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Dr. Berman's Sex Rx

Urologist Jennifer Berman and her drug-company backers believe better sex for women could be just a pill or product away. Her media-focused approach raised eyebrows at UCLA and persuaded her to take her message on the road--to Rodeo Drive, to be exact.

October 02, 2005|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times staff writer Anne-Marie O'Connor last wrote for the magazine about hit men of the Tijuana drug cartel.

Dr. Jennifer Berman was the golden newcomer to the burgeoning world of women's sexual health when, in 2001, UCLA lured her from Boston University with a prestigious fellowship and groomed her to open its Female Sexual Medicine Center.

Her promise of an innovative approach to an array of disorders grouped under the newly minted term "female sexual dysfunction" had rocketed her to the forefront of the hunt for a drug to enhance female sexual pleasure. Viagra's manufacturer, Pfizer, stood at the head of a long line of companies eager to work with the articulate and telegenic sexpert.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 16, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
A photograph on the cover of the Oct. 2 Magazine showed Dr. Jennifer Berman sitting next to a swimming pool. The photo had been altered to remove a towel she was sitting on. Manipulating an image in this manner is not consistent with Times policy.

But early this year, the UCLA clinic quietly closed its doors amid what the 41-year-old Berman describes as tension between her and certain colleagues over the direction of her career. They were "jealous" and "mean," she says, about her supposed transformation--with the help of a cable-TV show that cast her as a hip Dr. Ruth Westheimer--from a "real doctor" into a "media personality."

It probably didn't help that the notion of female sexual dysfunction, or FSD, had begun to take a beating, including a sharp jab from the British Medical Journal. "The corporate-sponsored creation of a disease is not a new phenomenon," a 2003 article said, "but the making of female sexual dysfunction is the freshest, clearest example we have."

Berman's critics consider her a suspect prophet who uses TV and other media platforms to help redefine complex female sexual problems as dysfunctions that require medical intervention. They wince at her endorsements of medical solutions to what may well be complex interpersonal sexual issues. And they would probably raise eyebrows at her venture in Beverly Hills, where on a hot August afternoon she is walking down the street with her publicist and planning the fall launch party for her sexual medicine practice at the Rodeo Drive Women's Health Center.

"There'll be food and drink and music. Just like the BCBG store's launch, same concept," Berman says. Word had it that the L.A. clothier's grand-opening party promised a bash with Sharon Stone, Paula Abdul and Sarah Michelle Gellar.

"Get me on the list," Berman instructs, as her tan, blond reflection glides past BCBG's plate-glass windows.

"I will," her publicist vows.

Although Rodeo Drive seems an unlikely location for a research urologist, Berman expresses relief at escaping the stuffy confines of "the academic status thing." Her openness with journalists has steadily paid off with flattering stories in People, Vogue, Elle, Glamour and other publications. And since leaving UCLA, she seems to welcome any and all questions: What couldn't she live without? "My horse and my vibrator," she says in an online feature promoting her Lifetime TV special "Secrets of the Sexually Satisfied Woman." Her favorite place in the house for sex? "By the pool." Who should play her in a movie? "Jennifer Aniston."

But there are limits to her candor in an interview for this article. How much has she earned over the years as a consultant to Pfizer, Vivus, Cellegy, Bayer, Procter & Gamble and other drug companies?

Berman pauses, turns to her publicist and asks a question of her own. "Am I supposed to be answering this?"

The private sector has long been a major source of medical research money. Studies on sexual health in particular, including the voluminous Kinsey Report underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1940s and '50s, have largely depended on non-government sponsors. It's an accepted practice for researchers to list their benefactors, usually in fine print, when delivering their findings in journals or at conferences.

Berman follows this protocol, but otherwise she has been discreet about her corporate ties, as most doctors are. Apparent conflicts of interest compromise their influence as opinion makers. And most patients want to view physicians as advocates for their health--not for drug companies.

The glossy magazine interviews don't say, for example, that while at UCLA, Berman was a paid drug company expert for media campaigns that publicized low female libido and other maladies. By her account, Pfizer paid for studies she developed and conducted, including some that measured Viagra's effects on women. She broadcast the drug's potential benefits for women on "Berman & Berman," the Discovery Health cable-TV series that she co-hosted with her younger sister, sex therapist Laura Berman.

Berman is right when she says it's hypocritical for any doctor who has accepted drug-company payments to skewer her for conflicts of interest. But her critics, including the former director of the Kinsey Institute, assert that Berman further blurred the boundary between science and marketing when she and other FSD proponents maintained close financial ties to drug companies that they say helped to develop the concept of female sexual dysfunction. To these observers, FSD looked like a creation, as erectile dysfunction was, of a drug company marketing department.

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