Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

MinnPost logo 2014 Summer Member Drive

Readers like you make MinnPost possible
Become a sustaining member today

This content is made possible by the generous sponsorship support of UCare.

Hunt (and hype) for a 'pink Viagra' continues, despite advisory panel’s rejection of flibanserin

Late on Friday, a federal advisory panel gave the thumbs down to flibanserin (Girosa), Big Pharma’s latest — and perhaps most hyped — attempt to come up with a Viagra equivalent for women.

The Food and Drug Administration isn’t bound by the advisory panel’s recommendation, but it’s likely to follow it, given that the panel’s vote was 11 to 0 against approval of the drug.

This was a good and wise decision, for the evidence put forward by flibanserin’s manufacturer, Boehringer Ingelheim, that the drug is effective at increasing women’s libido was weak. Stunningly so.

As I reported here last November, a large-scale clinical trial of flibanserin found that women who took the drug reported an increase from 2.8 to 4.5 "sexually satisfying events" (not necessarily orgasms, however). But the placebo group reported an increase to 3.7 events per month. That’s a meager 0.8 difference.

Hardly a ringing endorsement for a drug that has to be taken daily and whose side effects include drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, anxiety and fatigue.  In fact, almost 15 percent of the women in the drug arm of the study dropped out, apparently due to flibanserin’s adverse effects.

That didn’t stop many media outlets from buying in to Boehringer’s marketing campaign (which included a sponsored “documentary” on the Discovery Channel) in the days leading up to the panel’s decision. As Minnesota’s Gary Schwitzer pointed out on his Health News Review blog last week, few reporters questioned the oft-cited but misleading statistic from a 2008 survey that 43 percent of women suffer from “female sexual disorder.”

Even the author of that 2008 survey has pointed out that any problem that affects so many women is unlikely to be a disorder that needs treatment.

Distorting the problem
As Amy Allina, program director of the National Women’s Health Network, told the FDA advisory panel, Boehringer has presented a “distorted picture of the state of knowledge in the field including overgeneralizing about women’s sexual difficulties and overstating evidence on the role of neurotransmitters in women’s sexual desire.” (Flibanserin, an anti-depressant, targets the brain; Viagra and similar drugs for men target blood flow.)

The “failure to show that [flibanserin] increases desire highlights the trouble with the push to put a label of disorder, dysfunction or disease on women’s problems with sex,” said Allina in her statement to the FDA's panel. “There is no empirical evidence to establish a single, normal level of sexual desire for women. To find real solutions to the problems with sex that women face we have to be able to acknowledge that there are normal ebbs and flows of desire in the course of a week, a month, a year, and even more obviously a lifetime. Any medical or research framework that doesn’t allow room for that reality, will prevent us from confronting the complex causes of women’s sexual dissatisfaction with the honesty required to find solutions.”

Whose model of sexuality?
Over at the Daily Beast, writer Joan Sewall (“I’d Rather Eat Chocolate”) argues that drug companies are trying to “shoehorn [women] into a male model of sexuality that just doesn’t fit.”

“The fact is — and it’s a big one — across every culture and every eon it’s been shown in myriad ways that women are far less sexually driven than men,” she writes. “We have fewer sexual thoughts, less desire for many partners, fewer polymorphously perverse fantasies, less need for frequency of sex, and less desire to pay people to have sex with us. Just a lot less preoccupation with all things sexual.”

Sewall says drug companies should at least meet women halfway. “I want CNN to trumpet a drug that proudly touts that men will have one-third fewer sexual thoughts per month,” she writes. “But that won’t happen. Instead, we’re the ones who must change, even radically. …”

A provocative point of view.  

Although the FDA will probably agree with its advisory panel and not approve flibanserin, don't expect the hyping of hypoactive sexual desire disorder (yes, that's what it's officially called) to end. The hunt for an FDA-approvable “pink Viagra” is far from over — not when there is an estimated $2 billion-a-year market at stake.

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox