Sexual Healing: Carnal Knowledge
By JoAnn Wypijewski
As Rachel Maines demonstrates in her delightfully illuminating history The Technology of Orgasm, making patients out of sexually unsatisfied women was good business. The afflicted would neither die nor be cured but required regular massage treatments, weekly, sometimes daily, for an hour or even three. By one 1863 estimate, such therapies accounted for three-quarters of physicians' business, but doctors seem to have got no pleasure out of diddling women. It was, Maines says, "the job nobody wanted." And bringing women off was work, abstracted from sex (i.e., the robust progression from male hard-on to vaginal penetration to male orgasm) and requiring time and skill. With the vibrator, doctors' productivity exploded, as sixty-minute visits shrank to ten, raising more revenue from more patients per day, until the device became so popular and multipurpose (Sears marketed a home vibrator with attachments for beating eggs, churning butter, operating a fan) that the medical profession had worked itself out of a job. Miraculously, the sick were healed as soon as the first vibrator popped up in porno in the 1920s.
Leap across the decades, and this quaint history appears positively progressive in that, willy-nilly, medicalization marched toward putting sexuality into women's hands, into their heads in terms of body knowledge, and into the mix of culture, personal relations and a polymorphous physicality more true to life than biological function alone. The white coats came out again with Masters and Johnson but bumped into a counterculture and an emancipation movement that pushed against their categorizations of normal or not. Every 1970s woman might not have gone to one of Betty Dodson's masturbation workshops; every man certainly was not reborn as an attentive, exploring lover. But nor was everyone straight, in all senses of the word, and the fluidity of sexuality as part of the great mishmash of human experience was in the air-conditioning system of the culture. It was sexual but political, too. Today the cultural air is thick with sex, but the rhetoric of freedom and rights largely serves a commodified notion of sexual satisfaction. The politics has dropped out, and without politics we're all just patients, or potential patients.
How else to explain that a reality as old as god--that the vast majority of women do not climax simply through intercourse--has re-emerged as dysfunction? Or that another grab bag of indicators of dissatisfaction and low desire are renamed as symptoms of hypoactive sexual desire disorder, for which a female Viagra or a testosterone patch or cream or nasal spray must be developed? How to explain that middle-aged women go under the knife for vaginal rejuvenation, basically pussy tightening, and that young women go under the knife for laser labiaplasty, basically genital mutilation, saying they only want to feel pretty, normal, and raise their chances of orgasm through intercourse? How to explain that a doctor like Stuart Meloy of North Carolina, a throwback to charlatans who tried to shock hysterics into health with electric charges, has even one patient to test his Orgasmatron, an electrode threaded up a woman's spinal cord and controlled by a hand-held button that the patient can push (assuming the procedure doesn't paralyze her) to make her clit throb with excitement during intercourse and reach the grail of mutually assured orgasm?
A terrific new documentary, Orgasm Inc., by Liz Canner, addresses those questions in terms of corporate medicine and the creation of need via pseudofeminist incitements to full sexual mastery by Dr. Laura Berman and other shills for the drug industry. 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. That's capitalism; that's its nature. The more obstinate question is why so many people are willing to be its slaves, and whether a resistant politics can grow up to say not just "We want in" to healthcare but "We want out" of the profit system and, on the sex front, out of a medical model that elevates a doctor over "playing doctor" or a more sensual ease with oneself and others.
"So many times I don't think sex is a matter of health," Dr. Leonore Tiefer, a sex therapist and founder of the New View Campaign to challenge the medicalization of sex, told me the other day. "I think it's 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. And in dancing school the waltz class is no more normal than the samba class." You might not be a good dancer by some scale of values. You might not get the steps right, or do steps at all, but even in wheelchairs people learn to move to the music.
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