According to experts we're having far less sex than we did 30 years ago. Now the fast-growing sexual wellness industry is turning its attention to supplements that claim to make you feel friskier.
While tax, fuel prices and the cost of living all spiral to wallet-busting, bum-clenching new heights, the only thing seemingly going down – in all senses of the phrase – is our collective libido. The annual hosepipe bans of the Nineties may now be a dim, dusty memory thanks to soggy climate-change summers, but there is, apparently, a full-scale sex drought going on in bone-dry bedrooms across the land.
A fortnight ago, Charles Kingsland, chief medical officer at the clinic group Care Fertility, claimed that couples are having so little sex that they are turning to IVF not because of infertility, but because they don't have time to procreate in person. "People are having half as much sex as they did 30 years ago," he said. "People don't make the time because they are too busy and too tired – they have a poor work-life balance and sex starts to seem like another chore. There is no doubt that some people are opting for IVF simply because sex isn't something they have time to do."
Meanwhile, at the end of last year, more women aged 18 to 35 than ever before reported not having had sex at all in the previous 12 months, according to the US-based Institute for Family Studies, with 21 per cent of men and women under 35 reporting a year-long dry spell in 2021, compared with 8 per cent in 2008. The pandemic undoubtedly exacerbated the issue, bringing – depending upon your circumstances – either inadvertent iso-celibacy or a suffocating, sex-strangling fire blanket of 24/7 coupledom, plus stress and anxiety for all, heavy drinking for most, and a huge spike in antidepressant prescriptions that, while good for mental health issues, are generally not so great for the horn.
Little wonder, really, that in one month during the pandemic, searches for the term "sexual wellness" went up 850 per cent on the health and beauty site Cult Beauty – a term that had barely been heard of five years ago, and is an industry now expected to be worth £37 billion ($72 billion) globally by 2026.
If you're still not entirely clear on what "sexual wellness" actually is, you're likely not alone. The World Health Organisation defines it as, "A state of physical, emotional, mental, and social wellbeing in relation to sexuality and not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity," which, to be honest, doesn't really clear it up all that much.
It might be simpler to think not in terms of what sexual wellness is, but what it can sell. Whereas five years ago Gwyneth Paltrow was mocked for flogging jade eggs to "increase sexual energy", mugwort vaginal steam treatments "to balance female hormone levels" and a £57 ($111) candle called "This Smells Like My Vagina" on her wellness site Goop, she now looks more like a canny trailblazer as celebrities scramble onto the sexual wellness bandwagon. Lily Allen has designed her own Womaniser vibrator, Cara Delevingne is a co-owner and creative adviser of sex-tech start-up Lora DiCarlo, and Dakota Johnson is an investor and the co-creative director at the Brooklyn-based sexual wellness brand Maude.
Once niche, naff and not really something you'd talk about in public, sexual wellness is now officially mass market. Previously the preserve of tittering Ann Summers parties, sex toys are now sold everywhere from Selfridges to Boots and Ocado ("Pop a vibrating bullet in with the Domestos for me, darling"). Research by sex toy company Smile Makers even claims that more women in the UK now own a vibrator than a dishwasher, and I believe it… Though I may be singlehandedly skewing the figures, since I've never had a dishwasher but own six vibrators. Some were gifts, OK?
There are ever more creative dimensions to the skyrocketing sexual wellness trade too, like sustainability; this spring, Danish brand Ohhcean launched the world's first range of vibrators made from recycled ocean plastics, while sustainable, biodegradable, gardening-themed condoms have been launched in the UK to encourage the over-65s, among whom STI rates are rising, to practise safe sex.
For those who need to escape the daily grind to find their friskiness, there are sexual wellness retreats, like those offered at the super-luxe St Regis Punta Mita Resort on Mexico's Pacific coast, promising "bodily wellness" and better orgasms, while the W in Brisbane has appointed "a sexologist concierge".
Now, however, the sexual wellness industry is no longer just about the external, the toys and the travel. The latest trend is for sexual wellness supplements designed to fan the flames of arousal from the inside out.
Launched last month in the United States by Maude, the hip brand that also sells sex toys, lubricants and massage candles, in collaboration with a Californian supplement start-up called Asystem, Libido, according to its promo materials, "is formulated to enhance sexual arousal and stimulation (female) or function (male) through natural ingredients that increase blood flow, naturally boost testosterone and alleviate stress".
