WANT WHAT SHE’S HAVING? THE RACE FOR THE FEMALE VIAGRA
DRUG COMPANIES ARE RACING TO FIND A FEMALE VIAGRA TO CURE A CONDITION THAT MAY NOT EVEN EXIST
2001, lmmaker Liz Canner was asked by American pharmaceutical company Vivus to help with trials of a new drug. Alista was a topical cream designed to remedy sexual dysfunction in women. It was branded, breathlessly, as an “orgasm cream”. Canner was commissioned to edit a series of erotic videos which would be shown to women participating in early clinical trials. She was perplexed, enthralled, a little appalled. “How could I take this job? How could I not take this job?” she says. Ultimately, she agreed. She was interested in the nature of female desire, and a little weary of making lms about genocide and human rights violations. She had also gained permission from Vivus to make a lm study of the process.
Through the course of her involvement with the Alista trials, Canner became confused about the nature of female sexual dysfunction (FSD). She hadn’t really come across the term before she began working with Vivus, and yet the more she heard it invoked the more confused she became. Canner extended the lines of her enquiry beyond Vivus, and ended up devoting much of the next nine years to her lm Orgasm Inc – a jewel of a documentary intended, Canner says, to “document the medical industry’s attempt to change our understanding of the meaning of health, illness, desire and that ultimate moment – orgasm.”
In it, Canner meets the CEOs and marketing heads of different drug companies, and she meets doctors, scientists and therapists, all of whom are working frenziedly toward producing and ogging the key to the ultimate female sexual experience. She meets the campaigners who rage against the attempts to control and medicalise women’s sexuality. Most affecting of all, Canner meets the women who suffer – or who think they suffer – from FSD. She meets Charletta, a middleaged woman, who says that when she thinks about orgasms, she thinks in terms of “the war – the war inside my head…” adding, “Not only am I not normal, I am diseased.” Canner accompanies Charletta on an appointment to see a doctor who inserts electrodes into her spine. This is a device Stuart Meloy MD calls his “Orgasmatron”; once it’s in place he promises Charletta will orgasm spontaneously any time she wants. It doesn’t happen. The Orgasmatron does, however, make her left leg twitch wildly.
The world’s pharmaceutical companies have been consumed by the race to nd a remedy for female sexual dysfunction ever since the late 1990s when P zer gained FDA approval for Viagra. Viagra – so very effective in the treatment of erectile dysfunction in men – has proved to be a “blockbuster” drug: a billion-dollar-generating marvel of a product. It worked, it changed lives; it was a sexy drug, in every sense of the term. It became clear that there was a great deal of money and power in the
eld of sexual dysfunction. Money and power that could be multiplied, if the market were expanded – which it would be, if pharmaceutical companies could sell drugs to women, as well as men.
Vivus had a particular interest in tapping the market. In 1996, 14 months before Viagra launched, Vivus gained FDA approval for Muse – a suppository which, when inserted into the male urethra shortly before sex, improved blood ow to the penis, thus alleviating the symptoms of erectile dysfunction. Muse did extremely good business until Viagra launched. It had sales of $130 million before Viagra, and $59 million in the year afterwards; these gures have dwindled ever since. Men preferred a pill to a suppository and abandoned Muse en masse.
Around the same time, Leland Wilson, president and director of Vivus, gave a TV interview about sexual dysfunction and mentioned in passing that his company was working on concepts for drugs for female sexual dysfunction. The stock price of Vivus went wild in response; Vivus begun working in earnest on Alista. P zer, meanwhile, began working hard on discovering whether Viagra might work for women as well as men; Procter & Gamble began working on a testosterone patch called Intrinsa. Darby Stephens, Vivus’s manager of clinical research, estimated that at the time her company was working on Alista 12 pharmaceutical companies were developing alternative cures for FSD. “We are in a race to see who can be rst to market,” she said. Canner called it a gold rush.
All of which would be ne if anyone knew exactly what FSD was, whether or not it truly exists and what curing it might entail. At the beginning of Orgasm Inc (subtitled The Strange Science of Female Pleasure), Virgil Place MD, the founder of Vivus, addresses a meeting of his employees. “What does the name of the company mean?” he asks. “It’s Latin for ‘alive’. I had the feeling that our objective was to put the life back into dead penises.” Place is playing for laughs – but he draws attention to a signi cant issue. We know what a “dead” penis looks like, and so we know what male sexual dysfunction looks like. We equally know an erect penis when we see one, and so we have a decent measure for the ef cacy of a drug designed to treat erectile dysfunction. But it’s much harder to quantify FSD. What is sexual dysfunction as far as women are concerned? Really? It’s categorised medically as a lack of arousal or desire to have sex; dyspareunia (pain or discomfort during intercourse), diminished blood ow to the vagina, and an inability to achieve orgasm.
It rst began appearing in medical dictionaries in the 1970s, but started garnering serious attention and