The desire drug

by Rob Horning

25 April 2006


This Observer article details the development and testing of PT-151, which is not McHale’s navy boat but a drug that has been found to work as an aphrodisiac.

The precise mechanisms by which PT-141 does its job remain unclear, but the rough idea is this: where Viagra acts on the circulatory system, helping blood flow into the penis, PT-141 goes to the brain itself. ‘It not merely allowing a sexual response to take place more easily,’ explains Michael A Perelman, co-director of the Human Sexuality Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital and a sexual-medicine adviser on the PT-141 trials. ‘It may be having an effect, literally, on how we think and feel.’

Sounds great, right. Of course, there are naysayers, the enemies of pleasure, who are worried about such inconsequential trifles as dignity, authenticity and autonomy. Bah. One of these nattering nabobs of negativism is Leonore Tiefer, a psychologist.

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 pharmaceutical companies.

If desire is attributed to a pill, what will happen to all the things we once required to incite desire, things like attention, imagination, concentration, provocation. And besides revolutionizing the perfume industry, what else will this aphrodisiac scent do? Will the drug have the effect of imbuing the ordinary world around us with desire—a reenchantment, a la George Ritzer’s analysis of the way consumer markets try to lure us in to buy commodified goods, only on the level of species survival itself? Will it be used to generate positive feelings for things we would ordinarily be indifferent to? The new-car-smell of the future might make us want to hump the gear shifter. Will it bring about a spike in reckless sex? The female rats the scientists tested PT-151 on showed the unprecedented proclivity to mount male rats, in a total reversal of their mating rituals.

But most important, will this drug destroy our ability to know ourselves through our desires? Will it undermine our ability to find any significance in our wanting anything? Control over desire is the most effectively way of obliterating it. Desire means a loss of control, a recognition of a lack. But if this drug makes desire into the opposite of a lack, into a procured peak state, it would pose a real danger to the fundamental mechanisms of consumerism, which endeavors to sell us ourselves in the form of products that grant us self-knowledge, harnessing natural libido and fusing it to the rituals of shopping. If that libido becomes manageable by drugs, why would you need to regulate it by shopping, by seeking some elusive truth about oneself to make you more attractive to others and more satisfied with yourself? Consumerism may be a poor route to self-understanding, but without desire, there’s arguably no self at all.

Walker Percy’s novel The Thanatos Syndrome investigated the existence of drugs like this, seeing the deprivation of autonomy and moral decision-making as a regression of the species to animalism, with women assuming lordotic poses while becoming strangers to their own thinking processes—biological machines programmed from without to propagate.

Some would celebrate this as liberation, freedom from the depth psychology engendered by desire so that we may then skate through on the surface of life, enjoying its sensual richness without philosophical hang-ups. The anonymous hedonism of club scenes at their most Utopian provides the template for this dream, where anyone is everyone and no one, and the universal merging of individuals into a stream of sensual information—music, lights, dancing, etc.—sets everyone free. Will PT-151 usher in this? Doubtful. Heightened libido and self-obliteration are not enough, I suspect, to compensate for the thornier pleasures of getting to know oneself, of building an ornate, complex monument to glorify one’s own supposed uniqueness.

But perhaps drugs such as these could ultimately distill sexual desire from whatever would be left over—“real” desire?—and we could discover what we really want when sexuality is removed from the picture. Would there be anything left?

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