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Female Viagra Sounds Pretty Garbage

This week the US FDA approved Flibanserin, a drug to increase sexual desire in women. But despite the hype, it sounds like another sexual disappointment.

by Wendy Syfret
Aug 22 2015, 12:16am

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This week it was announced that the US had approved Flibanserin, the drug that in theory will make a lot of women want to have a lot more sex. Or as it turns out, marginally more sex.

Female viagra is the Ghostbusters reboot of the pharmaceutical world: Long rumoured, desperately wanted, and hopefully not disappointing. The hype is warranted, a pill that can flood your body with rawkus sexual desire is undeniably appealing. For women who want to increase their libido, or people who want to have sex with women with an increased libido, or drug companies who want to make a butt-tonne of cash off increased libedos, it would be a huge deal.

But while the story of Flibanserin's journey through the Food and Drug Administration approval machine has been widely covered, less has been said about its actual effects. We may imagine popping a pill and being transformed into a quaking pile of desire, but reports of the drug's results are less exciting. In fact, the FDA's slowness in approving the drug was largely due to the fact it wasn't effective enough.

As professor Lisa Bero, Faculty of Pharmacy Chair at the University of Sydney, explained to VICE, Flibanserin was originally designed as an antidepressant. But when it was rejected by the FDA for a lack of adequate data proving its effectiveness, it's creators Sprout Pharmaceuticals re-examined it when trials found some women experienced a slight increase in sexual desire.

"Female Viagra" is a far sexier sell than a new, possibly ineffective antidepressant, so Flibanserin soon returned to clinical trials—but this time as a treatment for Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD). Although Professor Bero adds, "I'm not convinced by the data on the diagnosis of the disorder. It's not necessarily objective, it seems incredibly common".

When the figures came back for it's effectiveness as a desire enhancer, they weren't any more encouraging—it's estimated only eight to 13 percent of women who take Flibanserin to improve their sex drive will actually see any results. In trials it performed only marginally better than a placebo. Unlike Viagra, that works by enhancing physical arousal by increased blood flow to the genitals, Flibanserin was created to increase desire. An infinitely more delicate process, it attempts to do this by shifting the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. The kicker is, to be successful, it must be taken daily for weeks before any effects will be evident.

Despite the lack of evidence, the drug's development and success was quickly tied to wider-reaching gender issues. Supporters said its development would be a win for equality, and Even the Score—a coalition of nonprofits and health-care companies which includes Sprout Pharmaceuticals—pointed out that the FDA has approved 26 drugs for male sexual dysfunctions but zero for those in women.

In 2013 Even the Score formed a lobby for the drug's approval, and kickstarted the media frenzy around the promised "female viagra". Two years later the drug's approval can be largely linked back to this public pressure, despite it's underwhelming trial results.

Professor Bero is frank in her evaluation of the drug's rebrand, "It's an example of a drug where the company had to find another indication for the drug—otherwise they would have lost their investment on creating their antidepressant."

But other than being largely ineffective, pushing the drug through on the back of HSDD presents other issues. The disorder lacks a definitive marker for diagnosis—this means there is potential for over-diagnosis. A doctor can't take a blood or urine test and say you're having trouble getting in the mood. And with FDA describing HSDD as being characterised by "low sexual desire that causes marked distress or interpersonal difficulty and is not due to a co-existing medical or psychiatric condition," it's an undeniably general outline.

Professor Bero continues, "Even if you did believe the diagnostic criteria, it would be easy to get pressured into prescribing it for women who don't meet the diagnostic criteria." It's not surprising a lot of people are interested in this drug, whether they need help or not, but reports of its side effects do raise concern over misuse.

Doctors are already warning the drug may cause drowsiness, dizziness, low blood pressure, and fainting. This means driving while taking it—for weeks at a time—could be dangerous. If that doesn't sound like a drag, those adverse effects may be aggravated by alcohol and hormonal contraceptives. Which sucks for anyone who was planning on pairing their sex medication with a beer and the Pill—aka everyone.

Not surprisingly, despite the hype, Flibanserin's approval is leaving many doctors and pharmacists dissatisfied. And while it may help a small portion of the population with a legitimate disorder, Professor Bero admits she personally wouldn't recommend its use.

Sorry to be a bummer ladies, but until someone comes up with something better, it looks like the most widely effective female viagra is still True Blood reruns.

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