The Science of Getting it On

According to a recent study, the key to sexual desire lies in your jeans. So take them off and let’s do some scientific exploration.

Wait, sorry, I heard that wrong . . . it’s actually in your genes. Put your pants back on, pervert.

Researchers asked 148 male and female college students to rate their sexual desires, probably in explicit detail (“Tell me more about where you’d put the whipped cream?”). Apparently, the D4 receptor gene matched up with the differing self-assessments, suggesting that a lack of sexual desire may be less of a dysfunction and more of a plain old biological fact.

Nailing down the exact cause for sexual disinterest is the first step toward finding a way to fix or alter it. For instance, your most recent date’s lack of sexual desire could have been caused by her genetic make-up, or perhaps it was caused by your habit of relating everything she said to a different episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Until you know for sure, you probably won’t be able to get her in the sack. (For the sake of your sex life, I recommend taking an educated guess until more genetic testing can be accomplished.)

It’s a shame that Freud is dead. He’d be so happy to hear that we finally have a scientifically proven reason for blaming our mothers for our poor sex lives.


(Thanks to Rav for the heads up!)

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Ooh, genetic reductionism and "correlation equals cause" all rolled into one! In other words, where's the skepticism?

    But where would *I* put the whipped cream?

    Wherever it felt good.

  2. I can see it now. In a bar instead of "what's your sign" it is "What's your D4 Recepter Gene level?"

    Finding out what their D4 Recepter Gene make up after the date may not be that good. What if they have a high indicator for sexual activity but you didn't get any? Could be a real ego buster.

    Where to put the whip cream? Anywhere she will let me put it. (and anywhere she wants me to put it.)

  3. Shhhhh Rebecca… Please don't divulge that kind of news everywhere!

    Now women will have a new reason other than the headache, for not wanting to have sex!

    Ohh well, homeopathic healers will probably soon have a solution for it anyway! They can dilute anything so, they will find a way to dilute that D4 receptor I'm sure!! ;-)

  4. Honest, it's not you. It's me…and my D4 receptor.

    The article stated that "it might be possible to develop drugs to alter sexual desire based on the new findings."

    Great. As if worrying about having GHB dropped into my diet coke wasn't bad enough, I could potentially have to concern myself with prescription "Spanish fly" too?

  5. JF has a very good point — correlation does not equal causation, and we are not necessarily slaves to our genes. The study is in no way the final word on sexual behavior, as I hinted to but didn't really explore in my Everybody Loves Raymond example. However, I do think it would be nice to know if it's just a biological fact that not everybody is doing it all for the nookie.

  6. "Hey, babe! My caudate nucleus is processing a daddy-o keen cocktail of oxytocin, phenylalanine, vasopressin, dopamine, and testoterone about now…What's your D4 Receptor Gene level…?"

    *I* think it's rather catchy!

  7. Interesting that the 148 subjects completed a self-assessed survey of their sexual desire, function, etc.

    Without being able to read the methods and controls in the study (my university account doesn't have full access to _Molecular Psychiatry_, grrrr), I'm left wondering how the investigators ruled out the conclusion that the D4 polymorphism was responsible for *self-reporting* of sexual function, etc, rather than *actual* measures of function, desire, and so on.

    Kind of like, if you have the significant D4 feature then you're more likely to perceive yourself as being more sexually active/arousable/etc, rather than how you really perform when it comes down to… well… doing it, basically.

  8. Did they have to rate themselves? Or their attraction towards others in the study?

    And as far as sexual desire goes, it seems like self assesment would be fine. Since I don't think they'll actually be rating their "desire" on a scale of 1 to 10, but instead be answering questions regarding different situations, and have an impartial third person rate their responses.

    Well, that's how I would do it. after all, about 90 percent of the people rate themselves above average …

  9. Yeah, as I said I haven't been able to look at the methods used in the actual paper itself, so I'm just going by what the web-site article reported: "questionnaires asking for the students' self-descriptions of their sexual desire, arousal and sexual function."

    I'm just curious how the link between self-assessment score and the gene-in-question's functioning was controlled for so it wasn't just that one result of the gene was to boost self-worth or whatever else could affect the subjects' own perceptions of themselves. They might *think* they're more of a stud (and answer accordingly) but in reality it might just be an over-active gene giving them that impression. How was this ruled out?

    Is it possible to be *too* skeptical?

  10. I don't think that's being too skeptical.

    But how would you design the tests? Would you bring in various couples, cover them in probes, leads, and wires hooked up to the EEGs, EKG's and suchlike whilst they "have at it?"

    Or maybe stuff a couple into an FMRI tube and scan them whilst they got busy?

    How could you double-blind such a test.

    How the frell DID they do this, anyway?

  11. "questionnaires asking for the students’ self-descriptions of their sexual desire, arousal and sexual function."

    Apart from sexual function, which of these is not a subjective feeling?

