Roundups Sexual Health

Sexual Health Roundup: Progress on Microbicides? Will Viagra Have “Stiff” Competition?

Martha Kempner

In this week's sexual health roundup: scientists in China discover an HIV-blocking molecule that may become the basis for an effective microbicide; psychologists find that men believe women in red are more attractive and more willing to have sex; and the FDA approves a competitor to Viagra that acts fasters but warns that over-the-counter versions might not be all natural as promised. 

Scientist in China Take First Step in Developing Microbicide

In a new study published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Chinese researchers write about discovering a molecule that blocks HIV from entering into human cells. Researchers believe this could eventually be developed into a microbicide that could reduce the sexual transmission of HIV.

Scientists around the world have been searching for an HIV microbicide — a gel, foam, cream, or suppository that when applied topically inside the vagina or rectum could decrease or prevent sexual transmission of HIV. Also of interest are microbicides that include a spermicide (thereby also preventing pregnancy). The World Health Organization (WHO) has said this about the importance of microbicides:

The availability of microbicides would greatly empower women to protect themselves and their partners. Unlike male or female condoms, microbicides are a potential preventive option that women can easily control and do not require the cooperation, consent or even knowledge of their power.

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According to WHO, there are no effective microbicides currently available.

The new study could represent an important advance toward development of an effective microbicide. Researchers believe the molecule they discovered, TD-0680, could be developed into a gel that would prevent sexual transmission by killing off the virus as it tries enter the body. Unprotected sex accounts for more than 90 percent of AIDS infections in China, the researchers said in a statement.

Lady in Red: Research Suggests that Men Think Women in Red Are Up for Sex

The color red has many connotations in our society: think scarlet letter or red state/blue state. It also makes you hungry which is why interior designers suggest it for dining room walls.

Now researchers at the University of South Brittany in France have found a new meaning for the color red. Apparently, men believe that women in red are more likely to, well, put out.

Psychologists enrolled 120 male undergraduate students ages 18 to 21 to study how men react to what women are wearing. The volunteers were shown pictures of the same 20-year-old woman in an ordinary t-shirt; one group of men saw her in a red t-shirt, one in white, one in blue, and the last in green. The students then completed a survey which asked them to rate, on a scale of one to nine, how attractive they thought she was and how likely she would be to have sex with a man on the first date.

The woman was judged to be most attractive when she was wearing the red top, followed by white, blue, and green.  Similarly, she was thought most likely to agree to sex when she wore red, followed by blue, green, and white. 

The researchers say the results supported their hypothesis that men see red as an invitation for sex and suggest a possible biological explanation for this: 

“… biological evolution could also explain the importance of redness. During their fertility phase, the perineum of female baboons, macaques and chimpanzees becomes red, probably to attract males.” 

Red dress, red lips, red perineum… it may all be the same. 

FDA Approves a Viagra Competitor and Warns of A Dangerous “All Natural” Version

Last week the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new drug designed to help men achieve erections. Called Stendra, the drug is meant to help men with erectile dysfunction (ED), characterized by the inability to achieve or sustain an erection that is firm enough for sexual intercourse.  Unlike Viagra, which works in 30-minutes to an hour, Stendra provides an erection in 15 minutes or less.  

Stendra has the same side effects and restrictions as Viagra and other ED drugs. Side effects include, headache, redness of the face and other areas, nasal congestion, common cold-like symptoms and back pain, as well as that dangerous erection lasting more than four hours for which men must seek immediate medical care (at the 4 hour and one minute mark, I suppose). These drugs are not safe for men with certain heart conditions.  Still, the FDA said that the new drug was safe and “expands the available treatment options to men experiencing erectile dysfunction.”  

While its manufacturer is clearly hoping to give Viagra a run its money, Stendra may not be the stiff competition (pun intended and stolen from a headline) it had hoped to be in the marketplace; business analysts believe the new drug will reach $68 million in sales this year and will peak (another completely intended pun) in 2017 at $459 million. By contrast, Viagra did $2 billion in sales just last year.

While some men seek help for ED from their doctor, others apparently just go to the corner store.  I remember the bodega in my New York City apartment building — which was often out of milk and eggs but always had packages of horny goat weed in stock next to the condoms. Though these over-the-counter “male enhancement” drugs are packaged as “all natural,”  it turns out that at least one brand contained numerous, potentially dangerous, chemicals.

The FDA issued a warning last week about X-rock. While its label says it contains only herbal ingredients — including horny goat weed, ginggang root, and maca root — it actually contained chemicals including hydroxythiohomosildenafil and sildenafil, one of the main components of Viagra. These ingredients could cause a severe reaction in men taking heart medications, such as nitroglycerin and may lower blood pressure to dangerous levels.

In response to the FDA’s warning, the manufacturer recalled the supplement and apologized for the “incomplete” labeling.  Seems like a bit of an understatement.  

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: Can an Orange a Day Really Keep Viagra Away?

