Jennifer O’Connell: A pill to control female desire? Dream on
It’s not female sexual desire that needs ‘fixing’ so much as society’s notion of what’s normal
Addyi: women should be wary of swallowing this vision of equality wrapped up in a little pink pill. Photograph: Thinkstock
The name Addyi probably doesn’t mean much to you. Likewise flibanserin. But take note, because you are about to become very familiar with them both.
Earlier this month, an advisory committee to the US Food and Drug Administration finally voted in favour of approving the much-hyped “pink Viagra”, or flibanserin, whose trade name is the rather strange Addyi. The FDA previously rejected it twice over concerns about its safety and effectiveness, and is now due to rule on it again in August.
The rejections were followed by a campaign by two well-funded organisations – Even the Score and Women Deserve – which together made an emotive and compelling case that the FDA was discriminating against women in not allowing a drug to treat female sexual dysfunction to come to market. Even the Score, which is generously funded by the drugs company behind Addyi, pointed out that Viagra has been treating male sexual problems since 1998 (it was originally developed as a drug for angina; the plentiful erections were an unexpected side effect) and yet there is still no female equivalent. With 26 different varieties of drugs promising to promote the sexual life of men on the market, campaigners – and the reported 40,000 people who have signed online petitions on the subject – claim it is time women got their own little pink version.
Invoking the gender equality card here seems more than a bit disingenuous. Sure, it’s time the question of female sexual desire got some attention, even if claims around the number of women who are affected by it are disputed. Campaigners say anywhere between 10 and 43 per cent of women suffer some degree of sexual dysfunction. Other researchers argue there is no biological reason for low female libido and that it is likely just to be a reflection of the difference in sex drive between two partners.
As a woman, I’d say the truth lies somewhere in the middle. When it comes to sex, men and women are simply programmed differently: for most women, desire and arousal are the same thing. For men, depending on the circumstances, they might be entirely separate. Female desire waxes and wanes according to many factors: from hormonal, to her age, to the age of her children, to her self-esteem, to how much stress she’s under in her life outside the bedroom, to how valued or taken-for-granted she feels in her relationship. The notion that a pill could possibly be capable of addressing all of that may be little more than a male fantasy.
But this isn’t the only reason women should be wary of swallowing this vision of equality wrapped up in a little pink pill. Because really, how much equality is at stake in pushing a drug to market that has already been rejected twice over safety concerns?
Let’s get one thing straight: Addyi isn’t a “female Viagra”. For a start, Viagra doesn’t address male libido, only the mechanism that allows an erection to happen. It doesn’t work anything like Viagra either, which has to be taken only when a man feels like having sex. Instead, it has to be taken daily. Addyi works on brain chemicals, while Viagra regulates blood flow. Like Viagra, the side effects of Addyi are troublesome. During clinical trials, 14 per cent of participants dropped out due to adverse side-effects, which include dizziness, nausea and sleepiness.
Then there’s the question of what it claims to accomplish. In clinical trials, it was found to deliver an additional 0.7 “sexually satisfying events” per month. But other studies have found that women taking a placebo who believe they are taking a sexual arousal drug experience a similar rise.
Of course, the problem of diminished desire for sex in women isn’t an invention by greedy pharmaceutical companies; female sex drive does go through peaks and troughs, and if it’s distressing to the woman and her partner, then it’s a problem. Drugs such as Addyi may even provide part of the solution, even if they are far from a silver bullet.
But in the end, maybe it’s not female sexual desire that needs “fixing”, so much as society’s notion of what’s normal, starting with the idea that women should always be ready for sex, and if we’re not, that there’s something wrong with us.
Andy Murray and Mark Ruffalo proclaim their feminismA few weeks ago, I wrote that more men – and women – would call themselves feminist if they really understood what it means. Since then, the tennis player Andy Murray and actor Mark Ruffalo have joined the rush to out themselves as male feminists. Murray wrote a column in L’ Équipe about the treatment meted out by his colleagues and the media to his female coach, Amelie Mauresmo. “Have I become a feminist?” he wrote. “Well if being a feminist is about fighting so that a woman is treated like a man, then yes, I suppose I have.”
In a powerful post on Tumblr, Ruffalo writes that by supporting the “I am not a feminist” internet phenomenon, women are “insulting every woman who was forcibly restrained in a jail cell with a feeding tube down her throat, for your right to vote . . .you’re degrading every woman who has accessed a rape crisis centre . . . you bite the hand that has fed you freedom, safety and a voice”.