A new tablet is being hailed as the female answer to Viagra -- the latest step in an age-old hunt for the female libido. Susan Daly reports
Male desire, the joke goes, is a simple on-off switch while female desire is a whole control desk of dials, knobs and buttons.
The complex nature of the female libido has hitherto been resistant to the simple popping of a blue pill.
Attempts to create a 'pink' version of Viagra, specifically aimed at women, were abandoned in 2004.
But now there's lots of excitment surrounding a new pill developed in a German lab that could actaully be on sale within two years.
It's interesting that the latest much-trumpeted discovery of a wonder drug for female desire works on the brain rather than the body. Viagra worked for men on a mechanical level, boosting the flow of blood to the penis.
This new so-called 'desire' drug, a compound called flibanserin, triggers the production of dopamine, a chemical in the brain which stimulates desire.
How strange that it should have taken this long for scientists to work out what so many of us already know: desire, for women, often begins in the mind.
Hormonal imbalances can also play their part in a flagging libido -- a boost of testosterone has been found to help reawaken a woman's sex drive -- but really, the biggest sexual organ is the brain.
It's taken a long time to get to this realisation. Historically, mankind has experimented with some very strange concoctions in the misapprehension that all it takes is for a woman to ingest one magic ingredient and -- hey presto -- she's on fire.
The word 'aphrodisiac' has feminine connotations, named as it is for Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Legend had it Aphrodite held the sparrow to be sacred and the ancient Greeks considered the sparrow to be a lustful creature, in the same way as we now view rabbits.
Sparrow brains might not have a place on the menu of a modern dinner a deux but Grecian women were encouraged to feast on them to increase their sexual potency.
The Chinese believed in the aphrodisiacal properties of the spit a bird used to bind its nest together (bird's nest soup, anyone?); the Byzantines favoured a cake made of honey and donkey milk. Cleopatra got herself in the mood by taking a bath in cardamom, a herb that heats up body temperature.
We talk about fashion victims and suffering for art, but for the ancients the real danger came in pursuit of passion.
An infamous aphrodisiac for women in Roman times was Spanish fly -- really a beetle which secreted an acidic substance called cantharidin. Ground up into a powder, it was secretly slipped into a woman's food in the hope that it would make them burn with lust. It made them burn alright.
Cantharidin is a poison that causes inflammation of the urethral tracts when the unlucky user goes to the toilet. That burning sensation was confused for sexual stimulation. Love hurts, but should it really cause gastrointestinal bleeding and kidney failure?
Aphrodisiacs were to increase a woman's pleasure, sure, but in as much as the end result for society would be more sex equals production of more children.
So you'll often find that traditional aphrodisiacs targeted at women had the correlating benefit of being fertility-boosters.
Mandrake root was supposed to be sexy because it resembled the apex of a woman's thighs, but it is also an effective fertility aid in the Biblical story of Rachel and Leah.
If you think things have moved on a great deal post-JC, consider this news story from Germany in 2006. German police officers were offered a €7 discount on a herbal aphrodisiac for women called Femi-X. They would also receive a free DVD with sex tips.
Andreas Schuster, the police chief in Brandenburg, the province surrounding Berlin, told a German newspaper that he hoped it would help improve the birth rate among Germany's ageing population.
"We all want more children," said Schuster. "The Brandenburg Police is prepared to do its duty. Perhaps this pill will be helpful in this regard." The response from Schuster's female officers is, sadly, not on record.
Whatever the motivation behind the search for female stimulants, it's still not to this day entirely clear what it is that women want.
One recent scientific study concluded that women are turned on by the scent of breastmilk; another reported the arousal of a majority of women who had been shown videos of bonobo apes having sex.
At the other end of the scale, you have the urban legend that green M&Ms are an aphrodisiac, or the survey carried out by a website called handbag.com that a woman feels most up for sex after a night wearing a certain pair of black Christian Loboutin stilettos.
An Italian study published in the internationally respected Journal of Sexual Medicine last year found that a glass or two of red wine significantly intensifies a woman's sexual pleasure.
This boost in libido was linked to the physical and mental relaxation afforded by a moderate amount of alcohol.
That association links in with some traditional aphrodisiacs like roses or patchouli oil (which might go a ways to explain its popularity with free-loving hippies). These scents are meant to be relaxants along the lines of a mild sedative.
It implies that a low female sex drive is simply blocked by inhibition or, worryingly, suggests that the human race would be having a great deal more sex if women would just, well, loosen up a bit. But there is something to be said for taking a multi-platform approach to a woman's pleasure centre.
John Hoberman of the US National Sexuality Resource Centre records this conclusion made by a South African doctor over 30 years ago: "A good meal, a bottle of wine, and a good film of her choice, are often excellent aphrodisiacs."
For some women, fantasy is a powerful aphrodisiac (yes, yes, lie back and think of Clooney).
For others, according to Henry Kissinger and Napoleon Bonaparte, it's power. Women "belong to the highest bidder", said the little man from Corsica. "Power is what they like -- it is the greatest of all aphrodisiacs."
But for my money, the greatest male philosopher on the deep-seated source of female desire must be Hulk actor Eric Bana who said that the way to his wife's heart is through the dishwashing. "I'm good around the house," he said.
"Housework is a bigger aphrodisiac to women than a set of abs."
At the very least, it's easier than trapping sparrows.
- Susan Daly
Despite the focus having historically been on enticing women into bed, there have also been a plethora of love potions aimed at men with increased stamina as their goal.
Casanova, for example, was said to breakfast each morning on 50 oysters to feed his sexual prowess and fortify him for the day's sexcapades.
The Aztec ruler Montezuma drank 50 -- evidently a magic number -- cups of hot chocolate a day in order to service his harem of 800 women.
Chinese legend has it that the 'Yellow Emperor' Huang Ti girded his loins over 4,000 years ago with a special potion made from 22 herbal ingredients. Non-royal males later made do with the honey-based drink of mead to increase their sexual stamina upon marriage (after which presumably the 'honeymoon' was over?)
But sometimes a man can get too much of a good thing. The Ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus wrote of a wild orchid called satyrion which, when dried and ground to a powder, formed the basis of a drink which allowed a man to perform 70 acts of intercourse in a row. Excitable males all over Greece seized upon the plant to the point that it was eaten to extinction. Shame that.