24 Nov Low Female Sexual Desire, the FDA and Big Pharma
Low female sexual desire has been in the news for weeks—months. The issue is complex, involving women who genuinely have little or low sexual desire, the pharmaceutical companies who claim to ‘have a pill for that’, and the FDA. I attended the recent FDA hearing on female sexual dysfunction via webinar in October.
I want to tread lightly here and be sensitive to the legitimate challenges many women are experiencing around sex and desire. This article is not about the women—it is about our culture and those who seek to profit from creating a new disease, conveniently associated with a pill developed to fix that disease.
I want to share a few thoughts about the webinar I listened in on. First of all, I was approached by public relations firms about the webinar. Edelman reached out with information on low female sexual desire and invited me to attend a seminar and the webinar. I am assuming this flurry of attention was due to my writing a less than positive review of the topic, specifically the drug Flibanserin being developed by Sprout Pharmaceuticals.
I noticed a couple of things as I listened in:
- The vast majority of the women speaking/attending seem to have been sponsored by Veritas, a PR company (?) through a grant from Sprout Pharmaceuticals to transport all these women to the FDA hearing. Each speaker was required to disclose any affiliations that might indicate a conflict of interest. Sprout Pharmaceuticals is the drug manufacturer seeking approval for its drug, Flibanserin, which is supposed to ‘fix’ low sexual desire.
- A big focus on having orgasms and satisfying their husbands (attendees term, not mine).
- Many of the women’s statements contained enough similar phrases for me to assume they were coached.
- And, many of these women expressed genuine sadness or anger around their inability to feel sexual desire. The issues are legitimate, the pharmaceutical intervention and manipulation less so.
One of the scripted comments I heard on the webinar and is prominent in most of the articles pushing for FDA approval was the statement that men have 26 drugs for sexual desire—and women have none. That number must include the various generic versions of the 3 major erection-producing drugs, Cialis, Viagra, and Levitra. It’s a clever maneuver. But totally irrelevant. The ED drugs don’t fix sexual desire—they help make erections possible—stronger and longer lasting. Desire and physical arousal are still required for a man to get an erection. Women don’t have a similar genital issue or solution—unless we want a drug that sends more blood flow to the clitoris.
Sexual desire, a lack of interest, no wish to initiate, inability to orgasm, and numbness—none of these things can be fixed with a pill for low sexual desire. And any television ad, medical professional, or paid blogger who tells you otherwise is acting on behalf of the massively profitable drug industry in the United States. This is about money. This is about conditioning women to think of their complex physiological, emotional, and relationship issues as something that can be eradicated by pharmaceuticals–just like the push to medicalize menopause, a condition women have experienced since the beginning of time. In 2013 HRT drugs for women in menopause brought in almost $3 billion alone. Don’t kid yourself that this is all a benevolent push by the pharmaceutical guys and the medical doctors and researchers. This wonder pill, Flibanserin, was developed to coincide with the creation of a new disease, Female Sexual Dysfunction. Make a product—create a need for that product. Marketing.
I like what Margery Gass, the executive director of the North American Menopause Society has to say about the female sexual libido, “…[She] sees things differently. Of the 30 to 40 percent of women who complain of low libido, the solution is often not medical, she says, explaining that the issue may owe to an unhealthy relationship or a simple discrepancy in sex drive. “A lot of things are just turnoffs to people that they don’t want to admit to – they think I should love this person anyway. We know that women’s on-and-off switch for sex and sexual desire is more complicated than men’s … Women typically want aspects of the relationship to be good on many levels before they have much desire towards that person,” she says, noting that this is “not always the case for men.”
Emily Nagoski talks about nonPharma treatments in her article, What Works to Increase Women’s Sexual Desire, an excellent article that speaks to the medicalizing of women’s low sexual desire.
A conversation about approving a new medication for low female sexual desire needs to address these topics:
- Most doctors are reluctant to discuss sex with their female patients.
- We don’t have proper sex education at any age–leaving women uncertain about their bodies, their anatomy, and their desire.
- Intercourse is the primary vehicle for sex in this country. Most women cannot orgasm through intercourse alone.
- Women are not encouraged to talk about sex, to express joy or desire. Shame is often heaped on women who openly embrace sex.
- The complexity of female genitalia as compared to the male penis.
I struggled with the writing of this article. There is much that is wrong about the hold the pharmaceutical industry has on us. This is a delicate topic—this distress women feel at a loss of sexual desire. I just don’t think a pill is the answer. As I noted above there are many things to be considered in discussing low sexual desire—none of which would put cash in the pockets of pharmaceutical companies. It’s not in their best interest to encourage alternative means to solving the low female sexual desire issue.
As I read and researched I found many articles speaking to this topic—all in a similar vein. It’s hard to share the opposite point of view when many of those voices have a monetary connection to the pharmaceutical companies—it taints their point of view, in my opinion. So, I’m not going to share those.
- Female Desire Pill Issue, an excellent fact sheet from PharmedOut.org (PharmedOut is a Georgetown Medical Center project to promote evidence-based prescribing and the education of healthcare professionals about pharmaceutical marketing practices)
- Attitudinal Survey of Women Living with Low Sexual Desire
- Drugs for Sexual Dysfunction, Drug Chart, PharmedOut.org
- The FDA’s Hesitation to Approve ‘Female Sexual Dysfunction’ Drugs Isn’t About Sexism
- Sexual Health and the Culture of Trust
After listening in on the FDA hearing I’m less convinced that low sexual desire is a medical disease that needs a pill. What I heard there, and from my readers/clients, is dissatisfaction, faulty communications and a penetrative, intercourse driven approach to sex. I didn’t get a sense that the conversation was about helping women learn to develop their own personal desire or work to strengthen relationships. When desire is equated with having an orgasm or satisfying a man we’re talking about societal and relationship issues, not a disease. When we talk about pleasure as being only about orgasm we’ve reduced sex in its most narrow definition–anything less is a failure and that notion alone is enough to bring about stress, anxiety and avoidance.
There really isn’t a pill to fix everything that ails us, even if the wealthy, greedy pharmaceutical companies want us to believe there is.