While introducing the interesting-sounding film Orgasm Inc, which is about the potential medicalization of women's orgasms, Gwen of Sociological Images raises the issue of men's orgasms. Or, more specifically, of men's erections.
In the article “In Pursuit of the Perfect Penis: The Medicalization of Male Sexuality” (available for free if you search for the title and Tiefer’s name), Leonore Tiefer discusses the way that the increasing attention paid by the medical community to conditions defined as “impotence,” and the way it has become medicalized, requiring any number of surgical, psychological, and/or pharmacological interventions. While some men have undoubtedly benefited, the largest beneficiary is the medical community itself. The broadened definition of what counts as “erectile dysfunction,” for instance, has created a larger market for drugs such as Viagra and Cialis.
Women's sexual dysfunction is complicated enough, as evidenced in the post's comments thread. Discussion of men's dysfunction is if anything even less, um, sophisticated.
One commenter, a possibly otherwise-well-intentioned young man, chirped
Best solution for impotence: try with someone you love and respect.
I replied... not exactly incivilly but perhaps a bit brittly that the people I know who seem to be most aggrieved by male impotence are their partners... particularly the partners of survivors of prostate cancer surgery. I added that I didn't think it would be particularly productive to tell them to become more lovable or respectable.
I have a feeling, though, that the reflex is to balk at the assumption that men's partners would be more aggrieved by impotence than the men themselves. After all, as Leonore Tiefer says in "In Pursuit of the Perfect Penis," our contemporary image of men is tied extraordinarily to male sexual performance (which is what I mean when I suggest it's more accurate to label men rather than women "the sex class.") With that understanding it would seem like madness for me to suggest that impotence, particularly low-libido-related impotence, would be less cause for concern for the man than his partner(s.)
Here's the thing, though: what's assumed to be the measure of sexuality in contemporary society? (Hint: See the previous paragraph.) If you recall that one of the big feminist indictments of modern sexuality, and the politics of sex and gender in general, is that men are the baseline reference for sexuality. 'Member that whole Hegelian thing about how people with privilege can go around oblivious to their privilege because those subordinate to them adjust themselves to meet the needs of the privileged?
Well, if a man imagines himself the baseline of sexuality, as we actually tend to do quite a lot, then we're going to do what? Initiate sex when we're horny, right? Right! And when our partners aren't in the mood we're going to do what? Either act to seduce them or else complain that they're never interested. With me so far?
We're used to this notion that men are always "ready" for sex, right? Used to? Heck, we're practically indoctrinated with it! Heck, one of the major premises of Orgasm Inc is that women's sexuality is being medicalized in order to help them "keep up" with men's high, high, go-go libidos.
Ok, so... if you've got this guy who only thinks about sex at all when he's horny, right?
And he's only horny maybe a couple of times a day, right?
He's happy and thinks everything's copacetic, right?
From his perspective he gets horny, he initiates sex, and if his partner's interested they have sex, and if not then he complains about it.
And now let's say this same guy, still only thinking about sex at all when he's horny, right?
Only now he's only horny maybe a couple of times a year, right?
From his perspective, once again, as the assumed/default baseline he gets horny, he initiates sex, what, exactly is different from his perspective? Nothing, right?
And if his partner complains? Well, bogus Rule of Desire #1 to the rescue: it's both inconceivable and intolerable for a woman to have sexual desire. So off to the shrink for her... if she doesn't seek counseling on her own to find out what's "wrong with her" now.
Is this starting to make sense? If a man is the measure of "sex" then his degree or frequency of interest is by default the "normal" to which all others are expected to adjust.
That's not to say that his partner won't bring it up, or even that he won't respond. Or feel bad for not "keeping up."
Can I twist the gee-isn't-gender-construction-fucked-up knife just a little bit further?
Because men's sexuality and libido are considered the baseline, to the extent most men respond to impotence it's in relation to who? Their partners? Oh, I don't think so! It's to either a) their former selves, b) their expectations of themselves, or c) concern for being compared to, or by, their peers.
Is it any wonder, then, that the people I've heard complain most bitterly about male impotence have been partners rather than the men themselves?
Do we want to leave it there?
And meanwhile we've got no-doubt well-meaning people like the commenters at Sociological Images who are saying stuff like blah blah Viagra blah blah Patriarchy blah blah male expectations blah blah blah. When in fact Patriarchy, with a nice assist from its Two Rules of Desire, is surprisingly fine with impotence and low male libido. It's certainly never concerned itself with possibility that female partners might have sexual desires of their own... let alone unfulfilled ones!
Final clue: In most relationships involving male sexual dysfunction which partner is most likely to initiate contact seeking medical or sexual advice, the man or the woman? Right in one! More often than not it's the woman who tries to get the ball, as it were, rolling.
Our social expectations and stereotypes about sexual dysfunction, male and female, aren't helping. At all!
I conluded my less-than-generous comment at Sociological Images with the following thought: is there an issue with medicalization of sex? Oh yeah. There’s plenty of that. And I think it’s a very, very good idea to be wary of the industrial tendency to take a drug or procedure originally developed for people with genuine need and turn it into a mass-market product. But one shouldn’t discount legitimate uses. Which, when it comes to sex, is enormously common. Turns out, though, there’s more than one form of prudery influencing some of the radically bad ideas in the field. Those who think there should be no intervention because sex is bad, and those who think there should be no intervention because what could possibly go wrong?
Neither kind could be less helpful than the other.
The way to be part of the solution is not avoid being part of the problem.