Data Type: Journal Article

Hard science: gendered constructions of sexual dysfunction in the ‘viagra age’.

Marshall, B. L. (2002). Hard science: gendered constructions of sexual dysfunction in the ‘viagra age’. Sexualities, 5(2), 131-158. DOI: 10.1177/1363460702005002001

Marshall analyzes Viagra from two different angles: as a product of biotechnology and also as an event which has altered society and culture in terms of changing the definitions and attitudes surrounding sexual function and dysfunction. The history of the drug and its conception are explicated, detailing Viagra’s introduction to the consumer pharmaceutical market in the U.S. and its reception in U.S. culture. The National Institute of Health’s gradual change in the labeling of male sexual dysfunction as ‘impotence’ to ‘erectile dysfunction’ in the 80s and 90s is cited as being a major shift in biomedicalization, as the understanding of the “mechanism of penile erection [was disassociated] from any sort of psychological or emotional arousal, or even tactile stimulation, and [was] reconceptualize[d]…as a primarily physiological event” (136). The author discusses how Viagra has been identified as synonymous with a ‘new age’ in human sexual relations, as the drug plays a key role in shifting the social attitudes affecting gender relations. Marshall’s objective in this analysis is to uncover how “gendered, sexual bodies and responsible individuals are being constructed in and through [the] discourses” of male sexual dysfunction.

The author attributes the popularization of Viagra to the labeling of erectile dysfunction as an “epidemic,” citing the Massachusetts Male Aging Study (Feldman et al., 1994; McKinlay & Feldman, 1994), which is considered pivotal as it established “’levels of impotence’, rather than treating impotence as an all or nothing condition.” Marshall attests that the results of the aforementioned study played a definite role in altering the normative social expectations of sexual performance, and has effectively expanded the market for Viagra from the user who is, “due to a physiological problem, unable to get or keep an erection much of the time,” to a larger consumer base, including “all those whose erections could be ‘improved’” (139). In other words, the use of Viagra and the discourse surrounding its use have moved from simply a site of pathology to a site for improvement. Marshall explains how this shift in the way male sexual dysfunction is viewed has opened up new approaches to, and ways of thinking about, treating dysfunction. The scientific literature on the subject has expanded exponentially, going from solely discussing methods of treatment to methods of prevention or of finding “early warning signs” of erectile dysfunction. Furthermore, female sexual dysfunction has also entered the discourse, spurred by the “‘pharmaceutical revolution’ in treating male sexual dysfunction.” A new urological sub-specialty has been introduced to the biomedical field, one which focuses on, “female sexual arousal disorders.” The problematic aspects of these phenomena are explored through a continued citation and analysis of scientific literature, especially in examining how, in cases of male erectile dysfunction, a patient’s self-concept is never problematized as it is in cases of female sexual dysfunction, where “[the] context in which the patient experiences her sexuality, her self-esteem and body image, and her ability to communicate her sexual needs to her partner” are all evaluated.

In her final critical analysis and conclusion, the author asserts that the introduction of Viagra into mainstream society has brought about a discursive explosion on sexuality, and claims that Foucault would have characterized Viagra’s sudden availability as, “consolidating yet another ‘strategic unity’ which forms ‘specific mechanisms of knowledge and power centering on sex’ (Foucault, 1978: 103):
the ‘sexually dysfunctional’” (144). This article contributes to the disciplines of medical sociology and sexuality studies by analyzing and rationalizing the social mania surrounding erectile dysfunction and performance in addition to the emergent studies and inquiries into female sexual dysfunction. In tracing the contemporary history and dimensions of the “strategic unity” of the “sexually dysfunctional,” the author raises questions as to how these biomedical trends affect the social knowledge and power relations revolving around the subject of sexuality and how sexual bodies and individuals will continue to be constructed as a result. This article is especially significant for its compelling finding that, in the contemporary age, sex and sexuality have become things to be improved upon through institutional management with the goal of enhancement.

Categories: Medical Sociology, Social Construction
Publication Date: 2002