A sociological view of sexology

*by Regina Facchini and Carolina B. C. Ferreira

In the book Disorders of Desires, sociologist Janice Irvine, Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, tells the story of the development and impact of sexology – the scientific study of sex – in the United States. But even though the book was first published in 1990, in this era of new sexual enhancement technologies (like erectile dysfunction drugs), its critique of sexology is even more relevant than it was when the book was released. Its new edition features a chapter – entitled Regulated Passions: the invention of inhibited sexual desire and sex addiction – on the invention of the diagnosis of "sex addiction" in the 1970s, examining the social and political implications of this "disorder."

The article, which has been translated into Portuguese and it is now in the 14th volume of Sexuality, Health and Society – Latin American Journal, focuses on recent developments within the field of sexology. In particular, it discusses the "Viagra Revolution" that began in the 1990s.

In the following interview, the author talks about how the field of sexology has changed since then and analyzes the role of the pharmaceutical industry in developing sexual enhancements.

Nowadays, almost 23 years after Disorders of Desire, published in 1990, what do you think has changed or remained the same in the relationship among sexual science, sexual politics and the profession of sexology?

Interestingly, many things have changed while some have remained the same (although nothing is ever really the same). For one thing, when I wrote Disorders of Desire, sexology was the only professional rubric for sexuality researchers. By the 1990s, sexuality research within the academy and medicine had expanded. Subfields within the social sciences and humanities—in particular sociology, history, literary and cultural studies—created academic space for critical sexual inquiry. In addition, interdisciplinary (and overlapping) fields of sexuality studies, LGBT studies, and queer studies burgeoned, inextricably bound with the intellectual influences of poststructuralism and feminist theory, as well as feminist, queer, AIDS, and trans activism.

Contemporary sexuality studies differed from the biomedical and essentializing discourses of mainstream U.S. sexology in its critical interrogation of sexuality and gender as broad social domains involving multiple fields of power, diverse systems of knowledge, and sets of institutional, political, and cultural discourses. The constructionist argument that sexuality is best studied as a domain whose meanings change across cultures and history, rather than as the universal, biological drive posited by most sexologists, prompted rich studies on varied levels of analysis: the nation, social institutions, public cultures and communities, embodiment, and more. Exploring intersecting articulations of sexuality and gender—including a critique of their manifestations in the earlier field of sexology— has always been central to these inquiries.

Its critical, theoretical edge and social science/humanities academic locations have cost contemporary sexuality studies the therapeutic market enjoyed by a biomedical and behavioral sexology. Critical researchers in sexuality studies do not produce the self-help books, therapies, or pharmaceuticals to support any promise of better sex tomorrow. Indeed, they are more likely to be critical of such technologies. They are, not surprisingly then, unlikely to receive funding from the primary corporate source of sex research funding—the pharmaceutical industry. Contemporary social science and humanities scholars work without the advantages of a therapeutic market, but under conditions of vulnerability to workplace stigma.

Despite growing acceptance of sexuality studies, stigma and controversy persist. This was true for sexologists and continues to be true for contemporary scholars of sexuality, across disciplines. I have recently conducted a survey of sociologists of sexuality in the United States, many of whom reported vulnerability to workplace bias as a result of their work on sexuality. An article on this is forthcoming in the journal Sexualities, and will feature commentary from international sexuality scholars who will discuss the situation in their countries.

In the book you show the heterogeneity of the sexological field in the United States, as well as groups and social actors working in alliances and disputes over the production of legitimacy of a scientific discourse of sex. Currently, could we consider pharmaceutical industry an important social actor in the field? What are the implications of this?

The pharmaceutical industry is absolutely an important corporate actor now in the area of sexuality. Its influence has intensified since the 1980s, and there have been several consequences.

For one, the pharmaceutical industry has expanded the medicalization of sexuality. The development of erectile dysfunction drugs, the search for “the female Viagra,” and the allure of pills to enhance sexual desire all reinforce an essentialist framing of sexuality in which biological factors are primary. Popular media have helped spread this (false) promise of pills and other biological nostrums to cure sexual problems and enhance sexual behavior.

I addition, the pharmaceutical industry has become perhaps the most important funder of sexologists. This is partly because of the stigma attached to sexuality research, and the reluctance of federal funders in the United States, like the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health to fund it. The pharmaceutical industry also views sexologists as allies in promoting their pills and creams. This has led LeonoreTiefer, a critical sexologist, to warm that sexology is in danger of being co-opted and rendered merely “a subsidiary of the pharmaceutical industry.”

Ultimately, the pharmaceutical company will continue to promote a view of sexuality as biological not social. It will continue to avoid any political analysis of sexual problems and instead will provide ineffective “cures” for people to purchase. Its expansion of medicalization will reinforce sexual stigma and sexual hierarchies, and further commodify sexuality while regulating forms of the self.

Disorders of Desires shows how the heterogeneity of sexology in the United States is related to the political struggle around meanings of scientific legitimacy related to sexual practices, bodies, desires and pleasures. In addition, your research shows how the concepts of feminist and LGBT groups within this field are often accused of not being scientific. Has it changed? For example, what do you think of the “New view campaign”?

I love the New View Campaign, which was started by Lenore Tiefer, whom I mention above. Tiefer has inspired a small but powerful movement that has challenged this creeping role of Big Pharma and the increasing medicalization of sexuality and women’s bodies. They have been very effective.

My worry is that I can’t think of other organizations that are also doing this. Tiefer is a national treasure but I worry about the continuity of New View in the long run.

As I mention in #1, the field of sexuality research has expanded. There are scholars in Sociology and other fields that have been researching and writing about these issues. My hope is that the expansion of critical sexuality studies—which has a very progressive political edge—will take up political struggle in the challenge of against medicalization and the commodification of sexuality.

*Regina Facchini PhD, professor at State University of Campinas (Unicamp)

*Carolina Branco de Castro Ferreira, PhD, State University of Campinas (Unicamp)