Sex on pills

Ever since Viagra first made its mark on the sex scene, pharmaceutical companies have been in a hurry to manufacture a female equivalent. The motivation is not difficult to understand. Pfizer, the pharmaceutical corporation that manufactures Viagra, earned more than $2 billion in sales last year.

A new drug, Lybrido, promises to raise female arousal. It differs from Viagra in the sense that it doesn’t change the mechanics of one’s blood flow, like Viagra does for men who have trouble achieving or maintaining an erection.

Like Daniel Bergner of The New York Times writes, it would “adjust the primal and executive regions of the brain,” altering brain chemistry to generate a physical sensation of arousal. What’s interesting about the nature of the drug is that it seems to promise an emotional fix for women who have lost all desire.

The topic of sexual dysfunction might be a little heavy for 20-somethings who might not find themselves in low supply of libido or willing partners.

Most of us are in the process of discovering our sexuality for the first time, learning about how we function in intimate situations, whether we define intimacy as a peck on the cheek, going all the way or engaging in a conversation whose scope doesn’t wane, even after 3 o’clock in the morning.

If these are the years in which we are most concerned with finding a suitable partner, it’s important to think about how the world around us wants to regulate our sexuality, how it wants us to change how we think of ourselves as sexual and emotional beings for profit.

Although Lybrido is still in early trial stages and has yet to be approved by the FDA, one can already imagine the story advertisers will try to sell, especially when one looks at the behavior of a precursor like Viagra.

Commercials for the drug urge men with erectile dysfunction to have the “Viagra talk” with their doctors. The presumptions the advertising makes about men is that they are always interested in sex and the problem — if you want to call it a problem — is not something that has an emotional origin. In other words, the commercials perform two functions.

They reassure the men who might be interested in the little blue pill that there isn’t anything wrong with them emotionally or mentally. The advertising says that men’s sexual dysfunction is a matter of mechanics, the technicalities of sex.

Even if their frustrations with their sexual lives lie exclusively in a physical domain, the commercials would suggest that they don’t deserve the same amount of emotional depth that women apparently need.

Lybrido is likely to sell with promises of a more fulfilling emotional life, that sex and partnership are the only things lacking from a woman’s life — the two culprits that make her most unsatisfied. What I imagine the drug will do, skillfully or not, is tell women how to behave as sexual beings, how often and in what manner.

It’s also a matter of body politics. I imagine that an arousal enhancement drug for women will try to leech off the political oomph of the birth-control pill, promising to also liberate women from a sexual disorder that may or may not exist.

While the birth-control pill gave women greater control over their reproductive health, I anticipate that the pill such as Lybrido will lock women into tighter quarters, telling women that there is something inadequate with them emotionally or mentally if they don’t live up to a constructed standard sexuality.

It is perhaps much easier to produce a pill than it is to confront the cultural and psychological details of society that make something as joyful as sex into something that can be painful for some people.

Although such drugs could actually be helpful to men and women who are experiencing genuine hardships in their intimate lives, the trouble with the manufacturing of such drugs is the dismissal of the psychological and emotional complexities at hand when one is dealing with sex.

Pharmaceutical corporations eager to make a buck from unhappy couples want to shrink something as private as sex into a few isolated parts, when it is really a complicated entanglement of one’s mind, body and emotion, no matter how casual or long-term a sexual encounter may be.


Reach the columnist at or follow her at @ce_truong

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