The Love Pill
The debut of Viagra in 1998 changed the game for men looking to get — and keep — it up. What was originally created as a heart medication became famous for the way it increases blood flow to the penis and makes men more virile. It was also a huge success, helping Pfizer, which manufactures the drug, rake in almost $33 billion over the past two decades. And while a variety of companies began to hit the market with similar drugs starting in 2018 - making the Viagra brand slightly less popular - the use of this type of medication has not slowed down.
Given the success of that little blue pill, it’s no surprise that the race for its female equivalent (or the “pink pill,” as coined by sex educator Emily Nagoski) has been on ever since. And while researchers have studied whether Viagra can work for women, the fact remains that women typically do not struggle with sexual ability the same way men do. Eventually, researchers switched directions and began creating options to treat a lower sex drive in women, from topical treatments to pills.
One of the most notable potential solutions is known as Flibanserin, which originally failed as an antidepressant but was then revisited for its potential to increase the female sex drive. In short, it is supposed to help women feel more willing, while Viagra makes men more able (1). It works to decrease serotonin while bumping up levels of dopamine. This matters because people with high levels of serotonin typically experience a lower sex drive, while those with high levels of dopamine can experience comparatively heightened sex drives..
However, there are definitely shortcomings with this drug. It hit the market for only a brief period of time before being deemed unsuccessful. The FDA even noted that Flibanserin only ever achieved minimal positive results — and if you’re shelling out $800 a month and abstaining from alcohol in order to take any drug, you’d likely expect much more than minimal success.
There have been other medical attempts such as ViaCream, Avlimil, and the use of enzymes, but none of these have become popular options. In other words, the race for the solution is still on.
What Are We Fixing?
When thinking about a potential drug, many people ask the very important question: What are we even fixing? As Katherine Rowland explains in her book, “The Pleasure Gap: American Women and the Unfinished Sexual Revolution, the search for this medication implies treatment for something that is not actually a condition.
“If Pfizer (Viagra) is promoting a drug that enhances blood flow to the genitals, then the condition might best be described as an insufficiency of vaginal engorgement,” she writes. “If Proctor and Gamble is pushing a testosterone patch as a cure for women, the sexual disorder is discussed as a ‘deficiency’ of hormones. And if Boehringer has a pill that affects the mind’s neurotransmitters, women with low libido may have a ‘chemical imbalance’ in their brains. In a strange way, the disease seems designed to fit the drug.”
Is There A Solution?
Or as Rowland puts it, “The idea that there are pills for normal life circumstances does not serve public health.”
At times, there is even pushback against Viagra since the drug has made men more willing to have sex, while creating the potential for emotional disconnect with their partner as well. This, however, is controversial — erectile dysfunction is both prevalent and often directly related to ability rather than desire. Could a stronger sense of connection help men perform sexually? Sure, but sometimes the fight is so much more than mental, too.
The Cultural Web
So what’s a woman to do? The proper solution might be a mixture of contextual circumstances.
Some researchers refer to the female experience of low desire or unsatisfying sex as a cultural web. In other words, when asking about a woman’s sex life, it is common to isolate the answer from the rest of her human experience. But as Rowland explains, “It's all connected — women’s depression, the gender wage gap, #Metoo, human trafficking, human history, the suppression of feelings, misogyny….Chances are good that if your sex life is floundering, it’s not floundering in isolation.”
This underscores the point that medication likely can't fix what society has broken. Who's to say what the future holds for potential medication? But what we do know is this: As a whole, society has a lot of work to do when it comes to bettering areas such as sexual education and gender equality. By doing so, we can start to sort through the cultural web and establish real-world solutions, no magic pill required.
- Rowland, Katherine. The Pleasure Gap: American Women and the Unfinished Sexual Revolution. Seal Press, 2020.
- Paget, Lou, and Lou Paget. Orgasms: How to Have Them, Give Them, and Keep Them Coming. Broadway Books, 2005.
- Gottman, John, et al. The Man's Guide to Women: Scientifically Proven Secrets from the" Love Lab" about what Women Really Want. Rodale, 2016.