Bad Sexual Chemistry: Female viagra is a flawed idea

A drug to boost the libidos of healthy young women is a crude, flawed idea, says Suzanne Harrington

ANEW drug dubbed the female Viagra has, after two rejections, been greenlit by the US Food & Drug Administration. It may be coming our way soon. A women’s group, Even The Score, campaigned for it. Their premise is that as there is Viagra for men, there should be Viagra for women.

The new drug has nothing to do with Viagra (which causes erections), and has nothing to do with Pfizer, the manufacturers of Viagra.It is made by Sprout pharmaceuticals, and works via neurotransmitters on serotonin and dopamine centres in the brain, similarly to anti-depressants. You don’t take it before sex, as with Viagra, but once a day, like Prozac.

While sexual dysfunction in men is often physical, apparently 7% of women — according to research quoted in the New York Times — suffer from hypoactive sexual desire disorder. In other words, we just don’t fancy it — and this is before we ever become menopausal. (This new drug is not aimed at menopausal or post-menopausal women. Because we’re not worth it.)

So should we be popping champagne corks or waving protest placards? Is this another milestone on the road towards sexual equality, or the further pathologising and medicalised monetising of female sexuality?

Well, let’s have a look. With the faintly comical name of flibanserin, the drug is aimed at women whose lack of sexual desire is not caused by illness, menopause or rubbish relationships. So for those in good health, who are youngish and happy in their private lives, and providing the side-effects are not too off-putting — nausea, fainting, dizziness, low blood pressure — could this be the answer to sexual indifference?

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Not if the results of clinical trials are anything to go by. Women who took the drug were having what was termed “sexually satisfying events” two to three times a month before they began their course of flibanserin. So did taking it result in a semi-permanent state of orgasmic bliss? Because if it did, I’d like some. We all would, right?

But it didn’t. These — ahem — “sexually satisfying events” increased by an average of one per month more in women taking the drug than in the women taking the placebo. Their sexual desire increased just 0.3 points on a scale that ran from 1.2 to 6.0. One woman got concussion, not from banging her head on the headboard, but from hitting it when she fainted, as a result of the drug’s side-effects.

PharmedOut, a collection of US medical professionals whose aim is to educate other medical professionals about the marketing practices of the pharmaceutical industry, called flibanserin “a mediocre aphrodisiac with scary side-effects.” Personally, I would request a refund, and suggest that the pharmaceutical industry cease and desist marketing products for so-called conditions like hypoactive sexual desire disorder. Another one is FSIAD — Female Sexual Arousal/Interest Disorder. Didn’t this just used to be called not fancying someone? Or not being in the mood?

This is not, of course, to dismiss or trivialise female lack of sexual desire, which can impact badly on the most loving relationships. But a pill? Seriously?

Sorry, but there are just too many other hands-on options, from therapy to toys, to warrant the involvement of the pharmaceutical industry. Lack of female desire is a long way from the mechanics of erectile dysfunction — you can’t just throw a pill at it. You cannot take a pill to fix an unsatisfying sex life. It’s not toothache.

On the other hand, were a drug company to come up with a pill that actually worked — that is, could induce significant sexual desire in women — it would result in social apoplexy.

Just as big pharma would love to monetise a condition that the American Medical Association says affects 43% of women (really? almost half of us can’t be bothered?), imagine if the introduction of a pill to reverse this led to a genuine outbreak of unbridled female sexual desire. Who would make dinner?

During earlier trials of flibanserin, one scientist, Andrew Goldstein, expressed concern that the drug might prove too effective. What if, he wondered, the FDA rejected the approval of the drug, “out of concern that a chemical would lead to female excesses, crazed binges of infidelity, societal splintering.” You know, what used to be called nymphomania and ‘uterine fury’. In the past, women displaying assertive sexuality were incarcerated in asylums — today, such “crazed binges of infidelity” sound like the premise for an adult movie.

Either way, the reasons for lack of female sexual desire are many, varied and subtle; they need addressing with something less lumpen than the swallowing of a pill.

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