When my boyfriend surprises me with a Viagra pill one evening, all I can see are the four straight hours of pounding that will follow if he ingests a drug designed to increase blood flow to the genitals. It’s not as if the man suffers from erectile dysfunction.
Then an idea strikes. “Let’s split it,” I say.
Aware of the debate surrounding Viagra’s effectiveness on females, I’m curious to try it, especially since no equivalent for women exists. I’m also eager to limit the amount of erection-enhancing medicine my virile boyfriend swallows.
The pill snaps in half easily, and sure enough, we have amazingly energetic, kinky sex.
The next morning, I walk to the bathroom in a post-orgasmic haze, grateful to Pfizer for concocting such a wonderful drug.
On my way back to bed, however, I spot our single dose of Viagra still resting on the bedside table, in a tray containing stray vitamins and a few Aleve. The latter are also blue and diamond-shaped.
In our haste to get things going in the dark, my boyfriend must have grabbed the wrong pill. Recalling the sex that was too extraordinary not to be pharmaceutically enriched, we’re equally stunned by the revelation that one of our all-time best lovemaking sessions resulted from popping half an over-the-counter headache remedy.
Once the shock wanes, curiosity sets in. Was our experience a freak accident? Or is it possible for couples to increase their sexual repertoire without chemical assistance—and if so, how?
For starters, I read up on the placebo effect.
Like many, I’ve always thought of placebos as the harmless sugar pills distributed to control groups during research studies. To earn approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an experimental drug has to outperform such placebos in at least two authenticated trials.
But it turns out that the placebo effect encompasses more than just decoy pills. It is a complex psychobiological phenomenon with far-reaching mind-body implications—and a whole lot of promise, it would seem, for those aiming to enhance their sex lives naturally.
Consider the historical anecdote at the root of this science: During World War II, when a resourceful army nurse’s supply of morphine ran dry, she began injecting soldiers with saline solution while reassuring them that her syringe contained a powerful painkiller.
Dr. Henry Beecher, who witnessed this extraordinarily effective approach to curbing patients’ agony, went on to pioneer the groundbreaking placebo research that remains central to pharmaceutical testing policies today.
According to Dr. Fabrizio Benedetti, professor of neurophysiology at the University of Turin and one of the world’s leading placebo experts, “Any situation whereby you have positive expectations can trigger the placebo response.”
In other words, all the symbols and rituals that elicit hope and trust—the process of injection, the act of taking a pill, acupuncture, and even prayer—thereby stimulating the body’s self-healing processes, can be characterized as placebos.
Remembering how optimistic my boyfriend and I were while swallowing Aleve in our inadvertent, at-home placebo experiment, this makes sense.
Countless studies focused on conditions as varied as chronic pain, nausea, fatigue, depression, insomnia, and infertility have demonstrated the human body’s remarkable capacity to repair itself in response to placebogenic triggers.
Through acts as simple as kissing a child’s boo-boo, many of us exploit the underlying biology of the placebo effect without realizing it.
Some scientists purport that the phenomenon can even have an impact when we’re conscious of it. In a 2010 study led by Ted Kaptchuk, director of Harvard’s Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter, patients suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome improved markedly after taking a pill they were told was inert from the outset.
If toying with our psyches deliberately can lead to better health, it seems reasonable to postulate that doing so could lead to better sex. On the back of the Viagra incident, I’m eager to see if I can apply placebo science mindfully to improve my already robust sex life.
With the help of specialists, I decide to formulate a list of brain hacks designed for the average, healthy couple looking to ramp things up in the bedroom. Then I’ll test each method out firsthand.
Dr. Laurie B. Mintz, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida known for testing the efficacy of a self-help book she authored, A Tired Woman’s Guide To Passionate Sex, against a placebo, points out that by way of calling her, I’ve already taken a critical step.
“Once the mind believes it’s on the course to improvement, it guides you there,” she says. Since the very act of signing up for a study can lead participants to feel better, Mintz urges people to “do something, do anything, and believe in it.” For initial inspiration, she recommends making a list.
A lot of us draft professional to-do lists because the potential satisfaction of whittling them down sparks productivity. Similarly, creating a list of sex goals should push us to try new positions and toys, or prompt us to meet minimum sensual quotas.
Mintz also emphasizes that expectations are critical to how we experience things. She cites a study in which people who were told that a milkshake was “indulgent” drank less of it than those who were told it was “sensible” because their levels of grehlin, the “hunger hormone,” actually dropped more significantly.
In fact, there have been instances in which people develop nausea or vomiting simply because they’re instructed to expect these phantom symptoms—a phenomenon dubbed the nocebo effect.
To finesse my sexpectations, Mintz suggests setting a daily alarm as a reminder to indulge a fantasy or to coach myself with sex-positive slogans.
Lastly, Mintz mentions a study she conducted that demonstrated the benefits of reading erotica. This seems like an offshoot of a placebo trigger we’re all susceptible to: watching another person benefit from something. It also strikes me as cause to commit to consuming more pornographic content.
According to Dr. Andrea Bradford, the author of several placebo studies and founder of the Women’s Integrated Sexual Health (WISH) program at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, every single behavioral adjustment results in biochemical changes that can have a ripple effect. “So any modification in the way you approach sex will have an impact,” she says.
