The drug companies that are using feminism against you

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Miri Forbes

US drug company Sprout is cynically using the language of feminism to rally public support for the FDA to approve its ...

US drug company Sprout is cynically using the language of feminism to rally public support for the FDA to approve its new sexual dysfunction drug, flibanserin.

I’ll start with three important facts about myself: 1) I’ve just finished my PhD in Psychology, which examined how and why sexual dysfunction is so closely related to depression and anxiety; 2) I am passionate about increasing awareness and resources directed towards sexual dysfunction research, and particularly in advancing our understanding of women’s sexual dysfunction; and 3) I’m a feminist.

It may seem that no one should be more excited than me about Even The Score - a campaign to “give women the options they deserve for the treatment of sexual dysfunction” that has received widespread media attention and rallied the support of women’s groups and feminists in the USA and around the world. But I’m not excited at all. Quite the opposite.

Even The Score is a deceptive public relations campaign pressuring the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to act for women “by approving the first-ever drug to treat the most common form of women’s sexual dysfunction.” The drug they are promoting is called flibanserin, which is marketed as treating chronically low desire for women. The campaign is founded and driven by Sprout - the pharmaceutical company that owns flibanserin - and uses propaganda wrapped in feminist language to promote its cause.

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Flibanserin was originally designed as an antidepressant, and has been rejected twice by the FDA for failing the safety and effectiveness regulations that are in place to protect the public. Most recently, it was rejected after an FDA advisory committee (comprised mostly of women) voted 11-0 to reject the drug because the drug’s risks and benefits were unacceptable, and 10-1 that the effectiveness data was lacking. Studies have consistently found underwhelming effects for the drug, compared to placebo. Side effects include nausea, dizziness, fatigue, sleepiness, sedation and an increased frequency of rare but serious adverse events including depression, unintentional injury, upper respiratory tract infection, and fainting. Over a third of women in the company-sponsored trial of flibanserin experienced side effects, one in 25 women described the side effects as “severe”, and one in seven women dropped out as a result of the side effects.

Despite all of this, Even The Score still blames sexism in the FDA for the rejection of flibanserin and calls feminists to action: “Sign the petition today and become an advocate for women’s sexual health equity.” The language of Even The Score resonates with every feminist, but this campaign has nothing to do with gender equality and everything to do with vested interests rallying public support for a minimally effective drug that must be taken daily, causes significant side effects, and hasn’t been evaluated for long-term safety.

Learning why some women experience chronically low desire and developing effective treatments for women who are distressed by low desire are crucial areas for future research. Even The Score has taken this worthy cause and cloaked their ineffective solution and clear profit motives within a cynical invocation of feminism. If this misleading campaign successfully bullies the FDA into approving flibanserin, we will be on a slippery slope away from evidence-based drug regulation.

This campaign is an important reminder to keep our wits about us. I’m delighted that feminism has a bandwagon, but let’s check for ulterior motives before we let pharmaceutical companies hitch their wagon to ours.

Miri Forbes is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre for Emotional Health, Macquarie University.