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Can Medicine Boost Female Sex Drive?

Drugmakers are testing new drugs that may be able to produce increased sexual desire in women.

What Is Desire?

Arousal -- that is, erection -- is the goal of treatment for men. For women, researchers hope that ease of arousal will translate to increased sexual desire.

Technically, arousal and desire are not the same thing. Arousal is the physical and psychological state of being primed for sex. The penis becomes erect, the vagina lubricates, heart rate increases, and blood vessels dilate. Whereas arousal can be easily seen, sexual desire is vague. It has to do with wanting to become aroused, but there are a lot of questions about what that really means.

Not everyone thinks that sexual desire is a medical issue. Lenore Tiefer, PhD, a psychologist at the New York University School of Medicine, is an outspoken critic of what she sees as a trend toward unnecessary medical intervention in sex. She is a founding member of a group promoting "A New View of Women's Sexual Problems," and editor of a book by that title.

The idea that desire is a thing women have or lack, apart from any object of desire, is mistaken, she says. But it is convenient for the purpose of selling pharmaceuticals.

"I don't think people desire sex, or rather, let's put it this way: They're learning to desire sex," she tells WebMD. "It used to be I thought that people desired people: 'I desire Fred' or 'I desire Louise.' Then there was masturbation, which was a kind of tension-relieving thing where you felt like having an orgasm, but it wasn't sexual desire. It wasn't anything like that. Sexual desire was this longing that you felt in your body or in your heart to be with that person over there."

Tiefer contends that there are too many other reasons why desire for sex might wane to pin it on a biological cause. Fred is emotionally distant and snappish. Louise feels bad about how her body looks. Early in her life she learned that sex is dangerous and yucky. At the end of the day, after the kids are tucked in and dinner dishes are washed and put away, she has only enough time to catch a few minutes of American Idol before lights out.

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