Female sexuality makes a lot of people uncomfortable—historically, socially, culturally and medically. The reasons for viewing women’s bodies and desires as a problem in need of fixing are often strange and troubling.
Our libidos are never at the “appropriate” level, our desires for other women were once considered a disease (and are still frowned upon a great deal, despite considerable strides)—even our wombs were known to wander off. Plus, we are continually told that our genitals are the wrong size, shape, color, consistency—or, occasionally, that they are not hymen-y enough to pass muster. Even the word for our genitalia, pudendum, comes from the Latin word meaning to be ashamed.
Even more bizarre than the lengthy list of lady maladies, however, are the so-called “cures.” These examples illustrate how drugs (and other medical “remedies”) have been used throughout history to try to fix, suppress or outright destroy the dangerous and scary condition known as female sexuality.
1. Hysteria, or When Your Womb Won’t Stay Put
The concept of a woman experiencing “hysterical disorders” (aka hysteria, aka “wandering womb syndrome”) has been around for ages. In fact, they date back to 1900 BC, when Egyptian texts put forth the idea that women’s uteruses were moving around inside their bodies, causing all kinds of unpleasant side effects, such as “erotic fantasy,” “excessive vaginal lubrication,” anxiety and nervousness, among other things.
The word “hysteria” comes from the Greek hysterikos, meaning “of the womb” or “suffering in the womb.” Despite the rather preposterous idea that women’s wombs were wandering around wreaking havoc, hysteria as a condition persisted for an embarrassingly long time. (“Hysteria” was removed from the DSM in 1952, but another version of it, “hysterical neurosis,” stayed in until 1980.) The recommended cures for roving wombs have included marriage, high-pressured water hoses sprayed directly onto the genitals, genital massage (often performed by doctors with dildos during the Victorian era), irritating suppositories, fragrant salves, mechanical horses and eventually, vibrators.
Aside from suppositories and herbal salves, Dover’s Powder, a compound of opium and ipecac was often a drug of choice for pain relief. Strychnia was also prescribed (you may know it as rat poison) for its use in stimulating the nervous system. A less poison-y remedy for nervousness and hysteria was Valerian (Jacob’s ladder), which you might know as the sleepy tea your mom is always trying to get you to try.
Unsurprisingly, treating hysteria turned a pretty profit for American businesses in the 19th century, and according to American hydrotherapist Russell Thacher Trall in 1873, three quarters of the $200 million raked in by the American medical professions annually, “our physicians must thank frail women for.”
2. Birth Control and the Birth of the Douche
The battle over a woman’s right to control her own body is long and often depressing (barring the recent SCOTUS decision on abortion. Go SCOTUS!) Knowing that, it’s no surprise that many medical attempts have been made to curtail women’s reproductive rights. One of the weirder ones involves the use of Lysol as a form of birth control. In 1832, an American physician named Charles Knowlton suggested douching as a form of preventing pregnancy. After sex, women were supposed to inject a syringe full of watered-down salt, vinegar, liquid chloride, zinc sulfite or aluminum potassium sulfite into their vaginas.
After the Comstock law of 1873 declared contraception to be both obscene and illegal, douche manufacturers began selling their wares as feminine “hygiene” products. This proved to be wildly successful. In fact, from 1930 until 1960, the most popular contraceptive for women was Lysol disinfectant. Though Lysol as a form of birth control has since been debunked, and douching has been proven to cause a host of medical problems, one in four women between the ages of 15 and 44 still douche, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Of course, it’s not all Bummer Town when it comes to contraception. The pill in the ‘60s revolutionized sex and birth control, along with the morning-after pill and IUDs. The pill wasn’t just another form of contraception, “it was an equalizer, a liberator, and easy to take,” as Letty Cottin Pogrebin a founding editor of Ms., put it in an article for CNN. “For the first time in human history, a woman could control her sexuality and determine her readiness for reproduction by swallowing a pill smaller than an aspirin.” Critics of the pill predicted that the newfound contraception would lead to a bevy of loose, immoral women running amok, but as Pogrebin noted, “what it spawned was generations of empowered women who are better equipped to make rational choices about their lives.”
3. Same-Sex Desire
Same-sex desire in women (and men) has long been considered a malady to be avoided, suppressed or terminated at all costs. “Curing” people of these “unnatural” urges has involved the bizarre (ride a bicycle!), the laughable (hug or pray the gay away), the disturbing (electroshock and conversion therapy and exorcisms, which still persist today), and the outright insane: In the 1960s a British psychologist attempted to “overdose” gay men by loading them up with nausea-inducing drugs, surrounding them with glasses of urine, and playing audio recordings of men having sex in hopes that they would “turn to women for relief.”
Women who liked women did not fare any better than their male counterparts. In the 19th century, wealthy women were thought to be especially prone to lesbianism due to “sexual hyperesthesia [excessive sensitivity to stimuli].” In order to cure these women of such urges, one physician, Denslow Lewis, prescribed “cocaine solutions, saline cathartics, the surgical ‘liberation’ of adherent clitorises, or even the administration of strychnine by hypodermic.”
What’s truly strange is that no one tried to “liberate” this physician’s head from his rectum.
4. Low libido
Probably the most well-known lady sex “affliction” today is low desire. It has also been known as frigidity, hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), and Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (FSIAD).
