Many have wondered why some people have such a high sex drive and others do not. Until now, most scientists believed that sexual desire was mainly a question of hormones and psychology. But a new study by Israeli researchers has revealed that the answer could be in our genes.
The study is the first to provide data to show that common variations in the sequence of DNA impact on sexual desire, arousal and function, the researchers said.
The results suggest that low sexual desire might be a normal biological condition rather than a psychological problem. Further, it might be possible to develop drugs to alter sexual desire based on the new findings.
The research – led by Professor Richard Ebstein, of Herzog Hospital and the head of the Scheinfeld Center for Human Genetics in the Social Sciences of the Psychology Department at the Hebrew University, and a research group headed by Prof. Robert H. Belmaker of the Psychiatry Division of Ben Gurion University of the Negev – was published in the online version of the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
‘Approximately how often do you get sexually aroused?’ and ‘How satisfied are you with your sex life in general?’ were just two of the questions 150 students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem faced when they signed up to take part in the researchers’ human behavior study. The questionnaire focuses on three areas, desire, arousal and function.
The scientists examined the DNA of 148 healthy male and female university students and compared the results with questionnaires asking for the students’ self-descriptions of their sexual desire, arousal and sexual function. They found a correlation between variants in a gene called the D4 receptor and the students’ self-reports on sexuality.
“Comparing the results with the DNA samples that the students had been asked to give it was clear that about two thirds of people have a gene variant that leads to a relatively subdued sex drive while approximately one third has a variant that encourages much more activity,” Ebstein told ISRAEL21c.
Although Ebstein has had an interest in human behavior since the 1970s, scientists have been able to explore the field using genetics only in the last 15 years, he explained in his office at Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem. A former Brooklyn, New Yorker who immigrated to Israel in 1968, the veteran scientist still sports a Yankees baseball cap on his head.
Discovery of the ‘sex gene’, as it has come to be known, is not Ebstein’s first breakthrough. “It all started with the novelty seeking gene back in 1996,” he recounted. “The fundamental change we made was while everyone else was busy studying behavioral disorders we looked at the link between genetics and behavior.”
As a result Ebstein has detected numerous genes that influence behavior, including genes that made people more likely to take risks, to be altruistic and giving, and to become a dancer.
“We actually discovered a ‘dancing gene’,” he said.
When asked about the implications of the sex gene discovery, Ebstein said, “Firstly the study makes it clear that there are no societal norms. Many people, previously considered sexually dysfunctional, can now be considered to be at one end of a normal distribution curve. In essence society no longer needs to see these individuals as having a problem that needs to be cured. Hopefully people can come to accept their sexual behavior as simply part of who they are, just like being either tall or short.”
Ebstein identified the second implication as “encouraging a new approach to therapy.” He added that “drug companies should develop new drugs in line with the findings that do not seek to treat people as if they have a physical problem.”
He said that he believed his work – along with Belmaker’s – constitutes a revolution that had not yet been fully absorbed. He believed their work could have far reaching impact on psychology and group behavior. “People just aren’t as pliable as we used to think they were,” he stated. “We are not born a blank slate; we are hard wired.”
Ebstein identified that one of the key principles of the American psyche ran counter to his findings. “The idea that if you try hard and work hard you will succeed may not be completely the case. Not everyone can be a great rock star; genes set the limits of what we are able to do in our life.”
He even clarified his argument by revealing that he “could never be a great mathematician.”
“The same applies to nearly everything we do including sports.”
Ebstein said that we should focus on what we are good at in life and not “waste our time” on things are genes do not allow us to excel in. “Everyone is good at something,” he noted.
However he was quick to point out that while genes have a vital role in establishing who we are, the way we are nurtured also plays an important part. “Both are 50 percent and they are very important,” he stated.
Regarding future research, Ebstein chuckled and said, “That all depends on the grants.”
“Brain imaging is the future. Using a functional MRI we would hope to see which bit of the brain is activated by different sexual stimuli. We can then see how different stimuli affect different parts of the brain and eventually even make predictions. Its called imaging geonomics, and the potential is incredible.”