Little Pink Pills, Ladies?

Amie Newman

One writer calls them "panty-dropping pills" while advocates and feminists have already lined up to fight any sort of FDA approval. Flibanserin is being reported as a "female Viagra" but it's not lived up to the job of alleviating symptoms of low sexual desire in women. Why?

Look, I realize that a low or non-existent interest in sex is a problem for many women. The causes for low sexual desire in women of all ages can be complicated and multi-layered. It’s important that we continue public discussions and invest in resources to explore why it is that so many women cite sexual dysfunction or low libido as major problems in their lives. It’s a problem in American society – a real problem that probably has as much to do with Americans’ attitudes toward female sexuality and bodies, teaching girls from a young age that their sexual desires are to be controlled, watched, or even stomped out as bad or wrong, as it does a woman’s relationships, her environment, or which medications she might be taking. According to some studies, up to 43% of all women have experienced some sort of sexual dysfunction.

So when the potential for a solution comes along in the form of something smaller than the palm of my hand, something that looks much like what’s perceived to be a super-power-in-a-pill for men (but oooh! squeal! it’s pink!), it makes you wonder whether it could be that easy. Pop a pink pill, ladies, and enter the land of lusty satisfaction, where your baggage disappears and you’re free to fly.

According to Salon’s Broadsheet, the drug – flibanserin – “targets a woman’s brain chemistry” and was originally intended as an anti-depressant when it was tested over ten years ago. These earlier tests revealed that while the drug was not successful at treating depression, women were reporting increased sexual desire as a side effect.

In swoops a German pharmaceutical company, turned on by the potential, no doubt, to make a lot of money marketing a sex-drug to women looking for some relief, so to speak.

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Unfortunately, the drug has failed to deliver. 

From Salon:

The Food and Drug Administration announced Wednesday that flibanserin has performed poorly in two studies, failing to result in a significant increase in women’s self-reported sexual desire. The cutesily nicknamed “pink pill” did manage to slightly increase the number of sexually satisfying romps (by 0.8 more than with the placebo), but that’s not the aim of the drug. Its makers are seeking approval for use as a treatment for hypoactive sexual desire disorder, which is defined as a flagging sex drive in generally healthy pre-menopausal women.

More than that, the drug actually, in some cases, “…caused side effects including depression and dizzyness.”

Many have spoken out about the wrong-mindedness of medicalizing a disorder by attempting to create a pharmacological answer to a complex problem for women, that requires much more than a pill to satisfy.

After all, if the condition is multi-layered, why wouldn’t the approach to addressing the condition be? As the amazing sex-educator Dr. Petra Boynton writes on her blog,

Obviously with many potential causes of problems there are many potential solutions/responses. This might include basic health information, adequate reproductive health care, improved communication with a partner, healthcare for other problems or relationships counselling.

I’m not someone who automatically rules out medication that’s been shown to offer some relief – whether that’s for a mood disorder or a medical concern. But the thought process behind this pill makes absolutely no sense. The low sexual desire women of all ages report experiencing  is not the equivalent of forgetting to turn a light on and needing someone to flip it for them – it’s about so much more. I think the best (and undoubtedly the funniest) article I’ve read on this topic so far was written in Psychology Today by research psychoanalyst Paul Joannides, who actually nicknames this the “Panty-dropping pill” and writes,

America’s media remains clueless, as they keep referring to it as the “pink Viagra.” Viagra works below the belt to help the penis have more of the chemicals it needs to get hard. It doesn’t concern itself with whether a man wants to have sex or not. The German panty-dropping pill works very differently. It assumes the woman’s pelvic plumbing is just fine. Its job is to turn her feeling of “ho-hum” into “I’ve gotta have it,” although its effects are much more subtle and it’s not going to dramatically change anyone’s sex life. Unlike Viagra, the women needs to take it every day of every month, and unlike Viagra, flibanserin operates on the woman’s brain and could potentially impact her thought processes.

The FDA will be considering flibanserin tomorrow – Friday, June 18th – and Meika Loe writing on the Ms. blog is encouraging folks to sign a petition letting the FDA know what feminists think of the so-called “viagra for females.”

