We talk about erectile dysfunction a lot. As Dame Products recently highlighted by suing the MTA, we are so comfortable talking about erectile dysfunction that ads for erection pills are allowed on the subway, even though sex toy adverts are banned. But what of female sexual dysfunction? It is, after all, a genuine problem, with many peri- and post-menopausal women in particular reporting trouble with their libidos and sexual response. Do we do enough to help women who struggle with sexual dysfunction? Or do our assumptions about women and sexual desire get in the way?
Towards the end of June, pharma company Amag Pharmaceuticals announced that they had received FDA approval for Vyleesi — an injectable drug aimed at treating Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD) in women. My initial reaction on hearing this news was, “Finally! This is a huge opportunity for women with sexual issues which have previously been ignored!”
That mainstream society is starting to acknowledge HSDD (and potentially other forms of female sexual dysfunction) is a huge opportunity for our industry.
For those not familiar with HSDD, it’s a condition that has been recognized since the 1970s, though rarely talked about. Women with HSDD tend to respond less to sexual stimuli, with many reporting much lower libido, and it can often lead to them avoiding intimacy or suffering from anxiety because they are not able to have the sex life they would like — or used to enjoy in the past.
Female sexual dysfunction is a tricky topic to cover, because there is still so much that needs further study and discussion. Female sexuality does not tend to receive as much attention when it comes to research, and as such it is — and perhaps always has been — subject to more than its fair share of assumptions. Are women naturally less keen on sex than men? Modern “accepted wisdom” seems to be that they are, and this may be one reason why loss of libido or sexual function in women is rarely discussed: the answer being, “Well of course you’re not that into sex — you’re a woman!” Even typical advice for post-menopausal women (“Use lots of lubricant!”) focuses mostly on physically preparing yourself for penetrative sex, rather than exploring the often-complex factors that contribute to sexual desire.
Yet this cultural assumption really is just that — an assumption. You only need to glance back in time to find that the opposite narrative used to dominate: women were seen as too sex-obsessed, compared to men. Medieval historian Dr. Eleanor Janega gave a fascinating talk on this subject at this year’s Eroticon sex writing conference in the U.K., explaining bluntly that: “in the medieval period, it was generally assumed that women were DTF.” You can read an overview of the topic in her excellent blog post on women and desire.
So when we talk about female sexual dysfunction, we need to be aware firstly that there is a lot of cultural baggage attached to our thinking, and be careful not to base diagnoses or discussions of what’s “normal” around unhelpful stereotypes, which can lead to women’s genuine concerns being dismissed. The news that a treatment for HSDD has been approved by the FDA is a welcome one: perhaps there will be more women who feel comfortable talking to their doctors about their sexual experiences if they know that there is a treatment which may help.
However, medical interventions should not be limited solely to drugs. Viagra is not the only treatment for erectile dysfunction: talking therapies can help where anxiety or other psychological issues are involved, and of course sex toys which induce orgasm without the need for an erection are also a valuable tool. Likewise, for those with HSDD, sex toys can provide pleasure and allow people to explore their bodies on their own, often more efficiently and without the pressure that may come from a partnered interaction.
That mainstream society is starting to acknowledge HSDD (and potentially other forms of female sexual dysfunction) is a huge opportunity for our industry. Though we may often get written off as frivolous, our products — be they sex toys or advice guides or adult videos — have long been a source of pleasure and exploration for those seeking to regain sexual function. Sex toys, porn and other adult products aren’t solely a means to “spice things up” in the bedroom — they are often a vital way for individuals to reconnect with their sexual desire. So, as doctors may begin to prescribe drugs like Vyleesi, we need to be asking the question: What are they recommending alongside it? Are sex toys on the table, as another option for women who struggle with HSDD? And if not, why not?
There have been plenty of discussions recently about the “Orgasm Gap”: the fact that straight women generally report having far fewer orgasms from sex than straight men, as few as one for every three the guy experiences. Sex toy companies have done fantastic work centering the importance of non-penetrative sex (including toys!) in this discussion, and helping to normalize the use of sex toys to enhance pleasure and “close the gap.” Now that drugs like Vyleesi are making their way to market, it’s important that we get involved in these discussions too, as we do with conversations about erectile dysfunction, and the different sex toy options that are available. While you’re unlikely to get prescribed a vibrator any time soon, it’s important that medical professionals are aware of the options out there, and know what to recommend to those who need help.
Julia Margo is the co-founder of Hot Octopuss.