Gals’ Sexual Enhancers a Long Time Coming

Do “orgasm creams” give mens’ blue pills some stiff competition?

Good morning, good morning! Your fella is kicking up his heels on his way to work and and it’s terrific that Viagra is helping men get their ED thing sorted out, really. Unfortunately, only 25 per cent of their female partners report that they experience orgasm during intercourse and nearly a third acknowledge a complete lack of sexual desire. That leaves a few dance partners asking, “Hey, what about me?”

Short of offering them a pink pill (which Pfizer is working on, rest assured) a number of entrepreneurial companies have come courting with a bouquet of controversial “orgasmic” creams, gels and lotions to help increase the “frequency and intensity” of women’s orgasms.

Much to Pfizer’s chagrin, some of them tout themselves as “Viagra-like” remedies and, in publicity at least, the comparison seems viable: since its release into the marketplace a year ago, the infamous Viacrème alone has earned more than $11US million in sales, a host of testimonial websites and even an Oprah appearance.

Could you resist a sexual salve that promised to help you “reach the full pleasure of sexual intimacy in the very first application”?

“I think products like these are great for women,” remarks Mona Osman, a health store manager in Surrey. “After all, it’s just as important to a woman to have a great sexual experience and achieve an orgasm as it is for a man and I feel that anything that helps enhance the experience is a bonus.”

But how does an orgasm cream “enhance” a sexual experience?

Instructions for the cream, lotion or gel generally suggest that you gently massage a small amount to the clitoral area. This alone sounds stimulating, but it’s two of the ingredients ~ menthol and l-arginine ~ that actually do the work. The menthol sets the mood with a cool, tingling sensation; then the l-arginine steps in to start the party.

L-arginine is an essential amino acid that is available naturally in animal products or as a nutritional supplement in health and drug stores. In our bodies, it takes position in a layer of cells in the blood vessels and releases nitric oxide. The nitric oxide diffuses into neighbouring smooth muscle cells and causes relaxation. The result is vasodilation: an increase in the blood vessels’ diameter.

In the clitoris, this translates into a warm feeling from the engorged blood vessels, a hardening of the local tissues and voilà: a firm, sensitive, ready-to-go clitoral erection. You are offically aroused: just add sex.

“All the orgasm creams in the world aren’t going to make a woman feel more comfortable with her body or with her sexuality,” comments UBC professor of counselling psychology Dr. Judith Daniluk. Author of Women’s Sexuality Across The Lifespan, she takes issue with the medical and marketing “pathologizing” of women’s sexual response and notes that the people who seem to benefit most from a narrow and restrictive definition of sexual functioning are the ones with something to sell.

Definition seems to be health issue all around. Viacrème and its ilk consider themselves a “cosmetic” (in Health Canada parlance), much like a massage oil or toothpaste. As such, they are not obliged to list their ingredients which ~ with the exception of Vancouver’s O Gel, which purports to have all-natural ingredients ~ usually include disputed solvents and preservatives such as propylene glycol and methyl parabens.

On the other hand, they make claims promising women a “safe and effective means” to “bigger, better and more frequent orgasms,” and this, to Health Canada’s way of thinking, puts the orgasm creams into a “drug” category which they’re not authorized to be.

In the matter where an orgasm rates as a body function and a cream such as Viacrème claims to restore, correct or modify one without having provided scientific and safety evidence in a review process, Health Canada’s verdict is: not approved.

The problem, says Dr. Daniluk, isn’t with the availability of these products, but with the underlying belief that a woman must be “orgasmic to be ‘normal’”.

“There are often psychosocial or relationship reasons why sexuality is problematic for women,” says Dr. Daniluk, “so ‘creams’ to stimulate orgasm, while sometimes useful, rarely address the underlying issues.”

For some, “sometimes useful” is good enough reason to pay up to $30 to a participating health market, pharmacy, sex toy store, website or ~ in Viacrème’s case ~ multi-level marketing representative, for a tube, bottle, or jar of the stuff.

For others, the issue’s just a little too close to the important things in life.

“Call us skeptics,” offers the Womyn’s Ware website in its Buyers Beware section, “But we just have this weird niggling feeling that a product relying on dubious distribution sales schemes can’t be all that great for putting on one of your most precious of organs.”

At this stage it’s not clear whether orgasm creams, lotions and gels are harmless adult toys, effective libido stimulants or disputed sex products. The best idea may be to step into some dancing shoes and hope he’s up for a nice, slow, tango.

Originally published in The Georgia Straight , February 2002 (not archived).