You may have heard that the FDA this week refused permission to German drug company Boehringer Ingelheim to market a new female libido pill they'd developed with the catchy name flibanserin.
You heard wrong. The maker had NO EVIDENCE that it enhances female desire for sex any more than so much distilled water, and made, so far as I know, no claims that it does.
Why were reputable newspapers filled with false headlines then? Because our culture only intermittently and reluctantly acknowledges any distinction between physical genital engorgement, sexual desire, and having lots of sex (which is where the drug is alleged to have a little less than one encounter per month of effect).
Language and Libido
One writer of recent memory, in fact, went so far as to refer to physical engorgement as objective arousal, with his name attached to the article and everything.
mme_louise pointed out to me yesterday that these confusions are tied up tightly in our language around desire. "Hard" or "wet" are often used as metonymy for the subjective state of arousal, and that's perfectly reasonable poetic language. The words arousal and excitement themselves, though, are ambiguous in English, and can be used to point to subjective excitement or its physical signifiers. This is what insipred me to fire off my letter to M. Le Sauvage yesterday--I realized that our impoverished language makes clear discussion of the subject--and therefore clear thinking about it--unnecessarily difficult.*
I'll reiterate a point I've made before: anyone who went through puberty not in a coma should know better. I've had times when my dick was hard and I didn't desire sex, and I've had times when I desired sex and my dick wasn't hard.
Let me make my position explicit here: there is no such thing as objective arousal. Arousal is a purely subjective state, and anyone who tries to argue with you about your arousal is engaging in the worst sort of arrogance.
Whose desires is this really about?
Here's what I suspect: that the drive for a "female Viagra" isn't really about increasing desire; it's about domesticating it, taming it, controlling it. The problem with women, Robin Hansen tells us, is that they only have sex when they want to. Not that they don't want it enough, but that they don't reliably say yes when the men to whom they belong want it.
Hanson's proposed solutions were greater economic control of married women, or else corporal punishment for insufficiently compliant women; but it's his concerns, and his framing, that I keep thinking about.
The last line of the Globe article linked above is "Medical surveys have estimated that more than 40 percent of women suffer from some form of sexual dysfunction." When we're saying that almost half of all women are broken because their libidos fail to meet our expectations, is it much a leap to read a subtext that women's sexuality is just inherently wrong and needs to be fixed, either through drugs, or through punishment, or through surgery? (warning: link contains detailed pictures of vulvas and blood-boiling exploitation of women)
How to foreground the background?
I'm going to digress for a moment here. One of the dilemmas I'm still fretting over in writing these little essays (and advice and suggestions are eagerly solicited) is how to frame contentions about pervasive cultural messages.
The internet, as you may have noticed, is fucking big. If I assert that, say, our culture teaches that skinny women should wear less at the beach and fat women should wear more, I can dig up five, or ten, or a hundred people saying it on the web, but that doesn't really prove shit. I can find the same number saying that Twilight is the best movie in the history of cinema, but I wouldn't claim that I feel any pressure to believe that, or act as if I do.
And yet simply saying "We all know that the culture says blah blah blah," appealing to pure intuition, feels...flabby? It flirts with tautology, where I end up saying "if you already agree with me, you'll agree with me, and otherwise I have nothing to say to you."
Do I need to support the contention that our culture says that women need too much foreplay? Seriously: do I?
What is sex?
malakhgabriel argues, persuasively, that the very concept of foreplay is broken. It creates and enforces an unreal distinction between warm-up sex (which is for gurlz) and real sex (which is for d00dz). This of course, is based on the assumption that coitus is the only real sex there is. This isn't just an ideology, it's an ideology supporting three billion dollars in annual revenue for Pfizer etc. And hey look, newspapers are swallowing it whole! How strange!
* This is not an unfamiliar problem. As a polyamorist, I am acutely aware that conventional language conflates monogamy, honesty, and loyalty, making them hard to tease apart without practice and the kind of careful defining of terms that people often have little patience for, especially in conversation.
The Last Word
Oh, I should explain the title of this piece, shouldn't I?
A NYTimes piece about the drug quotes NYU Professor Leonore Tiefer as follows:
Women’s sex lives are often a struggle, a disappointment, an archipelago of regret.... Is there a small group of women who could benefit from medical intervention — probably. [But] the much larger group of women without any medical reason for their sexual distress will inevitably be misinformed and misled into thinking that there is a pill that can get them the sex life they read about, the one they think everyone else is having.