Bias in medical research makes 'female problems' a low priority

Bias in medical research makes 'female problems' a low priority

CultureMarch 17, 2017 By Isabelle Kohn

Since 2011, the U.S. government has spent roughly on dick pills like Viagra and Cialis. Weird branches of it, too. The Department of Defense dropped $84M in 2014 alone, and the Pentagon shelled out around $500K, all so our boys in blue can protect our country with erections that are harder to take down than Kim Jong-un.

Why? Because our government sees a well-functioning penis and a positive sexual self-image to be essential parts of good health and wellbeing for the men who serve this country. One only has to browse the benefits section of TRICARE, the military's health insurance program, to see this — not only does it cover penis pills, it also covers penis pumps, testicular prostheses and penile implants. These are things that can be medically necessary if say, an IED blows your dick off, but can they also be taken advantage of by men with intact, but poorly functioning wangs.

Meanwhile, there are no numbers for how much the government spends on medical solutions to female sexual dysfunction. Why? Simply put, pharmaceutical companies have nothing to show for it. While men enjoy a wide range of medical fixes for their deficient dongs, all women have is a dubiously effective faux-solution called, , a shoddy and hilariously ineffective drug intended to treat hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) in women. You can bet your sweet ass the government isn't spending a dime to ensure women get it, though. Not just because it was by the FDA, because there is an inherent and systematic gender bias in medical research that makes "female problems" a lower priority when it comes to funding and distribution.

Nowhere is this more clear than on the website ClinicalTrials.gov, a database of publicly and privately supported medical studies currently underway that provides a snapshot into the types of research currently receiving funding. As we speak, there are 472 studies being conducted on erectile dysfunction in men ... and just 38 on HSDD.

Granted, male arousal is way easier to medicate than female arousal. Often, therapies focus around enhancing erections, which involves nothing more complicated than developing drugs that bring blood to the penis, giving already-horny men inflated boners so they can put them in you. These therapies doesn't make them want to have sex more, or facilitate arousal in any way, but they do address a majority of men's impotency issues.

Women, however, don't need erections — or any sort of other physiological alteration — to have sex. Women need medical solutions that focus on the psychological component of desire, something which is easier said than done because female desire is a complicated, highly nuanced, and very individual thing. The gaping mega-hole in the female arousal drug market proves this.

Yet, arguably, the relative difficulty of medicating female libido should mean that more funding and research goes into developing a solution. You wouldn't divert funding away from AIDS or cancer research just because it's hard to do, would you? You don't see people ignoring research funding requests for ALS just because there's no possible cure.

On top of the bias in arousal research, there's an even more visible bias when it comes to contraception. Studies to fund options for male hormonal contraceptives are few and far between, with the most advanced ones being notably shut down because men can't handle the exact same side effects women face with birth control on a daily basis, and have been for years. Meanwhile, there are 20 efficacious ways to prevent pregnancy — which females are exclusively responsible for — all of which are constantly being researched in a variety of contexts as to ensure that they're being properly implemented.

It's clear that our medical system is invested in controlling, but not improving women's bodies. You don't have to look much further than the de-funding of Planned Parenthood and the reproductive coverage proposed under the Trumpian-ly named The World's Greatest Healthcare Plan for evidence of that. Meanwhile, the opposite is true for men. We're pouring millions into ensuring men have their every need taken care of, penis pumps and all.

It's not just arousal pills and birth control, though. There's gender bias in almost all areas of medical research, whether those areas are even related to gender or not. Most of these biases stem from pervasive stigma around stereotyped gender roles, the biggest being that women are the so-called "weaker gender." Because we're so delicate, frail and inferior — the thinking goes — medical treatments related to our gender are futile because that weakness is just part of who we are. Men, on the other hand, are big, strong and independent. It's "worth it" to invest in their health because being big, strong, and independent is central to male identity and if a man is not those things, his identity suffers a breach.

