In Praise of Doing It the “Hard Way”

Let’s call PT-141 the “easy way”. Maybe it’s not as simple as that, but for the sake of argument let’s say it is. The easy way, because in theory you spray the stuff up your nose and 15 minutes later you’re horny as a New Delhi traffic jam.

You may or may not have heard about the latest and greatest wonder drug to reach phase three human clinical trials. Barring unforeseen side effects, this synthetic chemical could hit pharmacies near you in as soon as three years.

PT-141 works on the brain itself, mainlining to the area that controls sexual arousal in both men and women. The drug doesn’t act directly on the vascular system like the current crop of erection boosters. Instead, it somehow stimulates the area of the brain that controls desire. Then the brain, rather than the drug itself, causes blood to gush into all the right places. With Viagra, the user is still required to supply their own desire, whereas PT-141 triggers the neural arousal mechanisms themselves, which –much like being young and healthy — is proving to be an effective method of getting folks good n’ horny. In clinical trials on rats and people, PT-141 has been shown to enthusiastically stimulate both males and females alike.

Let Us Spray, by Julian Dibbell in the 04/23/06 issue of The Observer Magazine is an excellent primer for getting to know the ins and outs of PT-141 (recommended reading!). If the drug passes regulatory muster and the centuries-long quest for a true aphrodisiac is fulfilled, Dibbell foresees a bleak future of emotionally vacant “Mcnookie¬¶ A dark age of erotic self-ignorance tarted up in the bright-coloured packaging of a Happy Meal.”

I’m sure that the moment PT-141 hits the market there’ll be a hip, monosyllabic street name (“spray”, or “spizl” in hyphy) to go with its official, trisyllabic, commercial name (“Amortrex”?). It’ll be safer than ecstasy, or be taken in tandem with it. And because it’s in spray form, it’ll be easy to dole out hits to friends. No word yet as to what happens if you take five snorts instead of one, but you know the kids will make for eager guinea pigs.

But I doubt pharmaceutical induced horniness will lead to significantly induced wonton hookups. Let’s be honest: are the kids really lacking in libido as it is? Are they so short on hormone and alcohol fueled promiscuity that this’ll get them jumping into random beds on those off nights they might have otherwise rested up from all the other random bed hopping they were already doing, pre PT-141?

Parents will be panicky and misinformed. The mere mention of female arousal will have various religious and conservative elements with their panties all in a bunch. However, the pharmaceutical industry is at the ready to deflect any criticism with an unassailable argument, made here by Concordia University behavioural-neurobiology researcher, Jim Pfaus: “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’?”

And really, who could be so insensitive and uncaring to even suggest such a thing? I guess the drug companies must be in the right. In other words, a pharmasex future is inevitable. You have every right to be a critic, but it also makes you a big, insensitive creep. Hmmmm¬¶ me thinks the drug companies are a little creepy too, the way they used this same sort of pitch for Viagra, seamlessly transitioning their billion dollar ad campaign from elder statesman Bob Dole to virile, baseball superstar, Raphael Palmero; prying open the market to ever younger and younger, preying upon the insecurities of dudes everywhere. Not just those poor, ED-inflicted older couples, but now, are your erections strong enough? Do you need a little zing on those stressed out evenings? This is for her, not you. So on and so forth. Remember that Levitra ad with the guy throwing footballs through the tire? A strong, healthy, dude, who by all exterior indications shouldn’t need any help in nailing his hot wife. From senior citizens to that in a few years? Yeah, I’m sure it’s purely about the poor, postmenopausal woman.

One minute it’s older folks and the next minute, “every guy experiences ED sometimes”. Well, guess what — every woman and every man experiences decreased desire at some point in their life. So, the market for something that cures this condition is practically limitless.

No, the last thing we want to do is forsake postmenopausal woman (aka our beloved mothers, grandmothers, girlfriends/spouses one day). But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do a little soul searching and motive questioning. It doesn’t mean we should concede to a phramasex future where our arousal is just another commodity to be traded on the stock exchange, where your orgasm is a dollar in some asshole’s pocket.

Ok. Change of topic. Let’s cut to the NYTimes, which two weeks ago ran a feature story called My Pain, My Brain, by Melanie Thernstrom.

Imagine, if you will, that instead of ingesting PT-141, you could turn on that same arousal area in the brain, sans the drugs, merely by using the power of your own mind. Or, as Thernstrom puts it, “Who hasn’t wished she could watch her brain at work and make changes to it, the way a painter steps back from a painting, studies it and decides to make the sky a different hue?”

Sounds far-fetched to say the least. Yogis and practitioners of other sorts of transcendental meditation might claim this is possible, but what’s the practical use for those of us who have bills to pay and can’t devote our lives to nonmaterial pursuits? Dr. Sean Mackey, director of the Neuroimaging and Pain Lab at Stanford, describes his research like this: “It takes Buddhist monks 30 years of sitting on a mountain learning to control their brains through meditation — we’re trying to jump-start that process.”

Using f.M.R.I. (real-time functional neuroimaging), sufferers of chronic pain are shown as-it-is-happening imaging of the pain-regulating area of their own brain. Functional brain imaging has been around for a few years, but this is some of the first research using the machines to look back in at oneself, live and in effect. By witnessing one’s own brain activity in action, it’s possible to learn to control it just like any other part of the body.

By using f.M.R.I., researchers are getting a more in-depth understanding of what areas in the brain correspond with certain functions (pain, arousal, hunger, love, for instance). Then, we can actually turn our focus inward towards those areas and do the seemingly paradoxical trick of controlling our own brains with our own brains. And once you learn to do it with the machine, you can take that skill home with you. Your perception has opened to this place in you body. It’s been there all your life, but now that you know it’s there, this area of your body is more accessible than it was before. And if you can control pain like the people are doing in this study, it follows that pleasure can’t be too far away.

In the future, doing things the “hard way” will only partly have to do with cheap sex vs. meaningful sex, or however you want to characterize/romanticize it. That’s the issue we deal with today, will deal with tomorrow, and for as long as us humans deign to such animalistic practices as having sex for the purposes of pleasure and procreation. What I think is paramount will be the decisions we make concerning proprietorship over our own bodies and minds. Will arousal and orgasm be something one buys at a drug store, commoditized along with so many other meaningful facets of our lives? Or will the same advances in understanding brain function lead to an expansion of how our own consciousness accesses and utilizes our own sexual circuitry?

This, and all it’s myriad implications, is what’s hanging in the balance that first time you turn on the nightly news and a slightly flushed looking TV actress tells you to “ask your doctor for more information.”

Be informed. Very informed.

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