Love and Other Dangerous Chemicals
Background: Mail On Sunday Article: The Science of Sexuality
Love and Other Dangerous Chemicals had a slightly unusual gestation. I started writing it as a short story. As I became more and more fascinated by the characters it slowly turned into a film script, then a novella, and finally I realised it was just crying out to be a novel. So eventually I allowed it to be what it wanted.
It’s a slightly unusual novel, too. When people asked what I was working on, and I told them it was a love story set in a sex research laboratory at Oxford University, that the lead character is a scientist trying to pursue the female equivalent of Viagra, and that, oh, it was written partly in the form of a scientific paper and partly as a student’s blog, I could see them rolling their eyes and thinking I’d gone completely mad. On the face of it, it sounds like a bad Benny Hill sketch. But actually there are no rampant rabbit jokes, just a science geek and an arts geek trying to figure out what they feel for each other, in the most confusing of circumstances. Tonally, it’s closer to the light, sweet comedy of The Food of Love than one of my lusher, more historical stories like The Various Flavours of Coffee. I like to think there’s room for both styles in my writing.
Mail on Sunday Article: The Science of Sexuality
An article I wrote about the current state of scientific research
In 1983 a research scientist called Professor G.S Brinkley stood up at a medical conference to announce his latest discovery. His was the last slot before dinner, and many of the eminent scientists had brought along their wives and partners. The professor’s speech was a short one. Like many of his colleagues, he was engaged in trying to find a cure for male impotence. Now he wanted to share the exciting news that a drug called Papavarine, a muscle relaxant, appeared to be the breakthrough they’d all been looking for.
Professor Brinkley had anticipated that his audience might be somewhat sceptical about the slides of magnificent erections which illustrated his presentation, possibly even suspecting that “erotic stimulus”, as he coyly put it, could have been involved in their production. At this juncture he revealed that before taking to the stage himself to give his talk – an activity, as he pointed out, that no-one could possibly consider sexually stimulating – he had injected his own penis with the drug. According to the subsequent report in the British Medical Journal,
With his pants at his knees, he waddled down the stairs, approaching (to their horror) the urologists and their partners in the front row. As he approached them, erection waggling before him, four or five of the women in the front rows threw their arms up in the air, seemingly in unison, and screamed loudly. The scientific merits of the presentation had been overwhelmed, for them, by the novel and unusual mode of demonstrating the results.
Sadly for Professor Brinkley, papaverine was soon to be overshadowed by Viagra, or ‘Compound UK-92480’ as Pfizer originally called it, which gave much the same results but without the need for the patient to inject the equivalent of botox into their penises. Viagra was created as a treatment for angina, and was considered a failure during clinical trials; it was only because an alert researcher followed up reports of some unusual side effects that its other properties were discovered.
Within a year of its launch, sales of Viagra topped $1bn. Pfizer’s rivals – particularly those who had backed alternative approaches such as papaverine – were quietly seething. But it didn’t take long for some of them to realise that there was actually a huge opportunity here. Viagra, after all, was only being sold to one half of the human population. What was needed, they reasoned, was a similar pill – for women.
And so the great female-sex-pill hunt was born, with millions of dollars flooding into research studies and pilot projects. The problem for the Big Pharma giants, though, is that scientifically speaking they’re still stuck at the Brinkley stage – experimenting in a variety of weird and wonderful ways with no clear idea of which will actually work.
My own involvement with this strange world came about by accident. As a novelist, I do a lot of research online: somehow, I stumbled across a site that archived a bunch of scientific papers on the subject of sex. (I can’t now remember exactly what I’d typed into Google to precipitate this, but clearly, I wasn’t looking for train timetables). Once there, though, I found I couldn’t tear myself away.
It was partly the delicious contrast between the dry, academic tone of the papers and their subject matter. Who could resist reading a study that set out to see if it’s possible to have an orgasm and hiccups simultaneously? (It isn’t, apparently). Or an account of a sex-enhancement drug based on melatonin, the tanning compound, which caused those who used it to become inadvertently aroused when sunbathing? Or the problems encountered by ‘Chuang et al’, one of whose subjects experienced “sexual arousal and orgasm-like euphoria… followed by a period of impairment of consciousness”, but “only when brushing her teeth”?
I began to sketch out a story set in the world of such papers. It took me slightly longer, though, to realise that behind their unintentional hilarity lay a serious debate – a debate about whether sex is really, as the pharmaceutical companies would have it, just about physiology.
At the root of this is the conundrum of the female orgasm itself. Uniquely in the human body, it has no function other than pleasure – which means that, according to the so-called rules of natural selection, it shouldn’t exist. It certainly isn’t there for the reason that, say, male nipples are, i.e. because we’re all built from one chromosomal template. MRI studies show that female orgasms are stronger, deeper and use different parts of the brain than men’s.
Which in turn begs the question: if we don’t know what it’s for, how can we say that its absence is something that should be treated? After all, with some studies suggesting that over 50% of women suffer from Female Sexual Dysfunction, it’s statistically too prevalent to qualify as a disorder at all.
There’s a suspicion, in fact, that the pharmaceutical companies may be creating an illness in order to sell a cure. This is exacerbated by the way that Female Sexual Dysfunction itself is rapidly being redefined into a myriad of sub-disorders. What used to be called low sex drive is now ‘arousal disorder’; asexuality is ‘hypoactive desire’. There’s even something called ‘muffled orgasm syndrome’, in which the sufferer has a completely normal climax, but doesn’t get the satisfaction from it she believes she should.
Along with the disorders, naturally enough, have come the ‘cures’. There are currently over twenty in development, ranging from nasal sprays to skin patches. Many, such as Intrinsa from Proctor and Gamble (that’s right – the people who brought you Daz soap powder and that herbal shampoo that apparently makes you climax whenever you wash your hair) are based on testosterone, the male sex hormone. The solution, it seems, goes right back to Henry Higgins: why can’t a woman be more like a man?
My novel is a romantic comedy; an entertainment, not a polemic. But as I began to write, I became aware of a theme emerging, one I hadn’t planned: a veiled attack on the whole sex-research industry. My hero – a brilliant but repressed biochemist who falls in love with one of his research subjects – comes to hypothesise that the elusive female orgasm, far from being functionless, is like the riddle in all good fairy stories, the one that has to be solved before you get the princess. As he says in the novel’s climactic scene – a catastrophic scientific presentation loosely based on Professor Brinkley’s – sex may be biology, but true love is chemistry.