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Female Sexual Dysfunction: Fact or Fiction?

Some researchers claim drug companies have created this 'disease'

FRIDAY, Jan. 3, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Three years ago, the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association published a headline-grabbing statistic: 43 percent of women suffer from some form of sexual dysfunction.

Researchers are now charging that the oft-cited figure is overblown and, even worse, is being manipulated to create a false new category of disease in order to push new drugs.

An article in tomorrow's British Medical Journal claims pharmaceutical companies have teamed with some researchers to promote such exaggerated statistics to drum up business for drugs that treat sexual problems.

"The corporate-sponsored creation of a disease is not a new phenomenon, but the making of female sexual dysfunction is the freshest, clearest example we have," journalist Ray Moynihan wrote in the article.

"A cohort of researchers with close ties to drug companies are working with colleagues in the pharmaceutical industry to develop and define a new category of human illness at meetings heavily sponsored by companies racing to develop new drugs," Moynihan added.

As evidence, he cited eight major conferences on female sexual dysfunction held in the last five years. The number of company sponsors of the conferences was as high as 22, he said.

A spokesman for Pfizer, the maker of Viagra and one of the drug companies named in the article, dismissed the notion that the pharmaceutical industry and their researchers would invent a disease for the sake of making money.

"The idea that people are making up the condition of female sexual dysfunction is simply an insult to women suffering from this problem," said spokesman Geoff Cook. "Physicians are encountering women coming into their offices on a regular basis with these kinds of issues."

The 43 percent figure appeared in a February 1999 JAMA article. For that study, University of Chicago sociology professor Edward Laumann and his colleagues analyzed 1,500 women's answers to seven questions about their sexual health. The questions included whether they enjoyed sex; whether they experienced a lack of desire for sex; pain during sex; anxiety about sexual performance; or difficulties with lubrication for at least two months during the previous year.

Women who answered "yes" to at least one question were categorized as having sexual dysfunction, Laumann told HealthDay.

Some researchers believe this is evidence of the "over-medicalisation of women's sexuality, where changes in sexual desire are the norm," Moynihan wrote.

"I think there is dissatisfaction and perhaps disinterest among a lot of women, but that doesn't mean they have a disease," Dr. Sandra Leiblum, a professor of psychiatry at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, was quoted as saying in the British Medical Journal article.

And Dr. John Bancroft, director of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, concurs, according to the article. "He believes the term dysfunctional is highly misleading," Moynihan wrote.

"The danger of portraying sexual difficulties as a dysfunction is that it is likely to encourage doctors to prescribe drugs to change sexual function -- when the attention should be paid to other aspects of the woman's life," Bancroft was quoted as saying in the article.

In an interview, Laumann defended his research.

He said he's in full agreement with Bancroft that many causes of sexual difficulties in women are rooted in relationships, not simple physiology. Stress, a new baby, bereavement, job loss, marital problems -- all these can contribute to sexual problems, he said.

"You're not going to find one sexy pill that's going to suddenly drive women wild with desire," Laumann said.

But the rest of the debate, he says, is simply semantics. Calling something a sexual difficulty as opposed to a sexual dysfunction "is playing a word game," he said.

Laumann's previous research had shown that women who report a lack of sexual desire, problems with lubrication or anxiety about sex consider those issues a problem -- they're not waiting for drug companies to tell them it's a problem, he said.

And women with difficulties in their sex lives report less emotional and physical satisfaction with their relationships, Laumann said.

"But I don't hear pharmaceutical companies calling it a disease. And I'm not calling it a disease," Laumann said. "It is a dysfunction. Just like when you age, you have a problem reading small numbers so you get glasses. That is a dysfunction, not a disease."

That 43 percent of women will experience a sexual dysfunction should be of comfort to couples struggling with such issues, he said.

"A common, normal feature of human life is to be dysfunctional for periods of time," Laumann said. "Everyone is going to have periods where they are stressed, where relationships go sour."

And, he added, his study was funded by the federal government and a philanthropic organization -- not a pharmaceutical company.

What To Do:

To read more about female sexual dysfunction, check the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists or the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

SOURCES: Edward Laumann, Ph.D., professor of sociology, University of Chicago; Geoff Cook, spokesman, Pfizer, New York City; Jan. 4, 2003, British Medical Journal
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