Friday, June 25, 2010

How big Pharma constructs sexual dysfunction and what this means to both women and men

So, I have a problem. It’s with Flibanserin, the new “female Viagra” – the libido-enhancing drug manufactured by Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, touted to treat “hypoactive sexual disorder in premenopausal women.” And this problem—it is not around the “pink Viagra’s” technical name, but around its politics.

While Feministing’s Vanessa Valenti posts a positive note—that a drug addressing women’s sexual needs represents a positive shift in the medical industry's priorities, she warns that this ‘progress’ lies in the hands of big-pharma.

The Daily Beast's Joan Sewell argues that Flibanserin labels women's lower sex drive as a dysfunction-it unfairly compares male and female sex drives, creating unrealistic expectations of women's sexuality.

And a recent article titled “Sex Pill for Women: Big Pharma Trying to Profit from Low Sex Drive?" lists some of the major problems regarding Flibanserin: it must be taken every single day, not just when sexual activity is desired, its long-term safety profile is not yet available, and it and HSDD--the dysfunction it claims to treat--hark back to "the same forces responsible for the terms 'frigid,' 'nymphomaniac,' battles for safe and effective birth control and reproductive health care and social tolerance of violent or degrading pornography -- namely, men defining women's sexuality for their own purposes.”

While safety and dosage concerns should be a top priority, I think that focusing solely on these issues completely overlooks the detrimental and regressive effects of Viagra on female and male sexuality. Flibanserin does not represent a recognition of female sexuality but rather a medicalization of female sexuality. In this way, female sexuality is transferred from the private to the public realm—it becomes an issue of the social body (ooohhh so Foucauldian it makes my skin shiver!). It is simply another way to control sexuality, another way to impose distinctions on what is right and wrong, or what is healthy and what is dysfunctional.

Instead of critiquing the name, instead of critiquing the safety concerns and the dosage (which actually lends itself to my argument—in the sense that taking the medication becomes a habitual act controlled by a foreign influence, the medication becomes part of the body’s functioning, and the act becomes a normalized, controlled routine of living), we should criticize the reach of science and medicine (and the state) into our personal, private lives—dictating what is normal or acceptable (for example, policies that encourage the nuclear family or that deny women reproductive freedom).

Now, this doesn’t only concern women, but men as well (remember the male Viagra pill?). In asserting the existence of a normal, healthy sexuality (or, to name another example, the existence of a “standard” way of acting, dressing, engaging in social relations—conforming to societal norms), you guarantee that most people will fall either to the left or the right of the center: you guarantee a base of ‘dysfunctional bodies,’ and in essence, a base of consumers (think everyday actions—we are sold specific products that help to mask or rid us of our "abnormalities," from weight to skin tone).

Both the male and female Viagra pills assert that a specific type of sexuality is normal—and it (strangely?) speaks to gender stereotypes. For example, the male Viagra pill asserts that men must be sexually vigorous in the form of a type of dominance, a control over one's erection (the pill targets blood flow), while the female Viagra pill asserts that women must be sexually and emotionally up-to-speed with their partner. That’s right, I said “emotionally” as well, and the reasoning behind this is that Flibanserin does not work to increase blood flow to the clitoris, but works on sexual desire by targeting dopamine and serotonin.

On June 18th, the FDA voted against approving Flibanserin for use in the United States. This, however, does not mean very much—sexuality is still in the realm of the medical industry and of Big Pharma. In order to resist this medicalization, I say lets celebrate our sexuality! I am not a hypo- or hyperactive sexual body, I do not need to be poked, prodded, and diagnosed. I will not feel shame for having too little or too much sex as defined by society, and I will not blame myself for the actions of others.

Photo credit: Brooks Elliott on Flickr


Angelica said...

awesome post!!!!

Amanda L said...

To add to my post-

There is a really good take on this subject in NY Times today, bringing in more of Foucault:

"The implication is that a new pill, despite its unforeseen side effects, is necessary to cure the sexual malaise that appears to have sunk over the country. But to what extent do these complaints about sexual apathy reflect a medical reality, and how much do they actually emanate from the anxious, overachieving, white upper middle class?"

This is absolutely an upper-middle class issue. And this raises the issue of priorities--maybe there is a focus on women at the moment, but these are obviously upper-middle class women who have already secured affordable health care. I think this takes away from the fact that A LOT of people are suffering without health care. THAT should be the first priority.