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Jun. 18 2010 - 8:40 am | 980 views | 1 recommendation | 15 comments

Hey baby, wanna…?

Ah, the American medical-industrial complex.  It’s so good at meeting our every need, just as soon as it invents those needs, creates a pill to respond to the need, and then markets that need to consumers and physicians.  A perfect system of problem creation and highly profitable solution. So it is with “female sexual dysfunction.”  In other words, premenopausal women who have “suppressed libido.”

This week the German drug giant Boehringer got some bad news about its proposed “solution” to women who do not have sex drives that are deemed “healthy.”  The solution is called Intrinsa and although Boehringer has been trying to convince American women and their physicians that there is both a problem and a solution with an aggressive marketing campaign, a Congressional committee found that Boehringer had not shown that the pill does what it says it will do.

Boehringer’s aggressive marketing campaign has included

a promotional campaign about women’s low libido, including a Web site, a Twitter feed, aDiscovery Channel documentary and a publicity tour by Lisa Rinna, a soap opera star and former Playboy model, who describes herself as someone who has suffered from a disorder that Boehringer refers to as a form of “female sexual dysfunction.”

According to the New View Campaign, a group that advocates against the pathologizing of ordinary and healthy female bodies by the medical industry, there are a lot of problems with both the drug and the company’s less than honest presentation of its research.  Boehringer apparently never released all the data to the public, pooled its data to hide adverse outcomes, and presented data in such a way to look as if the positive outcomes were better than they actually were.  For instance, “minimally improved,” “improved” and “much improved” were lumped together.  Also, the difference between “placebo effect” and the actual drug was fairly minimal (and in general, placebos seems to improve women’s sexual desire in these sorts of studies).

But before we single out Boehringer for their fairly transparent effort to manipulate American women for profit, it’s worth taking a step or two back to the structural level to see what is wrong with the system as well as this particular company and this particular drug.  The system of commercialized medicine is dangerous because its primary purpose is profit, and the only way to keep profits coming is to increase sales.  And the only way to increase sales is to increase demand.

The way increased demand gets implanted into consumers is so sophisticated at this point that it is nearly impossible to resist.  For instance, on the website for the drug, Sex, Brain, Body: Make the Connection, we learn that most women don’t understand that the brain is the primary sexual organ (um, mine’s elsewhere, but it’s stated with such authority that I begin to doubt my own body).  We also learn that there are “neurotransmitters and hormones” in the brain that need the drug to work properly.  We are taught that Hypoactive Sexual Dysfunction Disorder (HSDD) is a lack of sexual desire not caused by substances such as medications.  This lack of desire is mysterious and not well understood, but

it is thought that some of the neurotransmitters in the brain that play a role in sexual response may be affected in women with HSDD.

It is thought by whom?  The distress over HSDD comes from where?  The company trying to sell us the pills in the first place? It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that the drug and the disease are humbug and snake oil.  No one can say what ‘normal” levels of sexual desire are, but if we allow a drug company to run an infomercial on the Discovery Channel on “female sexual dysfunction” many many women are going to start to worry that their levels of sexual desire are pathological.

Instead of pathologizing women, why aren’t we pathologizing their (presumably) male sexual partners who seem to have “excess” sex drive?

Or why aren’t we looking at why the average heterosexual couple might have varying levels of desire?  There are so many reasons that women might not feel like having sex with their male partners, but surely the fact that women experience the “double burden” of performing far more domestic work, childcare and elderly care than their male partners is one of them.  Clearly the fact that all Americans are working more hours at work than ever, and women continue to bear the brunt of domestic labor resulting in far fewer hours of leisure time than men MIGHT have more to do with lack of libido than chemical “imbalance” in the brain.

Having giant pharmaceutical companies create standardized sexual desire and then drugging us so we can fall within that standard is not the Sexual Revolution many of us were hoping for. Instead, it is the disciplinary nightmare of docile bodies and standardized subjects imagined in many postmodern critiques of late Modernity.

Being coerced into having sex to prove your “normalcy”  or being drugged into being sexual just aren’t that sexy.  Pleasure is a complicated and difficult state to achieve. Making women feel as if we’re sick for not achieving it enough is not a patriarchal plot, but a capitalist one. Only when we push drug marketing campaigns aside, will we be able to focus on our own pleasures.  And believe me, those pleasures are not to be found in a pill.


