One woman’s fight against the pink Viagra

Thea Cacchioni travels the world talking about pink Viagra. The miracle drug doesn't exist yet. And the Simon Fraser University sex scholar hopes it never does. "I'm not a wet blanket," said Cacchioni, during a guest lecture at Yukon College on Monday.

Thea Cacchioni travels the world talking about pink Viagra.

The miracle drug doesn’t exist yet.

And the Simon Fraser University sex scholar hopes it never does.

“I’m not a wet blanket,” said Cacchioni, during a guest lecture at Yukon College on Monday.

But she doesn’t buy into the mainstream “idea that if you’re not highly sexualized there’s something wrong with you,” either.

Sexuality is complicated.

And the medicalization of sex is making it worse, she said.

Cacchioni blames Pfizer’s Viagra revolution.

Labelled “the miracle drug,” Viagra was a blockbuster, making Pfizer more money that any other drug since Prozac.

It’s the most strategically branded drug in history, said Cacchioni.

Even the name was carefully considered, melding the word “vigor” with “Niagara.”

To make the little blue pill more palatable, doctors changed their diagnoses.

Instead of labeling men as impotent, which comes with implications “that it’s all in the mind,” men were now diagnosed with “erectile dysfunction,” or ED.

This rebrands the problem as a physical condition, which removes the stigma, said Cacchioni.

Thanks in part to its insidious ads creeping into email inboxes, Viagra continues to reach a wider and wider audience.

But there is a dark side to the drug.

Pfizer has suppressed data showing links between Viagra and vision loss, said Cacchioni.

And its first year on the market alone, there were more than 100 deaths due to heart failure after men popped one of the little blue pills.

Beyond the physical dangers lurk bigger social issues.

“It suggests that sex for men is just an erection,” said Cacchioni.

‘But there is more to it than that.

“How does Viagra affect relationships?”

Popping a pill that costs $20 can put immense pressure on a couple to have sex, even if the woman isn’t in the mood, she said.

Maybe this is why 50 per cent of Viagra prescriptions aren’t refilled, said Cacchioni.

And perhaps that’s why Pfizer is so intent on finding a pink version of its pill for women.

It’s potentially a very lucrative market, she said.

“Women are greater consumers of medical products than men and visit the doctor more, often because they take their kids.”

In keeping with its rebranding of men’s “erectile dysfunction,” Pfizer and its supportive medical community determined 43 per cent of women suffer “female sexual dysfunction.”

If that many women have it, how can it be a “dysfunction?” said Cacchioni with a laugh.

Vogue magazine jumped on the bandwagon stating: In the first sexual revolution, women asserted their rights to sex – now medicine is working hard to deliver it.

But medicine is having trouble finding a one-size-fits-all pill to cure women’s sex problems.

In an attempt to copy Viagra, which works on a vascular level by increasing blood flow, the Eros was created.

Basically a suction pump that attaches to the clitoris, the Eros did not get the same flashy marketing campaign as its sex toy counterparts.

“It cost $375, and it’s very doom and gloom,” said Cacchioni.

The hormonal approach is even more dubious.

The idea is to increase desire by prescribing women testosterone.

“But it’s not approved and we don’t know the long-term side effects,” she said.

Going back to the notion that for women desire is all in the brain, a nasal spray was invented to stimulate women.

The only problem was the side effects, which included vomiting, nausea and diarrhea.

“Not very sexy,” said Cacchioni.

Next up was a failed anti-depressant called Flibanserin, which the drug company hoped to rebrand as a sex cure that works by changing brain chemistry.

The drug promised to give women “0.7 per cent more sexually satisfying events,” she said.

“That’s not even one sexually satisfying event.”

The drug was nixed by the US Food and Drug Administration, thanks in part to Cacchioni, who testified at the hearing.

Part of the New View Campaign, a grassroots network set up “to challenge the distorted and oversimplified messages about sexuality that the pharmaceutical industry relies on to sell its new drugs,” Cacchioni and her colleagues are heating things up for Big Pharma.

“We’re concerned about the power of the pharmaceutical industry to define sex,” she said.

“It’s not just man plus woman plus penis plus vagina equals orgasm.”

And Big Pharma is creating illness categories to sell pills, said Cacchioni.

“They’re disease mongering.”

Now, after the fact, drug companies have admitted that only 10 per cent of women suffer from female sexual dysfunction – not 43 per cent as originally reported.

And even that is questionable, since it’s not clear what female sexual dysfunction is, said Cacchioni.

Because pharmaceutical companies have plenty of money, they often spend more on research than governments, she said.

In some cases they are even contracted to write medical textbooks, she added.

There’s also the safety issue, said Cacchioni.

Many of these drugs – the most recent is a testosterone patch for women – have adverse side effects and their long-term effects are unknown.

In the history of women’s health, a lot of drugs have been approved that are not healthy for women, she said.

And what about sexual diversity? she said.

“If we drug ourselves into conforming to a sexual norm, does it limit our sexual diversity?”

Big Pharma is making attempts to woo its critics, including members of the New View Campaign.

So far, Cacchioni hasn’t been approached.

But she’s noticed drug companies appropriating New View’s language – talking about disease mongering, and then arguing that’s not what they’re doing.

“They call us and ask for critiques so they can lobby against it,” she said.

Cacchioni find the whole thing “quite insulting.”

But medical fixes – including the growing popularity of labial plastic surgery -“will always be popular because a lot of people feel quite desperate, given the emphasis placed on sex,” she said.

At the end of April, Cacchioni is hosting a conference on the medicalization of sex at SFU.

For more information go to: http://www.sfu.ca/gsws/MedicalizationofSex.html.

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com