A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why does male sex drive decrease with age? Is there any remedy?

July 6, 1987

Dear Cecil:

I know you're not Doctor Ruth, or even an endocrinologist, but can you tell me why men get less horny as they get older? I'm 35 and don't seem to want to boink anywhere near as much as I used to five or ten years ago. Is there some nutritional or chemical substance that can rectify this, such as the much-heralded bee pollen?

Cecil replies:

It's interesting to watch the Baby Boomers arc through life — from the Age of Aquarius to the milk of magnesia. Once everybody wanted to know about drugs and how to kill the roaches in their crummy apartments; now I get aging yuppies worried about their fading virility.

Ah, well. Despite considerable research, nobody really understands why men gradually lose their sex drive. Most males reach their sexual peak at age 17 or 18, and it's a long, slow slide thereafter, becoming particularly noticeable after the age of 30. It's not uncommon for an 18-year-old male to be able to achieve orgasm four to eight times in a 24-hour period, whereas most 30-year-olds are happy if they manage once.

At one time scientists thought declining sex drive was the result of decreasing sex hormone levels, but research has not borne this out. Though the data are contradictory, there does not seem to be any clear evidence that testosterone levels decline significantly before the age of 50. In any case there is no positive connection between T-level and sexual activity in normal men. Hormone shots will help a guy with a gland problem, but they will not restore youthful vigor to a normal male who has simply gotten old. It may be that your reduced sex drive results not from lowered hormones but from your body's decreasing sensitivity thereto.

Over the years an amazing array of substances have been proposed as aphrodisiacs. The only ones that really do anything are what we might call quasi aphrodisiacs, notably booze and drugs, which do not increase desire so much as they reduce inhibitions. Some drugs also enhance sex once the show is under way. Amyl nitrate, AKA "poppers," is said to intensify and prolong orgasm when inhaled at the point of climax. Amphetamines can produce prolonged erection and multiple orgasm in men, although women usually experience negative effects.

A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel reviewed 15 alleged aphrodisiacs in 1982, including gotu kola, ginseng, licorice, sarsaparilla, cantharides (Spanish fly), nux vomica, Pega Palo, strychnine (!), and yohimbine. The panel declared there was "no substantive evidence whatever to support the claims of aphrodisiac action attributed to these ingredients." In some cases, in fact, they can make things worse — strychnine, for instance. Spanish fly, derived from a southern European beetle that is powdered and then eaten, produces an irritation of the urethra that may mimic sexual arousal, but it can also cause genital damage, impotence, and in extreme cases, death from shock.

Yohimbine, which comes from the bark of a tropical tree, caused a flurry a few years ago when it was shown to increase sex activity in rats, but tests with humans have been disappointing. A compound related to yohimbine, papaverine, has been shown to produce "impressive erections" if injected directly into the penis. While potentially useful to those suffering from impotence, this doesn't sound like something the average guy would want to fool with.

Other reputed aphrodisiacs include megadoses of vitamin E (studies indicate it has no effect), as well as such things as sea turtle penises, raw bull testicles, and powdered rhinoceros horn, about which I need say no more. And then there's bee pollen. One quack has called it "a wonderful natural food which tends to increase the body's production of sex hormones." Some believe it also enhances athletic performance, relieves asthma, retards aging, etc. The evidence to date suggests otherwise. While it's legal to sell bee pollen as a food, the FDA frowns on any claim of therapeutic benefit.

But look on the bright side. Most men in their 20s want sex a lot more than women of the same age, resulting in chronic frustration. But while desire declines in men as they get into their 30s, it increases in women, who reach their sexual peak between 35 and 40. Thus you may find the little lady wants you to come thither just about as often as you're prepared to go. Enjoy it while you can; pretty soon she'll be trying to keep you from nodding off halfway through.

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