Probably Not the Kind of “Healing” Marvin Gaye was Referring To

By Rachel Walden |

An article in the current issue of The Nation, Sexual Healing, comments on the history of the medicalization of sex, from vibrating devices used by physicians in the 1800s to “treat” (ahem) women for what ailed them to more modern incarnations of medical sexual fixes in the form of drug prescriptions and genital surgery.

The first paragraph succinctly describes the progression:

In the beginning there was sex. And sex begat skill, and skill (or its absence) begat judgment, and judgment begat insecurity, and insecurity begat doctors’ visits, which begat treatments, which have flourished into a multibillion-dollar industry, so that sex between men and women is today almost inconceivable without the shadow of disorder, dysfunction, the “little blue pill” or myriad other medical interventions designed to bring sex back to some longed-for beginning: a state of certified healthfulness, the illusion of normal.

One sex therapist interviewed for the piece argues that sexual concerns should not necessarily be medical concerns, that sex is “…more like dancing or cooking. Yes, you do it with your body. You dance with your body, too. That doesn’t mean there’s a department of dance in the medical school. You don’t go to the doctor to learn to dance.”

The author refers to a couple of resources on the topic for further exploration, including the new documentary “Orgasm, Inc.” by Liz Canner, which examines the role of pharmaceutical companies in creating a market for drugs for “female sexual dysfunction.” Also mentioned is the book “The Technology of Orgasm: ‘Hysteria,’ the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction” by Rachel Maines, which further details the history of physician approaches to “hysteria” and women’s sexuality. Readers may also want to check out “Passion and Power: the Technology of Orgasm,” a film inspired by Maines’s work.

One line in The Nation piece I couldn’t let pass without sharing: “Sears marketed a home vibrator with attachments for beating eggs, churning butter, operating a fan.” Now that’s a multi-purpose tool!

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4 Comments

  1. K says:

    I don’t get it.

    Why is female sexual dysfunction in quotes here? Why is sexual pain so often overlooked, as in the case of the article linked to here? Why is it not to be treated as a health issue?

    As a woman with vulvodynia and pelvic floor dysfunction (among other things,) I am not comfortable with the claim that, “Female sexual dysfunction, it turns out, was wholly created by drug companies hoping to make even bigger money off women than they have off men with the comparatively smaller market for erectile dysfunction drugs.”

    I don’t know about that; based on everything I’ve lived through so far and everything I’ve heard from others, I think there’s a pretty good chance that my vulva & pelvis would have still wound up hurting during sex and possibly just in general even if Big Pharma didn’t exist. After all, we have evidence that vulvodynia pre-dates modern medicine.

    And even Dr. Tiefer once acknowledged the reality of sexual pain (Archives of Sexual Behavior, 34, 49-51 – I had to jump through some hoops to see that for myself but it’s there,) although I’m still not comfortable with dismissing libido, arousal, orgasm as less valid concerns.

  2. Rachel says:

    K, that’s a fair question about the quotes. In general I think female sexual dysfunction is fairly ill-defined (as is what is considered “normal”), so it’s difficult to say what that phrase even means – what constitutes”dysfunction?” It’s kind of a catch all rather than a clearly defined term. Whether that warrants quotes (skeptical quotes or otherwise) is something for me to think about, so thanks for raising it.

    In general, I think there’s a tension here between real problems that some women have and are distressed by and possible exaggeration of problems by entities such as pharmaceutical companies who have a financial incentive to convince as many people as possible that they need “treatment” (whether or not that’s the case).

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. K says:

    Then there are a few other things I would ask that you think about.

    One definition of sexual dysfunction that I’ve seen and like includes the condition that the person experiencing sexual difficulty must actually be bothered by it. This takes the patient’s own feelings into consideration, instead of arbitrarily declaring that a man has ED because he can’t maintain an erection (even if he or his partner(s) don’t care,) or that a woman has FSD because she can’t orgasm through penetration alone (even if she’s fine with that.) That’s the problem with the 43% statistic as I understand; the author of that study just went around declaring that if you couldn’t maintain an erection once in awhile, or if you couldn’t orgasm during intercourse, you automatically had dysfunction the end. When you include the condition that such a hurdle must cause actual distress, the statistics of who has sexual dysfunction drop. The individual’s own feelings should count for something.

    Under this definition, I still identify as having FSD, because I am distressed by how it interferes with my daily life. When you put FSD into quotes like that, I read it as another iteration of, it’s not real, it’s all in my head. Which makes me feel like I have to defend myself somehow, like I have to trot out the biopsy results and the hormone test results and the culture swab results.This attitude of all in your head makes finding treatment, which I want, much harder, as I’ve run into too many doctors who still believe the pain is purely psychosomatic.

    Sexual dysfunction is still very stigmatized. That stigma isn’t just coming from Big Pharma’s hidden agenda; it’s part of Western culture, especially US culture. A lot of the distress I have comes not from Big Pharma trying to hawk one ware or another at me. It comes from living in a penetration-loving culture. It comes from seeing TV shows about sex & showing characters doing things I will never be able to do, radio talk show hosts talking about situations I will never experience, and even well-meaning sex toy shops selling devices I will never be able to use as intended. After all, sex toy companies, including the ones I’ve bought from, have a financial incentive to create a desire and then a perceived need for g-spot and p-spot orgasms.
    I think quite a lot of the distress is an unintended, unanticipated consequence of the Sexual Revolution. No use denying that pharmaceutical companies are partly to blame, what with hawking penis-in-vagina sex as the end-all, beat-all standard to attain using the Viagra family. But seeing those silhouettes of people engaged in coitus on websites & reading magazine articles about wild-off-the-wall-hanging-from-the-ceiling mindblowing orgasm sex, is alienating too.

    Unfortunately reading articles like the one you’ve linked to here just makes me feel even more stigmatized & othered. Among other things that I find not only disempowering but outright humiliating, the author, Wypijewski, refers to people who seek medical treatment for dysfunction as “Slaves.” How am I, as someone who has sought out out, fought for (had to fight for it,) and benefited from medical intervention, supposed to interpret that?

  4. Rachel says:

    K, thanks for your additional comment. It’s a lot to chew on, and I just wanted to respond to let you know I had seen it and also your related post at your own place. We perhaps need to find a way to talk about FSD that accounts for your experiences as well as the real concerns about medicalization/drug-pushing, and the range of issues from the vulvodynia that you discuss to the vaguer FSD, and I’m definitely open to suggestions for how to do that. Thanks again.