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Newsweek lets women down

October 5th, 2005

Dr Petra

In the latest edition of Newsweek there’s a very worrying story ‘Help for Low Libidos’. At a time when we expect the media to be transparent and impartial it’s disturbing to see something that seems (knowingly or unknowingly) to be an advertisement for the pharmaceutical industry.

The story by Barbara Kantrowitz and Pat Wingert headlines with a doom and gloom message “Inside the struggle to treat women with dwindling sex drives”.

In its opening paragraph it continues with this theme, constructing a lack of female desire as not only a medical problem, but a life threatening crisis: “Some medical conditions take courage or desperation to face”. It then describes how a clinician sees these symptoms “in the eyes of her patients every day when they plead for help with their dwindling libidos”. Patients are described as being desperate to get back their desire and need immediate attention.

I’m pretty certain there are many, many things women want immediate attention for – the quick and accurate diagnosis and treatment of female cancers, help if they have diabetes, heart disease or osteoporosis. Perhaps treatment and support for other medical conditions, or the safe and reliable care of their loved ones. Those are things women want right now, and whilst a lack of sexual desire is distressing, I’m sure if asked many women would not value it above other diseases.

But then a lack of desire isn’t a disease. It’s only in features where pharmaceutical companies have influence that the media makes it so.

Back to the Newsweek article where we’re told these desperate housewives are demanding testosterone – now where would they get the idea they need that from?

Rather than tackling this issue, or the many different ways you can boost desire without using hormones, or that you’d investigate a number of therapeutic and educational options before going down a medical route, the feature tells the reader we don’t know how testosterone works but that nevertheless it does work. Ignoring other evidence from prestigious medical journals that have suggested otherwise this piece of journalism then manages to romp through all the incorrect sex stereotypes the pharmaceutical industry rely upon to increase market interest, and the media love because they sound plausible.

It starts with the old chestnut “Women’s libidos are a lot more complicated than men’s”. Is that so? So all the research that shows how complex male sexuality is can be completely ignored then? Does this also mean that the media, who’re so often touchy about what they see as ‘man baiting’ are happy to reproduce the argument that men are Neanderthals for whom sex is just about a penis going up or down, in and out? Sexual behaviour and response is complex – in both men and women. But to oversimplify it in men harms those who don’t fit the ‘turned on at the press of a light switch’ model so favoured by the pharmaceutical industry. And by making out women to be endlessly complex sets up negative self-fulfilling prophecies and denies women a full range of sexual expression.

But enough of my explanations, over to Newsweek and their amazing explanation of gender differences: “While a man might be aroused by a glance at Pamela Anderson, women need a lot more: a healthy relationship, a healthy body and a healthy mind”

Ah ha! So all guys are straight and they all love Pammie, but us ladies need healthy relationships, bodies and minds before we can get off. Strange then, how men with sexual dysfunction usually have physical or psychological problems – or both. Perhaps Newsweek forgot to read that bit of medical literature in the extensive searching that clearly underpins this piece.

Now whilst the piece does go on to say that patients could be offered counselling, antidepressants or (gasp!) possibly even a sex toy, it doesn’t really go into the many reasons why women may not want sex, nor the increasing pressure on women to be sexual. We don’t know why the women consulting for help at the clinic described in the story are there. Is it because they really feel they’re missing out, or that they’ve been made to feel they’re missing out by the media, or perhaps made to feel bad for not giving their partner what they believe they’re entitled to? Such issues need exploring and would be by a reputable sex positive therapist – followed by giving a woman and her partner more realistic views about sex, more options to deal with her lack of desire (should she wish it) and more confidence to vocalise her needs.

Newsweek, however, begs to differ saying “But for some women, a dose of testosterone is the best option”. Really? And where’s the evidence base for that? Particularly since the article admits “almost no testosterone treatments designed for women are currently on the market”. Surely that tells you something about both the evidence base for this treatment and the supposed need for it. If it isn’t available why are women asking for it?

The story continues with the terrible plight of women explained. Since there are no drugs for them, practitioners have to give them treatments designed for men. They have to “guess at what the right dose of testosterone should be for women”. So busy are the authors in creating this tale into one of women-as-deprived-of-much-needed-medication they don’t stop and ask about the ethics or long-term health implications of giving women untested medications designed for men in uncertain doses.

Because there’s been concern about the efficacy and reliability of both testosterone treatments for women lacking desire, and the research underpinning it, the FDA did not approve the Intrinsa patch last year. The evidence behind the FDA’s decision is well documented and supported by the medical profession, yet Newsweek spin this into a travesty for all the countless women who so desperately need testosterone in order to have sex: “But what are doctors supposed to do in the meantime? They’re the ones looking into the eyes of the real-life women whose marriages are falling apart because they never want to have sex”.

In a feature supposedly about women’s health, exactly whose interests are being served here?

The Newsweek feature makes it sounds like all medics are in favour of testosterone as a readily available treatment for women’s lack of desire. A more accurate picture is that many medics are concerned about the influence of pharmaceutical companies inflating the problem to create a market. Others are concerned this has become an elitist ‘disease’ of the West that detracts from the very real needs of women on low incomes, or from developing countries. Still more medics are in favour of following other forms of help for women who report a lack of desire – increased education or access to contraception, improved physical or psychological health, treatment of underlying medical conditions that could cause additional sexual problems, encouragement of masturbation or experience sexual pleasure, or relationship counselling. And many medics won’t make decisions until they’ve read the evidence, which in this area is still very sketchy and subject to conflict of interest.

I thought that’s also what investigative journalists did. Perhaps those who’ve not been hoodwinked by the pharmaceutical industry are still capable of this.

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