A GTA lab is cooking up a female Viagra—but the complexity of women’s arousal may be too much for one drug.
“Sniff this for better sex” may sound like something one of your more interesting friends would say on a Saturday night. But that’s the basic idea behind the latest attempt to create a female Viagra: Tefina, a hormone-based nasal spray under development by Mississauga’s Trimel Pharmaceuticals.
It’s been 14 years since Viagra hit the market and revived the flagging sex lives of millions of men. With the little blue pill racking up sales of $2 billion a year, pharma companies have been desperate to find an equivalent drug for sexual dysfunction in women. So far, they’ve drawn a blank.
Trimel believes its spray can be used to counter a condition called anorgasmia—the inability to have orgasms—which affects between 10 and 30 per cent of women, and is recruiting volunteers for clinical trials in Toronto and elsewhere.
Tefina works like this: The spray supplements the body’s existing stores of testosterone, increasing sexual desire, boosting vaginal blood flow, and tipping the chances of an orgasm in the user’s favour. However, because the testosterone has to be absorbed by the body, advance planning is required. Trial doctors instruct women to “self-administer” a dose several hours before a “sexual encounter.”
Even if all goes to plan, it will be at least four years before Tefina is available. If the researchers succeed, they will have managed an impressive feat—navigating the fabulously complex world of the female sexual response.
Still, there are plenty of skeptics who doubt that a female equivalent for Viagra will ever exist. Solving sexual dysfunction in men is, with exceptions, usually a matter of hydraulics. But despite decades of research, doctors can’t even agree what constitutes female sexual dysfunction, let alone how to tackle it.
Kelly Suschinsky, a researcher in the Sexuality and Gender Laboratory at Queen’s University, spends her days hooking women up to vaginal probes and men to penile strain gauges (which measure the strength of an erection) to monitor sexual arousal. She says the sexes show very different responses to erotic stimuli (“porn” is a word frowned on in scientific circles). Her research suggests that the average woman’s brain and body aren’t always on speaking terms.
While straight guys respond best to images of straight action, and gay guys react mainly to gay stuff, heterosexual women respond—physiologically, if not mentally—to everything. Even two monkeys going at it create arousal. As Suschinsky says, “Women will show a response to a preferred sexual partner, but also to non-preferred sex acts.”
And here’s where it gets even trickier. Men were only aroused by the kind of stuff they actually said they liked. But as expected, the women participating in these studies usually reported that primate porn did nothing for them, even though the physical evidence suggested otherwise.
Likewise, many women who turn up in a doctor’s office complaining of a low sex drive or difficulty having orgasms actually have typical physiological responses to erotic stimuli. Several early efforts at female Viagra failed because they ramped up physical responses, but the women just didn’t notice. So treatments that focus on the body—hormones and neurotransmitters and the like—will only ever be partially successful. Rae Dolman, a sex therapist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, suggests that the root of many female sexual problems lies in an unfortunate intersection between society’s dated attitudes to sex and a lack of education. “We learn that sex is intercourse, and that really great sex is intercourse where you both orgasm at the same time.”
That’s not easy to make happen due to some basic biological realities. In bed, a guy generally orgasms after seven to 10 minutes, whereas women tend to take closer to 20. Also, few women can actually orgasm from vaginal penetration alone; the clitoris has to be involved somehow.
Dolman suggests that a multi-pronged approach is best, using medications if something is clearly amiss with the plumbing, and a mixture of education, meditation, masturbation, and other techniques that focus more on the brain than the body. And she recommends relationship counselling. “If they’re in a relationship,” she says, “you almost always find that’s a component.”
So sniff all the testosterone you want. If your marriage is screwed, your chances of an orgasm might be as well.