Love & Sex

Is The “Female-Desire” Pill Going To Change Our Lives?

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Just as the birth control pill did in 1960, an effective female-desire pill could shake our culture.

Remember in 1998, when the world of human sexuality changed irrevocably with the introduction of one tiny blue pill that could raise a legion of stiff, tumescent erections? With erectile dysfunction placated by Viagra, pharmaceutical companies and fornicating people alike have been scrounging around for a way to address the issue on the other side of the bed: the frigid woman. 

Yesterday the New York Times published, “Unexcited? There May Be a Pill for That,” an excerpt from Daniel Bergner’s new book about female sexual desire. It acquainted us with the latest in female-desire drugs, Lybrido, which contains a Viagra-like molecule that allows extra blood flow to the vagina while coated in testosterone, which will amplify dopamine—that thing that makes us all want. While many drink the psych-evolutionary kool-aid that women desire sex less because they mate for life with one partner, while men are on a life-long quest to disseminate their seed, Bergner is wary that evolution is the reason for the disparity, if there is a disparity at all. He mentioned a University of Wisconsin, Madison study that incorporated more than 800 studies conducted between 1993 and 2007. The findings said that libido disparity studies based on number of sexual partners or rates of masturbation are specifically influenced by culture and thus inconclusive. 

However, scientists did find that women were more likely to have hypo-active sexual disorder (HSDD) than men. HSDD is diagnosed when the lack of desire for sex causes clinical emotional distress (that’s about 10-15% of women 20 to 60 years old). For these women, their lack of desire for sex spans partners, ages, and levels of intimacy—a lifelong problem that has plagued their libido. A big culprit for HSDD is our national dependence on anti-depressants that have SSRIs, which basically drain all our rolling-in-the-hay proclivities right out of us. Bergner tells us that the HSDD gender gap might have less to do with female biology and a lot more to do with boredom. A study from Queen’s University tracked women and men’s genital responses while watching repetitive one-minute porn clips. The findings: Men were equally as turned on as the clips looped, while women, initially turned on, lost interest, as the clips and subject didn’t change. But put on a new clip for the woman, and her vaginal pulse amplitude shot up.

That revelation sort of shakes the whole  notion of the planting woman, famous for her “avoidance behaviors” versus the roaming man. The accepted truth that women’s disinterest relates to established intimacy, husband-fever, and serious “feelings” is sort of a crock of shit. Though there haven’t been any studies, I’ll bet you that “Not now, honey,” is said as much by men as it is by women. 

Does sexual dysfunction (which, according to a lot of these studies, is the issue of a woman not wanting sex enough) come from a physical debilitation, psychological block, hormonal imbalance, or maybe just maybe, a cultural ethos of female sexuality being in scant supply, and never readily available? We’re not exactly sure. But it’s important to note that this touted “Female Viagra” is a misnomer because these types of "lust-inducers" don’t change arteries or the physical make-up of a woman like they do for men. Rather, Lybrido and the pills like it will alter the executive functions of a woman’s brain. 

It’s also worth it to wonder how much of this prevalent libido gender disparity doesn’t also serve the accepted cultural conversation around sex and the roles we defined for each heterosexual partner ages before oral contraceptives, internet porn, or Viagra itself. Would it be the norm for men to approach women in bars if female lust wasn’t something that was universally portrayed as being something to "hunt after"? What would network sitcoms look like without the running plot of a paunchy, chronically horny husband and his chagrined "wife with a headache"? Even feminist icons like Liz Lemon from 30 Rock fall into the established role of women who don't really enjoy or crave sex.  Female sexual dysfunction is not just a question of tapered estrogen levels, lack of vaginal lubrication, or vaginal muscular atrophy, it’s a matter of social programming, says Bergner. He explains this conditioning: "If women, generally speaking, learn other lessons, that sexual desire and expression are not necessarily positive, and if therefore they don’t think as much about sex, then their neural networks will be less stimulated and comparatively weak."

In a lot of these trial studies are women, frustrated by their lack of desire, who claim they took the pill because, "I know my husband thought it was a great idea…". This reason, while completely valid, reinforces the “men want sex more than women” cultural credo and also skirts the issue of a vocalization of female dissatisfaction. Is it a real need? The oft-cited 43% of women who are sexually dysfunctional hit the zeitgeist in 2003, but in fact, it’s based off a study of only 1,500 women in a pretty shallow and subjective survey. But, disorder sells, to the tune of 2 billion dollars a year, and so a “pink” or “female” form of Viagra is just what the drug company needs.  Is there a scientific or psychological basis for a market of lust-inducing pills for women? What I’m asking is: would anyone buy this shit?

Definitely. Marketing sexual dysfunction is something we’ve grown accustomed to and something men have been subjected to since the advent of penis pumps in the early 20th century and Viagra since 1998.  But when we address female sexual desire, we might not be actually treating anything as much as trading one cultural belief for another.

Lybrido, if all goes well, is set to hit the market in 2016, accompanied by not-yet-approved rival products like Osphena, which treats vaginal atrophy, which at least half of the 64 million women going through menopause purportedly experience. There’s also Tefina, a nasal testosterone spray said to increase the likelihood for orgasms for pre-menopausal women, the perfect cure for those that suffer from female orgasmic disorder.

It won’t likely be a panacea for adultery and a salvation for monogamy, as some are claiming, and it might not actually address the central cause of the female disinterest "epidemic". While there’s no doubting some women do indeed experience lack of sexual desire, we still have no real sense of what we’re treating with female-desire pills. But if a pill feeds into the idyllic fantasy of a heterosexual woman meeting an ideal husband specimen and them having successful careers, two kids, and limitless passionate sex well into their retired years (who cares if it’s aided by pills), then I know a public that will gladly buy that. If there’s a product that even vaguely hints at prolonging a happy marriage, there will be consumers. Even when the happiest people haven't ever proven to be sex-crazed hedonists as much as people who think of sex a medium amount.

Just as the birth control pill did in 1960, an effective female-desire pill could shake our culture. While reproductive agency spawned a hook-up culture, a female Viagra seems focused on keeping us closer to our long term partners, reeled into a life of consistency and sexual stability.

Does that mean those frequent "Why do men pull away?" ads we always see popping up on Youtube will disappear? Will "Is he cheating?" quizzes vanish from the pages of our lady mags? Will the so-called "orgasm gap" (women apparently have one orgasm for every three a man has) close? This line of thinking requires a change in how we advertise to women's and men's sexuality and how we think of the supply-and-demand of sex. It’ll take more than a pill.

And maybe, with other options, it won't stick. Today we have myriad new outlets of sexual novelty at our behest taking the form of new apps, sex toys, and strangers we meet virtually and physically. It’s been shown that meeting new partners always spikes interest and eros, and we keep trying, with or without a pill, to continue to have ever-expanding approaches to the new sexual experience. Perhaps if that sense of novelty women need can come from a pill, and when the culture surrounding the great pearl of female sexuality shifts its tone, we might actually have something on our hands and soon, at our drugstores.