One of the best examples of this gender bias is research on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) a disease characterized by profound fatigue, sleep abnormalities, pain, and other symptoms that are made worse by exertion. Because so many more women than men are diagnosed with CFS (approximately 80 percent of reported CFS cases are female), it's been largely assumed by the medical community that CFS is a female health issue.

However, recent research from the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has revealed that CFS is not a female issue at all. In fact, it's an autoimmune disease that affects both genders roughly equally ... men are just less likely to seek medical help for the symptoms.

"Today, it is a stigmatizing disorder, understood as an expression of women's lack of ability to cope with their lives, a kind of breach of character," explains Olaug S. Lian, a sociologist and professor at UiT The Arctic University of Norway.

These biases are also present in research on lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and depression, where studies that include a representative amount of women often receive less funding than male-based studies, if they receive funding at all.

Okay. Now for the "who cares?" part. Why does it matter that there's a pervasive gender bias in medical research — whether that research is on libido, reproduction or something entirely unrelated?

Because gender inequality is bad for everyone. Including men. In fact, equality is men's best interest. A few reasons why:

The marginalization of women by medicine and the funding of it has the overall effect of lowered workplace productivity. For women with HSDD, not having access to a medical solution to pleasurable sex can cause depression, social anxiety and insomnia. Not being able to afford or access birth control can increase the risk of unwanted pregnancy, which, in addition to being extraordinarily costly to taxpayers, can also sideline women from the workplace and prevent their upward mobility. Having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome can make both women and men too exhausted and drained to contribute appreciably.

That's not good. Companies should want healthy women, and lots of them.

As author and masculinity researcher Michael Kimmel says in his 2015 Ted Talk, "Why Gender Equality Is Good For Everyone — Men Included," "Research has shown conclusively that the more gender equal companies are, the happier their workforce is. They have lower job turnover. They have lower levels of attrition. They have an easier time recruiting. They have higher rates of retention, higher job satisfaction, higher rates of productivity. Gender inequality is extremely expensive." He's right. According to a study published in the Journal of Economics and Management Strategy, a gender-balanced workplace leads to all these things and higher profits.

Beyond the workplace, gender equality and healthy, productive women are good for countries. According to most studies, the countries that are the most gender-equal are also the countries that score the highest on the happiness scale.

Healthy, fulfilled women are even good for men themselves.

"Men want to have lives that are animated by terrific relationships with their children," Kimmel explains in his talk. "They expect their partners and wives to work outside of the home and be just as just as committed to their careers as they are. Men want to be dual-career dual-care couples; to be able to balance work and family. In fact the more egalitarian a relationship is, the happier both partners are."

Right again. When men share domestic duties, men themselves are even happier and more healthy. They're less likely to go to the ER, see a therapist, and get depression, but more likely to see a doctor for routine preventative care.

Their children also do better in school. They are less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and are generally happier and healthier than children whose parents have an imbalance of domestic responsibility.

Their wives are also healthier when they're give the opportunity to contribute equally both childcare and their careers. They're less likely to need to see a therapist; less likely to be diagnosed with depression. They're more likely to go to the gym. And best of all, couples who share domestic responsibilities have more sex and more satisfying sex lives.

TL;DR? Gender equality is better for countries, companies, women, children and men themselves.

All that said, we're in a better place when it comes to funding "female issues" such as arousal than we were 25 years ago. About two decades ago, the National Institutes of Health, which funds the vast majority of medical research in the U.S., made a rule that says every study they fund has to state whether women and minorities were included and in what proportions, and if not, why. Many grants still get funded without women or with only a few, but the rule at least encourages researchers to be more likely to include women ... something that would be really great, you know, when you're researching issues that not only directly affect women themselves, but indirectly affect men, children, companies and countries, too.

Not much else is being done about the lack of funding for female arousal, or for gender bias in medical research at all. However, thankfully, at least when it comes to female arousal, there are many non-pharmacuetical ways to solve the problem of low libido. Our personal fave? Recognizing the systematic biases towards women over a bottle of wine, a bouquet of roses and the smooth sounds of Barry Manilow.