by Rabbi Wendy Spears
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration finally approved Flibanserin as a medication to treat low libido in women. It will be available by prescription on October 17. The media has been calling this drug Pink Viagra (https://www.yahoo.com/health/relationship-rx-3-women-on-why-flibanserin-is-127484832527.html) since it helps some women with sexual disfunction as blue Viagra helps men. However, flibanserin doesn’t increase blood flow to the genitals the way that Viagra does. Flibanserin is a serotonin inhibitor, affecting brain function. It was originally developed as an antidepressant, although it wasn’t effective in treating depression.
According to a June 4, 2015, article in the Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-female-libido-fda-20150603-story.html), 4.8 million pre-menopausal women experience low libido (or these are the women courageous enough to talk to their doctor about it; it may be a much larger population). Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD) is the official name for low libido. In contrast to men, who have 24 drugs to treat sexual disfunction, women will now have just one. Flibanserin is not intended for use by post-menopausal women, yet in the August 24th article from Yahoo Health, the three women interviewed were peri- or post-menopausal. And it only works for 8-13% of the women who take the drug. Critics question whether it is worth taking a medication every day on an ongoing basis for such a low percentage rate of efficacy.
So why should I, a rabbi, be so concerned with a medication to treat low libido in women? As a feminist, it has seemed grossly unfair that a medical condition in women hasn’t been deemed worthy of real treatment until now. I hope that the availability of Flibanserin will encourage researchers and manufacturers to pour more money and energy into further treatments for women with a variety of sexual dysfunctions. Critics say that the increase of desire for sexual encounters is minimal, increasing by one more each month. My opinion is that if you go from nothing to one, that’s a big deal. I’m also concerned as an advocate for long and healthy marriages. Sexuality is part of the glue that holds relationships together. For many people, chemistry is the first level of connection, and can lead to greater closeness not only physically, but emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually as well.
Jewish culture recognizes the importance of physical passion in a marriage. It is considered a mitzvah (a Jewish way of doing and being) to have a sexual encounter with one’s spouse on Shabbat (the Sabbath). Sex is not reserved for procreation; it is embodied holiness to experience physical pleasure within the relationship. Unlike some other religious traditions, Judaism teaches that sexuality is part of how God created human beings to be.
The Bible doesn’t shy away from celebrating sexuality. The entirety of the book Song of Songs illustrates the sexual connection between two young people. Each praises how the other looks and how much they desire each other. These love poems are traditionally read at the end of the Passover seder, as the family gathers after the main part of the meal to sing and praise. So, theoretically, everyone who attends a Passover seder should be very familiar with the text of Song of Songs. At the end of the Garden of Eden story (Genesis 2:18), the Eternal says that it’s not good for a person to be alone, but should have a reflective helper and that the two of them should become one flesh (2:24). Jews have always understood this to mean a sexual connection.
Throughout the history of Jewish literature and culture, sex and sexuality have been hot topics. The rabbis of the Talmud, medieval codes and commentaries, and folklore were fascinated by sex and wrote extensively about it. In recognition of the continuing importance of sex and sexuality within Judaism, the Reform movement recently published Jewish perspectives on sexuality in a multi-vocal book edited by Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow titled The Sacred Encounter. It is filled with wisdom and insight about relationships, marriage, sexual identity, and sexual expression by rabbis and scholars.
It is important to be candid in discussing sexuality and desire. I don’t believe that only 4.8 million American women have some kind of sexual dysfunction. I speculate that it was that number who had the courage to discuss it with a doctor. It’s been a long time since Dr. Ruth Westheimer publicly, frankly, and enthusiastically encouraged us all to enjoy our sexuality through her books, radio show, and television appearances. She related her own first sexual experience at the age of seventeen on a starry night on a haystack, which she later used as a story to teach her listeners and readers that it was a mistake not to use contraception. But Dr. Ruth’s main message was that sexual pleasure was a life-giving force, that such passion made life and relationships better and closer.
Like any medication, Flibanserin is not a one-size-fits-all. It won’t work for everyone, but it will make some women’s lives better. It is a start. I hope it will also open more opportunities to speak more openly and candidly about the importance of women’s sexuality and pleasure, to affirm that this a topic worth studying, discussing, and experiencing.
Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com and LIKE her Facebook page Interfaith Wedding Rabbi – Rabbi Wendy Spears.