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  1. collapse expand

    There are women who would be happier with a higher sex drive, and who aren’t aware there’s an alternative to suffering in silence. Your demand that they be kept from knowing about the alternative because it might make someone feel inadequate (Who? Why?) is pretty misguided. The same arguments you make can be made against any feminist argument- women should be happy with the jobs or rights or sexuality they have; if we give them an opportunity to experience something else they’ll feel inadequate; it’s all just an evil plot to make them work harder/have more sex/vote for Illuminati-backed politicians/etc.

    • collapse expand

      Your rhetoric of “choice” is a dead end. First, there is NO pill that will “fix” the sex drive- that’s the point- this pill doesn’t work or doesn’t work any better really than the placebo. Second, even if there were such a pill, there are questions about structural contradictions in the lives of women- like the double burden- that would have to be addressed before something as complex as sex drive could be heightened. Even if and when there is a pill to make women want to have sex, if they literally work 17 or 18 hours a day between paid and unpaid labor, they’re really not going to have a lot of time for sex- maybe a quick masturbation session with themselves, but sexual encounters will remain difficult to negotiate.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        First, there is NO pill that will “fix” the sex drive- that’s the point- this pill doesn’t work or doesn’t work any better really than the placebo.

        Sure, this pill doesn’t work – this pill turned out not to help people who had a certain kind of medical problem. They’ll have to continue to suffer until a better alternative is developed.

        You’ve got to be a really fucked-up person to think that’s something to celebrate.

        Second, even if there were such a pill, there are questions about structural contradictions in the lives of women- like the double burden- that would have to be addressed before something as complex as sex drive could be heightened.

        I think that women who have concluded that they have some kind of organic sexual dysfunction have probably come to that conclusion after exhausting the alternative explanations, like fatigue, overwork, being run ragged by the kids, incompetent and ugly sexual partners, and so on. Given the stigma I think people probably arrive at a suspicion of sexual dysfunction literally as the last resort.

        But then, I don’t assume that women are too stupid to know what they want. You seem to be under the impression that you know better. I think maybe you need to rethink your arrogant, sexist presumption.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    So, a woman might feel that she ought to go get a pill like this. It’s no different than anti-depressants.

    Yes, a strong willed woman can overcome the feeling of loss from no longer having good sex or good looks. Nobody should be “coercing” her to do or buy anything.

    Conversely, those middle aged men should not get hair restoration or erectile dysfunction pills either. A strong willed man can overcome too, even if his spouse might prefer otherwise.

    People are not as strong as we’d like to think they are. Some are vain. Some might spend money on all sorts of things to turn back the clock.

    And yes, such desires fuel capitalism. In fact, that’s what fuels improvements in our society. If nobody wanted a better house or a sportier transportation, better clothes, or a better looking body, we’d all be living in caves and dying young.

    Why is that a problem? Are we not supposed to seek better lives for ourselves?

    • collapse expand

      Hmm- better= what capitalism has given us? You might take a look at that sporty car and that “better” house and then the Gulf Oil disaster– or perhaps you think any cost is worth these supposedly better lives?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I think you are picking at the flaws of modern society, declaring that it doesn’t work, and then looking back with rose tinted glasses at the typically brutish and short lives of our ancestors.

        The industrial revolution did a lot to improve life for the masses –at a cost. The cost was worth it, though it doesn’t scale well. If I understand you correctly, your point is that because it didn’t scale well, that maybe we shouldn’t have done it.

        Well, if this doesn’t work, maybe we should try something else. The Russians tried socialism and you can see how well it worked for them. The Chinese tried Communism and you can see how well that worked. What’s left?

        Unfortunately, like democracy, capitalism is the worst form of economy except for all the others.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    I just “Headline Grabbed” the following and its really relevant to the issues you’re raising:

    http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2010/06/16/female-genital-mutilation-at-cornell-university

    Scary ….

  4. collapse expand

    Pr. Essig,

    It seems to me there are two entirely separate issues that have been confused in the discussion of the proposed new drug flibanserin.

    1) What is the appropriate role of marketing drugs, prescription or OTC for any need. Substitute a headache for HSDD and see what happens. Do people really need to take a pill for every headache? A tension headache is best relieved by relaxing (if that is possible). However,if someone smacked you in the head with 2X4 by accident, a pain reliever might just do the trick. Now drug manufacturers would like you to take their products for ever ache and pain, which is probably not for the best but there are clearly some situations where their products are not only beneficial, but medically warranted. Substitute “loss of libido” with “headache” and the point is still the same.