Martha Kempner

This week in sex: Tinder adds an STI test locator, research shows a connection between HPV and oral cancer, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may help with erectile issues, and the Brits weigh in on the ideal number of past sexual partners.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Tinder Adds a Sexual Health Landing Page, But It’s Not So Easy to Find

Amid criticism that online dating is increasing the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), Tinder agreed to add a sexual health page to its website and app—but some outlets argue that it’s not at all user-friendly.

Tinder and other apps like Grindr have been targeted by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) as a culprit in rising STI rates. The California-based advocacy organization, famous for its long battle to make condoms mandatory in adult films, paid for billboards in New York City and Los Angeles implying that users of the apps are potentially exposing themselves to chlamydia and gonorrhea. The billboards pointed people to, an AHF-run site that provides information on STIs and helps people locate testing facilities.

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Tinder responded to the billboard with a cease and desist order from the company’s attorneys that read, in part, “These unprovoked and wholly unsubstantiated accusations are made to irreparably damage Tinder’s reputation in an attempt to encourage others to take an HIV test offered by your organization … While Tinder strongly supports such testing, the [b]illboard’s statements are not founded upon any scientific evidence, and are incapable of withstanding critical analysis.”

AHF did not immediately back down. On Jan 21st, the two organizations agreed to a settlement: Tinder agreed to add an STI test locator to its website and AHF agreed to take the down the billboards.

The end result, however, may leave users no more informed than they were before. Newsweek points out that the locator is nothing more than a link to an outside website operated by Healthvana and that the link is hard to find. Newsweek notes, “On the mobile app, where Tinder really happens, you [need] to click on the settings button on the top left, then click ‘help & support,’ transfer over to a Web browser, click on ‘health safety’ and then scroll down to the STD locator link.”

In short—locating the link may be just as difficult as it was to locate a clinic without it.

New Study Confirms HPV-16 Increases Risk for Head and Neck Cancers

A study published this month in JAMA Oncology finds that the presence of a strain of human papillomavirus (HPV) in the mouth leads to an increase risk of oropharyngeal cancer. In two studies, 97,000 participants provided mouthwash samples proving they were cancer-free at the beginning of the research. Scientists followed the participants for four years and identified 132 cases of head and neck cancers that emerged. They then compared the original samples of each of these people with those of participants who did not develop cancer during the four years, and concluded that the presence of one strain, HPV-16, in the mouth put people at as much of a 22-fold increased risk of developing head and neck cancer.

Though HPV is known to be transmitted through oral sex, the study does not specifically mention transmission methods.

This was the first time studies have found that the HPV-16 virus precedes these cancers. Researchers warn, however, that this study is not sufficient to prove that HPV-16 specifically caused the cancers that were found.

Another Reason to Eat Your Fruits and Veggies: Better Erections

A new study published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating a diet rich in flavonoids may be as good for erectile health as walking briskly for two to five hours a week. Flavonoids give fruits and vegetables their bright colors. The study examined three types of flavonoids: anthocyanins, which are found in blueberries, blackberries, cherries, radishes, and red wine, and flavanones and flavones, which are both found in citrus fruits.

The results showed that men who ate foods high in these nutrients were 10 percent less likely to have erectile problems. And they didn’t have to ingest huge quantities; just a few portions a week.

This correlation, however, is not enough to prove that an orange a day will keep the Viagra away. It is possible that the men who had these fruits in their diet were leading an overall healthier lifestyle than those that didn’t. Still, if a handful of blueberries and a glass of red wine might help get (or keep) you hard—what’s the harm?

Survey Says Ten Sexual Partners in a Lifetime Is Just Right

A new survey of adults in Britain attempted to determine how many lifetime partners adults thought was ideal for a new partner to have had. One thousand adults weighed in: Overall, a person who had more than ten partners was considered promiscuous, but fewer than that and they were perceived as sexually inexperienced.

Interestingly, the survey was conducted by, a British website that helps people have extramarital affairs. It’s unclear whether the respondents cared how many of those ten partners were in long-term relationships at the time of their new partner’s experience with them.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: New Research on Sperm and Egg Attraction, Viagra and Skin Cancer, and Facebook and Body Image

Martha Kempner

This week, we look at several pieces of new research: scientists discovered how sperm and egg latch on to each other, a study suggests that Viagra may cause melanoma, and researchers question whether Facebook makes women feel fat.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Why Are Sperm and Egg Attracted to Each Other?

So we all know the basic story of fertilization. A man has sperm. A woman has eggs. The man and woman have intercourse. His sperm swim up to her egg, one lucky sperm gloms on, and voila, we have a zygote.

Well apparently it’s not only not that simple, but no one knew exactly what happened between the two until now because researchers had not yet determined exactly what drew the sperm to the egg and how they attached to each other.

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Half of the puzzle was figured out in 2005, when Japanese scientists found a molecule jutting out of the surface of mammalian sperm that docked on to the surface of eggs. They named the molecule Izumo after a Japanese marriage shrine.

