Bioethics Blogs

“Female Viagra”: Is this little pink pill worth it?

Katy Fulfer addresses concerns about the approval of “female Viagra”

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On June 5 a panel at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended approval for a “female Viagra” pill in an 18-6 vote for cisgendered women. My first thoughts were: “It’s about time!” and “Why does the pill have to be pink?” The FDA will make a final decision about whether to approve the drug, flibanserin, by the end of the summer. This vote seemed to me to be good news because women’s sexuality, if acknowledged at all, often takes a backseat to men’s. Viagra (sildenafil) has been on the market since 1998. Sprout Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of flibanserin, market themselves as being after “meaningful breakthroughs for women,” and is led by a woman CEO, Cindy Whitehead. Two previous applications to approve flibanserin were turned down by the FDA, and prompted a response by Sprout Pharmaceuticals with a campaign alleging that the FDA’s decision was sexist. (See here for an argument why such claims about sexism miss the FDA’s problem with the drug—its safety and efficacy.)

But maybe my initial optimism about the little pink pill was misguided. The name “female viagra” strikes me as misleading. Although flibanserin, like Viagra, is designed to treat sexual dysfunction, the two drugs are quite different. Flibanserin, an antidepressant, seeks to balance cis women’s brain chemistry in a way that is correlated with sexual desire. Dopamine and norepinephrine are increased, and serotonin decreased. Viagra (sildenafil), on the other hand, treats erectile dysfunction.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c.1486)

This difference raises a question about what counts as “sexual dysfunction” or as “sexual desire.” The case of erectile dysfunction seems relatively clear.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.