Gendered Medicalization of Sexual Desire?
A Medical Sociologist Reflects on How “Women’s Viagra” Isn’t Like Viagra at All

The medical humanities have long drawn attention to the way that social power structures and value judgments affect diagnoses and the very disease categories on which those diagnoses are based. Peter Conrad famously discussed medicalization—the process by which a human condition comes to be seen as a medical one—as a form of social control, a facet of medical sociology he revisited in 2008. Indeed, as I have argued, medicalization can not only reinforce but also disrupt social categories.  It should come as no surprise that medications designed to treat sexual dysfunction in men, and now in women, are based on diagnostic categories which are heavily subject to construction by social norms and stereotypes.

Sociologist Alyson Spurgas addresses just this issue over at the SIUE Women’s Studies blog in “We’ve Come A Long Way, Baby? Pink Pills, Blue Pills, and False Equivalences in the Medical Treatment of Sexual Dysfunction.” In this provocative and long-form scholarly blog entry, Dr. Spurgas draws out curiously gendered distinctions between the DSM-V’s diagnostic criteria for men’s and women’s sexual dysfunction.  Spurgas argues that these contribute to the differences between established treatments for men’s sexual  dysfunction and brand new treatments for women’s sexual dysfunction, the former focusing on malfunctions in the body while the latter address the woman’s state of mind and receptivity to her partner’s advances, with problematic implications for women who have experienced sexual trauma or are in unsatisfactory relationships.

I strongly recommend clicking through to read the article as a whole.  Dr. Spurgas closes with a recommendation:

 In this vein, we ought to remember that sexism and misogyny are still prevalent in a variety of insidious forms—within and outside of clinical medicine and scientific laboratories, and with or without prescription drugs. The medical and scientific climate around sexuality and proposed and prescribed treatments are rather effects of a widespread and willful ignorance of women’s pleasure, and thus they represent a larger social lacuna. This is why it seems so imperative to shift the debate from the drugs themselves to the larger medical, scientific, social, cultural, and political milieux in which gender differences are configured and disseminated—configurations that have real consequences for how people experience their own bodies, other people’s bodies, and their sex lives. If taking a drug will make women feel the desire that they desire to have, and that is satisfying and pleasurable to them, then, by all means, we should have it! But let’s not stuff too many pills down our throats before seriously considering what we want, why we want it, and what we could potentially want for our futures (sexual and otherwise). There are many trajectories to that place of pleasure—if “sexual” pleasure is what we choose to pursue.

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Alison Reiheld

About Alison Reiheld

Alison Reiheld has a background in biology, through which she came to bioethics. She received her Ph.D. in philosophy at Michigan State University where she taught for many years at the Lyman Briggs College of Science. Dr. Reiheld is currently the Director of Women's Studies and an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University - Edwardsville.

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