It is often joked that triggering a man's libido is as simple as flicking on a light switch, while spurring a woman's sexual desire is more akin to launching the space shuttle. And research into female sexual dysfunction is proving this comparison to be all too true.
A new study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that women with low levels of testosterone -- a hormone that controls sex drive in both men and women -- don't necessarily also have trouble with their sex lives.
The study tested more than 1,000 women over the age of 45 for the level of testosterone and other sex hormones in their blood. The researchers found no link between the amount of testosterone a woman had in her body and her level of sexual desire -- ruling out the possibility of a simple blood test for sexual dysfunction.
This study is significant because in December 2004, the FDA reviewed a testosterone patch for women that many hoped would be the female version of Viagra, restoring shrunken libidos to their proper size.
Sheryl Kingsberg, a clinical psychologist at the University Hospitals of Cleveland, said this new research proves dwindling testosterone levels aren't the only thing causing women to lose their lust.
Kingsberg, who has led a national study of the testosterone patch, says that testosterone is only the biological piece of the female sexual puzzle. Psychological factors such as a woman's desire to be sexual and her beliefs about sex also play a large role in shaping her libido.
"It tends to be a little bit simpler in men," Kingsberg said. Male sexual dysfunction is usually a mechanical problem -- trouble becoming aroused. But for women, the problem lies in recharging her desire. "I've spent a good part of my career trying to educate physicians that sexual arousal is complex for women," said Kingsberg.
Endocrinologist Dr. Glenn Braunstein of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles agreed that when it comes to female sexual dysfunction, there are no easy answers. "Let's face it," he said, speaking about the differences in treating sexual dysfunction in men and women, "you can count erections much more easily than you can count improvements in desire."
The testosterone patch won't ever be the female version of Viagra, Braunstein explained, because Viagra fixes a mechanical problem in men. Testosterone supplements, on the other hand, work on a woman's mood and often take one to three months to kick in. "It's not a Saturday night special," he said.
Both Kingsberg and Braunstein agree that testosterone therapy will work best for women who have lost their desire after a hormonal change, like those caused by a hysterectomy or menopause.
But for many women, the solution will lie in talk therapy and education. "Our culture puts a lot of pressure on women to behave in certain ways," said Kingsberg. For women who have spent their lives uncomfortable with their bodies or their sexuality, overcoming those inhibitions will be the first step in sparking sexual desire.