To speak of desire, one must be attuned to nuance. It is simplistic to say that desire is about getting what one wants; rather, it’s the invigorating feeling of wanting. Half of American women report intimate problems due to lack of sexual desire, and low sexual desire is self-reported by approximately 40 percent of women. Mind Cure Health—a women-lead public, psychedelic company—is seeking to drastically change those numbers. President and CEO, Kelsey Ramsden’s approach is to reconcile desire’s elusiveness with evidence of MDMA’s efficacy in a therapeutic context.
Mind Cure has spent the past six months designing the Desire Project, which uses MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to evaluate female-related sexual disorders that are not being adequately addressed or treated with medications currently on the market. It’s the first time psychedelics are being clinically explored to specifically address lack of female sexual desire and orgasm, or what is known as Female Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (“fHSDD”), affecting over 9.5 million premenopausal women in the U.S. alone.
While Viagra—the basis for today’s $3 billion erectile dysfunction industry—physically resolves male sexual dysfunction by aiding blood flow to the penis, “what we know about women is that desire tends to be very related to our minds,” says Ramsden. The mind, however, is a complex terrain riddled with potholes of subjectivity, cultural conditioning, upbringing, and trauma. Mind Cure is looking to the success of MDMA in helping people heal from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by interacting with neurotransmitters that influence social bonding and feelings of safety, as well as hormones such as cortisol, prolactin, DHEA, vasopressin, and oxytocin (loosely thought of as “the love hormone”).
“No one has put the two together before,” says Ramsden on the link between MDMA and easing fear factors for women—which play a large role in causing female-related sexual disorders.
“Designing a drug and a paradigm that works clinically is great, but it’s even better to make it work in the world,” she says. Mind Cure has plans to train therapists on female sexual dysfunction, and treat patients across the United States. Mind Cure’s protocol in utilizing MDMA will be similar to that of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS),-the pioneer of clinical studies on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD.
Ramsden wants to be clear that their work isn’t to medicate women in order to sexualize them or put orgasms on a pedestal as the marker of a successful program. “In fact, in the container of therapy, you’re not with your partner, you’re with your therapists, doing your work for you, on you,” she says. “There is a whole body of work prior to orgasm that’s important. I want to explore the idea that all women of different shapes, sizes, ages, and roots should have, by virtue of our fully expressed human experience, access to desire.”
When a significant amount of the population is disconnected from their sexual energy, you don’t have to directly experience a lack of desire to be affected by it peripherally. The story that culture feeds women when they’re experiencing low libido is often direct and external: They’re working too hard, the children need attention, or they’re getting older. Essentially, women are desirous until a “certain point” in the narrative arc, says Ramsden. The stories that women believe to be true about what’s available to them will influence the meaning they assign to the events in their lives. Subtle forms of reinforcement coarse women into believing that their dampened sexual desire—which affects how they see themselves and the world—is the norm. The stat about 40 percent of women self-reporting low sexual desire? Ramsden believes it’s much higher—but most women just deal with it. MDMA’s ability to inspire powerful emotional experiences and a strong connection with inner feelings sounds like a promising path.
Dr. Sherry Walling, a clinical psychologist working on Project Desire, says that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy supports the breaking down of assumptions and patterns and offers the ability to see that there might be another way to respond. “When people glimpse the possibility of a new story or reaction, it opens the world up again in places where trauma has closed it.”
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MDMA, which sits somewhere between psychedelic and stimulant, is actually an entactogen—a word coined by pharmacologist David Nichols that can be loosely translated from Greek to mean “producing touching within.” Walling emphasizes that MDMA at therapeutic doses isn’t about orgasm, but about an increased sense of empathy. Fittingly, the word “empathy” is one that the philosopher Theodor Lipps described as “inseeing”—a kind of “wondrous voyage from the surface of a thing to its heart, wherein perception leads to an emotional connection.”
No one is arguing that sex on MDMA isn’t fun. But if it’s going to truly be beneficial to women’s well-being, its potential uses need to involve the conversation about desire and the cultural factors that prohibit it. Otherwise, sexual healing will only ever feel superficial.
The word desire, borrowed in the 1200s from the Old French verb desirrer, means “to wish for.” It can be traced even further back to its Latin roots, meaning “demand,” “express,” or the literarily poetic, “to await what the stars will bring.” Desire is what orients us to bravely set out in pursuit of fulfillment—be it sexual, emotional, or mental. “It’s different for everyone,” she says. “You know yours, I know mine.” But losing it feels similar, like losing your way. For this reason, Walling questions why pleasure isn’t a core part of what we are demanding from our lives. “We know that sexual health is part of mental health,” she says. “Philosophically, self-love and connection to others are powerful components of being human. Practically, if you have the capacity to experience pleasure and joy, that’s the opposite of apathy or lack of emotional reactivity that goes along with something like depression or anxiety.”
Mind Cure is proposing the pursuit of the full range of human experience as a new definition for what it means to be well. “I see a future where women who experience a lack of desire have access; period,” says Ramsden. “The speed with which the system responds to us will dictate that future. It feels like the revolution is on.”
Five years ago, Ramsden’s grandmother passed away at the age of 97. At her funeral, there was a photo of her on the beach at 30-years-old wearing a “boxy-not-sexy” swimsuit. “And yet, it was seductive,” she recalls, “in the kind of way that I could really see her.“ That is the moment she keeps coming back to. “All women in all cultures, if they choose, should be able to have a picture taken like that.”