Probably Not the Kind of "Healing" Marvin Gaye was Referring To

October 19, 2009

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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