Sex Science Facts 101: Are There Any Substances That Turn People On?

Sex Science Facts 101: Are There Any Substances That Turn People On?

No. People sometimes use the word “aphrodisiac” to refer to a substance that enhances sexual function in any way and in that sense there certainly are substances — including prescription medications and substances sold as supplements. However, the latter are not often recommended as treatment for erectile dysfunction due to concerns about safety, effectiveness and the wide variability of quality among different supplement brands.

Substances like Spanish Fly and Maca have their own share of problems with health risks (and haven’t been shown to boost sexual desire/interest anyway).

More often though, when people use the term “aphrodisiac” they’re asking about substances that boost sexual desire and/or interest. In this sense, scientists haven’t yet identified substances that have a reliable effect on either women’s or men’s sexual desire (although some substances have been shown to increase mounting and/or female receptive in rats).

A number of pharmaceutical companies have tried, in particular, to create medications to increase women’s sexual desire. To date, very few had made it out of clinical trials to the point where they’ve gone in front of the US Federal Drug Administration for consideration. Those who have done so have not yet received approval (see, for example, flibanserin).

Sexual desire in humans is incredibly complex — it’s this big web of how we feel about ourselves, how our relationships are going, life stress, health, hormones and a number of ways our bodies communicate with each other that aren’t conscious. As sex researchers in various disciplines (e.g. biology, psychology, immunology, endocrinology, etc) continue to work together on these puzzles, hopefully we’ll one day have better approaches to help people manage their experiences with sexual desire. Until then, our best approaches are often linked with sexual communication, technique, relaxation, lifestyle choices (e.g. related to sleep, stress, eating and exercise) and counselling/therapy.

Famous sexologist and Gizmodo friend Dr Debby Herbenick will answer your sex questions this month. Every day, Dr Herbenick will give you a solid, scientific answer to commonly asked questions.

Dr Debby Herbenick, author of Sex Made Easy and Because It Feels Good: A Woman’s Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction, is the Co-Director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion in the School of Public Health-Bloomington at Indiana University (IU) where she is a Research Scientist. She is also a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction where she writes (and hosts audio podcasts of) the Kinsey Confidential column and coordinates educational programming. She has a PhD in Health Behavior from IU, a Master’s degree in Public Health Education (also from IU) and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park. In addition, she is certified as a Sexuality Educator from the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists.