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Salon’s “female viagra is long overdue” piece fell into the disease mongering trap

The following blog post is from one of our regular contributors, Alan Cassels, a pharmaceutical policy researcher at the University of Victoria, British Columbia,  a journalist, and author of the books  “Seeking Sickness” and “The ABCs of Disease Mongering”. These are his opinions.

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It’s great to see young journalists – all enthusiastic and energetic — weigh into important public debates.  Occasionally, however, you see that in the rush to get a good story they get blinded by their enthusiasm and get taken advantage of.  That’s what I think happened when Julia Reinstein weighed into the debate about the hunt for a female sexual dysfunction pill, a topic that has been almost thoroughly ridiculed and denounced in both film and books.

Her March 27th piece in Salon – “Female Viagra” is long overdue: How the FDA’s double standard hurts women”  – is a sorry, but illustrative tale of a  young journalist having tripped and fallen into the Disease Mongering Trap.  Older journalists may have noticed the signs: gross exaggeration of the prevalence of the disease in question (the 40% of women allegedly suffering from female dysfunction has been roundly debunked—which you can read about here), the sense of injustice in being denied an essential, life-enhancing drug (which many times have been denied approval by the FDA because the drugs are neither essential nor safe), and accusations of gender discrimination, with a chorus of women demanding “a cure for female sexual dysfunction, which has reached epidemic proportions.”

For added spice this piece has a few quotes from gynecologists whose income depends on treating female sexual dysfunction,  including Dr. Irwin Goldstein (one of the central figures in Sex, Lies and Pharmaceuticals and a physician who has been at the forefront of pharmaceuticalizing sexuality.)

To Reinstein’s credit, she does say that “Many people believe female sexual dysfunction is a direct result of depression, anxiety, intimacy issues or a negative relationship with sexuality. Sometimes this is true, in which case symptom management entails therapy, antidepressants or marriage counseling.”, But, and here’s probably the piece’s punchline:  “But more often than most people would expect, the cause is, in fact, physical.”  In other words, the “not tonight honey I’m tired” excuse has to do with physiology and luckily for women that physiology will soon be alterable by a pill.

My advice to the author next time she wants to write about this topic is to place a call to Leonore Tiefer, who has been at the forefront of these issues for over two decades.  She excoriated the “Even the Score” campaign in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, and the main difference between her writing and those apparent boosters for the first female Viagra is that Leonore Tiefer, has no ties to the pharmaceutical industry, so her independent, objective view of female sexuality  is uncolored by all the conflicts of interest which pervades Ms Reinstein’s story.  In the LA Times, Tiefer wrote:  “As professional sexologists and advocates of women’s sexual rights, we were horrified by the campaigns’ use and abuse of the language of equality to pressure the FDA to approve a potential billion-dollar blockbuster “pink Viagra.” The only two drugs for women’s sexual dysfunctions that have come to the FDA in the 16 years since Viagra was approved were rejected. One was Sprout’s drug, flibanserin, then owned by a German company. The drugs for women didn’t work and were unsafe. Not approving them isn’t sexism, it’s proper regulation.”

I hate to see journalists fall into Disease Mongering Traps.   I hope this will prove to be instructive to Salon and to this journalist and to other journalists next time, to seek out independent perspectives from people who might not be wearing rose-colored glasses when viewing a controversial issue like female sexuality.

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Comments (2)

Please note, comments are no longer published through this website. All previously made comments are still archived and available for viewing through select posts.

Daniel Pendick

April 6, 2015 at 10:41 am

I’m not sure where the “young/old” journalist idea comes from. Could you explain? How young do you have to be to be a “young” journalist? It seems like a “straw woman” argument. Perhaps the real issue is just lack of homework and critical thinking.

There are plenty of journalists across the decades of their lives who get captured by the idea that any pattern of symptoms means there is something physiological that needs to be fixed, and that the lack of a pharmaceutical product indicates a tragically ignored/underserved/dismissed minority. It also plays really well on social media (anything that gets people mad or resentful will score the greatest number of Facebook page impressions).

Alan Cassels

April 6, 2015 at 1:01 pm

Daniel, you’re right in suggesting that the young-old distinction might be irrelevant, though the author’s bio indicates she’s graduating from journalism school this year and hoping to land a journalism gig somewhere. I just hoped she wasn’t going to use this story to impress people in the industry and otherwise prove her chops. The main point I’m making is that the disease mongering trap is easy to fall into if, as you suggest, you don’t do your homework or employ some critical thinking. It could clearly happen at any age.