This gives me the idea to create a sex schedule. Since I can’t even stomach the notion of a weekly date night, planning intimacy sounds totally unappealing, but at least it will be a departure from the norm, and a way to establish a ritual.
A lot of placebo scientists believe in the therapeutic power of rituals, which might explain why so many people continue to pop herbal supplements in spite of mounting evidence that many contain nothing but rice powder and crushed houseplants. (In a recent hit to the multibillion-dollar Vitamins, Minerals, and Supplements industry, the New York State Attorney General’s Office ordered GNC, Walgreens, Target, and Walmart to remove fraudulent “medicinal” products from their shelves.)
Dr. Bradford also advises keeping track of my progress in a sex diary. “There’s value in focusing on what’s working and what’s not by elaborating your difficulties and accomplishments,” she says.
My mission is clear:
1. Make a list of sex goals2. Set a daily sex-is-good/fantasize alarm3. Consume more porn4. Create a sex schedule5. Keep a sex diary
I’m immediately surprised by how rewarding it is to brainstorm erotic objectives. Minutes after completing my list, I browse luxury sex retailer Babeland’s website and order the Clone-A-Willy kit, which lets you craft a custom silicone vibrator in the likeness of your favorite penis.
This allows me to check off “buy new sex toy,” and also promises the ability to “incorporate vibrators more frequently.” Thanks to a simple exercise, I already feel good about being more attentive to my libido.
Next, I email my boyfriend the exact dates and times I expect to get laid over the course of the next two weeks. Hoping to offset the buzz kill of scheduling something that’s supposed to be spontaneous, I attach a few diagrams depicting the positions I’d like to tackle, including “the sphinx,” “the deckchair,” and “the plow.”
His response: “Best email ever!”
Apparently, “the guarantee” of sex is alluring, even at the cost of spur-of-the-moment passion. As I skim my calendar, which, for the first time, features future events like “Jump your lover” and “Blowie time,” I smile, beginning to grasp the potential upside of premeditated fornication. Big Pharma be damned, these placebo hacks might do the trick!
For three out of the first five days, I can’t stop myself from masturbating soon after my daily 2 p.m. reminder to think sexy thoughts rings. My boyfriend loves coming home after a long day to the promise of sexual play, and I enjoy carnal journaling, which doubles as practice in writing erotic stories we can revisit as a couple.
Ten days in, I’ve built my very own boyfriend dildo, watched a couple hours of porn, climaxed 18 times (including five self-induced orgasms), learned how to clip a garter belt onto sheer thigh highs, and invented a sex position I like to call “the ice cream sandwich.”
But as much as I appreciate our amplified sex life, I begin to feel bogged down by my own demands. I force myself to conjure provocative thoughts no matter where I am when my alarm goes off, which makes for some awkward subway rides during which I struggle to construct mental images of orgies starring fellow passengers.
Since not every day lends itself to activities like cooking dinner naked, I also scramble to add doable tasks to my list while others seem to take on permanent status, irksome evidence that I’m neglecting certain aspects of my sex life. Another problem is that the thought of deviating from our schedule gives me serious anxiety.
On Day 11 I awake sensing the onset of a urinary tract infection, but I pressure myself to meet my boyfriend at his office for our planned 7 p.m. sexcapade anyway.
Lying atop an unforgiving wooden conference table, my inability to get in the mood leaves me feeling guilty and inadequate. I’d imagined so much more for the workplace romp I knew my boyfriend had been looking forward to.
Later, after a few glasses of wine, I cry over the fact that I need a sex break to heal, which seems like a failure. This is when my boyfriend proposes that if I can’t properly weigh the pain of my stinging genitals against the satisfaction of crossing off list items and sticking to an aggressive timetable, the placebo hacks may be doing more harm than good.
He’s right. And if any strategy, natural or unnatural, proves counterproductive, it’s worth reevaluating.
The next day I adjust our schedule so it’s more manageable, with four weekly appointments. This way, rather than holding ourselves to unrealistic standards, my boyfriend and I are positioned to go above and beyond.
I also give myself permission to hit snooze at 2 p.m. if the moment calls for it, and I coach myself to view uncompleted tasks as teasers of what’s to come.
Although my boyfriend is pretty much always horny, scaling things back works for both of us. We agree that focusing on coital quality is far more important than fixating on frequency.
Plus, certain acts, like waking your partner up with oral sex and taking Viagra—when we finally try the real thing, it works, but only in so far as the Aleve did—require an element of spontaneity to feel special.
That said, it’s tough to imagine “going regular” after experiencing the high of an intensified sex life.
Sexual exploration of any kind promotes intimacy, which is a worthwhile end no matter a couple’s chosen method. For those wary of prescription meds, tapping into placebo science to take things up a notch is an especially valuable option.
But even the nonchemical approach deserves a warning label. Pushing personal limits can cause symptoms of burnout to materialize. So capitalize on the interconnectedness of your mind and body all you want, but when you commit to a natural brain hack rooted in placebo science or pop a narcotic, you have to monitor the side effects, mental and physical, at all times. In a way, it’s possible to overdose on anything—even mind-blowing sex.