The birth control pill’s arrival in 1960 aided women’s liberation. Today, women are still seeking the same kind of medical attention and development for their sexual needs that men have had for years.
There are a few reasons the FDA has not approved a drug to treat female sexual dysfunction, according to Englewood gynecologist Jennifer Ashton. The female sexual process is much more complex than the male’s: fixing female sexual disorder requires more than just increasing blood flow. And there are those who claim that sexism has played a role — female sexual health is not a priority to the groups of primarily men who make the decisions, they say.
But “today we write a new chapter in the fight for equity in sexual health,” says Susan Scanlan, chairwoman of the Even the Score campaign, which was formed to “level the playing field when it comes to the treatment of women’s sexual dysfunction.” A panel of Food and Drug Administration experts recommended approval of flibanserin, which would be used to treat pre-menopausal women with low libido.
Many women’s rights activists hailed the decision as a historic step toward equity in sexual health. But don’t be so quick to celebrate, Dr. Ashton says.
The FDA panel, she says, may be reacting to increased public pressure from lobbyists in suddenly recommending the same drug to treat hypoactivesexual desire disorder, or HSDD, that it has failed to approve twice since 2010.
“We recognize that a lack of sexual desire can be a distressing problem for women,” said Cindy Pearson of The National Women’s Health Network in a statement. “We also believe that it might be possible in the future to develop a drug that is effective for some of women’s sexual problems. However, based on our review of the data about flibanserin, it’s clear to everyone now that the problem with this drug was not gender bias at the FDA but rather the drug itself.”
Even the context in which this story has been reported has been biased, Dr. Ashton says. “What this drug was referred to in the press was ‘the little pink pill,’ which in and of itself is sexist and a little condescending. And ‘female Viagra’ is not accurate. Is it for sex? Yes, but it doesn’t work the same.”
The FDA panel focused on flibanserin’s side effects, which include fatigue, low blood pressure, and fainting. The FDA has expressed particular concern about the risk of fainting if women drink alcohol when taking flibanserin.
“No medication is without side effects,” Dr. Ashton says. “You have to also look at the efficacy and, in terms of flibanserin, the data I’ve seen there was some improvement, but it wasn’t statistically better than that of placebo.” Overall, though, the panel’s recommendation is a positive development — “It’s long overdue,” she said.
The FDA, which is not required to follow the advice of its panelists, is expected to make its decision on approval in August.