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.

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