Amy Jenkins: Don't give women pills for conditions that don't exist

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The Independent Online

What's so great about sex? It's nice but so is chocolate, sneezing, uproarious laughter.

Sex in our society is so overrated and overemphasised that the word "dysfunction" is immediately adopted if women don't want it – and wherever there's a "dysfunction", there's a pill soon after. Enter Pfizer, the drug company, whose survey found that a third of all women in southern Europe lack interest in sex. Pfizer makes a lot of money from Viagra, naturally.

This week Ray Moynihan, the Australian author of a new book called Sex, Lies and Pharmaceuticals, accused the drug companies of opportunism. He argues that the figures don't stack up and that, where sexual dysfunction does exist, it is as much psychological as anything else and should be treated with counselling rather than a pill. Absolutely. If the woman in question is unhappy, of course she should have counselling. But if she's just your average woman in middle life dealing with work, children and all the rest of it, I hardly think she should be labelled as dysfunctional if her libido isn't that of a bitch on heat.

Imagine a woman, now a mother, who loved to shop when she was young. What a thrill she got from cruising Harvey Nichols! How joyfully she would reinvent herself in that must-have miniskirt that made her feel a million dollars! Shopping was so enjoyable she'd have done it three times a week if she could. Now she has moved on in life she still likes shopping – yes – but these days it's more of an orgasmic flick through the Boden catalogue. Is that a terrible thing? Should the doctor give her pills to make her shop more often?

Of course not. She is – hopefully – getting all sorts of pleasure from other aspects of her relationship. And yet women's magazines urge readers to keep sex "alive" (which is all the evidence you need that the sex drive of the average middle-aged mum is like a car crash victim on a life-support machine) without explaining how on earth the Madonna of the kitchen, the child rearing and the dual income is suddenly meant to be relaxed and sensual at the end of the day and up to be the whore in the bedroom?

Rather than asking whether counselling is better than drugs for sexual "dysfunction", we should ask what our expectations are around sex and what expectations do we acquire from the society we live in. Expectations are everything. Are these women expecting to want sex three times a week, once a month? If the former they might feel "dysfunctional". If the latter, they might feel that they were doing OK. Clearly the human sex drive evolved to encourage us to reproduce. Why, then, would a woman want to do it night after night if she's already had her children? The pleasure in it might remain but the deep-seated drive has gone. It's common sense that a middle-aged women who isn't particularly interested in sex is completely normal.

The problem then comes if a couple's libidos no longer chime. Presumably men stay interested in sex because scattering sperm makes sense for them in evolutionary terms – evolution not knowing about reconstructed man's new ability to share in looking after the children. But the imbalance in sexual desire means doctors report women fearing being left by their partner if they don't "give" him sex – which is where you get into a much bigger political question. It would seem that women who worry about loss of libido are really worrying about loss of security and status. Yet again, it's the men who set the agenda – and labelling women as dysfunctional is just another way to control them.

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