What It Feels Like to Take the Newly Approved 'Female Viagra'

Yesterday, the FDA approved the "female Viagra," prompting some critics to accuse them of pathologizing female sexual disinterest. We spoke to a woman diagnosed with hypoactive sexual desire disorder.

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Aug 20 2015, 4:00pm

IMAGEN VÍA FLICK: ALLAN AJIFO

Female empowerment is great. Using female empowerment as a marketing tactic is not so great. Where does Addyi—the new drug that's being hailed as "Viagra for women"—stand?

Last night, after previously rejecting the drug twice, the FDA approved Addyi, also known by its generic name flibanserin, for premenopausal women who suffer from what is called hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), categorized by a complete loss of interest in sex, to the extent that it causes distress. This was due in large part from pressure from lobbying groups like Even The Score and testimonials to the FDA from women with chronic low sexual desire, all of whom argued that it's time for women to have the same options as men when it comes to managing their sex lives.

Read more: The Male Birth Control Pill Is About to Come (So Your Boyfriend Can, Too)

When I went to Sprout Pharmaceuticals's pop-up office in Soho (the company is based out of North Carolina), CEO Cindy Whitehead continued to espouse Addyi's feminist narrative. "[Now that the FDA approved the drug] women can finally make the choice for themselves with their healthcare provider whether or not treatment for this common sexual dysfunction is right for them," Whitehead said. But for many feminists, the idea of labeling sexual disinterest as a disorder, and trying to medicate it, is off-putting. I couldn't stop thinking of Addyi as something a Freudian psychoanalyst would prescribe to a depressed 60s housewife who doesn't want her husband's eyes to wander. At what point does a low sex drive drive become a "sexual dysfunction"?

To call Addyi "the female Viagra" is not entirely accurate. Unlike Viagra, which merely regulates physiological arousal by sending blood to the penis, Addyi is a daily pill which works more similarly to an anti-depressant. It effects dopamine and serotonin receptors in order to effectively manufacture desire. (The pill also comes with a list of side effects that includes dizziness, nausea, and fainting.) As several critics have pointed out, it's hard to see how pathologizing low sexual desire could be a feminist win. If desire, by definition, is wanting, why should women agonize over wanting what they don't want?

HSDD effects between 5.4 percent and 13.6% of women and Sprout made sure that they had some of those women on-hand to talk about living with the disorder. I spoke to Katherine Campbell, a married mother of two, about why she views Addyi as a potential game-changer.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

BROADLY: Have you tried Addyi?
Katherine Campbell: I actually asked to be on the clinical trial as soon as I found out that [Sprout] was working on something for low libido. I missed the clinical trial though, so I wasn't ever able to be on it. But that kind of lit a fire for me to help them get it approved so that I would have the option of trying it someday. Now I can!

How did you find out about the clinical trial?
I lost my sex drive completely after the birth of my first child. This is now over three years ago; I was only twenty-seven at the time. I went from having a super thriving sex drive—being the initiator [during sex]—to not having any desire whatsoever. I don't even have fantasies.

At first I thought [my sex drive was lower] because I had just had a baby, so I waited about eighteen months to talk to my doctor. In the meantime I was just having obligation sex with my husband. I didn't want to turn him down because it wasn't his fault. I'm still very much attracted to him but I really had no desire [to have sex]. I didn't initiate sex anymore, but if he initiated then I would [have sex with him]. But at 18 months it was putting such a strain on our marriage, so I went to a family doctor. He gave me an antidepressant because there wasn't anything available to treat me, he said. I took the antidepressants for about two to three months and noticed no change. When I was on antidepressants, I used to joke that I was just happily not wanting any sex. But I wasn't depressed to begin with and it didn't help my sex drive.

I don't even have fantasies.

