what if... women's sexual desire is a mass noun?

Back in my first semester in college, I took an Intro to Linguistics class because my advisor said I might like it. I did. I ended up with a cognitive science minor because of it.

One of the things I remember, most of 20 years later: mass nouns and count nouns.

Mass nouns: salve. water. willingness. mathematics. identity.

Count nouns: stone. leg. olive. book. person.

I haven’t thought much this week about men’s sexual desire, but women’s sexual desire has been right at the front of my mind, due to the NYT Magazine article, excerpted from Daniel Bergner’s forthcoming book.

Anyone who’s been reading the blog for a while knows that I’ve been looking and looking for effective ways to talk about WHY there won’t ever be a drug for women’s sexual desire (and PS – there isn’t a drug for men’s sexual desire either, just drugs for their AROUSAL, which is related but not identical).

Tonight I’m trying a new one:

Medications are good at interfacing with count nouns: bacteria. blood cells. neurotransmitters.

Medications are not so good at interfacing with mass nouns: trust. body image. trauma. stress. sleep deprivation. attachment.

And these are the some of the nouns that predict low sexual desire.

The drug companies have taken some really good whacks at the likely countable nouns that are probably involved in sexual desire – dopamine and testosterone, for example. (Technically these are also mass nouns – you can’t have 7 dopamines – but they are strictly MEASURABLE in a way that “trauma” and “body image” are not. Hm, I think my analogy is falling down.)

Women’s sexual desire is like water: trying to find a drug that will change it is like trying to change how a river flows by throwing different kinds of stones in it. It’s just the wrong approach. You have to move the banks.

Women’s sexual desire is like flocking (a gerund – slightly cheating on my “mass noun” analogy, but still within the rules!): trying to find a drug that will change it is like trying to stop a flock from flocking by convincing some of the birds to behave differently; the flock still emerges.

Women’s sexual desire is like choral music: trying to find a drug that will change it is like trying to change a tune by changing the singers.

Is this making sense?

Women’s sexual desire is an emergent property of the interaction between multiple systems, including the sexual excitation and inhibition systems, of course, but also the stress response mechanism, the attachment system, that predictive processing thing I mentioned in my last post, and many, many other components. And twiddling with one of the components is unlikely to have a big impact, in the way that change one bird in a flock or one singer in a choir is unlikely to change the outcome of those systems.

I want to say very clearly that the science has illuminated a number of things that really do seem to work: mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy, somatic experiencing, media literacy and cognitive dissonance exercise, building trust and communication, even simply reframing what it means “to want sex.” Research has shown these things to be effective. They work. Want to increase sexual desire? Try any of these. Warning: side effects may include improved mood, reduced anxiety, better relationships, better health, better sleep, reduced use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, and easier orgasms.

These strategies may not help you if you just want desire to COME, without any effort (“like it used to”). But desire is context dependent; sometimes life spontaneously offers erotic contexts (“it used to”), and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, you can CREATE them. Move the banks of the river.

You can change the way your body responds to the world by changing the way you live inside your body. It’s an incredibly powerful thing to do – profoundly feminist, as well as being the evidence-based approach.