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Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Sex supplements: a steamy sham or the real deal?

With fewer young people than ever having sex, many brands are launching libido-enhancing supplements. But are they really the answer?

Did you know that we are currently in the midst of a sex recession? A 2021 study revealed that adults and young people are having less sex than previous generations, a result that scientists attributed to social media and gaming, among other things. So, when a friend told me that they had begun taking sex supplements to increase their libido, I was intrigued. 

Sex supplements are herbal remedies made using ingredients claimed naturally enhance your libido. However, in reality, there’s very little evidence to suggest that they actually work. The ingredients depend on the product, though they usually contain a mix of herbs and roots, packaged in minimal and millennial-friendly boxes. Sexual wellness brand Maude, for example, released a selection of libido-enhancing gummies this month, formulated in partnership with supplement brand ASYSTEM. Presented in a pleasing tray, these gummies come in packs of 30 – one for each day of the month – and claim to “enhance sexual arousal and stimulation” by increasing blood flow and testerone levels in the body. There’s one for men and one for women, though in reality, they contain the same ingredients: a blend of pine pollen, ocean minerals, L-Citrulline, L-Arginine (one of two ingredients urologist Dr Michael O'Leary says might actually work), L-Theanine, boron and caffeine. They’re passionfruit flavoured, too, which is fitting given their so-called purpose. 

Elsewhere, Goop’s “DTF” sex supplements are made using a combination of herbs fenugreek and shatavari and saffron extract. Of the Goop ingredients, the specific fenugreek extract they use has one trial that shows favourable outcomes. “Saffron looks promising but lacks trial data though it’s safe so no reason not to take. Shatavari is used a lot in Ayurvedic medicine. I couldn’t find any clinical data on it but I do respect Ayurveda as a science that has its own foundations so wouldn’t dismiss it. Ashwagandha is a convincing example,” explains Dr Federica, public health scientist and chief scientist for Never Go Alone.

Perhaps the most notorious sex supplement is Cam’ron’s Pink Horse Power, which the rapper plugged at the height of Rihanna’s pregnancy reveal frenzy. Implying that it may have potentially had a role in the pregnancy’s conception, the bizarre product comes in the form of a hot pink jar emblazoned with Word Art text and a poorly-edited photo of a horse. With only three ingredients (ginger, ginseng, azadirachta indica), the product gives nothing away, other than, perhaps, the rapper’s potential love of horses (or ketamine?). “This seems less evidence-based than Goop’s DTF,” says Dr Federica. “Azadirachta has anti-inflammatory and polyphenol rich attributes but nothing specific to sexual function. Ginger is unclear for sexual function and ginseng has some interesting results for blood glucose but nothing specific for sexual dysfunction or libido.”

Given the lack of scientific evidence to support sex supplements, there’s no concrete way of really knowing how they affect the body more than your average pharmacy counter vitamins. Dr Federica adds, “There is evidence that other factors – psychological, stress, metabolic health – have a big impact on libido which these supplements likely won’t resolve.”

For many of these supplements there’s a premium price tag involved – Maude charges £35 for a one-month supply, while Goop is around £42 ($44) – but there’s often almost no difference between them outside of the marketing spin. The ‘testosterone-boosting’ Super Male Vitality sold by Alex Jones’ alt-right Infowars platform contains exactly the same ingredients as Sex Dust from Moon Juice, a wellness brand and Gwyneth Paltrow favourite. It begs the question: are sex supplements a steamy sham or the real deal? 

“In western capitalist society, many of us are socialised to work hard and achieve ‘ideal’ goals of success. This means we may unconsciously allow our work to give us meaning which distances us in living lives of abundance and pleasure. These busy work lives mean that stress and anxiety is at an all-time high and our sexual desire mays suffer as a result,” explains Jordan Dixon, a clinical psychosexual therapist. 

For Dixon, the problem isn’t that people are having less sex, but why they’re feeling the need to buy pills to remedy this. “The pill is sold as a quick fix solution for the individual rather than addressing something much wider,” she says. “Many clinical psychosexual therapists like myself know that supplements, or quick fixes that promise a cure, don’t actually work. Whilst they may have some tangible effects for some, sexual desire and arousal are complex and as such require a thorough assessment.”

Sexual desire is a complex topic and there’s many reason why a person’s libido might be flagging. “Our relationship to sex and desire can be impacted by so many factors: systemic, biological, physical, emotional, relational, and psychological. Reflecting on how we learn about sex and how our environments impact our relationship to it may unlock some of the emotions we have tied up in sex,” explains Dixon. “It’s highly important for me as a therapist to understand a person’s physiology and psychology as well as the dynamics of their relationships.”

One reason why women might turn to sex supplements, for example, is the orgasm gap – the disparity in orgasms between (typically heterosexual) couples. One study found that 39 per cent of women said they always orgasm when they masturbate, compared to six per cent during sex, while another conducted by Durex found that 20 per cent of women said they don’t orgasm, compared to two per cent of men. “The orgasm gap is very real and many women are wrongly condemned for having low sexual disorders which is a highly normative conception of female sexuality. So, many now turn to sex supplements like Goop,” says Dixon.

“Many humans and women continue to feel the pressure to meet their partner’s sexual needs as a sign to be ‘the good partner’ without much discussion on the good conditions for sex or even consent,” she adds. “I believe these sex supplements sell a fantasy that interpersonal, social and material problems affecting womens’ lives and sexualities can be resolved taking a pill.”

Whether it’s the late capitalist grind, social media and gaming, or simply how busy generally our lives have become (reports say that mediaeval peasants worked less than modern Americans… lol), it’s safe to say that there’s an overwhelming amount of reasons why people are having less sex than before. Sex supplements, though not harmful, don’t appear to remedy this either. If anything, they reaffirm the Big Pharma ideology that for every problem, there’s a pill, when really, it seems to be less about the person and more about the society that’s creating such problems (and hang-ups) in the first place.