Female libido drug isn’t effective, but drugmakers aren’t giving up

When flibanserin, the first drug created to treat hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) in women, was approved by the FDA in 2015, the drugmakers faced intense criticism for downplaying the drug’s inefficacy and side effects and medicalizing female sexuality to get the drug approved. In the year after it was approved, reporters declared flibanserin “a flop” due to low sales. And that was the end of that, so we thought.

But the makers of flibanserin aren’t giving up that easily. They’re touting the new results of a clinical trial they sponsored, called the SNOWDROP trial, which measured the effectiveness of flibanserin in post-menopausal women, a population for which the drug is not FDA-approved. A recent article in MedPage Today titled, “Flibanserin: Not Just for Premenopausal Women Anymore?” claims that the drug is a potential solution for low sexual desire in older women.

Not so fast. The title, “It’s not just for pre-menopausal women anymore,” implies that the drug is safe and effective in women who have gone through menopause. But that’s not what the study shows. The article says that the drug improved women’s scores on the Female Sexual Function Index by 1.5 points on average. Not exactly earth shaking, given that the index ranges 34 points! The article does not mention any of the possible side effects of flibanserin, including sleepiness, nausea, anxiety, rash, or insomnia—all of which are kind of a turn off, whether you are pre- or post-menopausal.

Even if the drug actually worked and didn’t have any side effects, the article serves to medicalize female sexual desire. In the article, study author Dr. Sheryl Kingsberg tells doctors to ask their patients if they have concerns about low sexual desire, because “not all women know recognize this to be a medical condition for which there is treatment for.” Hypoactive sexual desire disorder – like erectile dysfunction – is “not analogous to medical conditions or diseases like arthritis or gout,” according to psychologist and activist Leonore Tiefer, who has written extensively on the medicalizaiton of female sexuality.

Tiefer’s warns that “the very notion of ‘normal’ functioning, let alone definitions of ‘dysfunctioning,’ are culturally and socially determined.” Who should we let decide what is “normal” – ourselves, or the drug companies?