An Open Letter To The New York Times Magazine

To the New York Times Magazine Editorial Staff – 

Today you published an article with a deceptively casual title: “Unexcited? There May Be A Pill For That”. On its face, the article bears a simple enough premise: Studies have shown that levels of sexual arousal for women drop off after about one to four years of being in a committed relationship, whereas for men they tend to plateau but remain largely the same. This leads to all sorts of tension, anxiety, and lack of connection between partners. So a few researchers are doing clinical studies to find out whether there is a pharmaceutical compound that could boost these poor women’s libidos and make them desire their partners more, so that their marriages and relationships are happier and no longer in jeopardy. 

At first, it seems innocuous enough: Women want better sex lives. What’s wrong with that? Why not, then, create a pill that could increase their arousal and stimulate sexual desire so that they – and their husbands – can enjoy a happier, more harmonious life together? 

Here’s the first problem: the basic assumption that the lack of sexual desire is naturally the woman’s fault, that the man cannot possibly be to blame for the lack of his wife’s or girlfriend’s arousal, that the man could not possibly suffer from the same, or even a parallel, lack of interest or sexual arousal. The entire article acts as though it is only the woman’s fault. 

Furthermore, not only is it the woman’s fault, it is also a disease that warrants medication and possibly therapeutic intervention. In fact, there’s a name for the disorder: “Hypoactive Sexual-Desire Disorder”. Not wanting sex wouldn’t seem to me to be a medical issue, but somehow, it has become one. It’s another example of the over-medicalization of ‘women’s issues’ – by taking things that are perfectly normal for women but don’t fit into a man’s view of how the world should work (i.e. my wife should want sex with me all the time), and turning them into actual diagnosible diseases. I’m no doctor, but the idea of turning a lack of sexual desire into a medical condition is, on a basic level, offensive. Especially when the article (and the surrounding science, apparently) proceeds to assume that this is a condition that applies only to women

Yes, dear readers. Nowhere is the problem of “Low-T” addressed, the disease that has been made infamous via terribly-acted commercials that we all hate; nowhere is the issue of erectile dysfunction for men addressed (except in the context of discussing how Viagra is similar to the drug being tested to increase women’s arousal); nowhere is the basic possibility addressed that men might also not want sex sometimes. Speaking purely anecdotally, I know of men who don’t always want sex, and I know women who want sex pretty much all the time. The assumption that it is always women who are rejecting sex and that it is always men who are seeking it, is not only reductionist and stereotypical – it is also wrong. 

Not only is it wrong, but it enforces cultural stereotypes that are a part of the basic problem to begin with. The article goes so far as to address this – but refuses to talk about how to fix these stereotypes, instead choosing to focus on the option of medicating away the behaviors that are drilled into little boys’ and little girls’ heads from the day they’re born. 

If boys and men tend to take in messages that manhood is defined by sex and power, and those messages encourage them to think about sex often, then those neural networks associated with desire will be regularly activated and will become stronger over time. If women, generally speaking, learn other lessons, that sexual desire and expression are not necessarily positive, and if therefore they don’t think as much about sex, then those same neural networks will be less stimulated and comparatively weak. (47)

So true! Great point! So why, instead of changing the way that women are taught to be ashamed of sex, through “slut-shaming” and rape culture, and the way that men are taught to worship it as symbolic of their manhood, are we sidestepping the cultural problem altogether and instead blaming it on female biochemistry and the biochemistry of desire and the lack of female libido? Why, instead of focusing on these cultural problems of upbringing, education, and gendered double-standards, does the article instead scapegoat women as a whole and insist that we need to change our basic chemistry – with a pill? Instead of addressing the way that women and men are taught to view sex, we’re insisting that women change their bodies to serve a value system that fundamentally does not value them

And furthermore, we’re acting as though it’s a good thing. Throughout the article, the author is careful to emphasize that these pills, this libido boost, is something that the women want. It’s taught to us in the article as though it’s good for us, it’s a power thing, it’s going to make us more in control of our own bodies and our sex lives. But there’s a great quote at the end of the article that tears that whole argument down: 

More than one adviser to the industry told me that companies worried about the prospect that their study results would be too strong, that the F.D.A. would reject an application out of concern that a chemical would lead to female excesses, crazed binges of infidelity, social splintering. […] Andrew Goldstein, who is conducting the study in Washington, told me … “There’s a bias against — a fear of creating the sexually aggressive woman.” (49)

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the heart of the problem. Men want their wives to desire them but not to desire too strongly, because they could be encouraged to infidelity. Men want their women to need sex, but not too much, because they might become sexually aggressive. Men want their women to fit inside a tiny, prescribed box of what female sexuality ought to be, and ladies, here’s a hint: that box is less of a box and more of a cage. It’s a cage that tells you that if your sexuality is too big, then you’re a slut. It’s a cage that tells you that if your sexuality is too small, then you’re a prude. It’s a cage that tells you that if you step inside or outside of that box, then your value as a human being has disappeared

I’ll grant you that the article’s subtitle does a much better job at beginning to elucidate the many problems I had: “The pharmaceutical quest to give women a better sex life”. Because women are too weak to do it themselves; because women are not in control of their own emotions or desires; because women must rely on doctors and medical professionals to make them into who they ought to be – because of all these things, women must turn to pharmaceutics in order to attain complete fulfillment and happiness (that is, according to the patriarchal standard of what female fulfillment and happiness should be). 

And finally, ladies and gentlemen, this is why patriarchy is so dangerous, so insidious: because the author of this article was able to paint all this as being good for women, as being a step forward, as being another step towards equality – when really, all it does is add on another layer of chains binding us to a false ideal of womanhood.