Regulating Desire

Last February academic and social commentator Laura Kipnis wrote a piece for The Chronicle Review about student-academic relationships and the effects of sexual harassment regulations on universities. The piece received a hefty backlash in the form of two Title IX complaints from students, Kipnis’ response to which was also published in The Chronicle Review. Having, at one time, been in a frowned-upon relationship myself, I thought I’d offer my twopence to the debate.

As relationships tend to do, mine had meandered between underwhelming to disastrous with some good times in the mix. Then he came along. He had a certain something, but I let it go thinking that, with him as my doctor, I’d be stuck for quite some time with any awkwardness that might arise from a rebuffed advance. Before you go thinking that it was some misinterpretation of care or white coat worship, I have epilepsy and, as anyone with a long-term condition will tell you, any white-coat-god-complex vibe from a physician wears very thin pretty fast. It’s an across-the-board thing. They don’t even have to be treating you for the condition.

Anyway, a couple of years passed, I moved away from the area so my medical care was transferred elsewhere. Then I met him again at a conference, we got chatting and my advance wasn’t rebuffed. For a few months we were together, meeting when we could and relying on email and text when we couldn’t. We were in love: he made me feel invincible, like I could do anything; I don’t know what I did for him, exactly, but he told me he was completely happy. Then I got a job overseas and he couldn’t come with me. We said we’d keep in touch and we did for a bit, but there’s only so much that emails about your day can keep alive when there’s no end to long-distance in sight.

I’m offering my experience of a relationship that, though not forbidden, is still frowned upon because it serves as an example of two of the important points highlighted by Kipnis’ article: agency and nuance in relationship power dynamics. Denying the agency of the partner in an ostensibly less powerful position reduces them to the role of helpless victim. It ignores their desires, dismissing them as the result of some false consciousness. In my own case, I was in my twenties and knew my own power. I would not have appreciated anyone attempting to police my desires or with whom I was exploring them. As for power dynamics in relationships, if they were uniform and straightforward, we could all be provided with a manual at birth from which there would be no need to deviate. But they’re not. Relationships are nuanced, they’re complex, and they’re built on that most capricious of all things, desire.

None of this is to say that there aren’t predators. Of course there are. They’re to be found pretty much anywhere you can think of – the workplace, the medical profession, educational institutions, and, most commonly, in the home. Nor is it to deny victims the recognition of their experience and support they should receive. It is to suggest is that relationships are as individual as the people in them and they deserve to be considered as such.

Vulva Loving

I have a fuck buddy (FB) who refuses to go down on me. He doesn’t have an explanation. Well, he does, but it goes like this: “I don’t have a reason. I just don’t like the idea.” Clearly this is not good enough.

“But I suck your cock all the time,” I say. “I suck your balls, I play with your ass. You told me, just the other day, that you’d never been rimmed before and you really liked it. I’m not keeping a tally or anything, it’s just that don’t you think you should be a bit more adventurous? You’re forty next month and you’ve never eaten pussy.”

“Neither have you.”

“Only because I’ve never slept with a woman. I’ve tasted my own juices on my fingers. What about if I smeared jam on myself? Would you lick that off?”


“Is it the hair? I’m happy to trim, but I’m not waxing. I got that done once and the beautician could only do one side because it was so fucking sore I couldn’t take it and cried all the way home. And I’m not taking all the hair off. I did that once with cream and felt so unwomanly.”

“It’s not the hair. I told you – I just don’t like the idea. Sweetie, there’s nothing you can say or do that’s gonna make me feel any different.”

Bloody boy. I wonder about withholding blowjobs from him until he gives in and goes down on me, but it seems a bit mean-spirited especially at this time of year when we’re supposed to be in the season of goodwill and all that. Plus, I don’t really want him doing it under duress. I’m looking for vulva love, here, because that’s what I deserve – what we all deserve, dammit. There’s even a picture of me on some website with “viva la vulva” written just above my mons pubis in silver eyeliner in case anyone was in any doubt about how I feel about lady parts. Maybe it’s an unfamiliarity thing and all FB needs is a little education. That I can do. It just so happens that a few days ago I got these lovely, soft pillowcases with pictures of vulvas on them from Sin in Linen. They look like they’re taken from anatomy textbooks with all the parts numbered. I could teach FB with some good old-fashioned schooling.

“If I dress up as a slutty teacher, will you, at least, sit through a lesson on vulvas and why they’re great?”

He rolls his eyes.

“Ok, no slutty teacher. What about a reward system? You name the parts on this picture of a vulva and, every time you get one right, I kiss you wherever you like.”

“My dick?”

