Tuesday, December 4, 2007

"The Greatest Medical Discovery Ever Known" - Curing women from being women

When I came across this vintage ad a few days ago, I thought it was absolutely hilarious.

I can't help but think that the device in question must have been invented by some uptight victorian physicians who had had enough of "cure" hysterical or frigid women by manipulating them to orgasm. I can just picture the utterly awkward and uncomfortable look on their prudish faces: "Gross! Women experiencing sexual pleasure! Eeeeew!"





It seems unreal that, back in the early 20th century, physicians and psychiatrists genuine believed that women were either hysterical or frigid, depending on whether they enjoyed sex too much or not enough. (And by "enjoying sex," what they really meant was the ability to have a so-called vaginal orgasm.)

A woman's lack of ability to enjoy sex on exclusivity male terms, i.e. via penetration alone, was then, as evidence by the ad above, a "disease" that had to be "cured."

Such attitudes were mistakenly and largely based on androcentric perspectives on sexuality and the female body, and fueled, namely, by Freud's psycho-analytic theories.

The problem is that they still persist today. It still seems to me that, to a certain extent, women are inherently abnormal. As a matter of fact, women are constantly being reminded that, at their natural, basic state, they necessarily either (1) grossly depart from the acceptable model of womanhood and femininity, or (2) constitute abnormal variants of the normal human, i.e. the human male.

Many people still refer to women who don't/can't experience "vaginal" orgasms as being frigid, or as being plagued by arousal problems. Hence drugs that can supposedly enhance a woman's abnormally low sexual desires, or procedures purported to enhance a woman's elusive "G-spot" so as to increase the probabilities that she will reach orgasm during penetrative sex.

Would such remedies exist at all if our society adopted a female perspective of sexuality, or at the very least, if we collectively acknowledged once and for all that sex is something that is physically and physiologically experienced differently in men and women?

Imagine if society adopted a female outlook on sexuality. Would men who don't/can't reach climax solely by manipulating their female's partner's clitoris deemed "frigid"? Would male orgasms obtained via vaginal penetration considered inferior or "immature" by medical and psychiatric literature?


***

The idea that women, simply because they are women, need to be cured of some form of inherent and congenital female disease related to one's femaleness, often takes a psychiatric twist.

Not only are women physically deficient, but there's also apparently something wrong with the way we're wired.

For years, medical textbooks and publications aimed at a female audience have urged women to seek psychiatric attention and/or treatment should they experience feelings of uneasiness, discomfort or frustration towards their bodies, marriage, men, sex, pregnancy, and whatever else was traditionally expected from women.

The following is an excerpt from a book aimed at a female teenaged audience:

Au temps de l'ovulation, quelques jours avant ou après la menstruation, certaines adolescentes sentent un besoin sexuel intense qui les rend excessivement nerveuses. Ces jeunes filles ont beaucoup de difficultés à contrôler leurs sens, durant ces courtes périodes.

Vous connaissez bien vos jours de faiblesse? Alors, n'allez pas vous exposer ces jours-là! Si vous devenez trop tendues, certains tranquilisants vous aideraient à adoucir ces orages.

- Lionel Gendron, L'adolescente veut savoir (Éditions de l'Homme: Montréal, 1964), at 51.

Dr Gendron also recommends that young girls take sedatives and tranquilizers to treat "nervous" symptoms related to menstruation, fatigue, headaches, lack of self-confidence, not feeling appreciated by your husband, and love.

As if, women needed constant medical attention. As if the mere fact of being female required medical intervention.

Vous pratiquerez ce test de fécondité pendant au moins dix mois consécutifs. Avec ce tableau, vous verrez votre médecin au moment de votre mariage et il établira avec vous votre calendrier sexuel conjugal.

- Ibid., at 103.

Seriously.

***

This is still going on today. A little while ago, I saw an ad on an American TV channel (I forgot which) for a new oral contraceptive, Yaz, that also purports to "treat" or "suppress" the psychological symptoms associated with menstruations.

On the one hand, I think it's great that there is finally an alternative to "hard" medications, such as anti-depressants, for women who experience regular bouts of anxiety and depression-like symptoms at some point of their menstrual cycle.

On the other hand however, I'm extremely uncomfortable with the idea of "treating" menstruation as if it were a disease. It's not. It's unpleasant for many, but it's not a disease.

***

On a related topic, many women's rights groups in Québec - including la Fédération québécoise pour le planning des naissances - have required a moratorium on the mass vaccination of teenaged girls against HPV, on the ground that there are still many things we don't know about how safe the Gardasil vaccine actually is, and have raised questions about the adequacy of suppressing menstruation via various contraceptive medications.

As much as I loathe the systematic "medicalization" of women and of conditions associated with being one, I don't think it's appropriate to ban a technology or a medically approved practiced for fear that it be unnecessary or that it become systematically imposed on women.

Whether a woman should be vaccinated against HPV, or whether she should opt for a medical contraceptive that will - temporarily - stop her menstruations, is matter of personal choice. Find an OB-GYN who is knowledgeable in those areas and whom you trust, discuss these issues and make a choice that suits your beliefs and your personal needs.

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