Sold in sleek, discreet, monthly-supply boxes that resemble fancy cigarette cases and cost US$45 (Libido is currently only available in the US), the supplements are not a wham-bam, Viagra-style instant chemical turn-on. Popping a little square, gummy-style, passion fruit-flavoured Libido will not (sadly) take one from flagging to gagging in seconds. "You'll see the effects over time – we recommend taking it for the full 30 days to feel the effects," says Éva Goicochea, CEO of Maude. The gummies are, naturally, also vegan, gluten and gelatin-free.
For women, the formula contains fenugreek, French maritime pine bark and ocean minerals (sea moss, bladderwrack), L-arginine, L-theanine, boron and caffeine "to increase blood flow to the vaginal area, making it easier for women to become physically aroused and experience orgasm", while for men, a slightly different formulation is designed to "target common physiological roadblocks to desire by increasing blood flow, naturally boosting testosterone and alleviating stress".
Can you really boost testosterone "naturally", I ask Henry Simonds, the British-born, Marlborough-educated general manager at Asystem, when he zooms in from Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, the author Coco Mellors. "We look at the science, the peer-reviewed papers on testosterone," he assures me. "We've got 6mg boron – that's got studies to show it increases free testosterone [a small but important component of the total testosterone in a man's body, responsible for key cellular functions] by 50 per cent. And we put 20mg zinc in, which in peer-reviewed studies is the exact dosage that's going to increase testosterone." There's also an ingredient called Tribulus terrestris, which, from my expert googling, looks to be a small, sweet-looking yellow plant beloved of body builders who want to bulk up without the 'roids, and Simonds' "favourite" ingredient: "Pine pollen, which is nature's natural testosterone."
Both the male and female supplements also contain a clinical ingredient called S7, he tells me, a blend of seven plant-based ingredients that has been clinically shown to increase nitric oxide by 230 per cent, which acts as a vasodilator, boosting blood flow to the crucial frontline zones.
Since a nasty dose of Covid knocked me sideways this spring, I've seriously upped my supplement game with daily doses of vitamin C and D (for immunity), spirulina (for antioxidant stuff), zinc (immunity again), magnesium (for muscles/nerves/energy), something called quercitin – which I can barely spell or pronounce, and have no clue what it does, but comes highly recommended by my most healthy friend's "herbalist" – and, now, for the past couple of weeks, Libido.
Do I feel more horny as a result? Hmmm. I've been maybe slightly more in the mood erm, you know, with myself, in the mornings, but that's also possibly because I was on holiday last week – what Simonds would probably call "nature's natural stress reliever" – and wasn't dragging myself out of bed at 5.45am to cycle to the lido. Unfortunately, since I'm single and that holiday was in rural Connemara, where my only proposition came from a leathery, half-cut, 70-year-old farmer propping up the local bar, it was hard to tell whether Libido was sending firecrackers to my nethers or not. But I'm now back in London, and as yet nobody need lock up their sons. At least, no more so than usual. Which might be part of the problem; I'm not sure I'm a good test case since, at 44, my libido has never been particularly subdued.
For balance, I foist a packet of the male formulation on a 58-year-old male friend. He claims to have taken them completely assiduously, but reports that he "can't say they did anything for me. Once the bird has largely flown the nest, it will take more than a passion fruit-flavoured pastille to tempt it back," he says. "I even tried trebling up, on the basis that if one will put you in the mood, three will set you on fire, but all I got was a sickly sour taste in my mouth."
"It's a daily ritual, which in itself is kind of a boundary-breaker," insists Simonds, who has been based in America for seven years, the last four in California. "The act of just taking it in the morning or the evening starts momentum."
The act of taking it every morning has, I'll concede, made me think about sex a lot more, albeit about all the sex I am not having. I might though, perhaps, call that a placebo.
But Simonds and fellow Brit and co-founder of Asystem, Oli Walsh, both in their mid-thirties, have valiantly been trialling their own formulation, with their wives, for a few weeks longer than I have. "There's a definite, noticeable increase in sexual arousal," nods Simonds. "Libido is one of those where, if you'd asked me beforehand if I needed it, I would have said, 'No,' " chimes in Walsh. "And then, when you start taking it, you suddenly go, 'Oh, OK, my arousal has increased.' It feels maybe more like it did when I was in my twenties."