“Done.” I hold up the pillowcase and point.

“Labia minora.”

“Excellent! Now show me that dick.”

“Certainly. I know what you’re doing, by the way.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The lesson goes quite well. For someone who doesn’t want any face-time with a vulva, he seems pretty familiar with them on a book-learning basis. By the end of the class his cock’s hard (no great feat, I know) and I’m in the mood for a little reverse cowgirl all of a sudden. Staying up half the night reading Even Cowgirls Get The Blues will do that to a gal. Plus, there’s the hard cock. So I roll on a condom and slide on. Then I reach round and take hold of FB’s hand. I press it against my clit. For all his unadventurousness in some respects, he is a conscientious chap and he starts stroking. Then he takes his hand away and, so cautiously you’d think it would scald him, he licks his finger with the tip of his tongue. He gives a little smile. It’s not muff-divin’ vulva-worshipin’ pussy-lovin’, but it’s a start.

The Viagra Man: Pfizer’s Creation of the Ultimate Male

This is an essay I wrote for a university course on understanding technology. I decided to write about Viagra because I’m doing my PhD on sex pills for women so thought I’d better find out all about what was on offer for men at some point. In case anyone’s dying to know, I thought I’d share it here, too.

The Viagra Man: Pfizer’s Creation of the Ultimate Male

When fully erect, the average human penis measures between five and seven inches. A highly prized commodity, the pursuit of it has led men to bathe their testicles in a mix of vinegar and wine, drink strychnine and phosphoric acid with either syrup of orange peel or syrup of ginger, receive electric shock treatment to their genitals, wear penis splints, attempt to increase blood flow using a penile vacuum pump, have silicon rods surgically implanted into their penises, and inject their penises with vasodilators. Then came Viagra.

This blockbuster drug was discovered in 1996, in the course of research by pharmaceutical company Pfizer into a treatment for hypertension and angina pectoris. Its effect on the conditions for which it was designed was negligible, but when participants in the trial refused to return their leftover pills and listed “erections” as a notable side effect, researchers were intrigued. They decided to discontinue research into the drug as a treatment for hypertension and angina pectoris, and focus, instead, on its potential as an oral one for erectile dysfunction (ED). With an estimated 18 million ED sufferers in the USA alone and no non-invasive treatments on offer, Pfizer knew that the market potential for a pill was immense. The drug was rushed through the Food and Drug Administration approval process and released onto the American market in 1998.

It was an instant success: the little blue pill launched $411 million in sales in the three months following its release and went on to be used in the treatment of over twenty million patients, to be the subject of over two thousand abstracts, and to be prescribed one hundred million times in the first five years of its existence.

But Pfizer wanted more than just another blockbuster drug. That had already been achieved with their cholesterol-lowering medication, Lipitor. What they wanted was a revolution. In order to achieve this, they created a Viagra paradigm. The process began with the branding of ED as more than simply a medical condition. Pfizer wanted their name, and that of their drug, to be analogous with ED, so closely intertwined that one would not be thought of without the other. Using quotations apparently taken from sufferers of ED from their clinical trials, Pfizer imbued their marketing materials with the language of sexuality and masculinity. Men spoke of feeling depressed and inadequate, unable to satisfy their partners and incomplete as men. Pfizer rewarded them with an advert by former American Presidential Candidate and prostate cancer survivor Bob Dole, leaning into the camera and telling people about his ED and how important it was to talk about it. “It may take a little courage to talk to your doctor about erectile dysfunction,” he says. “But everything worthwhile usually does.” This was the Viagra paradigm phase one, with the drug marketed at men as a treatment for a medical condition, giving them a comforting yet proactive message that they weren’t alone and that it was important to talk about erectile dysfunction – specifically, to their doctor about getting a prescription.

Though Pfizer maintained its insistence that Viagra was to be used only as a treatment for a medical condition, in the next phase, it began to incorporate the notion of fun into its marketing material. A television advert featured men running and jumping in a suburban street as Queen’s “We Are The Champions” played in the background. Courtesy of the little blue pill, these everyday American men were champions – to themselves, if no one else. Using a song performed by a gay man is, incidentally, the closest Pfizer has ever come to publicly associating the drug with homosexual men. The only other time it has had any interaction with the gay community was in contacting and the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association to warn them about possible interactions between Viagra and other drugs common in gay clubs such as poppers, crystal meth, and ecstasy. This action was undertaken after a number of deaths were reported caused by combining Viagra with other drugs.

