Female Viagra is not the fix, and the FDA's rejection of flibanserin is not sexist.

No, the FDA Is Not Blocking “Female Viagra” Because of Sexism

No, the FDA Is Not Blocking “Female Viagra” Because of Sexism

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Feb. 18 2015 3:02 PM

Feminists Claim the FDA Is Blocking “Female Viagra” Because of Sexism. They’re Wrong.  

Male sexual dysfunction often can be treated with a pill. Women's often cannot.

Photo by Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images

For the third time since 2010, Sprout Pharmaceuticals has applied for Food and Drug Administration approval to start selling a drug called flibanserin, aka "female Viagra." The drug, which is a combination of psychiatric medications Sprout claims can reignite a dampened libido, has been rejected twice. The FDA claims that's because flibanserin doesn't work, especially not well enough to justify the side effects and potential dangers from long-term use.

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Amanda Marcotte is writer for Salon.

Sprout would like you to believe, however, that it's because of sexism. And they've got some feminists out there backing them up. "We live in a culture that has historically discounted the importance of sexual pleasure and sexual desire for women," Terry O'Neill of the National Organization for Women told NPR. "And I fear that it's that cultural attitude that men's sexual health is extremely important, but women's sexual health is not so important" that is keeping the FDA from approving the drug.


At first blush, that seems like a reasonable concern. There is, after all, an ongoing assault on women's sexual health care access, from Hobby Lobby's denial of contraception coverage to the more than 100 anti-abortion bills that have been introduced in state legislatures in 2015 alone. However, the FDA has been controlled by the Obama administration during the entire time Sprout has been seeking approval, and there is no reason to think this administration is hostile to female sexuality. And even the one time that the White House signed off on a women's sexual health care restriction—by demanding that emergency contraception not be available over-the-counter to minors—they did so over the FDA's objections

But even if the FDA were more conservative, flibanserin is a drug that's already being marketed as a way to get married women to have more sex with their husbands, which doesn't threaten traditionalists in nearly the same way as, say, "slut pills" do. 

As Paul Thacker explained in Slate last time Sprout was trying to get flibanserin approved, a lot of the accusations of sexism against the FDA are coming from people who have been paid consulting fees by Sprout. But some of the feminists echoing that claim aren't getting any money for it. Sprout's narrative—that men get Viagra, so why can't women?—clearly has strong appeal. But the reality is so much more complicated, and important to understand, than that.

Flibanserin is not "female Viagra." Viagra is a drug for men whose spirit is willing but whose flesh is weak. "Female sexual dysfunction," however, is usually not a matter of ability to get aroused but a lack of interest in having sex in the first place. As Daniel Bergner explained in 2013 in the New York Times, the prevailing research suggests that much of what gets labeled as female sexual dysfunction is actually more just a reluctance to have sex with your particular husband. "But for many women, the cause of their sexual malaise appears to be monogamy itself," he writes. 

While there certainly are women who have low libido for physical reasons, the reason that so many experts are skeptical of a pharmaceutical fix is that a pill won't fix boredom. As Bergner notes, there are many competing theories for why interest in sex with the same man for years on end drops off for so many women, including some that are sexist. But feminists should be the first to point out that the reason quite likely is social in nature. For straight people in our society, sex is frequently built largely around male tastes and desires. Even the way we dress tends to reflect this, with women choosing clothes that are about highlighting their looks and sexuality more than men do. Male-centric porn is ubiquitous, but women have to dig around. Catering to female desire is still so unusual that when Hollywood makes a sex-filled movie for women, the sheer amount of hand-wringing in response nearly sends the planet spinning off its axis. Sex is more exciting for men because society makes it that way.  

O'Neill is right that male sexuality is taken more seriously than female sexuality. But that's why we need to be skeptical of the idea that women's low libidos are due to physical problems and look for ways to address the social problem instead. It's easier to endorse the idea of "equal" pills rather than to open up a conversation about remaking our social conception of sexuality so that female desires play a greater role. But if feminists aren't willing to start that conversation, who is?