Snake oil


Dear Andrea:

Thanks for answering my question about performance anxiety ["Spectator Pumps," 2/21/07]. We solved the problem on our own. My girlfriend recognized that it was a confidence issue, so she went to the local sex shop and purchased an herbal male performance pill. We were both skeptical, but it actually worked within an hour. We proceeded to have awesome marathon sex. I had random boners for the next 48 hours.

My confidence was back pretty much instantaneously. We've had a healthy sexual relationship since then. We get a pill every now and again for kicks, but they are thankfully mostly unnecessary.


The "Mind-Blowing Sex, Not the Good Kind" Guy

Dear Good Guy:

I am simultaneously happy that you're happy and terribly sad that I ever read your follow-up letter. Why couldn't you have solved your problem with therapy or toys or pharmaceuticals or threesomes or gender reassignment surgery or anything, really, other than Dr. Woody's Hygienic Vega-Vital Specific Elixir? Now I have to burst your bubble, and you have no idea how much I don't want to do that.

Actually, you got past whatever was blocking you and now know you're capable of having mind-blowing sex, the good kind, not only with those bull-pucky pills but, more important, without them. You may be immune to bubble-bursting of any sort, which is great, however you got there. They're just, ugh, fake sex pills. I can't help imagining those creepy late-night pseudoceutical ads with the happy, happy wife with the unhinged jaw like an adder's — and shuddering.

I have a story that is vaguely apropos if you'll just bear with me. Until fairly recently, I was plagued by crippling phlebotophobia — merely thinking of blood draws turned me clammy and faint, and having one, well, I don't know what having one would have done, since I never let those needle monkeys get within a hundred yards of me. Since I wouldn't get a blood test, I couldn't get any serious medical care, which was fine with me but irritating to my partner, who preferred to think I'd make a good-faith effort not to drop dead on him without warning. So I resolved to do something about it, and since a couple therapist friends had been taking EMDR training, I decided to do that.

EMDR stands for eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, a hypnosislike process that is supposed to heal posttraumatic stress and be useful for treating phobias, although there is no scientific basis for those claims. There are studies suggesting it works as well as any other therapy, but then there are also studies demonstrating that all therapy modes, semiscience and pseudoscience alike, work about equally well. The most likely explanation? Doing something helps. It doesn't matter what you do, just do something, the more formal the something, the better. Paying for the something also helps, if you ask me, since most people believe, deep down, that something for nothing is worth what you paid for it.

I knew all this but was determined to do EMDR (it seemed preferable to talk therapy, because I hate talking about stuff). I tried not to think about it too much. I also took my copy of Skeptic magazine with the cover story called "EMDR: Just a Big Fat Fraud?" or close enough, and buried it under a pile of old shopping circulars for the duration. I knew what it would say, you see, and I knew it was true: EMDR is bunk. It was the bunk that seemed most convenient at the time, though, so I willed myself to let it work. It worked OK (I've had umpteen blood tests since), although I'm fairly convinced that slipping $150 through a slot in the therapist's door every Wednesday at 3 p.m. would have worked equally well.

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