In phase three came romance. The couples were older, the lighting tinted, and the music soft. One advert showed an elderly couple getting out of a car, going into a lift and gradually getting younger as it ascended, emerging as teenagers with the tag line “Like the first time”. Not that everyone recalls their first time favourably, but the intent was to evoke youth and its attendant virility rather than painful, awkward intercourse. Another showed a man dreamily being reminded of Viagra pills by the shape of plastic lids as he helped with the dishes and then using them to float candles in the pool, surrounding the couple with soft light.

The Viagra paradigm is currently in phase four. These are the manly men. They’re ruggedly handsome, all-American, they “never back down from a challenge”, and they’ve reached an age that they “know a thing or two”. One is shown fixing printing machinery and smiling at a picture of his female partner. Another harnesses the horses in the trailer to pull the car out of the mud before either heading home or building a campfire. There is some slight ambiguity in the advert in which the man builds a campfire because a previously unseen person of indeterminate gender can just be seen setting up the tent. In another advert the man replaces his car with a motorbike and whisks his female partner off to a cabin. Pfizer’s most recent release shows a group of middle-aged Americana guys singing about Viagra in a bar before they head home to their partners and wives.

This is the man sold along with the pill. He is strong, bold, in command, virile, heterosexual, and monogamous. He is also, it’s implied by the fact that he got a prescription for Viagra, willing to talk about sexual problems and, therefore, far from the taciturn, depressed figure of the ED sufferer. This is the component of the campaign with which Pfizer has sought to appeal to women, suggesting they encourage their partners to talk about sexual problems – if not to them, then to their doctors.

While the scenario presented publicly is the happy man and/or couple freed from the woes of ED, the central figure in the Pfizer treatment strategy is the penis. It is the penis – not the man or the couple – that Viagra treats. All treatment focuses on achieving what Viagra champion and leading ED researcher Irwin Goldstein refers to as “sufficient axial rigidity” through physiological means. The possibility that there may be any cause other than physiological for ED is ignored. Isolating a body part for medical treatment is, obviously, sensible protocol, but sex organs don’t fit the profile of others. Sex is complicated by sexuality and self. It isn’t simply a matter of organs functioning to full capacity, yet this is precisely the model applied to it by the Pfizer treatment strategy. In consultations with their doctors, erections are to be rated by patients in terms of “degree of penile tumescence (rigidity), penetrability (ability to penetrate the partner), sustainability of erection, and satisfaction with performance”. (Loe: 58) Such an approach is of use in determining the severity of a patient’s ED, but it adopts a restrictive view of sex, suggesting there is nothing of note other than the ability of the male partner to insert his penis into his female partner’s vagina. A sort of “insert A into B” approach to sexuality.

It also suggests that there are standards to which men must aspire in order for their sexual experience to be considered valid. Such an approach “lures men into believing there is a standard for erections to which they must adhere. By quantifying the normal erection – it has to be just hard enough to achieve penetration and last long enough to achieve ejaculation – medicalization forces men to conform to its specifications for masculinity. The results are twofold: first, men, like women, have their sexuality and desirability linked to physical parameters; second, emotion, sexual technique, and the role of one’s partner are rendered insignificant. By making the erection the man, science isn’t enhancing male sexuality, but sabotaging it.” (Luciano: 165) Sex is reduced to the strictures of hetereonormativity for both partners.

Really, it’s a model based on pornography: the priapic male and the insatiable female. Not that Pfizer would agree with such an analysis. Preferring to be associated with the pious than the promiscuous, before releasing the drug, it sent a delegation to the Vatican in order to ascertain the Catholic Church’s view. The Church gave the drug its blessing on the basis of its contribution to improving family relations and strengthening marital bonds. Whether any samples of the drug were left is not known. The Church of England gave a similar blessing and purchased $2 million worth of Pfizer shares.

But Pfizer didn’t invent hetereonormativity or markers of masculinity. It simply exploited their commonality. Viagra was created and exists in “a shifting coalition of actors – including scientists, doctors, patients, industries, media and consumers – operating within a cultural horizon of rationalization, medicalization, commodification and gendered hetero-normativity.” (Marshall: 146) There already existed a concept of performance culture both in and outside the bedroom, our selves primped and primed by medications and media manipulation.

What Viagra has introduced into the sexual arena is an interaction, at a visceral level, between the body and technology. “Viagra interacts with the “natural” body such that, with natural arousal, a techno-assisted erection is possible. The user is unable to tell where his body leaves off and the technology begins; it is a seamless, “natural” integration. Here the body, as a boundary concept, explodes the ideological distinction between the organic/natural and the technological/cultural and leaves in its place a reconceptualization of human bodies as techno-bodies.” (Mamo and Fishman: 17) The question is: is the pleasure less valid or real? Really, the means by which an erection is achieved is immaterial. What is of relevance, however, is the assumption that it is necessary – essential, even – to sex. The “reconceptualization of human bodies as techno-bodies” is a fascinating notion, but one that Viagra only takes so far: those bodies are still expected to interact within the bounds of sexual pleasure that is sanctioned by their societal sex roles.

