"They have Viagra," says the woman in the advertisement. "Now we have Avlimil." The ad for the herbal supplement, which promises "an enhanced libido" and a "more frequent and satisfying climax," is among the first campaigns touting pharmacological remedies for a condition called "female sexual dysfunction."
Others promise to follow, as researchers at companies such as Pfizer Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co. race to introduce comparable sexual remedies for female sexual dysfunction, or FSD, ranging from testosterone patches and creams to electric clitoral-suction devices.
The lure for health-care companies: a potentially bountiful market that some think could rival the more than $1.7 billion in annual sales for Pfizer's blockbuster drug Viagra, the erectile dysfunction remedy that 20 million men have taken. Those companies refer to a widely cited 1999 report that suggested that as many as 43% of U.S. women may suffer from some form of sexual dysfunction, and they point out that women tend to use drugs more frequently than men.
Overall, the market for all sexual dysfunction products, male and female, is expected to climb sharply during the next several years. Front Line Strategic Consulting, a San Mateo, Calif., market research firm, forecasts that sales will grow 25% per year to more than $5.4 billion by 2007. Most of that total is expected to be for products for men, including drugs that will compete with Viagra and new therapies to treat premature ejaculation, but remedies targeting women will account for an increasing share over the years, the consulting firm predicts.
The firm advised in a market research report last year that "pharmaceutical companies need to constantly reinforce the idea that sexual dysfunction is normal and educate about new treatments" and "positively influence the image of sexual dysfunction.... This would be the case when FSD products are launched."
Meantime, the increasing focus on producing a female equivalent of Viagra has ignited a controversy about whether the drug industry is trying to rev up sales by pushing pharmacological solutions for a women's health issue that may have multiple causes -- and remedies. Some doctors critical of drug industry efforts charge that the companies are trying to capitalize on some women's insecurities by convincing them, and their doctors, that the sexually related problems are serious enough to require medical intervention.
Some drug makers have been organizing seminars and funding research at several women's sexual health centers that have been founded across the country, such as the UCLA Female Sexual Medicine Center. There, the Berman sisters, urologist Jennifer Berman and psychotherapist Laura Berman, have been leading the charge for more medical research in the field of female sexual disorders. One of their studies includes a Pfizer-sponsored clinical trial to determine if Viagra works for women in improving arousal and orgasm.
But they are finding that it isn't nearly so clear-cut for women as for men. Though psychological issues, such as unemployment and depression, certainly can affect men when it comes to performance in the bedroom, problems more often are physiologically rooted.
Viagra works by improving blood flow to the penis by dilating the blood vessels there. When a man is sexually excited, the arteries in the penis relax and widen, allowing more blood to flow, then these arteries expand and harden. Veins that carry blood away from the penis get compressed. More blood flowing in and less flowing out make the penis larger, causing an erection.
But much is still not understood about the physiological elements of sexual arousal in women. Blood flow to the genitals does appear to play a role, researchers say, but loss of libido is more common in women, and Viagra does not appear to help with that in either men or women.
Most doctors agree that women have far more difficulty than men in putting aside emotional and relationship issues when it comes to sex.
Urologists like to show a drawing of two electrical boxes to describe sexual variations in the sexes: The one for men has a single switch, "on-off"; the box for women is a complicated tangle of knobs, meters and wires.
Accusing the drug industry of "medicalizing" female sexuality research, a group of doctors, researchers, sex therapists and nonprofit agencies have formed a coalition called FSD-Alert.org. An Internet site explains the group's purpose as opposing the "infusion of industry funding into sex research and the incessant media publicity about 'breakthrough treatments' that put physical problems in the spotlight but isolate them from broader contexts."