Since then, scientists around the world have been trying to elucidate the other side of the equation—the protein on the egg’s surface that sticks to Izumo. An article just published in the most recent issue of Nature says that they finally can explain it. A team of researchers at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom discovered that a protein called folate receptor 4 is responsible for hooking on to Izumo and beginning the process of fertilization. They propose renaming the protein Juno after the Roman goddess of fertility and marriage. Juno has another role as well—it disappears from the surface of the egg within 30 to 40 minutes of fertilization, which prevents more than one sperm from getting into the egg. A zygote with more than one sperm would have too many chromosomes and could not develop normally.

What is particularly interesting about these findings is the discovery that without Juno, fertilization cannot happen. Female mice without Juno were healthy but could not reproduce. Researchers believe this has immediate implications for infertility treatment. Women having trouble getting pregnant could be tested for the presence of Juno. Those who don’t have it could skip other types of fertility treatments and go straight to intracytoplasmic sperm injection, in which a single sperm cell is injected directly into an egg. It’s still not clear, however, how many women are lacking Juno.

The researchers also believe that this discovery could lead to new forms of contraception that block Juno and/or Izumo, thereby preventing fertilization.

Viagra May Increase Men’s Risk of Melanoma

Since it was introduced in 1998, 23 million prescriptions have been written for the little blue pill that can help with erectile dysfunction (ED). Immediate side effects of Viagra and other similar ED medications include headaches, flushing, indigestion, nasal congestion, dizziness, and vision problems such as seeing a blue haze, increased brightness, or temporary loss of vision. Of course, the most famous side effect might be the erection lasting four hours or longer, which is warned about in every commercial. That is actually a painful and dangerous condition known as priapism. It is a rare side effect of ED drugs, but can happen when they are taken recreationally by men who do not have erectile issues.

Until now, studies suggested that there was no risk of long-term health conditions caused by these drugs. But a new study published online in JAMA Medicine demonstrates a link between Viagra use and the most dangerous kind of skin cancer, melanoma. (The study did not look at other similar ED drugs, such as Cialis or Levitra, because they did not exist when the data was first being collected.)

Researchers analyzed data from more than 25,000 men participating in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. They found that men who had used sildenafil, better known as Viagra, were twice as likely to develop melanoma as men who had not. This finding held up even after controlling for known melanoma risk factors, including family history of the cancer, sun exposure, and UV intensity in the state in which the men lived. There was no link between erectile dysfunction itself and melanoma.

The researchers caution that their findings show a correlation but do not prove that Viagra causes melanoma and that more research has to be done before experts would suggest changes to the guideline for prescribing Viagra.

There is, however, a scientific explanation for how Viagra could increase melanoma risk. Viagra belongs to a class of medication called PDE5 inhibitors, which also includes Cialis and Levitra. By blocking the PDE5 enzyme, the medications help the smooth muscles in the penis relax and increase blood flow. In his article for Everyday Health, Dr. Adam Friedman explains that inhibiting the PDE5 enzyme, which is also done by a mutation found in many melanoma tumors, enhances melanoma cells’ ability to invade and metastasize. He concludes, “The punchline: It is possible that by inhibiting this enzyme, Viagra may promote development of primary melanoma tumors.”

Again, this has not been proven, and no one is suggesting that men stop taking Viagra because of this one study. However, Dr. Abrar Qureshi, a professor of dermatology at Brown University and co-author of the new study, told NBC News, “But people who are on the medication and who have a high risk for developing melanoma may consider touching base with their primary care provider.”

Is Facebook Bad for Your Self-Image?

New research presented last week at the International Communication Association conference suggests that in addition to being a time-suck, Facebook may actually be damaging to some users’ self-image.

Researchers surveyed more than 800 college women to assess their Facebook habits and their body image. Respondents were asked how often they visited the site, how long they typically spent there, what they looked at, and what they were thinking about as they looked. For example, one question asked, “When looking at someone else’s photos on Facebook, how much attention do you pay to: 1) how they dress, and 2) their body?” They were then asked how they felt about their own body, including what their current weight was and what they ideally would like to weigh. Other questions touched on eating habits and school success.

On average, respondents spent 80 minutes on Facebook reading their news feed and looking at photos. Their average weight was about 149 pounds, but most respondents wanted to weigh 20 pounds less than they actually did. Women who spent more time on Facebook were more likely to feel bad about their own bodies and compare themselves to others. This was especially true for women who felt like they needed to lose weight. Women who wanted to gain or maintain their weight did not feel bad about themselves after using Facebook.

Of course, the study does not prove that Facebook causes low self-image but it did suggest that spending time on the site could exacerbate body image issues. Petya Eckler, lead author of the study, pointed out to HealthDay, “Women tend to present their ideal self on Facebook, not necessarily their actual, true self.”

We all know at this point that pictures of models in magazines are retouched to make them look thinner, but Eckler says friends may do that as well by using Photoshop or other apps, such as Skinneepix, that are specifically designed to “shave pounds” off of pictures. Comparing themselves to these idealized photos of friends can make women feel inferior. Eckler worries that this can ultimately lead to an eating disorder. “Feeling negatively about yourself and increased body comparison is sort of the first step towards disordered eating,” said Eckler.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should all log off of the social networking site. But we should become more knowledgeable consumers of photographs, and remember that comparing ourselves to possibly retouched photos of others—even photos of friends—is not really fair.