The Pink Viagra
By Hanna Rosin
Saturday, January 18, 2003; Page A23
The latest reality TV show, "The Bachelorette," opened on a feminist note, with the host declaring, "For the first time in television history, a woman will be calling the shots" -- meaning, in this case, choosing her future husband from a lineup of 25 men. But the show's photo montage sent a sly message: Trista Rehn, former Miami Heat cheerleader, getting a topless massage, kissing handfuls of men, endlessly climbing out of some body of water in her bikini -- a string of teasers designed to convey that the show was only pretending that we've all moved beyond the old stereotypes of what kind of woman would do this.
It is in this semi-evolved atmosphere that the makers of Viagra have promised to even the indoor playing field, and do for women what they've already done for men. This month's British Medical Journal reports (dubiously) on the race to find a cure for the latest American epidemic: female sexual disorder, or what used to go by the loaded term "frigidity." The hypothesis is that women's sexuality is not all that different from men's, and the lab coats have gone about their research much the same way they did with Viagra. Blood flow is measured with a device only Austin Powers could have invented: the "photoplethysmograph." Women testing it watch videos of what the scientific literature describes as "attractive people doing pleasant things."
This is what gender equality has brought us: the right to also have our romantic lives treated like a stalled '68 Chevy. Just prop up the axle rigidity and give it a little torque and she's good to go. The British Medical Journal article accuses the pharmaceutical companies of ginning up this disease by mixing up normal reluctance with true hormonal dysfunction. In the most widely reported statistic, the proponents of female sexual disorder argue that 43 percent, or 40 million, of American women suffer from it. They got that number by adding up all the women who said they had experienced one of seven symptoms during the past year, including anxiety about sexual performance or lack of desire for sex.
Researchers never asked the follow-up questions that might have yielded a simpler explanation for the I-have-a-headache pandemic: On that particular night, was your baby mewling next door? Had you just washed a million dishes? Perhaps while your boyfriend or husband was watching football? The kinds of things men might block out but that might make any woman go cold.
Proponents of female sexual disorder would argue that that particular tell-me-about-it-girlfriend line of questioning belittles women -- that drawing such distinctions between men's and women's sexuality just plays into the hands of a hidebound medical establishment eager to tell women their sexual problems are all in their heads, that it's "normal" for women to have suppressed sexual desire.
Chief among them would be Jennifer and Laura Berman, the Doublemint duo-like media stars who run the Boston University Women's Sexual Health Clinic. The sisters ("I'm a psychologist! She's a urologist!") call their research "feminism's next frontier." For them, there is great liberation in the possibility that women's sexual problems are just as likely organic as psychological.
But somehow the Berman laboratory doesn't feel all that empowering. Women write in to the Web site with depressing kitchen-sink dramas: "I have three kids and a husband who gets home at 9 and wants dinner and, well, dessert, but frankly, I'm just too tired." And always the Bermans give the same peppy answer: "Maybe you guys have some 'communications' issues but really you suffer from Post-Partum Androgen Deficiency Syndrome or Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder or Orgasmic Disorder. So just come on in and have your 'levels' checked and everything should be okay."
Then, on their Discovery Health Channel show, the Bermans play the "Bachelorette" game, gussying up the earnest "Our Bodies, Ourselves"-speak in fishnets and leather. Some titles of recent shows include "What Men Want," "Does Cleavage Give You Confidence?" and "Thongs and Fetishes."
Of course, it does seem unfair that men should just get to pop a pill while women have to spend hundreds of hours in therapy discussing boring relationship issues. So what if for most of those 40 million women it's not really a "disease." Can't a girl have some fun?
This may be the pharmaceutical company's sly intention: to blur the boundary between cure and self-improvement, tap into the thrill of the shameful confession. These people must know their market well. Even Trista Rehn, wet bathing suit and all, confessed to Howard Stern last week that she too suffers from Orgasmic Disorder.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.