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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 16910

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: news

Jutel A
Why the cure for flagging female libido is hard to swallow
The Sydney Morning Herald 2009 Dec 8

Full text:

Pharmaceutical companies are behind a drive to cast women’s sexuality as problematic, pathological and in need of treatment, writes Annemarie Jutel.

In a society which portrays female hypersexuality as desirable, and where women’s tumultuous lives don’t usually result in perfectly timed and balanced sexual urges, it hasn’t been hard to describe low libido as abnormal in order to sell an expensive cure.

Concern with women’s sexual drive is not new. Our own great-grandmothers also could have told us that not so long ago, women who were interested in sex for sex’s sake, rather than for having babies, were cast as psychopaths by their early twentieth century doctors.

It is similarly not new that marketing medical treatments to women is a big business.

In the nineteenth century, advertising for Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People, and Pennyroyal and Steel Pills for Females filled the pages of women’s magazines. In the early twenty-first century, however, the pharmaceutical industry takes a different tack to pedal their potions.

Disease branding

Direct-to-consumer advertising, while legal in the United States and New Zealand, is not permitted in most Western countries, so the industry has found ways to make both doctors and lay people aware of the medications they hope we’ll soon be consuming like lollies to bolster their own bottom line.

An effective way of doing this is what the industry refers to as “disease branding.” This is an approach that focuses on promoting awareness of a particular condition, rather than its cure. The increased public vigilance, on the look-out for signs of the disease, will lead on to sales of the industry’s proposed cure.

This sounds a noble alternative to advertising. The industry is keeping its hands clean, and looks like it is helping society. Disease branding is, according to one pharmaceutical journal, a way of creating “new understandings of the seriousness and legitimacy of certain conditions”.

They are walking on thin ice here. Don’t forget: they are not a benevolent arm of the ministry of health. Their goal is to sell treatments.

Disease branding of women’s sexuality is an important example of the degree to which the industry’s targeted health messages are not as squeaky clean and meritorious as they would like us to believe.

Female sexual dysfunction

Today we are all aflutter as we read about Female Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (FHSDD). This apparently not-so-rare disorder strikes (depending on which report you read) anywhere from 10 per cent to 15 per cent of women worldwide (or even 26 per cent as announced by an article published by Agence France Press last month).

FHSDD is a “disease” characterised by low sexual desire resulting in personal difficulties or distress by the sufferer. However, the furore over FHSDD is being carefully developed and promoted by the pharmaceutical industry, aware of the popular appeal of the hypersexualised woman.

A number of pharmaceutical companies funded a meeting to discuss women’s sexuality in 1997, according to Ray Moynihan in the British Medical Journal. Half of the attendees were employed by industry, and the other half were researchers and clinicians who had been identified by industry as being “industry-friendly”.

This meeting was followed by a consensus-building conference, eighteen months later, which identified the lack of studies investigating female sexual dysfunction and issued a statement imploring researchers to make this a priority.

This consensus statement made the sweeping statement that 20 to 50 per cent of women suffered from sexual dysfunction, highlighting the imperative to find a “fix” and setting a foundation for the industry-funded researchers to investigate potential solutions to women’s sexual problems.

The statement provided industry with what it needed most: scientific validation of the industry’s commercial priorities. Who’s going to argue with science?

Big pharma’s commercial interests

The problem is the hidden commercial interests behind the science.

No less than eight different pharmaceutical companies sponsored the consensus meeting, and 24 others had financial or other relationships with the scientists and doctors who authored the report.

Last month, Boehringer Ingelheim, a German pharmaceutical company, held a conference in Lyon, France, to release the results of studies on a new medication called flibanserin, designed to bolster women’s flagging libido.

The trials were funded by this same company, the screening tools used to detect the disease were developed by scientists they sponsored.

The press releases about the conference were designed to heighten concern about FHSDD and joy over its newly-discovered cure. News quickly spread on the wires, as the media failed to investigate the commercial links between the message and those who generated it.

The fact that so many women have a bitter-sweet relationship to Sex in the City, wishing they were a Samantha or a Carrie, yet feeling so sexually flat, may have less to do with a physiological problem than it does with their hard jobs, their demanding children, or their partner leaving dirty dishes in the sink.

Sexuality is a complex expression of social, cultural, psychological and physiological factors and many of us struggle with it, without being “sick.”

Don’t let the pharmaceutical industry tell you otherwise.


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