I’d suggest making your voice known. The potential to exploit women’s sexual struggles is too great when you’ve decided the answer can be found in a little pink pill- and a pill that seems not to work anyway. The answer, actually, is a lot less simple but it can be found. As Dr. Boynton writes,

Encourage the media to focus on this as a women’s health issue, rather than a pro/con debate on whether HSDD exists or whether women should/shouldn’t get help.

If you work within healthcare encourage colleagues to look critically at this drug, ask questions about why trial data hasn’t been published/subjected to peer review, and consider wider ways we can enable women and their partners.

This is a very important issue in sexual and reproductive health. It is extremely worrying the FDA are being asked to approve a drug which has not performed particularly well at trial, and which has not been published in any peer reviewed journal to allow the scientific community to investigate it. It is also concerning that female sexual responses which may be distressing are being reclassified into a clinical condition.

Sexual pleasure can be found in many ways and it’s different for every woman – but these little pink-pills are likely not for anyone.

News Health Systems

Complaint: Citing Catholic Rules, Doctor Turns Away Bleeding Woman With Dislodged IUD

Amy Littlefield

“It felt heartbreaking,” said Melanie Jones. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

Melanie Jones arrived for her doctor’s appointment bleeding and in pain. Jones, 28, who lives in the Chicago area, had slipped in her bathroom, and suspected the fall had dislodged her copper intrauterine device (IUD).

Her doctor confirmed the IUD was dislodged and had to be removed. But the doctor said she would be unable to remove the IUD, citing Catholic restrictions followed by Mercy Hospital and Medical Center and providers within its system.

“I think my first feeling was shock,” Jones told Rewire in an interview. “I thought that eventually they were going to recognize that my health was the top priority.”

The doctor left Jones to confer with colleagues, before returning to confirm that her “hands [were] tied,” according to two complaints filed by the ACLU of Illinois. Not only could she not help her, the doctor said, but no one in Jones’ health insurance network could remove the IUD, because all of them followed similar restrictions. Mercy, like many Catholic providers, follows directives issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that restrict access to an array of services, including abortion care, tubal ligations, and contraception.

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Some Catholic providers may get around the rules by purporting to prescribe hormonal contraception for acne or heavy periods, rather than for birth control, but in the case of copper IUDs, there is no such pretext available.

“She told Ms. Jones that that process [of switching networks] would take her a month, and that she should feel fortunate because sometimes switching networks takes up to six months or even a year,” the ACLU of Illinois wrote in a pair of complaints filed in late June.

Jones hadn’t even realized her health-care network was Catholic.

Mercy has about nine off-site locations in the Chicago area, including the Dearborn Station office Jones visited, said Eric Rhodes, senior vice president of administrative and professional services. It is part of Trinity Health, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country.

The ACLU and ACLU of Michigan sued Trinity last year for its “repeated and systematic failure to provide women suffering pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions as required by federal law.” The lawsuit was dismissed but the ACLU has asked for reconsideration.

In a written statement to Rewire, Mercy said, “Generally, our protocol in caring for a woman with a dislodged or troublesome IUD is to offer to remove it.”

Rhodes said Mercy was reviewing its education process on Catholic directives for physicians and residents.

“That act [of removing an IUD] in itself does not violate the directives,” Marty Folan, Mercy’s director of mission integration, told Rewire.

The number of acute care hospitals that are Catholic owned or affiliated has grown by 22 percent over the past 15 years, according to MergerWatch, with one in every six acute care hospital beds now in a Catholic owned or affiliated facility. Women in such hospitals have been turned away while miscarrying and denied tubal ligations.

“We think that people should be aware that they may face limitations on the kind of care they can receive when they go to the doctor based on religious restrictions,” said Lorie Chaiten, director of the women’s and reproductive rights project of the ACLU of Illinois, in a phone interview with Rewire. “It’s really important that the public understand that this is going on and it is going on in a widespread fashion so that people can take whatever steps they need to do to protect themselves.”

