We don’t need female Viagra, we need feminism

So, there’s a pill to make women want sex? Feminism is all the Viagra I will ever need.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Heard about the new “female Viagra”? Of course you have. Whatever the new wonder drug lacks in efficiency – coming as it does with a serious health warning if taken along with alcohol – it more than makes up for in branding. The campaign that finally got the drug approved by US regulators gave the impression of being an organic, grass-roots movement . . . but it’s the little things that let it down.

When PR companies try to run activist campaigns (a process known as astroturfing, because of the “fake grass roots” involved) there is one mistake they always make. They’re too good at it. Their websites are too slick, their videos too viral, their ­connections too convenient, and there’s a curious lack of infighting and sniping over what the slogans should be and whose turn it is to do the biscuit run. So it is with “Even the Score”, which describes itself as a feminist movement fighting for women’s right to “orgasm equality”. Thousands of women were persuaded to lobby Congress with one aim and one aim only – to get ­Addyi (flibanserin), also known as “female Viagra”, approved by the US drug regulator, after it had been rejected twice on safety grounds. Feminists around the world were mobilised by the “coalition” running Even the Score, a coalition that includes some big drug companies, notably Sprout Pharmaceuticals, the firm that makes Addyi.

As a D-list digital feminist nanocelebrity, I’ve been inundated with requests to eulogise the product on TV and radio. When I questioned an Even the Score spokesperson on radio about its associations with Sprout, she admitted that the company had bought table seats at a fundraising dinner, but otherwise the group keeps its financial operations largely hidden.

Say what you like about Big Pharma hijacking feminist energy – and I’m about to – but it shows how far we’ve come. That feminism is now an approved marketing strategy shows us how powerful and culturally important the movement is. All the same, this is nothing to celebrate.

There are enormous problems with the female Viagra campaign, and the first one is this: feminism must not be co-opted by companies whose ultimate agenda is not women’s welfare but their own bottom line. Feminism is about putting more power in the hands of women, not putting more profit in the pockets of drug and cosmetics companies. Feminist liberation is not, ultimately, something you can buy. It has to be taken, sometimes by force.

I’ve nothing against better living through chemistry. If there truly were a magic pill that made it possible to shag all night with the urgent stamina of an endangered rhinoceros, I’d be tempted. But what Addyi is offering is less hedonistic, working as it does on the brain rather than the genitals. More worryingly, the disease it claims to be treating, “hypoactive sexual desire disorder” or HSDD, is equally suspect. As Rachel Hills, the author of The Sex Myth, told me: “Pharmaceutical companies didn’t start talking about female sexual dysfunction because women were turning up to their doctors in droves complaining about their sex lives. They started talking about it because Viagra was such a gigantic commercial success.”

Technological and medical advances such as the Pill and access to abortion have undoubtedly been central to feminism. So, the one thing that makes Even the Score convincing is that the basic point is unarguable: sexual liberation is a crucial part of women’s liberation. But most of the things that stop women from pursuing and achieving sexual pleasure are not physiological. They are social. They are political. Rape culture. Slut-shaming. Abuse. Homophobia. Religious repression. A culture that clings to the idea that sex is something men do to women, rather than something people do together.

All of this, and more, is what prevents women from “orgasm equality” or, as some of us prefer to call it, sexual freedom. Yes, there are physical ailments that can stifle a woman’s sexuality. “Some of these are unequivocal medical issues,” Hills says, “like vaginismus or vulvodynia, which make it painful for women to have penetrative sex. It’s interesting to me that of all the sexual problems that can affect women, the one they’ve decided to create a drug for is ‘not wanting to have sex enough’.” The definition of HSDD is persistent lack of interest in sex that causes distress to women – or their partners.

Or their partners. Ah, there’s the rub. This drug doesn’t give you more orgasms. What it does – expensively, inefficiently and with side effects – is make women more likely to consent to sex. The typical patient, once you dig into the literature, is supposed to be a woman in middle age who is upset because her partner is upset because she doesn’t want to have sex with him. And isn’t that the age-old quandary? With all the shame and stigma, all the stress and worry, all the work we make them do endlessly and for free, in and out of relationships, how do we get women to keep on saying yes to sex? Well, we can always drug them.

For me, feminism is all the Viagra I’ve ever needed. Feminism is what gave me, slowly and over years of growing and learning, the confidence to claim ownership over my own body and my own desires, as well as the strength to say no whenever I was more in the mood for a cup of tea and a cuddle. I believe that women deserve the right to pursue pleasure. Women deserve the right to say yes to sex without shame or self-censorship. But those rights are nothing without the right to say no, to refuse sex when we don’t want it, and not be humiliated or punished or made to feel unnatural.

It’s not women who are sick. It’s society, with its structural misogyny and crazy, contradictory expectations of women, that is sick as hell. And that’s a much harder pill to swallow. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism