direction.

So why the obsessive gallop to increase libido? Do most people want to DESIRE anything more? HAVE, yes; desire? I suppose I would take a pill to increase my desire for exercise, but other than that? Like almost everyone, I want to have more of what I want, not to desire it more.

Now if the traditional male project were “Let’s find an aphrodisiac and give it to all the women,” at least that would make some sense. But historically, men view female desire as a double-edged sword. Men have wanted women to want sex more, but not too much more. I suppose the traditional male ideal is to find an aphrodisiac for women—which men would administer, rather than letting women themselves control.

There are, of course, plenty of substances that supposedly promote erection, virtually none of which work. Some people swear by testosterone (which, even if it works, is among the world’s scariest drugs). And there are two medical products, PDE-5 inhibitors (Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra) and papavarene. But they don’t increase desire.

In fact, less than half the men who get a prescription for an erection drug request a second prescription. There’s more to most erection problems than not having erections on demand, and erections on demand aren’t enough to solve most cases of erection problems.

The solution for low desire is understanding (1) what we actually want, as well as (2) what makes us not want. Each of those typically involves more than sex. That’s what makes the search for aphrodisiacs and treatments for erectile dysfunction so complex. A pharmaceutical can give a man an erection, but it can’t make him feel aroused; if a drug could give a man desire, it wouldn’t make him feel wanted.

Desire without feeling wanted—or friendly, or competent, or connected—may seem like a fine thing, but in real life, it isn’t. Especially for grownups.

Especially in a couple. For sex to work, people need more than sex. For desire to be satisfying (and to lead to satisfaction), people need more than desire.

So the question is not what’s an aphrodisiac. The question is, why would you want one?

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