Gender Bias Strikes Again

That ‘female Viagra’ isn’t yet on the market likely has little to do with concern for women’s health.

In this Sept. 27, 2013, file photo, a tablet of flibanserin sits on a brochure for Sprout Pharmaceuticals in the company's Raleigh, N.C., headquarters. Sprout Pharmaceuticals, the makers of the twice-rejected pill intended to boost libido in women, will make a third attempt this week at convincing regulators to approve the drug as the first prescription treatment for low sexual desire in women.

Getting her in the mood.

By June 5, 2015 | 12:40 p.m. EDT+ More

The gender gap is often discussed – and rightly so – in terms of pay equity, with women making an average of 78 cents to every dollar a man earns, and, in terms of promotions, with women comprising a tiny fraction of CEOs. But if you really want to get a clear picture of how women are regarded, look at the government’s attitude toward men’s sex pills versus women’s sex pills.

Men, of course, have access to Viagra and other pills containing the drug sildenafil, which addresses erectile dysfunction. Sophomoric jokes and tortuously cryptic TV commercials aside, a healthy sex life is part of a healthy life, and there’s no reason men should not have the medicines available to have one. The same ought to go for women. But women hoping to obtain drugs that enhance female sexual desire are having a much more difficult time of it.

[NEW: Big Pharma’s ‘Female Viagra’ Isn’t a Feminist Crusade]

In a breakthrough, an FDA advisory panel gave an initial go-ahead for the approval of flibanserin, a drug designed to improve sexual desire in otherwise healthy women. Final approval is not assured, and the drug has been rejected before, with admonitions that it can cause side effects of fainting, nausea, dizziness, sleepiness and low-blood pressure – things the FDA previously has said outweigh the benefits of the drug.

That sounds like the FDA is concerned about women’s health and safety. But it’s awfully suspect when one considers the history of sex pills that end up benefiting men, and the legions of side effects those pills can involve. In all cases below, I’ve taken out the bullet points to save space, but what follows is a sampling of these side effects.

There’s Viagra, the manufacturers of which warn could cause: “headache; flushing; upset stomach; abnormal vision, such as changes in color vision (such as having a blue color tinge) and blurred vision; stuffy or runny nose; back pain; muscle pain; nausea; dizziness; rash.”

If you look at the possible side effects of sildenafil, the list gets much longer. Here’s some things to worry about: “Bladder pain; burning feeling in the chest or stomach; burning, crawling, itching, numbness, prickling, ‘pins and needles’, or tingling feelings; cloudy or bloody urine; dizziness; increased frequency of urination; indigestion; pain on urination; stomach upset; tenderness in the stomach area.”

[SEE: Editorial Cartoons on Hillary Clinton]

More rare side effects can include:

Abnormal vision; anxiety; behavior change similar to drunkenness; bleeding of the eye; blurred vision; bone pain; breast enlargement; chest pain; chills; cold sweats; confusion; convulsions (seizures); cool and pale skin; deafness or hearing loss; decrease in amount of urine or the frequency of urination; decreased vision; difficulty in concentrating; dizziness or lightheadedness especially when getting up from a lying or sitting position suddenly; double vision; drowsiness; dry eyes; dry mouth; dryness; redness; scaling, or peeling of the skin; excessive hunger; eye pain; fainting or faintness; fast, irregular, or pounding heartbeat; feeling of something in the eye; fever or chills; headache (severe or continuing); increase in the size of the pupil; increased sweating; increased thirst; lower back or side pain; migraine headache; nausea (severe or continuing); nervousness; nightmares; numbness of the hands; painful, swollen joints; prolonged, painful erection of penis; redness, burning, or swelling of the eyes; redness, itching, or tearing of the eyes; restless sleep; seeing shades of colors differently than before; sensitivity to light; shakiness; skin lesions with swelling; skin paleness; skin rash; hives, or itching; skin ulcers; slurred speech; sore throat; sudden weakness; swelling of the face, hands, feet, or lower legs; trouble breathing; twitching of the muscles; unusual feeling of burning or stinging of the skin; unusual tiredness or weakness; vision changes; vision loss, temporary.

Does that sound like the FDA is driven largely by concern for protecting people, male and female, from uncomfortable or dangerous side effects? Or is it, perhaps, that the FDA is much more eager to approve a drug that enables men to have sex than a drug that women don’t need to have sex, but only need to desire or enjoy sex?

The argument that the FDA is concerned about women also falls apart when one looks at the development of the birth control pill. The pill has been tweaked since its launch in 1960, but the doses were much higher when it was introduced. So high was the desire to get the pill onto the market, it was disbursed to women despite being suspected of causing blood clots, strokes and possibly cancer. As early as 1962, the manufacturer of one pill, Enovid, received reports of 132 cases of blood clots, and 11 of those resulted in death. (The manufacturer, G. D. Searle and Company, denied its pill was the cause.) Even the pills being dispensed now are connected to such side effects as nausea, intermenstrual bleeding, breast tenderness, mood swings, weight gain, decreased libido and certain vision changes. Oh, and the increased possibility of breast, cervical and liver cancer (although the risk of endometrial and ovarian cancer appear to be reduced with pill use).

[READ: Is Third Time the Charm for ‘Female Viagra’?]

Yes, the pill greatly added to women’s sexual freedom, since they had a very reliable way of avoiding pregnancy. But it also was a big boost for men, who could ask (or presume) that women were on the pill, freeing them from the great tragedy of having to use a condom.

So what’s the lesson here? Is it that men have a right to have sex and women don’t? Or that women don’t have a right to want or enjoy sex? After all, a woman with low sexual desire can still have sex – willingly or not – with a man. But a man with erectile dysfunction is going to need a little blue pill to do the deed.

And if there’s any uncertainty about how the federal government views male and female sexuality, just take a look at the Affordable Care Act. Religion-associated employers are under no obligation to cover birth control pills under women’s health insurance (even if the women themselves are not associated with said church). And thanks to the Supreme Court, certain companies whose owners have a religious objection to birth control can exert the same control over their female employees. Men, however, still can have their Viagra covered. And no one’s checking to make sure that the men who get the prescription pill are using it to have intimate relations with their wives alone. There’s another gender-bias problem happening. And it’s in the form of a little pill.

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