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Female Viagra

Looking for Female Viagra in All the Wrong Places

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Updated May 24, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

In many ways, the search for female Viagra could be considered a story about the success of pharmaceutical marketing. Viagra after all, is a brand name, a drug produced by Pfizer for treatment of male ">erectile dysfunction. But Pfizer’s campaign for Viagra was so successful that Viagra has become a code word for great sex. The media have uncritically taken up this code, and regularly write about the search for treatments for female sexual dysfunction as the search for a female Viagra.

There are several problems with this current situation. First, media reports don't always highlight the fact that sex researchers and therapists have yet to agree on what female sexual dysfunction is. Currently some definitions don't require that a woman be distressed about their sex life (meaning you may be labeled as having a sexual dysfunction even if you're perfectly happy with how much you want sex and how much sex you're having).

Second, without a well-researched definition of what constitutes a sexual dysfunction some argue that the drug companies are creating drugs first and plan on refining the problem later.

The debate about the appropriateness of the term female sexual dysfunction and the ways that drugs are being developed can obscure the fact that many women do experience distress because of their experience of sex.

When the media reports on female Viagra, what they are usually describing the search for a drug that will boost libido among women. Lack of interest in sex, also called low libido or hypoactive sexual desire disorder, has emerged in the research as the most common complaint and the one that companies believe they can resolve.

Failed Attempts

Among the companies that have publicized their research, there have been three approaches to addressing low libido in women:
  1. Several companies have pursued a hormonal treatment, particularly testosterone, for female sexual complaints. Most notably, Proctor & Gamble tried to get a testosterone patch approved in the U.S., but they were turned down based on insufficient evidence of benefit and not enough safety data. Interestingly, the same product was approved in Europe, and some doctors in the U.S. prescribe testosterone "off label."
  2. Other companies have researched ways to increase blood flow, which is essentially how Viagra works. When Pfizer looked at women's response to Viagra, they found that the drug did increase blood flow to the genitals. However, the impact wasn’t strong enough, and too few women reported increased desire or increased sexual activity.
  3. Finally, there are several companies that have pursued drugs that impact the central nervous system. Most of these drugs have failed when tested in humans (including a highly publicized nasal spray).

Why Haven’t They Found a Female Viagra?

The explanation commonly offered by scientists and reporters is that discovering female Viagra is more difficult because female sexuality is more complicated than male sexuality. However, this argument doesn’t line up with research on the topic. The argument that male sexuality is “simpler” is steeped in cultural and gender stereotypes and simply isn't reflected in the general literature on sexuality.

It’s true to say that the mechanics of a penis and erections in men are better understood than the mechanics of desire and arousal in women. But we’ve spent a lot more time and money studying penises and erections, so it makes sense we know more about them.

That is not to say that the search for female Viagra is the same as the discovery of male Viagra. Viagra changes the way the body responds to physical stimulation. It increases blood flow to the genitals, so when a man is stimulated, he gets an erection more easily. It doesn’t make a man want sex more often; it doesn’t make the sex he has feel better. It just changes the way his body works.

But the search for female Viagra is a search for a pill that will make women want sex more often. This is a fundamentally different effort, based in part on the inaccurate idea that men want sex all the time (so all they need is an erection to have it) whereas women need something more.

Ongoing Efforts

Despite what some would say are methodological and ethical problems which amount to putting the cart before the horse, the search for a female Viagra continues.

There are still at least two companies pursuing a testosterone treatment. Most notably, BioSante has a gel they are testing called LibiGel. According to a BioSante release, if the trials produce the results they are hoping for, they could be applying for approval and launching a product in 2011.

The drug Flibanserin, which was originally developed for use as an antidepressant and has been reported to boost sexual interest in some of the women taking it, is in safety and effectiveness trials. Boehringer Ingelheim, the company developing this drug, hasn’t provided a timeline, but their website states that results of the trials are expected in 2009.

The Bottom Line

The concept of female Viagra is a vague one, created by the media and used as code for a variety of possible drug treatments for female sexual complaints. While women have many very real sexual concerns and complaints, including lack of sexual interest, difficulty with orgasm, and pain during sex, the idea of searching for a drug before agreeing upon the problem carries with it significant methodological and ethical problems.
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