Jones left her doctor’s office, still in pain and bleeding. Her options were limited. She couldn’t afford a $1,000 trip to the emergency room, and an urgent care facility was out of the question since her Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois insurance policy would only cover treatment within her network—and she had just been told that her entire network followed Catholic restrictions.

Jones, on the advice of a friend, contacted the ACLU of Illinois. Attorneys there advised Jones to call her insurance company and demand they expedite her network change. After five hours of phone calls, Jones was able to see a doctor who removed her IUD, five days after her initial appointment and almost two weeks after she fell in the bathroom.

Before the IUD was removed, Jones suffered from cramps she compared to those she felt after the IUD was first placed, severe enough that she medicated herself to cope with the pain.

She experienced another feeling after being turned away: stigma.

“It felt heartbreaking,” Jones told Rewire. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

The ACLU of Illinois has filed two complaints in Jones’ case: one before the Illinois Department of Human Rights and another with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights under the anti-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act. Chaiten said it’s clear Jones was discriminated against because of her gender.

“We don’t know what Mercy’s policies are, but I would find it hard to believe that if there were a man who was suffering complications from a vasectomy and came to the emergency room, that they would turn him away,” Chaiten said. “This the equivalent of that, right, this is a woman who had an IUD, and because they couldn’t pretend the purpose of the IUD was something other than pregnancy prevention, they told her, ‘We can’t help you.’”

News Law and Policy

Pastors Fight Illinois’ Ban on ‘Gay Conversion Therapy’

Imani Gandy

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban so-called gay conversion therapy. Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans.

A group of pastors filed a lawsuit last week arguing an Illinois law that bans mental health providers from engaging in so-called gay conversion therapy unconstitutionally infringes on rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

The Illinois legislature passed the Youth Mental Health Protection Act, which went into effect on January 1. The measure bans mental health providers from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts or so-called conversion therapy with a minor.

The pastors in their lawsuit argue the enactment of the law means they are “deprived of the right to further minister to those who seek their help.”

While the pastors do not qualify as mental health providers since they are neither licensed counselors nor social workers, the pastors allege that they may be liable for consumer fraud under Section 25 of the law, which states that “no person or entity” may advertise or otherwise offer “conversion therapy” services “in a manner that represents homosexuality as a mental disease, disorder, or illness.”

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The pastors’ lawsuit seeks an order from a federal court in Illinois exempting pastoral counseling from the law. The pastors believe that “the law should not apply to pastoral counseling which informs counselees that homosexuality conduct is a sin and disorder from God’s plan for humanity,” according to a press release issued by the pastors’ attorneys.

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban gay “conversion therapy.” Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans. None have been struck down as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court this year declined to take up a case challenging New Jersey’s “gay conversion therapy” ban on First Amendment grounds.

The pastors say the Illinois law is different. The complaint alleges that the Illinois statute is broader than those like it in other states because the prohibitions in the law is not limited to licensed counselors, but also apply to “any person or entity in the conduct of any trade or commerce,” which they claim affects clergy.

The pastors allege that the law is not limited to counseling minors but “prohibits offering such counseling services to any person, regardless of age.”

Aside from demanding protection for their own rights, the group of pastors asked the court for an order “protecting the rights of counselees in their congregations and others to receive pastoral counseling and teaching on the matters of homosexuality.”

“We are most concerned about young people who are seeking the right to choose their own identity,” the pastors’ attorney, John W. Mauck, said in a statement.

“This is an essential human right. However, this law undermines the dignity and integrity of those who choose a different path for their lives than politicians and activists prefer,” he continued.

“Gay conversion therapy” bans have gained traction after Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager, committed suicide following her experience with so-called conversion therapy.

Before taking her own life, Alcorn posted on Reddit that her parents had refused her request to transition to a woman.

“The[y] would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl,” she wrote of her experience with conversion therapy.

The American Psychological Association, along with a coalition of health advocacy groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers, have condemned “gay conversion therapy” as potentially harmful to young people “because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”

The White House in 2015 took a stance against so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth.

Attorneys for the State of Illinois have not yet responded to the pastors’ lawsuit.

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