The Blog

Yeah, We Want It: Female Sexuality and Why It's Time for That Little Pink Pill

Sex is a basic human right -- a human right. Not a man right. Women want to have sex and, more than that, they want to enjoy it.
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Warmth or redness in the face, neck, or chest; stuffy nose; headaches; stomach pain, nausea, or diarrhea; loss of hearing, ringing in the ears, or dizziness.

Sudden vision loss. Chest pain. Irregular heartbeat. Shortness of breath. Feeling light-headed or fainting.

Penis erection that is painful or lasts more than four hours.

These are the side effects of Viagra. It's not a comprehensive list; men may have allergic reactions to the drug, or additional complications resulting from reactions with other medications.

Still, despite sales declining in the past five years, the market for Viagra and other virility drugs like Levitra and Cialis tops $5 billion in annual sales to tens of millions of men. That's right: Millions of men in 120 countries have risked any and all of the above just for the ability to have sex.

And you know what? Women should have the ability to make that decision, too.

A new drug that would give women that option, somewhat misleadingly known as the "women's version of Viagra," is closer to reality than ever. The drug works directly on the chemicals of the brain, increasing dopamine and norepinephrine over time. Although the FDA has twice rejected approval of the drug, arguing the potential side effects, including nausea, fainting, dizziness, low-blood pressure, and sleepiness, outweigh the benefits, an advisory committee to the FDA voted earlier this month to recommend that the FDA approve the drug, called flibanserin, under certain conditions. The FDA's decision is expected by Aug. 18.

Women want this; women's groups have been advocating for something like this for a long time, and they've accused the FDA of sexism in their approval processes. Anita H. Clayton, a sexual health specialist and interim chair of the University of Virginia's psychiatry department, put it this way, "The FDA has set a very high bar to measure the risks and benefits of a medical treatment for [female sexual dysfunction], as if women do not have the capacity to make informed medical decisions." The coalition Even the Score has an online petition with more than 40,000 signatures, urging the FDA to approve the drug. In it, they point out that there are 26 approved treatments for male sexual dysfunction -- which is less common than female sexual dysfunction, by the way -- but none that specifically address women's most common sexual complaint: low sex drive, medically known as "hypoactive sexual desire disorder."

Twenty-six approved treatments for men. Zero for women.

An opinion piece in the Baltimore Sun on June 11 warned against the drug, concluding little pills (including contraception) transform "sex from a marital act to a mechanical action" and make commitment unrealistic -- after all, "how [can you] expect commitment when a little pill can lead to pharmaceutical arousal?" Romance would be dead -- men would no longer have to buy their wives expensive dinners or flowers or fake sensitivity or watch chick flicks too woo their partners into bed. Love would be "re-defined from a selfless regard for another person, to a focus on pleasing one's self."

Bullshit. Love isn't sex, sex isn't love, and sex should include a focus on pleasing one's self and one's partner.

Sex is a basic human right -- a human right. Not a man right. Women want to have sex and, more than that, they want to enjoy it. Society has tried, and sometimes succeeded, to teach us that men are all about sex and women are all about reproduction; they've used gender stereotypes to shape scientific research and blinded researchers to the existence and power of female lust. Women's sexuality can be base, animalistic, and ravenous -- it can be everything we've told ourselves about male sexuality.

Viagra and other drugs like it allow men's bodies to react when they want to have sex; it affects their capability to get and maintain an erection. They're not capable of penetrative intercourse without it, whereas there's a perception that women are always capable -- so why do they need a drug? Men get Viagra because their bodies won't do what they want without it. Newsflash -- women can want to have sex, or even want to want to have sex, and not be capable of arousal. Their bodies won't do what they want, either -- even if they're still capable of providing a man gratification.

Flibanserin could help some women address this. It could help them be active participants in their pleasure and their partner's. It's not enough for women to be receptacles of male desire; we shouldn't just spread our legs and satisfy some societal maxim for reproduction or satisfaction of our male partner's desire. Our pleasure matters.

Flibanserin likely isn't a miracle drug, but it's a step in the right direction. Tobias Gerhard, an expert on drug safety at Rutgers University and member of the committee who voted to approve the drug, stated, "The unmet need seems to be so strong that even for a drug with rather modest benefit, I think approving the product with strong limitations seems to be the right step at this point." One of the women who testified urging approval said, "Today is my son's first birthday, and I'm missing it because I am here desperately looking for help to recover what I have lost -- a vital and beautiful part of my marriage ... Critics say the improvement might only be modest, but, oh, what I would give for even a modest improvement."

Come on, FDA, let her have it. She deserves it. It's past time.