Sunday, February 02, 2014
Desire in a pill?
Researchers are working on drugs to treat low desire in women. Could a desire pill really work? Do we even want it?
To learn more, I interviewed one of the top sex educators, Ellen Barnard, co-owner of A Woman’s Touch Sexuality Resource Center.
JP: What’s the state of current research into a female desire drug?
EB: A variety of drugs are being investigated in clinical trials, most in phase 2 trials. No drug has been approved for the treatment of low desire for women, also known as Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD). See this summary of the current state of the research
The question is whether a drug that pushes a woman into being more interested in sex is safe, healthy, or would even be effective over the long term. Many of the drugs being investigated have a variety of side effects, and some are quite undesirable. Testosterone can cause excess hair growth, acne, lowering of the voice, and a decrease in good cholesterol, for example. Other drugs show the potential for abuse, either by the woman herself or by a partner who hopes to have a more willing lover.
JP: Why is sexual desire so complicated for women and seemingly so easy for men?
EB: It isn't, actually. Men have troubles with desire too, and their issues have many of the same origins as women's do. However, we live in a culture that reinforces men for a high interest in sex, and generally does not see a high interest in sex to be a positive thing in women, unless a woman is less interested in sex than her partner, and that lower interest causes tension between them or distress in her. But even with culture condoning high desire for men, approximately 20% experience low desire. For more info, here isa good overview.
JP: How does female desire work?
EB: Desire is the cognitive recognition of sexual interest. So it's an idea, not a physiologic process, though it results in a combination of brain and body responses. Desire may be first recognized as a thought, or it may be a thought in response to a physical feeling. Many women believe that we should feel something first, that sex starts with a twinge in the vulva or elsewhere in the body, that she interprets as sexual interest and then allows to blossom into more sexual interest and then maybe into sexual activity. If physiologic signal is not as obvious because of aging, health, or stress, she may no longer get the signal, and so she does not notice the thought.
Women who have experienced sex as painful have a feedback loop that tells them that sex will hurt, and so they shut off any thought of sex to avoid the pain. If a woman is able to get rid of the pain, she will still have to convince her subconscious that sex is safe. Once she does that, her thoughts of sexual interest often become more frequent.
The same would be true of relationship health. For a woman in a healthy, rewarding relationship, the thought of sex is a safe thought and is likely to mean that she will experience pleasure if she acts on that thought, so she pursues sexual activity. Sex requires the feeling of safety. When there is tension, distrust, fear, anger, etc., the mind does not perceive sex as safe or pleasurable, so will not express desire.
When you think about how complicated desire is for women (and men as well), you can see that it's pretty complicated to consider a medication to address the root causes of most of these issues.
JP: What’s the bottom line?
EB: The bottom line is that drugs do best when there is a single, knowable cause for a symptom and the drug directly addresses that cause by reducing or removing it. Sexual desire is complicated, varies a lot from person to person, and has many moving parts. The idea that a drug could be developed to change desire is pretty far-fetched once you understand it that way, and one of our biggest fears is that you end up with a drug that has pretty wide effects and some nasty, unintended side effects.
We would prefer to address desire issues in ways that give individuals more control and more understanding of their mind and body connections so that they can do their own problem-solving and not be reliant on a pill or a doctor. Most people can increase their experience of desire through a combination of getting healthy, having a good body image, having a safe and trusting intimate relationship, getting enough sleep, lowering stress and distractions, reducing pain, and learning how to have pleasurable sexual experiences on a regular basis.