When libido is a burden, some men turn to unproven treatments

In search of a lower sex drive, many men seek sketchy supplements and groups rife with misinformation

Published June 5, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

Young man lost in his thoughts (Getty Images/Vuk Saric)
Young man lost in his thoughts (Getty Images/Vuk Saric)

After the stress of a recent divorce waned and Ryan settled into a new routine, he noticed a huge spike in his libido. The thing is, that’s the last thing he wanted.

Ryan works two jobs in cybersecurity in addition to being a single dad. He doesn’t have time for a relationship and knows he is not ready for one. Yet he found himself looking for a partner for the sake of gratification. So, he turned to the internet to find a remedy to curb his libido instead. 

“The more I thought about it, the more I didn’t want a romantic relationship,” Ryan, who requested to use his first name only, told Salon in a phone interview. “I’d rather just take something that can help me manage my libido and not have to worry about it.”

Online, Ryan was recommended everything from supplements like Lion’s mane mushrooms and chasteberry to antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and finasteride, a drug for hair loss sometimes used to treat prostate conditions. Elsewhere on the internet, others recommend men who want to lower their libido go so far as to put their testicles in ice water or punch their penis. Many people dismissed Ryan’s problem and told him to just “find a girlfriend,” instead.

“I’m still kind of in the process of self-discovery of exactly what I am but I think I am a bit more on the aromantic side,” Ryan said. “So it’s hard for me to be told to just go find someone special because I don’t have any desire to do that.”

Men are increasingly turning to the internet to find ways to lower libido and finding communities that push toxic ideas connecting masculinity to sexual desire. Due to stigma, many are pursuing unproven treatments recommended on social media that could have serious health consequences. Finasteride, for example, carries a boxed warning for suicidal ideation.

"I didn’t want a romantic relationship. I’d rather just take something that can help me manage my libido and not have to worry about it."

Additionally, there could be an underlying medical condition tied to libido or feelings of shame around it that is not being treated, said Nicole Prause, PhD, a neuroscientist who studies human sexual behavior and addiction. 

“Anytime you are taking a medication that is not prescribed for something it is not designed to do, you will have a lot of side effect risks for no reason,” Prause told Salon in a phone interview.

Libido is subjective and changes throughout a person’s lifetime, but it’s generally seen as a medical issue if it is causing distress. The most common reason couples come into a sexual health clinic is usually because they have mismatched libidos, and therapy involves finding somewhere in the middle where both parties are sexually satisfied, said Stanley E. Althof, PhD, the executive director of the Center for Marital and Sexual Health of South Florida, Case Western.

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Compulsive sexual behavior disorder (CSBD) is a real condition and there are treatments designed to lower libido in people who find their sex drive is impeding their lives. Not all men who want to lower their sexual drive will be diagnosed with this condition, but the second most common reason heterosexual men come into Althof’s clinic is because they see their masturbation or sexual habits as out of control habits that have become problematic, he said.

“They may stay up until 4 a.m. watching porn or masturbate 10 times a day, and at some point, that person realizes this doesn’t seem right,” Althof told Salon in a phone interview. “The person may try to stop on their own and realize it is too powerful and they are really not able to stop.”

Some argue that the approval of Viagra in 1998 commercialized male sexual desire and prioritized male enhancement as the status quo. On one hand, the little blue pill has undoubtedly helped millions of people struggling with erectile dysfunction and helped erase some of the stigma around it. But others argue the marketing strategy of Viagra and other erectile dysfunction drugs like Cialis and Levitra pathologized sexual desire and created a culture in which men needed to take medicine to “fix” their sexuality and have more sex.

This was, in turn, connected to definitions of masculinity. As one analysis of these pills’ marketing campaigns concluded, “masculine identity itself becomes attainable with the help of medical intervention.”

For a long time, pharmaceutical companies tried to find the “female Viagra” to treat low libido in women, which was often blamed when heterosexual couples were having sexual problems, Prause said. However, that rhetoric has started to change in the past two decades, she explained.

“Sex addiction became in vogue and now they point the finger the other way,” Prause said. “Now it’s the man who wants it too much, and they’re the 'addict.'”

This culture of pointing fingers and shaming one party into having too much or too little sex drive might have played a role in birthing fringe movements like NoFap, an online community designed to help people overcome porn addiction and other forms of compulsive sexual behavior by abstaining from masturbation or sex. 

“It seems reactionary, where they are saying, ‘A real man controls himself … and has complete control over their body,’” Prause said. “That’s my read of it, that they tell each other to self harm as a way of managing their sexual urges, which they view as too strong.”

Having attracted more than one million users, the website and its forums encourage participants to abstain from sex and masturbation to “reboot” the brain and increase testosterone. Its practices, which are not evidence-based, tout abstinence and control over one’s libido as a way to increase masculinity. It has been practiced by far-right extremist groups like the Proud Boys.

On one NoFap social media post, one user said three years of semen retention transformed him from "a pathetic loser to a successful young man."

"Now I find porn and masturbating disgusting and pathetic," he wrote.

One 2022 analysis published in the International Journal of Impotence Research found the most common men’s sexual health topic being discussed on TikTok and Instagram was semen retention. However, fewer than 4% of posts were created by physicians or experts and most were misinformation.

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Prause said she is concerned about some of the myths associated with these practices circulating online, which are perpetuating shame and stigma. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to determine whether their libido is impacting their life and warrants treatment, much like many other bodily functions. 

Yet rigid definitions of what masculinity and libido should be continue to make many men feel like they are somehow wrong or broken for having lower sex drives. In one 2018 study published in the journal Sex Roles, heterosexual men reported feeling pressured to demonstrate a high interest in sex and that masculine norms restricted their sexual experience. Ryan, the cybersecurity analyst, initially asked his doctor for advice in lowering his libido, but was met with some of this stigma.

“They told me, ‘You’re a young adult, this is normal, and there is no reason you should want to change it or worry about it.’” he said. “I usually don’t try to go online for medical advice, but I felt like that was my next best option.”

By Elizabeth Hlavinka

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Health Libido Men's Health Sex Sex Drive Sexual Health Stigma Supplements