When I ask how their wives are finding the trial – both taking their own Libido and their husbands' responses to theirs – there's a lot of vague, slightly flustered flimflam about "destigmatising topics", "helping to further that cause" and "we've got three kids".
Simonds, Walsh and their wives have submitted blood and saliva samples to test for hormonal or other changes. As yet, they tell me, they're still awaiting results.
Simonds, whose background is in sustainability, and Walsh, who ran a digital marketing agency before they founded Asystem in 2019, had hitherto focused on supplements for stress and sleep. With Maude, they collaborated on a survey of more than 3,000 customers that revealed that 24 per cent of women and 55 per cent of men were interested in using libido supplements, but only 7 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men had ever done so. More dramatically, the survey also found that 93 per cent of men and 84 per cent of women wanted to have sex with their partner every day, while in reality, only 6 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women reported doing so.
"That's a huge disparity between the desires of people, the amount that people were wanting to have sex – with themselves or with a partner – and the reality," says Simonds. "The other thing that was illuminating was, OK, what were people doing about it? Are they doing anything? Only 7 per cent of women had tried a supplement, so people haven't turned to a solution yet."
Unsurprisingly, Maude and Asystem are far from the only companies capitalising on the much publicised sex drought with supplements. At Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow (who else?) last year launched a range of libido-enhancing pills for women called DTF ("down to f***") containing fenugreek, shatavari (a member of the asparagus family, apparently) and saffron extract.
JS Health sells a Hair + Libido formula containing Tribulus, ginkgo and two kinds of kelp, while rapper Cam'ron, who has a sideline in sexual wellness supplements, plugs his Pink Horse Power pills, which claim to boost men's stamina and libido, and whose ingredients are, descriptively, "organic".
Waiting 30 days for your supplements to kick in too slow for you? Harrods can bang help straight into your bloodstream with a "libido enhancer" IV drip at its in-store Elixir Clinic.
While an IV drip seems a wee bit de trop, I'm persisting with my Libido gummies for a while longer, because, well, why not? Who wouldn't want to "increase blood flow to the vaginal area", just in time for summer?
But then again, as my friend observes, "I reckon Barry White on the stereo, a dirty martini and the children sleeping over with their grandparents might be a more successful formula."
Robert Crampton: I tried the new libido pills. So did they work for me?
So this is, as it were, a hard one. A bit close to the bone, if you will. Either these Libido gummies work or they don't. Either way, I've got to be careful not to trap myself into implying there is a problem that needs addressing, when there isn't. Goodness me, no. Not yet anyway. As and when the issue, ahem, arises – or rather, doesn't arise – I'm minded to go for the full-fat, no-mucking-about, blue-diamond option, thanks very much. Go big or go home. But that's a call for far in the future. If ever.
Meanwhile, I conscientiously chewed (a less than flavoursome Jelly Baby, in taste and consistency) and swallowed my gummy every afternoon for a fortnight, heroically resisting the urge to neck the whole packet in one go, just for the hell of it. I cannot report an increase in my sex drive. Not that I was seeking so much as an uptick, let alone some painful, pants-busting priapic surge. I keep an eye on the national averages and, as a couple in our late fifties together for 30-plus years, my wife and I nobly drag those averages up rather than down. Yes indeed.
Regarding desire as opposed to consummation, I noted no change there either, toddling along at my roughly one sex-related thought every half-hour, like most men. More frequent at this time of year. That 30-odd reveries a day has stayed pretty steady since my late teens, when for a few years prior to that it had been off the scale. I'm not sure I want to revert to the obsessive carnality of my mid-adolescence: I wouldn't get anything else done. Especially when you add on the sport, sleep and biscuit-related thoughts that accrue over the decades as well.
Also, at my age, a man must take care not to become that tragic creature, the Old Goat. Behaving like a real-life Austin Powers is not only unpleasant, it's also illegal. The fire down below, these days glowing comfortably rather than blazing dangerously, is best left unstoked by accelerants.
Written by: Jane Mulkerrins
© The Times of London