Thanks to Viagra’s success with men (along with its boner-buddies Cialis and Levitra), pharmaceutical companies have spent a pretty penny trying to come up with an equivalent arousal drug aimed at women. Thus far, they’ve failed, but that hasn’t stopped them from attempting to classify certain types of female desire and arousal as a disorder requiring medicalization.
There are lots of problems with the assumption that women need a pill to feel sexually “normal,” namely that no one can agree on what “low desire” is, whether it’s a physiological issue in the brain, a sociocultural/interpersonal one, or an issue at all, frankly, as in the case of asexuals. Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising concern in the quest to cure female arousal is the fact that female sexual dysfunction experts are almost all in bed (pardon the pun) with pharmaceutical companies. This was pointed out by journalist Ray Moynihan in his book Sex, Lies and Pharmaceuticals. He noted that when a group of experts met in 2000 to discuss updating the definition of female sexual dysfunction in the DSM, “95 percent of them had financial relationships with the drug companies hoping to develop drugs for the very same condition.”
Another issue with arousal drugs is that female desire is complex, responsive (as opposed to the spontaneous desire men often experience), and starts in the brain. Even when women are physically aroused, 90 percent of the time, our brains don’t register that arousal. The term for the disconnect between a woman’s genitals and brain is called arousal nonconcordance, and basically means that even when women are turned on physically, our brains have not gotten the memo, and desire doesn’t register.
With men, their genitals-to-brain overlap is 50 percent. Meaning when they are physically turned on, there’s a 50/50 chance they also feel turned on. With women, the vagina-to-brain overlap is only 10 percent, meaning the rest of the time our brains are like, “Whatever is happening down below isn’t sexually relevant to me. I’ll just keep looking at vacation getaways on Pinterest.”
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That said, there are a number of sex drugs for women that aim to ramp up sexual desire, but most have been rejected by the FDA due to safety concerns and because they are just plain ineffective. Last year, however, the FDA approved Addyi (after rejecting it twice), also called flibanserin, which, unlike Viagra-esque drugs, targets two neurotransmitters in the brain instead of blood flow. Dopamine is one, which triggers the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Norepinephrine is the other, which helps control our attention and our response to what’s happening in our environment.
But this too was deemed ineffective. Controlling for the placebo effect, Addyi’s effectiveness amounted to less than one extra session of satisfying sex each month, as Forbes reported.
Other female arousal drugs target hormones, namely testosterone. Some research indicates that testosterone therapy leads to improved desire and pleasure, but the concept of “androgen deficiency” remains highly controversial, difficult to measure, and full of safety concerns.
If you’d rather get your arousal by spraying testosterone up your nose, there’s a nasal spray for that (Tefina), as well as a gel applied to the arm (Libigel), and over-the-counter testosterone drugs based on DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone). As no testosterone products have thus far received the government thumbs-up, some women are using lower doses of off-label testosterone products geared toward men, despite not knowing the long-term risks associated with doing so.
Thanks to celebrity endorsements from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Suzanne Somers, and Robin McGraw (Dr. Phil’s wife), bioidentical hormone replacement therapy has become a drug of choice for American women to treat menopausal symptoms like vaginal dryness, and also for improved “sex drive, vitality, and beauty.” As noted in the Huffington Post, the risks involved with bioidenticals is that “we do not know the risks: No studies exist on their long-term effects. Also, when drugs are compounded at a pharmacy, quality-control standards are brought into question.”
6. High libido
That’s right, wanting too much sex has also historically been considered a problem in women. Other names the affliction goes by include nymphomania, hypersexuality and sex addiction. In the Victorian era, it was described as “female pathology of over-stimulated genitals” and an “illness of sexual energy levels gone awry, as well as the loss of control of the mind over the body.” Women were once classified as nymphos for doing unheard of things like having a child out of wedlock or being caught masturbating.
Like lesbianism, the horrifying “remedy” for high libido in the Victorian era was often to surgically remove a woman’s clitoris, most likely against her will. As Martha Coventry described in an article for Ms., Isaac Baker-Brown, one-time president of the Medical Society of London, promised that after a clitoridectomy, “intractable women became happy wives; rebellious teenage girls settled back into the bosom of their families; and married women formerly averse to sexual duties became pregnant.”
In terms of drug treatments, hypersexuality today is viewed as more of an impulse control problem, in the way that OCD is not considered a “hand-washing problem,” and is commonly treated with antidepressants (SSRIs) and mood stabilizers (which also treat bipolar disorder).
One of the strangest side effects of medication affecting sexual functioning comes from the recent case of clomipramine, an antidepressant, in which a small percentage of patients reported experiencing spontaneous orgasms when they yawned. Curiously, the drug had the opposite effect in most other patients, who said they had a marked lack of sexual desire, a common side effect among those who take antidepressants.
These examples aren’t meant to dismiss the fact that some women experience real distress over their sexual desires, identities, and behaviors. But if there is to be a viable, lasting solution to the many struggles women endure in the bedroom (and out of it), it’s not going to be found in a little pink pill.
Sexuality is vast, finicky, and complex, and we owe it to women to address the many cultural, media and medical messages that tell us we are dirty, worthless, shameful and otherwise “wrong.”
Also, we’d like to bring back the vibrating horse please.