Commentary Sexual Health

‘Female Viagra’ Sounds Promising, But Might Not Be All It’s Cracked Up To Be

Amanda Marcotte

A new drug promising to help women restore lost libido has been approved by the FDA. But is it just a bill of goods? And does the marketing of this actually hurt the cause of women's sexual freedom?

After two previous rejections, Sprout Pharmaceuticals finally hit the jackpot when it got FDA approval for flibanserin, a drug that promises to relieve hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). HSDD is a recent coinage to describe a disorder in which women lose much, if not all, of their previous interest in sex. Flibanserin, which will be sold under the name Addyi, is supposed to restore that lost libido. Sprout is declaring this a feminist victory, a way to “even the score” by creating what they claim is a kind of “female Viagra.”

Sounds like a straightforward win, right? Women who want to restore a lost libido now have a way to do so. If only it were that simple. Flibanserin has been plagued by criticism, a lot of it coming from feminists. And while some of the feminist criticism is misguided, many of the objections raised legitimately call into question not just the drug itself, but how it’s marketed, both to the FDA and now to consumers.

So is this really such a feminist achievement? There’s a lot of reasons to think not.

To be clear, one of the most popular feminist objections to this pill is misguided. That’s the view being advanced by psychology professor Leonore Tiefer, who objects to the very idea that there’s a problem when a woman loses most or all interest in sex. “What’s wrong with losing sexual desire?” Tiefer asked Jill Filipovic of Cosmopolitan.com when interviewed about her anti-flibanserin campaign. Instead, Tiefer argued in PLOS Medicine, treating low desire as a medical issue is “a textbook case of disease mongering by the pharmaceutical industry and by other agents of medicalization.”

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“There’s no damage, there’s no harm, there’s no medical consequence [from losing sexual desire],” Tiefer continued.

“This is the great advantage of having lived a number of decades longer and having been raised in a different time with different norms,” Tiefer told Filipovic. “Having sex was not considered a mental health need. Having sex was not considered proof of being a real person, a real woman.”

Considering how much pressure there is on women to mold our sexual identities and behaviors around the desires of men, one can see the surface attraction to Tiefer’s concerns that this is just another form of trying to police female sexuality. But ultimately, her argument is condescending and unfair to women. There are plenty of good reasons, outside of being some kind of victim of an oversexed culture, for a woman to desire sex. For one thing, it’s fun. A lot of women rightly believe life is too short to simply accept the loss of something as life-affirming and good for the spirit as sexual pleasure.

Women get shamed all the time for wanting to have sex, and feminists shouldn’t add to that pile by suggesting that there’s something wrong with them if they want a libido-boosting pill. Nor is it fair to suggest that women are wrong to want sex to continue in their relationship, any more than it would be to suggest they should feel bad about wanting communication or cuddling to continue in their relationship.

So much of the feminist agenda, especially around reproductive rights, is about trusting women. We trust that women who choose contraception and abortion in order to have sex for pleasure know what they’re doing, and so we should trust that women who want to have more sexual desire know what they’re doing.

That said, one reason Sprout’s marketing of this pill as a “fix” to a “disease” is so frustrating is because it does not display that trust in women’s ability to define their own lives for themselves. Tiefer is right about one thing: By giving low sexual desire a name and suggesting it’s a disorder, that implies that there’s a “right” amount of sex to want.

But what if you have a low libido and you don’t mind? What if you’re not in a relationship or don’t want to be in one, or are in a relationship where no one wants sex and that’s fine by both of you? Women are constantly being told that their sexualities are wrong somehow—that they want it too much or too little or the wrong way or for the wrong reasons. The marketing, including the invention of HSDD, adds to this problem. Why should a woman be told she has a disorder if all she wants is a boost to her libido? Why imply, conversely, that someone who doesn’t want more sex is somehow failing?

To be fair to Sprout, it doesn’t seem like the company has much of a choice. There continues to be a lot of hostility in our culture to the idea of using drugs to enhance your life, rather than only as a way to “fix” something that’s broken. Take coffee, for instance. When I type “is drinking coffee” into Google, the top search fills out “bad for you.” The top hits are things like “13 Proven Health Benefits of Coffee” and “Health Benefits of Coffee.” It’s not enough to drink coffee because you like it and because you like the alert feeling it gives you. Oh no, Americans still feel this need to justify it for “health” reasons.

This mentality is why contraception, by the way, continues to be controversial, and why the pill keeps getting defended by articles that highlight the “medical” reasons to take it. Simply wanting to have sex for fun without the worry of getting pregnant is still seen, by many, as not good enough. We need a “medical” reason for it.

And so this new pill is being slotted into that mentality. It scares people to think women might just want more sex for its own sake, so instead we’re told that they have a “disorder” that needs fixing.

Which might be not that big a deal—hey, you can’t change a culture overnight and women need relief now—if the pill actually worked, like Viagra actually works. But the real reason that feminists should be suspicious of this pill has nothing to do with whether or not women should or should not want sex at all. It’s because this pill is being oversold. As Julia Belluz of Vox explained, this pill barely performs better than a placebo at increasing sexual desire. Only 8 to 13 percent of women saw an improvement over a placebo at all. The average bump in sexual frequency? About one more sexual encounter every two months. Considering that it’s an expensive, everyday pill that has serious potential side effects, the payoff just doesn’t seem worth it.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to take a pill that makes you hornier. Sex is fun. Wanting sex is fun. If there was a pill out there that could make women want more sex, I’d be all for it. Just like it’s okay to drink coffee just because it wakes you up or to drink alcohol (in moderation) because it loosens you up, people should be able to take drugs, especially safe drugs, for sexual pleasure. The problem is that this drug doesn’t appear to be that drug. And feminists, regardless of our disagreements elsewhere, should be able to come together to denounce drug companies who appear to be selling women a bill of goods.

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