The world’s first female arousal drug, Lybrido, could be on the market as soon as 2016, according to Daniel Bergner’s New York Times Magazine cover story, adapted from his forthcoming book,What Do Women Want? (itself based on an earlier Times mag storyof the same name). Lybrido’s developers expect the FDA green light a larger set of trials soon, but the Times‘ early glimpse suggests the drug offers a more contradictory promise than its male equivalents.
In fact, our tendency to refer to Lybrido as the female Viagra, for example, reflects a “misconception,” according to Bergner. Even though Lybrido was rushed into development thanks to the financial success of Viagra, works a lot like Viagra, and is, chemically speaking, half Viagra, “a female-desire drug would be something else,” he writes. “It would reach into the psyche.” Here, reaching into the psyche means turning up levels of impulsive, lustful dopamine and turning down levels of calming, inhibiting serotonin. (For “a sizable segment of the undesiring,” the serotonin has been turned way up by libido-diminishing antidepressants.) One needn’t reach into the psyche of men in order to cure sexual dysfunction, Bergner explains, because if you “give a man an erection … his sensitized nerves and enhanced feelings of power are going to feed his drive.”
Mind-body debate aside, the most glaring difference between Viagra and Lybrido is the latter’s implied stake in monogamy. Drug trials haven’t included women who weren’t in long-term monogamous relationships. Their results would have to be thrown out since “with or without chemical aids, new lovers bring surges of lust.” In fact, Bergner marshals an array of evidence suggesting that “for many women, the cause of their sexual malaise appears to be monogamy itself.” In experiments in Canada and the Netherlands, women showed a diminished physical response with each repeated viewing of a porn clip and responded more strongly to audio erotica about strangers than about friends. In a long-term German survey of couples, lust dropped off more steeply for women than men. (But, pro tip, it remained higher in women who didn’t co-habitate.) Lori Brotto, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who works with patients with clinically low libidos, a.k.a. Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, told the Times, “The impact of relationship duration is something that comes up constantly … Sometimes I wonder whether it isn’t so much about libido as it is about boredom.”
Happily, these studies do a lot to loosen the grip of evolutionary psychology’s “parental investment” theory on our collective imagination. It says that women, equipped with fewer eggs than men are sperm, and tasked with time-sucking gestation and nursing, are hardwired to lust after the same provider forever while naturally wandering-eyed men spread their seed, effectively justifying Victorian mores about female sexuality. But by offering a pharmacological cure, Lybrido is still reinforcing the idea there’s something wrong with non-monogamous women.
Lybrido’s Dutch creator, Adriaan Tuiten, designed it in order to help understand why his long-term girlfriend dumped him. (“The breakup inspired a lifelong quest to comprehend female emotion through biochemistry and led to his career as a psychopharmacologist.”) And Lybrido volunteers — the self-described “team player” girlfriend of five years and the divorced mother “who sensed herself slipping into the same sexual disinterest with her current partner that she recognized from the slow death of her marriage”— signed up for the drug trial so they wouldn’t have to get divorced, find someone new to sleep with, or open up their marriage to have a satisfying sex life. Viagra cures erectile dysfunction, but Lybrido might just cure extramarital desire.
All the pro-monogamy testing of Lybrido is apparently not enough to stop drug manufacturers’ from worrying that the pill — like the Pill before it — will usher in the downfall of humanity. Bergner reports that “more than one adviser to the industry” told him companies think the FDA might reject a drug that worked too well out of concern it would lead to “female excesses, crazed binges of infidelity, societal splintering.” For the past decade, the existence of Viagra has served as a signpost of society’s unequal investment in men’s sexual satisfaction. (Hence its frequent rhetorical use in the debate over Obama’s birth control mandate.) But I’m not eager to embrace Lybrido as an equalizer if it only works well enough to protect marriage, and if its development, as one gynecologist who has run female desire drug trials told the Times, is wracked by “fear of creating the sexually aggressive woman.”