Understanding female desire disorder?

It was paid for by a pharmaceutical company.

Understanding Female Sexual Desire, that is.

It’s this hour-long thing (documentary? infomercial? Idano.) that was on Discovery HD; my sister DVR’d it for me and I watched it on Tuesday.

It irritated me, and I am aided in understanding what it was about it that irritated me by the fact that it was paid for by a pharmaceutical company that recently published the results of a drug trial for hypoactive sexual desire disorder (PDF – paper starts on page 14).

For example, knowing how it was funded explains why it starts with (and repeats at least 5 times) the nonsense statistic that 43% of women experience sexual dysfunction.

(The short version of why that statistic is nonsense: the survey it comes from assessed only diagnostic symptoms without taking into account whether or not the women experienced distress as a result of the “symptom.”)

Its funding also explains why all the professional interactions represented in the pseudodocumentary occur in a MEDICAL setting, even though a giant proportion of women’s sexual problems are most effectively solved through cognitive or behavioral (e.g., psychological) interventions. Two women with interstitial cystitis have their symptoms resolved and the fear of pain lingers, and so does the low desire. Another woman has post-menopausal hormonal imbalances that are largely resolved by hormone replacement therapy. Another woman has no apparent medical issue to explain her low desire.

And then it gets to the commercial bit.

Compared to non-dysfunctional women, on a fMRI scan different parts of the brain light up in dysfunctional women looking at erotic stimuli.

The TV show, it wasn’t all bad. It mentioned that willingness is different from desire, and that willingness is important to women’s sexuality. It said that women are all different, that there is no “normal,” that the fear of pain with sex can linger long after the pain is gone; these are correct, important things.

But it also clearly pushed the viewer into the idea that making different parts of your brain light up will make your sexual desire come back, your responsiveness speed up, and your orgasms happen more easily.

I am suspicious of brain scan studies because I am persuaded that we don’t really know what it is we’re measuring, but I’m particularly skeptical in this case (i.e., waving hands madly at the insensate television, while chanting, “NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!”) because the show clearly intended for you to draw the conclusion that what we need is a drug that can make a dysfunctional woman’s brain behave like a non-dysfunctional woman’s brain.

This is cynical, insane, and dangerous.

The brain activity they describe means, roughly, that low-desire women are keeping their brakes on. You know what turns off the brakes? A glass of wine. Seriously. I’m an alcohol educator on top of everything else and I genuinely do tell students that a glass of wine, maybe two, can help turn down all the self-consciousness and worry that prevents a person from relaxing into their own body.

The drug, now seeking FDA approval, is basically an antidepressant that you take every day. Would you take a pill every day for 6 months in order to have a 15% chance of experiencing “meaningful improvement” in your level of sexual desire? And then do you have to take it for the rest of your life?

If you’ve experienced a big ol’ drop in your desire for sex and you want your desire for sex to come back, talk to a sex therapist. Sex therapy helps people. Education helps people.

Drugs can, in principle, help people too, but it doesn’t sound to me like this one is particularly promising.

I confess that watching this infomercial-cum-documentary felt like walking into a public bathroom to find someone throwing up in one of the stalls – a flinching combination of pity and disgust and a powerful desire to get the HELL out of there.

EDIT: My sister has reminded me that it was broadcast at 8:00 on a Saturday morning and was titled, in the program guide, “Female Sexual Desire.” It wasn’t explicitly selling a product, but it was using standard television marketing strategies.