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Journalists conned by contraception research

May 26th, 2005

Dr Petra

Watch out! There’s a new danger facing women. It’s the oral contraceptive pill (OCP).

That’s not exactly news, I hear you say. People have been worried about the side effects of the OCP for years – thrombosis, weight gain, headaches.

No. Today’s shocking news is that the OCP may harm women’s sex lives. It must be serious – check out these increasingly frantic headlines:

Can the pill dull a woman’s desire forever? – New Scientist
The Pill may cause permanent loss of sex drive – Independent
Not tonight dear – I’ve been taking the Pill
– Times Online
Pill ruins women’s sex drive – This is London
Pill can ruin sex drive permanently – Daily Mail
Pill blamed for wrecking women’s sex lives – Life Style Extra

Where’s the evidence?
This story came from last week’s meeting of American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists in Washington DC. Irwin Goldstein and associates presented research they’d completed on 125 women attending a sexual dysfunction clinic. 62 of these women were on the Pill, 40 had taken it in the past, and 23 had never taken it at all. The OCP decreases testosterone production (amongst other things) by increasing levels of sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG). This was known to cause a drop in sexual desire in some women, but it was believed this could be reversed once she’d stopped taking the pill.

But Goldstein and his team are now trying to prove that the effects of the OCP devastate women’s sex lives when they take the pill and afterwards. Their study found levels of SHBG were seven times higher in pill users, and four times higher in ex-pill users than in the women who’d never taken the pill. This was the basis for their evidence that the pill destroys desire.

So what’s the problem?

Well it’s an issue of basic health reporting. Over 100 million women worldwide use the OCP. The study that’s caused this furore is based on 125 women – a very small number in comparison to the number of women on the pill. Nor are the women studied representative. These are women being treated in a sexual dysfunction clinic. It cannot be stated that the OCP caused their problems without comparing them with a sample of women who’re using OCP but don’t report sexual problems.

In the past, Irwin Goldstein has gone on record about homoeopathic ‘sex drugs’ saying: “Unless there are appropriate, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies for these products, I wouldn’t use them and I wouldn’t try them”. He’s right. Which is why we should follow his advice and not trust his small-sample study of 125 women. Without a bigger sample, a more robust study, and a comparison group of women, these findings are meaningless.

You’d have thought that health correspondents writing these stories would have spotted this, but they didn’t. They didn’t notice that this research hasn’t been published in a reputable peer-reviewed medical journal. It was just discussed at a conference meeting, which doesn’t mean the wider scientific community endorses it. Mind you they also all reported that Irwin Goldstein was from Boston University, but he’s no longer working at the college’s Institute of Sexual Medicine.

But that’s not the real story

The journalists leapt on this story because it suits their agenda – science, scare stories and sex. They didn’t critique the study, nor check the facts. Which is why they also missed what’s really going on. Journalists were presenting this as a tragedy for women – perhaps seeing the kindly scientists as freeing women from the hormonal trap of the OCP.

Any health reporter or journalist who fell for that one really isn’t doing their job. Irwin Goldstein is not averse to medicalising women’s sexual behaviour. He was keen to prescribe Viagra for women even though there was no evidence to suggest it worked – or was safe. He has close links to a pharmaceutical company, and most certainly is keen to look at links between testosterone and female sexual functioning.

Spotted the conflict of interest yet? Or have you got the real story?

It’s this. If sex doctors can show that taking the OCP destroys desire, both during the time you’re on the pill and after, then they can find a ‘cure’. Rather than getting women to take fewer hormones, you can be sure this research is setting the scene so women can be made anxious about sexual functioning – and in the future persuaded to take extra medication to boost desire. 100 million women on the pill – and these researchers claiming it saps desire during and after it’s use? Ker-ching!! Anyone else see the dollar signs in these doctor’s eyes? Not to mention the pharmaceutical companies who support them.

So what should women do?

Certainly women shouldn’t ditch the OCP on the basis of this research. It’s too small-scale to make any reliable conclusions. The Pill can reduce menstrual discomfort, regulate periods, and protect against pregnancy – all things that can cause women sexual problems.

This current study and the panic it’s causing is also a smokescreen to women’s real problems. All the while you’re blaming the pill or getting het up about hormones, you’ll be distracted from the real causes of lack of desire – partners being crap in bed, women not feeling confident to explore their desires, or communicate them.

Sure, blame hormones and suggest a medical cure, but teaching women to masturbate, to enjoy their bodies, to explore fantasies – all are far more powerful than the effects on desire the pill may have.

If you feel the pill has affected your sexual desire, first off, rule out any other factors such as other physical and emotional health problems, relationship difficulties, or past sexual abuse. Explore masturbation, broaden your fantasy life, try and share those feelings with a partner. Teach them how to turn you on. If you still find you don’t want sex, then review your contraception with your GP or Family Planning Clinic. But don’t just ditch the pill because the papers said it was bad for your sex life.

Journalists who can’t do their homework and just copy stories without question are at risk of being called lazy. But those who put women’s reproductive health at risk with scare stories should question whether they deserve to call themselves ‘journalists’ at all.

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