Enjoy Your Disease!

Those wacky pharmaceutical companies are at it again. Just in time for our very postfeminist third millennium, they've gotten together with some nicely paid doctors and invented a new disease. It's called "female sexual dysfunction." Yes, there's another reason to feel bad about your body, and it's just for us.

Ladies, you may be concerned about your lack of representation in the lucrative high-tech industry; you might be wondering why your salaries still don't match those of your male coworkers; and you might be pretty damn annoyed that advertisers have placed you in the "babies and cleaning products" target market. But don't say corporate capitalism never did anything for you. Hell, it's given you your very own sexual disease.

In the Jan. 4 edition of the British Medical Journal, Ray Moynihan traces the pharmaceutical company-sponsored birth and rapid growth of this new ailment. It all started back in 1998, the year the Pfizer company hit the market with Viagra and spawned an industry that was -- despite the experiments of many women who rather enjoyed the drug -- limited to male consumers. When Pfizer began posting sales figures that hovered around $1 billion a year, the question on every pharma exec's mind was how to expand the gender demographic for medicines aimed at correcting sexual-performance problems.

As a kind of answer, the American Foundation for Urologic Disease held an invite-only conference on female sexual dysfunction in late 1998 for what the group called "thought leaders" in the medical and psychiatric fields. Participants in the event published conference proceedings that included a study of female sexual "disorders" related to arousal, desire, orgasm, and pain. According to Moynihan, 18 of the study's 19 authors had "financial interests or other relationships with a total of 22 drug companies."

The debutante ball for female sexual dysfunction came a year later, when the highly respected Journal of the American Medical Association published an article claiming that "43 percent of all women over 18 experience sexual dysfunction." Two of the authors of this article later disclosed that they had links to Pfizer. As for the information they'd gathered to justify that figure, it was massaged out of some data collected for another purpose by University of Chicago professor Ed Laumann, one of the authors of a heavily criticized mid-1990s sex survey published under the title Sex in America. The book included data from 1,500 women, who were labeled "dysfunctional" by analysts if they had experienced more than two months of "sexual problems" in the previous year. These problems included things like sexual-performance anxiety and lack of sexual desire.

Damn, I think I may feel a case of female sexual dysfunction coming on. I'm sure that if you added up all of the times I wasn't feeling sexual desire in the past year, it would come out to two months. Well, almost two months, anyway. Especially if you count the times when I was asleep but not dreaming. I obviously need some medicine! And maybe some expensive tests, too.

Despite certain validity dysfunctions, that 43 percent figure is used by countless health care providers and, of course, by pharmaceutical companies. And the question isn't why our highly educated and allegedly savvy medical practitioners are falling for such dorky data. Docs have always been shills for the pharma industry. What I wonder is what has caused such a chronic case of historical amnesia in so many women -- experts and consumers alike -- who are actually falling for this crap about how almost half of us are sexually dysfunctional. Have we forgotten that just a few decades ago women were told they were abnormal if they had orgasms that weren't caused by penis-vagina penetration? What about a little more than a hundred years ago, when women were told they were normal only if they didn't have orgasms at all? Hello! When it comes to women and sex, science is not always your friend.

And entrepreneurs are happy to exploit the problems medical science has always had with women, because the best way to market something is to make people think they are defective. Then you can introduce commodities that fix the "defect." Sure, we buy stuff to make us happy, but we are far more likely to blow a wad of cash on an item that will make us not sad, not hurt, not ugly, not fill-in-the-culturally-undesirable-state. That's why the marketplace loves a new disease, no matter what kinds of weird, fucked-up motivations are behind it.

Just remember, girls: things go better with sexual dysfunction.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who thinks that if you have female sexual dysfunction you should take two aspirin and call her in the morning. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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