Revving Up Women's Sex Drive
Will there ever be a 'Viagra' for women?
By Dulce Zamora
Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD
Six years after Viagra revolutionized sexual ability for men, many women are still hoping for their turn. To date, the FDA hasn't approved a product to boost female sex drive.
It's no small problem. A low sex drive is the most common sexual complaint made by women -- up to 30% to 40% of them, according to Sandra Lieblum, PhD, director for the Center for Sexual and Relationship Health at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey.
The Search for a Cure
Throughout the ages, various potions and contraptions have pledged relief, but the discerning have wondered if the so-called remedies are truly love liniments, or merely snake oil.
Just because someone makes a claim about boosting female libido, it doesn't mean that it's true, says Beverly Whipple, PhD, RN, FAAN, vice president of the World Association for Sexology. "We have to make sure that the claim is being made on scientific evidence."
Yet, even if something appears to work in scientific research, there is the concern that just being part of a study to improve a women's sex drive might itself have a suggestive effect on libido; it's called a placebo effect.
"It has to do with women's expectancies and hope that any intervention will prove beneficial," says Lieblum, noting that anticipation can also change behavior. "Any woman who goes into a trial to improve libido is motivated to be more active."
The power of placebo is so strong that many health experts look only to double-blind, placebo-controlled trials to prove a product's effectiveness. In these studies, a group of subjects receive a real drug, while another set gets a dummy substance. Neither the researchers nor the participants know which the real medicine is.
Apply this criterion to the dozens of aphrodisiacs for women out there, and the number of suitable elixirs dwindles down to possibly one or two that work for some women. Even with the best of studies, expert opinion varies on what works best for female libido.
There is a consensus, however, on just how intricate female desire is. "Women's drive is so complex that biology is only one factor that drives sex drive," says Jean Koehler, PhD, a licensed family and marriage therapist in Louisville, Ky., and past president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists.
Besides biology, the following factors can affect female libido:
Trouble with one or a combination of these factors can affect women's sex drive. Such loss of interest in sex is medically identified as hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD).
There are some popular products that have either been designed or tested to treat HSDD.
Despite rumors and various advertising claims to the contrary, there isn't a female Viagra out there.
"We know that Viagra doesn't work in women," says Whipple.
"Women are not minimen," Whipple explains. "We are different than men in what we want, what we desire, what feels good to us, and we're also different at the biochemical level."
Female sexuality is, indeed, so much more complex than male sexuality that even after several scientific studies involving about 3,000 women, Viagra-maker Pfizer hasn't been able to come up with conclusive findings. Earlier this year, the company announced it was ending research of Viagra in women.
But this does not mean there isn't hope for some women. Research is ongoing on several other products for female libido.
Two large studies presented at scientific meetings this year show the testosterone patch Intrinsa, made by Procter & Gamble, can increase sexual activity in 50% to 70% of women.
The participants, though, only include a select group of women with HSDD.
"Every study we've done so far on the testosterone patches in the public domain is just involving women who have had their ovaries removed (surgically menopausal), and they're all estrogen-treated before we add the testosterone," says Jan Shifren, MD, director of the Vincent Obstetrics and Gynecology Service Menopause Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who is involved in testosterone studies. "So despite estrogen therapy, they still have decreased sexual desire."
Women who have had their ovaries removed are good candidates for testosterone therapy, since the ovaries are a major source of testosterone as well as estrogen, says Shifren. "In these women, it was like we were restoring levels back to what it would have been had they still had their ovaries."