A Feminist Re-Frame on the Little Pink Pill

Thanks to heavy lobbying from pharmaceutical companies, in conjunction with feminist organizations, such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), the FDA recently approved a drug designed to increase women’s sexual desire. A statement from NOW says that the FDA “did the right thing by approving the first-ever medical treatment for women’s most common sexual complaint” – Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD).

Lobbying for the little pink pill (known as Addyi) was spearheaded by Even the Score, which claims to seek “women’s health equity.” Men have 26 drugs to help them deal with sexual dysfunction, says Even the Score, and women, up until now, have had none.

But does access to Addyi help women achieve health equity? Hardly. It looks more like a high-priced drug that is moderately effective and has significant side effects. The pill, which must be taken daily and needs weeks or months before it works, can cause fainting, especially if mixed with alcohol. Worse, Addyi puts forward a narrow and medicalized perspective about women’s sexuality, and helps mask much greater sources of inequity, which if fixed, would probably be a better support to women’s sexual desire.

Does that mean feminists should have lobbied against the pill? Not necessarily. Perhaps the drug will be helpful to some, and we should support a full array of tools being available so that women can be their fullest possible sexual selves. But we should see it for what it is: a limited and potentially dangerous tool.


Pink and Diminutive Can’t Disguise Dangerous

Before we get started on more substantive matters, it must be said: If you’re supporting sexual health equity, why reinforce stereotypical gender norms? Addyi is pink. Seriously? That’s retro even at a baby shower when “It’s a girl.” And what marketing genius came up with that name? Men’s erectile dysfunction medication, Viagra, sounds muscular, like the word vigor. Addyi (pronounced ADD-ee) sounds like an American Girl doll and unfortunately rhymes with Daddy. But being pink and diminutive-sounding, shouldn’t distract us from its dangers. The feminist health organization, Our Bodies Ourselves, argued that the drug should be subjected to greater scrutiny since, unlike Viagra which affects the mechanics of blood flow to the penis and which is taken on demand, Addyi acts on the brain and must be taken daily. This adds toxicological concerns when you consider that women may choose to take the drug for the rest of their lives.

The other danger of this drug is that it distracts us from deeper and more damaging social factors that need our attention, but that won’t be helped by a pill. Consider these stories:


Post-Partum Stress and Exhaustion 

Christine who helped lobby for Addyi told an NBC reporter, “One day I had this awesome sex drive and a great relationship with my husband,” she said, “and the next day, I didn’t even think about it any more.” As an aside, the reporter mentions that Christine and her husband “noticed the change after their first son was born.” This significant fact merits no discussion, and Christine’s story is reduced to a malfunctioning libido.

Big pharma must kneel down in gratitude to its corporate cousin, the mainstream media, which provides Christine’s parental status as if it is of no relevance. If you’ve ever had a baby and then gone parented him or her for the first year of life, you know it’s one of the most exhausting things you can do. For new parents, according to LiveScience.com, the “top sex-drive killers were fatigue, the baby’s sleeping habits and a lack of time.” Add to this the fact that only 12% of Americans have access to paid parental leave, and you can see why the majority of parents might be feeling severe stress around this time, making it hard on the libido.


A Vicious Cycle of Anger and Guilt

A story in the International Business Tribune profiles Kelly, another woman who is suffering from HSDD and who could potentially benefit from Addyi. Kelly turned down her husband’s advances on their wedding night. According to her, he responded with explosive anger. She rejected his advances during their week-long honeymoon, and they had huge fights about it. She has grudgingly had sex with him occasionally during their 10-year marriage, and they continue to fight about it. She feels so guilty about turning him down so much of the time that she recently started seeking treatment for her low sexual desire. “I’m doing it for my husband,” she says.

Big pharma must prostrate itself before its great friend, Patriarchal-Attititudes-Toward-Women. This friend has so convinced us that women’s bodies are here for men’s pleasure that we do not even blink at the idea that Kelly’s libido is the source of the problem in this equation. Her husband’s actions or inactions and how they might contribute to her libido are not even addressed. Big pharma gets to move in and take direct advantage of Kelly’s guilt, offering her a risky drug to “cure” herself – for her husband’s benefit, not her own.


Cancer and Old Age

Another person profiled in this story is Judith, a 67-year-old businesswoman who, up until her forties, enjoyed sex with her husband once or twice a day. Then she got breast cancer, which meant she couldn’t take her hormone replacement therapy, which meant she suffered from vaginal dryness, which meant she enjoyed sex less. To address these problems, Judith uses hundreds of dollars per month worth of gels, testosterone, and steroids. She and her husband now “shoot for once a day,” but she’d like to include Addyi in her regimen “to regain the full passion she once had.”

“Oh,” big pharma must say. “Praise be to my ally, The-Medicalization-of-Everything-to-do-with-Women’s-Bodies.” With this great ally, pharmaceutical companies can frame natural body processes in women as “problems” and then sell a fix for it. In Judith’s case, the problem isn’t even a problem. At 67 she’s having sex almost every day. If she is feeling a slight downtick in the passion she “once had,” couldn’t our culture offer up a little reassurance? It’s okay. Your body changes as you age. You don’t have to fix it (especially when you risk your health to do it).

Missing from these stories are low-income women and women of color. That works for big pharma! Thanks to rampant messaging that some women’s bodies don’t matter at all, big pharma can spend billions developing drugs that are targeted to privileged, mostly white women.

As feminists, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of trying to “even the score” with men: if the boys get little blue pills, then we (at least those of us who can afford it) should get little pink ones!

In 2010, when the FDA first rejected Addyi, feminist writer Jennifer Terry wondered if people concerned with this issue would turn to other tools. Perhaps an online course to teach partners “how to make love to women diagnosed with HSDD” or education for women about how their bodies work? That would be a great start. Add to that some analysis of and ways to fight against how big pharma aligns with various social forces to exploit women for profit, and you’ve got the kind of re-frame this debate needs!

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