Female Desire Pill, interview with Ellen Barnard

2/27/15 update: I interviewed Ellen Barnard about the female desire pill on 2/2/14. I’m bringing this post to the top because of the attention that “Nothing Is Wrong With Your Sex Drive” (published today in the New York Times) is getting. 

I plan to write more about this myself, and there’s a good section already in The Ultimate Guide to Sex After 50: How to Maintain – or Regain! – a Spicy, Satisfying Sex Life which I hope you’ll want to read. — Joan 

Desire in a pill?
(originally published 2/2/14)
Researchers are working on drugs to treat low desire in
women. Could a desire pill really work? Do we even want it? 
To learn more, I
one of the top sex educators, Ellen Barnard, co-owner of A Woman’s Touch Sexuality Resource Center.


JP: What’s the state of current research into a female
desire drug?
EB: A variety of drugs are being investigated in clinical
trials, most in phase 2 trials. No drug has been approved for the treatment of
low desire for women, also known as Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD).
JP: How are these drugs supposed to
EB: Some of these drugs work on brain chemicals; some are sex hormone-based (testosterone); others primarily work to increase physical arousal through an increase in blood to the clitoris. Most of the
medications that are being investigated are designed to either overcome
inhibition or lack of motivation, or flood the person with such strong physical
sensations that she cannot ignore them easily. Or they manipulate the reward
system of the brain in ways that increase
the drive toward that sexual jackpot.
The question is whether a drug that pushes a woman into
being more interested in sex is safe, healthy, or would even be effective over
the long term. Many of the drugs being investigated have a variety of side
effects, and some are quite undesirable. Testosterone can cause excess hair
growth, acne, lowering of the voice, and a decrease in good cholesterol, for
example. Other drugs show the potential for abuse, either by the woman herself or
by a partner who hopes to have a more willing lover.
JP:  Why is sexual desire so complicated for women and
seemingly so easy for men?
EB: It isn’t, actually. Men have troubles with desire too,
and their issues have many of the same origins as women’s do. However, we live
in a culture that reinforces men for a high interest in sex, and generally does
not see a high interest in sex to be a positive thing in women, unless a woman
is less interested in sex than her partner, and that lower interest causes
tension between them or distress in her. But even with culture condoning high
desire for men, approximately 20% experience low desire. For more info, here isa good overview.
JP: How does female desire work?
EB: Desire is the cognitive recognition of sexual
interest. So it’s an idea, not a physiologic process, though it results in a combination
of brain and body responses. Desire may be first recognized as a thought, or it
may be a thought in response to a physical feeling. Many women believe that we
should feel something first, that sex starts with a twinge in the vulva or
elsewhere in the body, that she interprets as sexual interest and then allows
to blossom into more sexual interest and then maybe into sexual activity. If physiologic
signal is not as obvious because of aging, health, or stress, she may no longer
get the signal, and so she does not notice the thought.
Women who have experienced sex as painful have a feedback
loop that tells them that sex will hurt, and so they shut off any thought of
sex to avoid the pain. If a woman is able to get rid of the pain, she will
still have to convince her subconscious that sex is safe. Once she does that,
her thoughts of sexual interest often become more frequent.
The same would be true of relationship health. For a woman
in a healthy, rewarding relationship, the thought of sex is a safe thought and
is likely to mean that she will experience pleasure if she acts on that
thought, so she pursues sexual activity. Sex requires the feeling of safety. When
there is tension, distrust, fear, anger, etc., the mind does not perceive sex as
safe or pleasurable, so will not express desire.
When you think about how complicated desire is for women
(and men as well), you can see that it’s pretty complicated to consider a
medication to address the root causes of most of these issues.
JP: What’s the
bottom line?
EB: The bottom line
is that drugs do best when there is a single, knowable cause for a symptom and
the drug directly addresses that cause by reducing or removing it. Sexual
desire is complicated, varies a lot from person to person, and has many moving
parts. The idea that a drug could be developed to change desire is pretty
far-fetched once you understand it that way, and one of our biggest fears is
that you end up with a drug that has pretty wide effects and some nasty,
unintended side effects.
We would prefer to
address desire issues in ways that give individuals more control and more
understanding of their mind and body connections so that they can do their own
problem-solving and not be reliant on a pill or a doctor.
Most people
can increase their experience of desire through a combination of getting
healthy, having a good body image, having a safe and trusting intimate
relationship, getting enough sleep, lowering stress and distractions, reducing
pain, and learning how to have pleasurable sexual experiences on a regular