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Fifty shades of the little pink pill

Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News

Well, it was a big week for the female libido, and not much of it, frankly was good news. Of course, we women of a certain age, which is a polite way of saying those of us in middle age, could have predicted as much.

First came “Fifty Shades of Grey” sky-high box office sales. Apparently the raunchy romance surpassed the box office debut sales of “Passion of the Christ,” thus spawning Fortune Magazine’s unfortunate headline: “Looks like Fifty Shades of Grey is more popular than Jesus.” Nice.

Apparently a majority of moviegoers purchased their tickets online because Fandango reported the largest purchase of domestic tickets for any movie through its website in the company’s 15 years of business. One explanation was that fans were too embarrassed to face box office cashiers, which would make sense for a movie deemed abusive one one hand, and praised for its “positive depiction of an BDSM relationship, on the other.” (Who knew, right?)

Then came the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) about menopausal hot flashes and night sweats lasting much longer than previously thought. In fact, scientists say, women, on average, can now expect symptoms to last for more than seven years, thank you very much. The prior estimate was six months to two years. And just in case you don’t think menopause affects a woman’s libido to any measurable degree, the pharmaceutical company that makes “Osphena” is only happy to enlighten you with their barrage of TV ads complete with the tag line: “Sex after menopause: It shouldn’t have to hurt.” In their inestimable wisdom, these ads are always timed to air at the dinner hour. Pity the poor parent forced to explain why sex hurts to their little one. At least we found something to laugh about with my kids when they were little. (“Daddy, what’s a reptile dysfunction?”)

Next came the debate over what’s being billed as “women’s Viagra”: the little pink pill that is designed to increase a woman’s sex drive. Sprout Pharmaceuticals of Raleigh, North Carolina, the company that makes flibanserin, has submitted the drug twice, but the FDA has rejected it, saying the drug did not have “very robust effectiveness.” There were also questions about side effects, which included nausea, dizziness and sleepiness. Meanwhile, consider the side effects of Viagra, which include, but are not limited to, vision changes or sudden vision loss; sudden hearing loss; chest pain; nausea; sweating; general ill feeling; irregular heartbeat; swelling in hands, ankles, or feet; shortness of breath; warmth or redness in the face, neck or chest; headache; upset stomach; or diarrhea.

But Sprout studies say the pill increases a woman’s desire by 53 percent, decreases their distress by 29 percent and doubles their number of satisfying sexual events.

Well, now.

Do you know how many drugs have been approved by the FDA to treat male sexual dysfunction? Twenty five. How many for woman? Zero. Zip. Nada.

It is important to note that the treatment of female sexual dysfunction is more complex than in males. While erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra work to increase blood flow, flibanserin corrects an imbalance in the brain of certain neurotransmitters that control desire and inhibition.

Still, sheer numbers lay bare (sorry) the disparity. In 1999, a JAMA survey found that 43 percent of U.S. women had some type of sexual dysfunction, as opposed to 31 percent of men.

The treatment paradigm for women suffering from a waning sex drive has been sorely lacking. As Cindy Whitehead, the founder of Sprout, said in an NPR interview: “Let’s take a drug that works in men, and let’s see if it works in women.”

That would be testosterone cream. I know this because I got a prescription for it and the woman at the compound pharmacy where I picked it up made such embarrassing comments to me (she went on and on about how she chased her boyfriend around the couch) that I would rather buy a dozen tickets to “Fifty Shades of Grey” in broad daylight than turn around and face all those people in line behind me whose stares and stifled giggles was painfully humiliating.

As the week came to a close, the “Fifty Shades” frenzy seemed to dying down, and women seemed resigned to however long their menopausal symptoms would last. But on the little pink pill front, there is no more time for patience. Sprout announced that it was resubmitting its pill for FDA reconsideration next month and a decision is expected sometime this fall. Considering the fact that Viagra has been on the market for 16 years, there’s something very wrong and very chauvinist about how long women have been waiting.