Female Viagra just isn’t sexy

Prospect Magazine

Female Viagra just isn’t sexy

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Distrust of big pharma is stifling research into the real problem of female sexual dysfunction

I’ve got a headache: women’s sexual problems shouldn’t be dismissed


Female sexual dysfunction (FSD)—a condition which can involve physical pain during sex, loss of desire or failure to reach orgasm—is a disorder invented by pharmaceutical companies intent on selling women drugs they don’t need, according to a new book, Sex Lies and Pharmaceuticals, by Ray Moynihan, a health lecturer at Australia’s Newcastle University.

This story has made headlines around the world, yet it is not new. Last year the award-winning American documentary-maker Liz Canner released Orgasm Inc, her ten-year exposé of the billion-dollar race to find a drug to treat FSD. And for at least a decade prior to that, sexologist and campaigner Leonore Tiefer has been criticising “disease-mongering” trends in the management of women’s sexual problems. As she told me eight years ago: “FSD is a contrived diagnosis foisted on the public by those interested in selling women a pharmaceutical cure.”

The hunt for a cure for FSD had begun in earnest about four years before my conversation with Tiefer. A survey by sociologist Edward O Laumann, of the University of Chicago, had established that 43 per cent of women suffered from some form of FSD. Ordinarily that information would not have merited a second glance, but this was 1998—and a small blue diamond-shaped pill had just become the fastest- selling drug of all time. In the wake of Viagra’s success, it was inevitable that drug companies would throw money at any product that could enhance the sexual function of nearly half the female population. Fast-forward 12 years, however, and male sexual dysfunction drugs, including Viagra, Cialis and Levitra, are racking up combined annual sales of $4.4bn (£2.8bn), yet the pink cash cow remains elusive.

Why is FSD proving such a hard nut to crack? Largely because drug companies have been searching for a one-size-fits-all solution to what is, in essence, a spectrum of different and complex problems. Take a closer look at Laumann’s figure of 43 per cent and you find that it is made up of 14 per cent of women who had difficulty becoming physically aroused, 7 per cent who experienced pain or physical discomfort during intercourse and 22 per cent who were suffering from low sexual desire. But how do you define low sexual desire? It’s not a dysfunction; it’s a non-specific complaint that often has nothing to do with a woman’s physical health and everything to do with her relationship, her age, the size of her arse, her mortgage, or even her partner’s wedding tackle. No pill is ever going to solve all those issues.

The right drug, however, might be able to help the 15.6 per cent of women who suffer from clinical conditions that make sex difficult or impossible. That smaller figure comes from the respected British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, published in 2000 and, while not such a headline-grabber, this is the percentage of women who have suffered from persistent sexual problems for six months or longer.

David Goldmeier, a doctor who specialises in sexual dysfunction, treats patients at the Jane Wadsworth Clinic at St Mary’s hospital in London. His male patients have a raft of pills and pumps and pessaries to choose from, but there is no comparable or universally effective treatment for women. Understandably, women who find sex painful, or unachievable, are distressed by their condition and acutely aware of the negative impact it has on their relationships. If Pfizer or GlaxoSmithKline or any of the other pharma giants managed to come up with a product that actually worked, they would strike gold—but they would also, more importantly, improve the quality of life of more than one in ten women.

So while it is popular to demonise big pharma, let’s bear in mind that it costs about $1bn to develop a new drug with no guarantee of approval by the authorities. With those odds, it is inevitable that companies will try to recoup their investment by targeting every possible big market for new products. And if we are mistaken in thinking that a “cure” for FSD will change the lives of nearly half the female population, improving the lives of 15 per cent of women is still a worthwhile goal.

“Female sexual dysfunction” is indeed an unsatisfactory umbrella term for a range of problems. But to claim it does not exist, or to assume that women are incapable of differentiating between a marketing ploy and a condition that severely impairs the quality of their relationships, is obviously wrong. And as Goldmeier warns, claiming that female sexual problems are fictitious only marginalises women who already are often highly embarrassed to talk about, or seek help for, such issues.

Worryingly, the recent negative publicity surrounding FSD is now diminishing the appeal of continued research. This is dismaying, because there is still so much to learn about female sexual function. The full length of the clitoris (3.5 inches) was only discovered in 1998 and, despite decades of investigation, experts have consistently failed to establish whether the G-spot actually exists. If scientists can’t even agree on basic female anatomy, what hope is there for women suffering sexual dysfunction?

  1. October 21, 2010

    Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    From ancient time sex is great myth all over the world. Greatest sexologist of India Vasyana wrote a book KAMSUTRA [ TREATY ON SEX]In that book he recommended some herb for sex potency for man and woman.I think each man is unique so his or her sexual urge is unique.so there is no formula for satisfaction of sex.Another myth is every man and woman have illusion about sex in reality sex disappointing to every couple. There are different norm of sexual satisfaction for man and woman so both expect different way for sexual satisfaction and that is not possible in reality so both are dissatisfied.This is a man’s weakness and Pharma companies taking disadvantage of this weakness.

  2. October 22, 2010

    Juliet

    As a sex therapist…I want to disagree with the statement that ‘His male patients have a raft of pills and pumps and pessaries to choose from, but there is no comparable or universally effective treatment for women.’ The Eros Clitoral Stimulator is a vacuum device for women, that is NOT a sex toy…but a sex exerciser if you like, that has a small cup that fits over the clitoris and using suction brings blood into the genital area…which is essential for arousal. This has been a helpful development for women with arousal issues…and the results are good. It has not impact on desire – but for arousal issues it is very useful

  3. October 28, 2010

    jim evans

    Well said Ramish. The truth is that sexual desire just reduces with age and increasing familiarity.
    How many older people (like me) would most likely feel an upsurge of desire if a willing attractive young partner were to replace the person we may have lived with for thirty or forty years?

    OK..it`s not PC to say it but let`s get real!

    I wonder if women are victims of Desperate Housewives Syndrome where women are portrayed as……..desperate?

  4. November 1, 2010

    The Man

    I find it hard to believe that “Female sexual dysfunction” does exist. The study cited, showing an incidence of 43%, is not disputed and a recent survey finds that the majority of married woman would rather sleep, read a book or watch a film than have sex with their husbands. Let’s face it, it’s less a bug than a feature—stop medicalizing it.

  5. November 26, 2010

    female viagra

    Almost fifty percent of the women in the world suffer from some or the other form of sexual dysfunction. However, there is less awarness & talks about this condition; it needs attention and treatment – if it is psychological… counselling is required and if it is medical… medical treatment is required. Truly, speaking the condition seems to be neglected; till date there is no pharmaceutical female version of viagra, there are certain vitamin supplements and other pills that serve the purpose.

  6. January 28, 2011

    Chemist

    I think you have hit the nail on the head. Not all problems can be sorted out with a pill. First and foremost we need to look at a persons lifestyle to see where they are emotionally, while checking for obvious physical conditons which could be a contributing factor.

  7. May 14, 2011

    Emedoutlet Pharmacy

    I have heard about Alura – The female viagra

    Alura is a cream that can be applied externally. It has LArginine, an amino acid that assists in the relaxation of muscle and Methol that creates a pleasurable, warm tingle. This sensitises the area and enhances the entire experience for women.”
    So, Viagra, the best selling drug in the realm of popular culture, has finally sprung the spotlight on to female sexuality.

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Author

Suzi Godson

Suzi Godson writes about sex and relationships for the Times and is the author of “The Sex Book” (Cassell) 


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