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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...

Michael A. Perelman, PhD, is a consultant involved in the clinical trials on bremelanotide and co-director of the Human Sexuality Program at Presbyterian Hospital and Weil-Cornell Medical School in New York City. He explains how the drug might work in terms of setting the "tipping point" for sexual arousal lower. He thinks the drug should be used together with counseling to help with emotional problems that inhibit desire.

"I'm interested in helping people respond more to the right kind of stimulation from the right person when that's just not happening naturally for them, in the way that they would like, or that it used to," he says.

The Market for Desire

If one of these drugs eventually wins approval, the drugmaker probably spend millions to advertise it. it's hard to imagine that it would be discretely recommended by licensed sex therapists as part of a comprehensive approach to women's sexual problems. Instead, ads will urge women to "ask your doctor if it's right for you."

Millions may go ahead and do that.

"I think it's impossible that it won't sell a lot," Tiefer says. "I don't see any way around it."

The size of the potential market for these drugs is debatable because estimates of how many women could be diagnosed with the disorder vary widely. Would you believe up to 43% of women have low sexual desire? That figure comes from a survey published in the January/February 2005 issue of the International Journal of Impotence Research. It got a lot of play in the early publicity for Intrinsa, and it is still cited often. Those offering it as evidence of a vast epidemic have been sharply criticized, however. The survey from which it came asked women if they ever lacked interest in sex but not whether it caused them any distress. The survey also found that lack of interest in sex was linked to age and depression.

Other research has come up with different numbers. Survey results published in 2003 in the British Medical Journal show that about 10% of English women reported "lack of interest in sex" lasting at least six months in the past year.

A survey by John Bancroft, PhD, former director of the Kinsey Institute, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2003, asked women not only if they lacked interest in sex, but also if it caused them distress personally or if it caused distress in their relationship. About 7% of the women reported having "no sexual thoughts" in the past month, but less than 3% said they didn't think about sex and felt distress because of it.

On the one hand, it's probably not true that nearly half of all women have sexual dysfunction. But on the other hand, sexual problems are not wholly invented by the pharmaceutical industry.

"It's really important to recognize that people really do suffer," says Lisa Schwartz, MD, a professor at Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, N.H., who researches harms vs. benefits in medical treatment. "It's just a question about what the solution to that suffering is, how to acknowledge that suffering in a way that's helpful -- and it's not necessarily by putting it in the medical care system."

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