A Defeat for Women? FDA Approves Libido Drug Addyi

(photo: Register Files)

We’ve all seen the commercials for Viagra. Now there’s supposedly an equivalent for women, though it works quite differently. Viagra provides a physical solution to a physical problem. Flibanserin, marketed as Addyi, however, addressing not a physical condition, but a lack of sex drive for women and does not address this issue physically but by altering brain chemicals. Specifically, it increases dopamine and norepinephrine, while decreasing serotonin.

Addyi claims to address Hypoactive Sexual Drive Disorder (HSDD), which results from a change in hormones, sometimes resulting from medical issues, but many times from menopause, or from emotional difficulties, arising from relationships or even abuse. Because of its very different nature, many have cautioned against comparing it to Viagra, but at the same it is seen as the closest equivalent for women, and may be generating in part by the need to address the increased virility of an aging male population.

Some major problems confront the FDA’s recent approval of Addyi. It was rejected for approval twice in the past, as recently as February 2014, specifically because it does not have a high rate of success and because it produces difficult side effects (especially given its low success rate). Why then has it been approved now? The FDA has been accused of bias in approving drugs such as Viagra but rejecting a libido drug for women.

For instance, NPR reported that the president of the National Organization for Women, Terry O’Neill comments: "I fear that it's that cultural attitude that men's sexual health is extremely important, but women's sexual health is not so important. That's the cultural attitude that I want to be sure the FDA has not, maybe unconsciously, imported into its deliberative process." The pharmaceutical company, of course, also claimed bias, as reported by USA Today: “Lobbying by Sprout Pharmaceuticals was backed by the women's rights group Even the Score, which has accused the FDA of gender bias by approving a number of drugs treating erectile dysfunction in men without passing an equivalent for women.”

But NPR also reported concerns on the other side about what this means in our perception of sex: “‘The misrepresentation that everybody should be having it — needs to have it, wants to have it, has a problem if they don't have it — is to change, really, what sexuality is into more of a medical thing,’ says Leonore Tiefer, a psychologist at New York University. ‘I think that's a terrible direction for knowledge, for understanding, for society.’” These concerns could not stand up to the pressure, as even Congress weighed in: “U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and 10 other members of Congress signed a letter to the FDA saying: ‘We firmly believe that access to health care should be a fundamental right, regardless of whether you are a man or a women.’”

If the medical concern were the same for both men and women, maybe this comparison would hold. But erectile dysfunction differs greatly from HSDD. In fact, the increased demand on women from Viagra and also from the often overactive sexual drive of men may actually lead to the strained relationships and abuse that decrease female sexual drive. Ironically, Addyi may just cover over these difficulties by artificially altering brain chemicals, leaving women stuck in a problematic situation, or worse.

More deeply, this is only the most recent instance of forcing women into a masculine disposition. The sexual revolution continues to insist that everyone needs a hyperactive sexual life to find fulfillment and that women’s sexual desires should mirror men’s. Some statistics show that now 1 in 3 young women have reported using pornography. Television programs, such as Sex in the City and Desperate Housewives certainly reinforce an aggressive sexuality for women.

Of all places, St. Hildegard of Bingen’s medieval work, Causes and Cures, provides a mystically illuminated understanding of the difference between the proper sexual desire of men and women.

Man’s Desire. When the storm of passion breaks out in a man, it whirs about in him like a mill wheel. For his loins may be compared with a forge into which the marrow dispatches its fire. This forge drives this fire forward further into the male sex organs and causes it to burn strongly.

Woman’s Desire. One can compare woman’s desire with the sun which softens the earth with its warmth and penetrates it slowly and continually so that it brings forth fruit. Were it to burn stronger, fixed down on the earth, it would sooner harm the fruit than bring it to ripeness. So the female’s desire has a soft, gentle, but still continual warmth in order to conceive and bear offspring. If the women were to always remain in the heat of her desire, she would not be capable to conceiving and begetting. When desire climbs in a woman, it is smaller in her than in man because this fire does not burn so strongly in her as it does in him.

We are destroying the differences between men and women in many ways. Contraception deliberately ignores and destroys the female cycle of fertility and the natural progression and changes in her hormones. Conforming women to man’s desire diminishes genuine femininity and allows women to fall into sexual exploitation as the man does not have to conform to the women and accommodate his burning desires.

John Paul’s Theology of the Body describes how Ephesians chapter 5 urges spouses to defer to each other “out of reverence for Christ,” (v. 21) “urging them, consequently, to show respect in their conjugal relationship” (Audience, July 4, 1984). Man’s desire should work with woman’s desire so that marital love may mature:

In this way, through the virtue and still more through the gift ("life according to the Spirit") the mutual attraction of masculinity and femininity spiritually matures. Both the man and woman, getting away from concupiscence, find the proper dimension of the freedom of the gift, united to femininity and masculinity in the true spousal significance of the body (ibid.).

The danger, according to John Paul, comes when the man dominates the women with his desire:

Subsequently, the experience of this domination is manifested more directly in the woman as the insatiable desire for a different union. From the moment when the man "dominates" her, the communion of persons—made of the full spiritual union of the two subjects giving themselves to each other—is followed by a different mutual relationship. This is the relationship of possession of the other as the object of one's own desire. If this impulse prevails on the part of the man, the instincts that the woman directs to him (Audience June 25, 1980).

In light of the Church’s vision for marital union, questions emerge concerning the new drug Addyi. Will women feel pressured to conform to man’s sexual desire? Will it cover over deeper wounds and problem relationships? Will it diminish genuine femininity? Along with Viagra how does it challenge the natural progression of marital relationships in old age?

In light of these questions, along with the health concerns involved, we may find that the FDA’s approval of the new libido drug is a defeat for women.