Though my doctor did say something that made me curious. He told me that he didn't have anything to treat my disorder and I was like, my disorder, what does he mean? I'd never thought of that before and it sounded more serious than what I thought it could be. So I started looking stuff up on the internet like anyone does and I found an article about 'the little pink pill' and Sprout, and I saw that this pill kept getting rejected by the FDA. Then I made the mistake of scrolling down to the comments. The comments were just terrible. But I left my own comment and I said, 'Hey, I'm only thirty and I have no sex drive. This applies to me. This is what I have. I have HSDD.' It finally clicked.

The responses I got from other commenters were just so ignorant. They said things like, 'Maybe it's your man's fault. Maybe your husband just doesn't do it for you anymore. Maybe it's the diet, people these days just eat junk. Maybe it's because you have kids and they're really stressing you out.' But they helped me realize even more that this had nothing to do with any external factors.

It wasn't my husband; I'd only been married for just over three years. We weren't in the honeymoon phase, but close to it. It's not my husband, and I can't say that enough. It wasn't the diet, it's wasn't the exercise. Even when I'm away from my kids on romantic trips, it doesn't change.

After that I just wrote the company and asked if they had another trial coming up, and can I be on it. They said they couldn't put me on the clinical trial because it ended, but they wanted me to tell my story to the FDA. That's when I really got involved. That was last October.

Did you speak at the FDA trials?
I did. I was on the patient panel. That was the first time I really told my story to a bunch of people I don't know. Talking to all those people about my sex life was embarrassing, but I wasn't really ashamed because I knew that it was my body failing me. It's not what my heart wanted for my relationship but it was out of my control. It was brutal to stand in front of strangers and cameras and say, "I only have sex once every three months." My husband was proud of me, but I can't say he wanted to be there. He doesn't want the world to know that our marriage isn't thriving in that area.

Photo by Joselito Briones via Stocksy

Do you think that sex is an important part of marriage? What if you just said to your husband, "Hey I don't like having sex anymore. What if we just don't do that?"
Some couples are like that. I've heard from other women say things like, "Why should we have sex to feel valued?" I'm like, if you don't feel that way, don't worry about it. If you're completely happy with your spouse and you decide as a couple that you don't think sex is important then good for you. For me, this was not going to become my new normal. I was not okay with this. I loved what my sexuality was for me. It was more than just having sex; it was feeling like I was a woman, like I was attractive. I felt like I used to have this aura. I would walk into a room and I feel this awesome confidence and this comfort in my own skin that was derived from my sexuality.

If there are people who are comfortable not having sex again, then good for them. My husband and I felt a major void when we didn't have sex and we weren't connecting on that physical level. Our marriage is not going to end because we're lacking in this area right now, but it has become strained. We're trying to make up for it in other areas. It's just a challenge.

Not knowing what I was really going through, my husband started to question himself and feel insecure. He was worrying that I would stray and meanwhile I'm worrying if he would stray because we're not connecting on [a sexual] level anymore. It's just horrible.

Did you try any kind of alternative medicines? Like did you try smoking weed or...?
It's not that I'm opposed to any other kind of treatment, I just don't think it's asking a lot to get a treatment that is actually made to treat what I have or has proven to help treat what I have. I've tried talking with our pastor who offered us couples counseling. I'm a really strong Christian and my husband and I go to church on a regular basis. My pastor doesn't think that sex should be a taboo subject. He talks about sex very openly and thinks it should be something that we're open with as a couple. But I couldn't talk my way out of this situation. It certainly didn't improve what was going on.

How did your husband feel about couples counseling?
My husband has been really supportive of me [talking about my HSDD] because he feels like I'm doing something proactively to fix it. I'm coming up with a solution, hopefully. It helped that he could see me doing the legwork to get a solution for this and not just sitting and accepting it. I knew he wasn't happy. He knew I wasn't happy. I hear a lot of stuff from feminists who say, 'Why should women feel like they have to be sexual?' But I would do this for myself, as an individual, even if I weren't in a relationship. My husband will benefit from it sure, but first and foremost I need to fix myself as an individual. That's truly how you're happy in a relationship.