Perception

Could the new “female viagra” threaten asexuals’ identity?

“You could wind up sending the message that asexual people are broken”

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On Thursday, a committee of medical professionals advised the FDA to approve flibanserin, the first drug designed to boost women’s libido. The FDA rejected the pill—also known as “female viagra”—in 2010 and in 2013, citing side effects like drowsiness and nausea, but it looks like the pink pill, meant to be taken daily by women with low sex drive, stands a good chance of making it onto the market.

Women’s groups are, for the most part, welcoming that news. “Women have waited long enough,” writes Even the Score, a group advocating for “sexual health equity.”

“In 2015, gender equality should be the standard when it comes to access for treatments to sexual dysfunction.” Viagra has been around since the 1990s and, the group notes, the FDA has approved 25 other medications that help men have sex. They aren’t buying doctors’ claims that women’s lack of arousal is harder to treat; they blame the disparity on gender bias in the medical industry, and their supporters include the National Council of Women’s Organizations, the Black Women’s Health Imperative and 40,000 people who have signed Even the Score’s online petition.

There’s one group, though, that’s less excited (so to speak) about the new pill. Asexuals have been fighting to have their lack of desire accepted as a sexual orientation, and new medications that treat low libido as a medical problem could undermine those efforts. Advertising campaigns for this drug “could reinforce the position that a lack of interest in sexuality is a problem that needs to be cured,” asexual activist David Jay told Women in the World in a phone interview. “If we start seeing doctors and patients internalizing the message that not being sexual means that you’re sick, that could be very negative for our community.”

Asexuals define themselves by their lack of sexual attraction to any person or gender; activists want asexuality to be seen as a sexual orientation, like bisexuality or homosexuality. Between one and 6 percent of the U.S. population identifies as asexual; some are in relationships that may include sex, whether to please a partner or to have children. (Jay himself is in a relationship with an asexual woman.)

Asexuality as a scientific designation has a long history. When Alfred Kinsey devised his scale of human sexuality in the 1940s, he noticed one group that didn’t fit anywhere on his spectrum of “exclusive heterosexual” to “exclusive homosexual.” “Group X,” as he called them, did not “respond erotically to either heterosexual or homosexual stimuli.” Recent research on animals’ mating habits suggests that asexuals exist in other species, too. A 2002 study of more than 500 rams on an Idaho farm found that about 12.5 percent of the animals had no interest in mating with either male or female sheep. (Their hormone levels were no different from those of the rest of the group.)

Asexual activists have been stepping up their efforts to gain visibility over the past few years, banding together in online forums and organizing awareness campaigns on social media. In 2001, Jay founded the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), which remains the most prominent asexual organization. AVEN’s symbol is a piece of cake—an homage to the saying that if given a choice between sex and cake, asexuals will always choose the latter.

But there exists an important distinction between those who want cake and those who would prefer a heightened sex drive. Drugs like flibanserin are intended for people who are distressed by their lack of interest in sex and want to remedy it, not for those, like Jay, who feel fulfilled without sex. That said, the very existence of a medication can make us more likely to view the issue it treats as a medical problem, rather than a natural variation on the norm. Just as doctors develop drugs to treat specific diseases, the drugs, too, shape how we understand a human condition, and may affect whether we call it a disease, a lifestyle choice or an assertion of identity.

“Most, if not at all, asexual people have had the experience of people telling them, ‘You need to see a doctor to find out what’s wrong with you,’” Mark Carrigan, a researcher at the UK’s University of Warwick and co-editor of the anthology Asexuality and Sexual Normativity, said in an email. “This threatens to entrench that reaction by leading people to say, ‘You need to get some Flibanserin, that will fix you!’ It presupposes that lack of sexual attraction is a problem that ought to be fixed, as opposed to a natural variation in human sexuality.”

One of the most prevalent stereotypes asexual activists want to challenge is the assumption that a lack of interest in sex is inherently problematic. “We live in a society where we’re told that you need sex to be happy, to form an intimate romantic relationship,” Jay said. Yet asexuals are perfectly capable, he emphasized, of forming intimate bonds and even romantic relationships. With flibanserin, “you could wind up…sending the message that asexual people are broken.”

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