Female sexual dysfunction: Science or marketing?

A new report says drug companies have played a key role in defining and studying desire disorders

Published October 1, 2010 10:35PM (EDT)


The idea of the pharmaceutical industry inventing, and promoting, a medical condition in order to cash in on its treatment is not a new one. But journalist Ray Moynihan makes a compelling case in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal for how Big Pharma has not only manipulated research on female sexual dysfunction but also helped the medical community to define it. (I swear it's a mere coincidence that I wrote about the commercialization of female pleasure just yesterday.) Moynihan writes:

Corporate employees have worked with paid key opinion leaders to help develop the disease entity; they have run prevalence surveys to portray it as widespread; and they helped create the measurement and diagnostic instruments to persuade women that their sexual difficulties deserve a medical label and treatment. Drug marketing is merging with medical science in a fascinating and frightening way, raising questions about whether a new approach to defining diseases is warranted.

Moynihan, author of the book "Sex, Lies and Pharmaceuticals," is not an unbiased party himself, having campaigned for several years now against the formulation of female sexual dysfunction. However, he presents several facts that stand strongly on their own, as The Guardian summarizes:

In 1999, it was claimed that 43% of women suffered from sexual dysfunction. Two of that survey's authors disclosed financial ties to the drugs industry.

A 2005 survey funded by Pfizer, manufacturer of Viagra, concluded that a third of women in southern Europe lacked interest in sex and 40% in south-east Asia failed to reach orgasm. But, says Moynihan, the figures are grand totals. "When you look at the proportions of women experiencing these sexual difficulties 'frequently', the numbers collapse."

The industry has also "produced questionnaires to enable clinicians easily to diagnose dysfunction in women" -- meaning, companies are playing a crucial role in defining the very conditions for which they are selling miracle cures. Moynihan found that Pfizer, the maker of Viagra, sponsored a course that taught doctors that the supposed 63 percent of women suffering from sexual dysfunction could be treated with, you guessed it, the little blue pill.

None of this is in the least bit surprising, nor are these questionable industry machinations limited to the frenzied search for the so-called pink pill. Consider, though, that Moynihan argued in the BMJ in 2003 that female sexual dysfunction is "the freshest, clearest example we have" of the "corporate sponsored creation of a disease."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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