Female Sexual Dysfunction, Marketing and Disease-Mongering

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Leonore Tiefer, Ph.D., introduces an educational campaign that challenges the myths promoted by the pharmaceutical industry and calls for research on the many causes of women’s sexual problems.

The pharmaceutical industry wants women to think that sexual problems are simple and offers drugs as magic fixes. But positive sexual experiences require accurate, unbiased information.

The FSD-Alert campaign is committed to the role of activism and education for women’s sexual empowerment. Check out www.fsd-alert.org for more information.

The New View Campaign alerts the public to how “Female Sexual Dysfunction” (FSD) is being CREATED by Big Pharma and other groups. FSD is a vivid current example of “disease-mongering,” the creation of new diseases and anxieties for financial gain. Since the appearance of Viagra in 1998, the pharmaceutical industry has worked to create a blockbuster market for “pink Viagra.”

To understand the big picture, this talk examines different MODELS of sex, the processes of MEDICALIZING sex, and the MARKETING of both sex drugs and sexual disorders.

Is sex more like dancing or digestion? What MODEL of sex is best suited to research, education, clinical work, and public health? Is biology the key to pleasurable, skillful, safe, and consensual sex, or should we focus on education and cultural values? Who are the appropriate experts? What kind of research suits sex? If sex is more like dancing, then appreciating diversity and individual interests is primary and physiology and healthcare only enter the picture in minor and supporting roles.

MEDICALIZATION frames everyday life experiences as matters of health and disorder. It seems to promise simple, expert solutions based on science, but adverse side effects, uniform ideas of human experience, and individual disempowerment are unintended consequences. Medicalization occurs in stages, as the media publicize new biological discoveries and the public develops amnesia for sociocultural research. The medicalization industry, fueled by billions from Big Pharma, is indirectly helped by poor social science funding, rightwing assaults on sexual art and comprehensive sexuality education, and the framing of sexual variety as dangerous and deadly.

Finally, the MARKETING of sex drugs promises sexual perfection and security at the same time as it scares people by depicting the awful consequences of sexual failure in a sex-saturated culture. Sex has become BRANDED as a consumer good, with doctors as the retail outlet. Years of unethical connections between scientists and Big Pharma has damaged the independence of sexual medicine.

“Female Sexual Dysfunction” was coined in 1997 by the medicalization industry (Big Medicine and Big Pharma) as it looked for something in women comparable to “Erectile Dysfunction” in men. Paid scientific experts and researchers exaggerated the prevalence and biological causes of women’s sexual problems while maintaining the fiction that sociocultural solutions were unscientific or ineffective. Streams of press releases fed gullible media. Although no drug has yet satisfied the FDA’s safety and efficacy requirements, many drugs are now prescribed “off-label,” and no outcome studies are required or conducted.

I convened the New View Campaign in order to expose and monitor the creation and marketing of FSD. Through our website, books, training manuals for educators, professional articles and presentations, media consultation, appearances at the FDA, and scholar/activist conferences, the New View Campaign has helped stall the medicalization of women’s sexuality and redirect attention away from digestion towards dancing as the proper model for sex. We see ourselves as part of the larger public health advocacy movement to expose and change corporate policies that damage health.