Should The FDA Approve The "Pink Viagra"?S

On June 18, the FDA will consider whether to approve flibanserin, a pill that supposedly increases women's sexual desire. But the fact that some are calling it "the pink Viagra" illustrates how many problems remain with the entire approach.

Flibanserin (whose name the Washington Post's Rob Stein correctly identifies as "decidedly unsexy") supposedly increases a woman's number of "satisfying sexual experiences" from 2.7 a month all the way to 4.5. Michael Sand, a researcher for flibanserin's developer Boehringer Ingelheim, says this increase "is, in women's voices, considered meaningful." But women taking a placebo in the experiment saw almost as big an increase — from 2.7 to 3.7 experiences a month — and this isn't the only problem with a pharmaceutical approach to an extremely complicated problem.

Amy Allina of the National Women's Health Network says, "we have lots of questions about the 'pink Viagra'" — and indeed, the very idea of a 'pink Viagra' is somewhat disturbing. The term recalls the all-too-common practice of marketing products to women simply by slapping some pink paint on them, and the idea that a single pill (pink, of course) could serve as a women's Viagra may be wrong-headed. Barbara Kantrowitz and Pat Wingert of Newsweek write,

Male impotence is essentially a mechanical problem that can be cured by a medication that enables erection. But women may turn away from sex for many reasons: physical, emotional, psychological.

Of course, male sexuality isn't necessarily so simple either, but it is true that men can experience obvious mechanical problems that now have a fairly straightforward pharmaceutical fix. Women's problems often aren't mechanical — drugs that increase blood flow to women's genitals, as Viagra does with men, haven't been successful at increasing desire. And, cautions NYU psychiatry professor Leonore Tiefer, a pill may give women the message that "there is a safe and simple solution to their problems so they don't have to talk to their doctors, they don't have to talk to their husbands, they don't have to talk to anybody about this." Actual communication about sex — especially about difficult, potentially un-hot issues like pain or low libido — is still woefully lacking in American culture generally, and convincing women that the solution to their difficulties lies in a simple pill may worsen this problem.

Liz Canner, the filmmaker responsible for upcoming documentary Orgasm, Inc.brings up another potential problem:

Is this going to make women desire an abusive partner? Is it going to make us desire every guy who walks by?

Given flibanserin's so far unimpressive numbers, it doesn't seem poised to become a powerful love potion a la A Midsummer Night's Dream. However, Canner brings up an important point — desire in women and men is complicated, and sometimes lack of desire can point to other problems. This is not to say that there will never be a place for drugs that help with low libido. However, if flibanserin is approved, clinicians should consider it merely one tool to help deal with sexual problems. And its arrival on the scene shouldn't stop further research into issues like pain during sex — still poorly understood and often poorly treated — or prevent women from talking openly with their partners and their physicians about what's bothering them.

Image via Rob Stark/Shutterstock.com.

FDA Considers Endorsement Of Drug That Some Call A Viagra For Women [Washington Post]
The Selling Of The Female Orgasm [Newsweek]