    I think a person should be capable of determining just how horny they are, or more particularly, if a certain situation or conversation is making them horny or not. You could lie of course, but other than that, I don't see how a certain gene could make someone think they are horny when they're really not, since being aroused is all in the head anyway …

    I think you are confusing sexual performance and ability to satisfy a partner (which could only be rated by others) with feeling desire and arousal (i.e. being or getting horny, which probably cannot be rated by anyone but the person feeling it).

  12. Yes– So if the article declares that scientists suspect a particular gene, I am naive enough to belive that some attempt at real scientific investigation went in to it.

    Granted, my descriptions were tongue in cheek; but it *could* be done. –I assume embarrassment tolerance would have to be pretty bloody high, but it should be possible to measure physiological responses (including functional brain scans).

    But if the feelings and responses are all completely subjective, how can that be properly measured? There must be some way to do it that is not going to leave our hypotheses based sole on annecdotal "evidence."

  13. Does having sex with a naked woman turn you on?

    Does touching a naked woman turn you on?

    Does looking at a naked woman turn you on?

    Does looking at a woman in her underwear turn you on?

    Does looking at a fully clothed woman turn you on?

    Does looking at the dark sillhouette of a fully dressed woman turn you on?

    Does looking at a cat turn you on?

    Does looking at a table turn you on?

    Does the mere mention of the words "turn you on" turn you on?

    Does anything not turn you on?

    See, it's pretty much a continuum of things that might or might not turn you on. All people have to do is answer truthfully whether or not such things turn them on. At some point, most normal people will change their answers from yes to no when going over this list.

    While it's possible to have brain MRIs and EEGs to check whether someone is really telling the truth or not, and whether they are really turned on, we can assume that this is already plenty to make an initial hypothesis.

    And a properly randomised test group isn't "anecdotal".

    Further more, nobody needs to be "getting at it", because the simple fact of the matter is that the research isn't about sex or the perceived sexual prowess, performance or achievements of the test subjects. It's just about how often or not you are in the mood. If you can't tell if you're in the mood without the help of a brain scan, I think you may have a more serious problem to deal with …

  14. I think that in general, the only way the self-asessments would be completely inaccurate is if the subjects consciously decided to lie, and they really have no reason to in this case. I would guess that the questions were more along the lines of, "How often do you masturbate," "Ideally, how often would you like to have sex," etc.

  15. That's what I originally meant about not having access to the original paper to see the research methods! We just don't know how the results were obtained. I'm skeptical enough to the extent that when I hear/read something like that (especially when someone claims to have found a gene "for" X) I don't accept it merely because it was done by professional scienticians. There are far too many of them out there who are still human, you know, with human motivations and agendas!

    But even the questions Rebecca suggests in her last comment could be influenced by something other than pure sexual turn-on-ability. If you've been brought up in a society/community/whatever that places great emphasis on heterosexuality, for example, then you could deliberately or unconsciously answer so that you give the impression that you're the straightest guy/girl ever, yet in reality you might be extremely turned on by the same sex. Which level of sexual attitude would emerge from self-assessment in that case? You can't rule out that the "Hey, I'm just a regular sort of guy with a normal attitude to sex" response would be obtained from the answers given, yet the subject may be the most promiscuous person ever and can't keep it in his pants for more than 10 minutes.

    So, getting back to my original point, there *IS* a shown correlation between D4 function and *the answers given*, but I'm very curious about how my imagined (but possible) scenarios were controlled for. If they weren't (and they might have been; without access to the paper I don't know for sure), then the result is equally open to an interpretation of something like "There's a correlation between D4 function/expression and a person's willingness to conform to his/her community's morals." Or any number of other conclusions.

  16. Good points JF.

    One method that is used to gather sensitive data is random trials. For example, if you are polling males to find out if they beat their signifigant other in the past year you can't ask that question directly and expect a straight answer. (or expect to be hit) Since you may be asking a question that could incriminate the responder you need the results, but you don't need to know which response goes with which person.

    Typically they give the responder something to randomize the response in a known way over a large population. For example, they give the person a die and ask them to roll the die (out of your sight). If it comes up a 6 then tell the truth. If it comes up 1 thru 5 lie. Since you don't know what the die roll was you can't know how valid their particular response was. Using Basian methods you do know out of a large group of people that 5/6 told a lie and 1/6 told the truth. From that knowledge you can determine how many males beat their signifigant other. (hopefully very few)

    They could ahve used a similar technique on this questionaire assuming some people are embarassed giving answers. (eg How many times a day do you masterbate? Males would tend to over report and females under report is my guess, but I could be wrong. Not usually something I bring up in casual conversation.)

  17. Since there's a link between their responses and a genetic sample they must have collected, I don't think randomisation or anonymity would work in this way. Unless they would give each subject's questionaire and their DNA sample a code, collect the sample, then send them off to fill in the forms and collect them in a big stack and pair the responses up with their accompanying DNA sample later on.

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