The Morals of Mood Medication (Or, Is It Wrong To Take a Sex Pill?)
My Facebook friends kept linking it, so I finally broke down and read the story. The short of it is: they’re trying to develop a sex pill for women, enabling them to restart the love train simply by popping a pill.
In a “train wreck, can’t look away” sort of way, I found the story quite absorbing. Basically the problem is that a lot of married women are finding themselves bored with their husbands, and hoping that medication can help them to rekindle their sex drive. I was morbidly fascinated by the extent to which these women seemed to obsess over sex. To them, diminished libido obviously counts as a fairly serious marital crisis. They don’t seem to feel that bringing teams of researchers (not to mention half the women in the neighborhood) into the conversation is unpleasantly invasive of their privacy. I can’t imagine voluntarily submitting to something so intrusive, but then, I also don’t spend that much time evaluating the quality of my sex life. And it would never occur to me to suppose that a period of diminished libido meant that my marriage was on the rocks.
Thinking about it, I realized that this probably is a fairly natural consequence of the companionate model of marriage. If feelings justify sex, and sex justifies relationships, then I guess a lively sex life really might be of vital importance. Which is worrisome, since sexual desire is famously elusive. I have nothing against romantic retreats, candlelight dinners, or other measures designed to help long-committed couples recapture the magic. It’s good to keep a little romance in your marriage. Still, realistically, these things come and go. You can’t have the stability of your family life harnessed to such an unruly beast as eros. When the women in this piece talk nostalgically about the red-hot passion of their early relationships, one can’t help but wonder whether that’s really part of their problem. Having placed too much emphasis on sex in the first place, they find themselves up a creek when (shockingly!) the burning passion can’t be sustained without interruption over the course of decades.
The article makes clear that, unlike Viagra, the female sex pill is meant to move beyond the mechanical so as to focus on the brain. Viagra makes men capable of sex; this pill attempts to give women the desire for it. Love Potion #9, anyone? I've read enough fairy tales to know that these kinds of shenanigans never end well.
Moving away from sex for a moment, this piece raises issues that have always been worrisome to me about the morals of mood-modifying medication. This is a very difficult subject, because I know that medication can make worlds of difference for people with serious psychiatric disorders, enabling people who would once have been consigned to mental asylums to live fairly normal, happy lives. I know as well that diagnosing mental disorder is a less-than-straightforward business. When does a person cross the line from ordinary sadness or anxiety or sensitivity into the realm of mental disorder? As difficult as these diagnostic questions are, I don’t think it’s appropriate just to throw in the towel. There are people in the world who legitimately need psychiatric help to rectify some genuine aberration in the workings of their brain. At the same time, pills are not a fitting solution to ordinary life problems.
Putting it in a nutshell, I think the problem with pills is this: they offer material solutions to non-material problems. Pills can change the chemical balance of our brains, but they can’t change our moral character, and it is unfitting for a rational being to medicalize moral problems. Pills may enable us to feel good even when it would be more reasonable to feel bad, but that is not something a rational person should desire. Even if pills only help us to combat an excess of some unproductive emotion (such as worry or sadness) I have to think that it would be better (and more in line with our ultimate thriving) if we could find more natural solutions to these life problems.
Why, though, are pills “unnatural”? Don’t we use food, drink, or particular activities as “mood-manipulators” on a regular basis? We do, and I think it is good for rational beings to know how to manage their (and others’) emotional states through food, books, music, exercise or what have you. A brisk walk clears the mind. Coffee focuses concentration and instills a desire to work and accomplish. Warm cookies and cold milk are comfort food. Understanding these emotional triggers can be key to living a healthy, well-balanced life. So, what’s the difference between the plate of cookies and the anti-anxiety pill?
I think the difference is in the “embeddedness” of these other triggers in life and culture. Coffee does have a chemical effect on the brain, but coffee-drinking isn’t just a quick route to stimulating chemicals. We also enjoy the taste, the smell, the delightful sight of the steam rising from a thick, homey mug and the warmth of the cup on our hands and tongue. Cookies are delicious and gooey and decadent, and ironically, the fact that we know we can’t eat them all the time makes them that much pleasanter when we do decide to splurge. Books and music and nature quite obviously engage us on a rational level; this is integral to their emotionally transformative effect.
Popping a pill, by contrast, attempts to bypass these rational mechanisms in favor of a purely animal, material “fix”. It may be justified on those occasions when the root problem really is physical (and again, I acknowledge that this is rarely a simple thing to determine). But it isn’t the answer to all of life’s problems. And it isn’t any way to fix your marriage.