    2) Does flibanserin even work at boosting the female libido? No one questions that aspirin will relieve most ordinary headaches. Some might question whether some or all ordinary headaches need biochemical relief, but few doubt aspirin will deliver that relief. However whether flibanserin can actually boost the female libido is, it would seem, questionable at best. Should drug companies be pushing drugs that do not really do what they claim that they do? That is a very different question from how they should be marketing drugs that actually do what they claim to do.

    3) A third question is what are “normal” levels of libido and what are problematic. Are all levels “normal” or is the medical / pharmaceutical industry / society at large creating unneeded and arbitrary definitions. Are conditions like Hypoactive Sexual Dysfunction Disorder (HSDD) or Persistent Genital Arousal Disorder (PGAD) “real” or manufactured?

    Part of the problem in discussing the issues surrounding flibanserin is that these very different issues get tangled up and then people have conversations at cross purposes.

  5. collapse expand

    I think you’re missing the positive eagerness with which the public seizes opportunities for Better Living With Chemistry.

    From the uppers & downers prescribed through the 60’s and 70’s to Prozac becoming the most-prescribed drug after Tylenol-3 in the last decade (until a large study found it really only helped the profoundly depressed), we love, love, love to medicate our frequently-imaginary problems away.

    The problem, in particular, of being Not Happy Enough.

    On the male side, let’s not skip merely Viagra, but steroids, the use of which can begin in Jr. High, for the “problem” of being Not Bulky Enough. And endless quack (or real but expensive) solutions for the terrible health problem of Being Bald.

    On the Not Happy Enough front, where science and industry fail us, there’s a long list of illegal drugs, one of the largest industries in the world. We buy those solutions to our woes despite the inflated costs and health problems.

    I’m not in disagreement with your post, I’m just pointing out that this is anything but an Evil Industry tricking hapless women into a poor self-image to sell them snake oil. It’s an industry that knows there’s a big market out there, and all they need is a rationale to offer it as “medicine” so they have somebody to sell it to beside the Medellin Cartel.

    As long as the stuff is reasonably non-lethal, works at all for some people, and gets approval to be treated as a legal drug, they’re gold. They don’t HAVE to “trick” anybody into imagining themselves sick. The endless appetite to have a Better Life Through Chemistry means they don’t need one.

    This is perfectly normal behaviour in our culture; don’t imagine it to be aberrant or sinister.

  6. collapse expand

    “Making women feel as if we’re sick for not achieving it enough is not a patriarchal plot, but a capitalist one.”

    Got it in one.

    Excellent job Laurie, and dead on the mark. I have far, far too many responsibilities plus work and other time-consuming yet enjoyable hobbies to try to ape the forced libidinal urge of a mainstream porn star.

    And I don’t feel guilty for this, either. Nyah!

  7. collapse expand

    Excellent job Laurie, and dead on the mark. I have far, far too many responsibilities plus work and other time-consuming yet enjoyable hobbies to try to ape the forced libidinal urge of a mainstream porn star.

    So you’re probably not a candidate for this medication.

    But what about the women who don’t have too many responsibilities, have plenty of time, aren’t stressed by their job or run ragged by their kids, and still can’t seem to summon even the libido of a normal person?

    Are they just supposed to suffer in silence, because treating their disorder would hurt your feelings?

  8. collapse expand

    I may be too flip here, but then again I’m a pretty horny fellow whose never taken sex too seriously because I don’t view it through the same ritual/religion-smeared lens through which most of my fellow Americans view it.

    Ahem. To me, this is about pure mechanics, not happiness or desire. Viagra doesn’t create actual desire, it causes erections. Hence we’ve had “female Viagra” around for a long time: it’s KY Jelly.

    Or am I being too simplistic and not esoteric enough? I should add that I have faked orgasm once or twice in my life just to get my day moving the hell along. And one more thing, even for guys, not every orgasm is a good orgasm.

    I continue to be amazed that Americans have no problem showing violent slasher-torture movies on TV during all hours, including kids’ snack time, but flip the fuck out when a tit somehow pops out of somewhere. Maybe that hilariously prudish attitude has something to do with the esoteric bullshit slant of these “female Viagra” discussions. Anyone can throw their arms around someone and link genitals; it’s another thing actually to have erotic thoughts going on in your head. If Pfizer can come up with a pill that runs loops of Blacks vs. Blondes Vol 32 in my head, I’ll sign right up.

    One last thing: tequila, also.

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    I'm an academic who does not believe in abstract knowledge. Like Marx, I think the point isn't just to describe the world, but to change it. Unlike Marx I don't have Engels sending me my monthly rent. So I have a day job teaching sociology at Middlebury College. In my real life, I'm a fighter (taekwondo) and a writer

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