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The Science of Passion

Researchers are working on drugs for women who experience low sexual enjoyment, but many therapists insist the problem is mainly emotional.


Denise's husband thought she was having an affair. The couple's love life had gone down the tubes--to the point, says 33-year-old Denise, that she didn't want to be touched and would even orchestrate a passion-damping fight with her husband if she sensed sex was in the cards that night.

"It was a big, huge strain on my marriage," she says.

Fifty-three-year-old Randee's love life was also troubled. She even caught her husband putting Xs on the calendar one day--and he sheepishly admitted that he was marking down the rare times they made love.

"It's frustrating," she says. "I always had an enjoyable sex life--I used to have multiple orgasms all the time. But that has gone downhill to the point where I don't even think about it. I don't have discomfort during intercourse. I just don't have any interest."

Both Denise, who lives near Boston, and Randee, from Bakersfield, are among the estimated 43% of American women who have problems with their sex lives--and both have turned to medicine to help rekindle the passion.

In both Randee's and Denise's cases, surgery caused sudden sea changes in their sexuality. For Denise, an uncomplicated search for polyps in her uterus turned serious when doctors accidentally cut an artery and some nerves, depriving her genitals of normal feeling and blood flow. For Randee, a 1980 operation took away her uterus and ovaries, robbing her of hormones that now appear to be intimately tied to a woman's sex drive.

Women without such complicated medical histories--many of whom have entered menopause, and some even younger than that--are also turning to medical remedies. Still more stand to do so in the future, as drug companies plug away at researching new libido- and arousal-enhancing medicines for women and as doctors pay more attention to such issues.

Enthusiasm may rise or fall later this month with the release of results from the first controlled trial measuring the effects on women of the male erection-enhancement drug Viagra.

Some sex researchers welcome this new era, which resulted in large part from Viagra's success in men: At last, they say, science is getting serious about a long-neglected area of women's health and well-being. Others recoil at what they see as an inappropriate medicalization of a very personal part of women's lives--one, they say, that has much more to do with education about sexual technique and dealing with the stresses of life and marriage than fixing any biological problem.

But given the attention generated by male arousal boosters--first implants, then injectable drugs to help achieve erections, and now Viagra and the development of still more arousal-inducing medicines--experts are not surprised that women are getting attention, even though the focus is still much more on men.

"It was inevitable that it would come around to women," says Leonore Tiefer, a New York clinical psychologist and sexologist who strongly opposes this new focus. "I think there's going to be a tremendous amount of harm done to people." Sex researchers, she says, have amassed a huge amount of information about the emotional and societal causes of sexual problems, "but there has been just a pea-sized interest in those warehouses of data."

Others feel that a medical approach is perfectly legitimate. We are, after all, biological beings, chockablock with nerves and chemicals. Sometimes things go wrong with nerves and chemicals, hence the sexual problems some people have when they take blood-pressure drugs or antidepressants. And today doctors understand--as they didn't in the past--that erection problems in men are often rooted in biology.

Female sexual biology, they say, has long been neglected.

"Medical books have chapters and chapters dedicated to male sexual anatomy and physiology and minute amounts addressing female sexual anatomy," says Laura Berman, co-director and sex therapist for the Women's Sexual Health Center at Boston University Medical Center. "I feel it's doing a disservice to women to look only at the emotional and relational part of sexuality."

Whatever scientists discover about the physical side, plenty of people will be interested. It's been years since the hackneyed word "frigid" sounded anything other than offensive and old-fashioned, but that doesn't remove sex as a problem for many women at some time or other. We know this from advice columns, from confidences with friends, and from browsing magazines in the grocery store with their countless articles on how to bring "sizzle" back to the bedroom.

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