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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? continued...

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.

Another prominent sex researcher, Rosemary Basson, MD, of the University of British Columbia, Canada, agrees that the medical focus on desire is misplaced. Women and men "have multiple motivations to be sexual, and 'desire' -- as in urging 'lust,' 'horniness,' or 'drive' -- is only one of these reasons," she tells WebMD. Desire for sex can also be the desire to feel emotional closeness with someone, to please that person, or to feel attractive.

She points out that the definition of this "mental disorder" assumes that all women have a constant amount of sexual desire that is normal, like the pilot light of a stove. Just turn up the gas, and you're cooking. But there's no definition for what a normal level of desire is, so no one can say what's "low," Basson says.

Sometimes when the motive to have sex is something other than a physical drive, some women just can't get into it. "Even if she is trying to focus on any pleasurable feelings, her body is simply not responding and neither does her mind," Basson says. "It stands to reason that her motivation will sooner or later also drop." That's where she thinks medicine can help. It also happens to be the approach of researchers studying the drug bremelanotide.

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