Such roles are internalised to the extent that, not only are they dominant, but they appear natural. Should an individual feel differently, the response is as likely to feel inadequate and insecure as to challenge them. It is these feelings of inadequacy and insecurity that Pfizer exploits in its Viagra publicity and clinical screening procedures. It promises the ED sufferer a return to the potency of his youth, reward for his wisdom, an unfading (so long as it doesn’t last more than four hours at which point he should seek medical help) erection, and the satisfying sex life he assumes his fellow men to have. These things maketh the man, Pfizer tells us.

It promises his partner the man she once knew, reinvigorated and aroused. Whether that’s precisely what she wants is immaterial: the Viagra man is the only model on offer. Actually, it only promises her his erect penis (and even then, only in 80% of cases), but that’s not quite how Pfizer phrases it. Intrinsically, it is the message, though. There is no room for creativity or exploration in the sexuality of the Viagra man. He is his penis and his entire being is contingent on the proper functioning of this single organ, specified as its ability to penetrate the vagina of his partner to a satisfactory level. Whether or not either partner enjoys this sex act is immaterial. It is a subject reduced to physiology and performance charts. “The “scientific” vocabulary of talk on sex is a lexicon enabling half a century of doctor-patient talk that treats sex as an object of symptom analysis and of a medical diagnosis.” (Grace, Potts, Gavey, Vares: 302)


Connell, R.W. (2005) Masculinities, Cambridge: Polity Press

Grace, V, Potts, A., Gavey, N., Vares, T. (2006), The Discursive Condition of Viagra. Sexualities, 9 (3): 295

Lamm, S. (1998) Viagra: The Virility Solution, Simon and Schuster: London

Loe, M. (2004) The Rise of Viagra: How the Little Blue Pill Changed Sex in America, New York: New York University Press

Luciano, L. (2002) Looking Good: Male Body Image in Modern America, New York: Hill and Wang

Mamo, L., Fishman, J.R. (2001) Potency In All The Right Places. Body & Society. 7:13

Marshall, B.L. (2002) “Hard Science”: Gendered Constructions of Sexual Dysfunction in the “Viagra Age”. Sexualities. 5:131

Potts, A. (2000) “The Essence of the Hard-On”: Hegemonic Masculinity and the Cultural Construction of “Erectile Dysfunction”. Men and Masculinities. 3:85

Reidy, J. (2005) Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing

Vaughan, S (1998) Viagra: A Guide to the Phenomenal Potency-Promoting Drug, New York: Thorsons

“Can I be a feminist and have rape fantasies too?” Objectivity in the Study and Treatment of Female Sexual Dysfunction.

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago as a course essay and, having heard the title, a few people asked to read it so I thought I’d put it up here.

On the tenth of February 1999, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published an article titled, Sexual Dysfunction in the United States: Prevalence and Predictors, in which its authors, Edward O. Laumann, Anthony Paik, and Raymond C. Rosen stated that, based on a national probability sample of 1749 women, 43% of the adult female population aged between 18 and 59 suffered from female sexual dysfunction (FSD).

Two months later, the JAMA published a correction stating that two of the authors had failed to disclose their financial ties to drug companies – Laumann to Pfizer Inc and Rosen to Pfizer Inc, Merck & Co Inc, Eli Lilly Co, Bristol-Meyers Squibb & Co, Proctor & Gamble, and ICOS Corp. The study was potentially biased by financial interest, the analysis far from best practice, and the statistic misleading, but it was too late. Journalists had already run with the 43% figure, leading clinicians in the field of women’s sexual health such as Dr Irwin Goldstein and Drs Jennifer and Laura Berman backed it up, and Oprah Winfrey declared it fact. Suddenly America was engulfed in an epidemic of sexually dysfunctional women and the pharmaceutical companies began a race to find a cure.

Such a dysfunction, according to the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, to which FSD was a recent addition, could manifest in a variety of forms: hypoactive sexual desire disorder (lack of desire), sexual aversion disorder (avoidance of genital contact), sexual arousal disorder (inability to achieve or maintain an aroused state), orgasmic disorder (absence of orgasm), dyspareunia (pain during intercourse), and vaginismus (involuntary contraction of the perineal muscles when penetration is attempted).

Although the symptoms amounted to the same thing – the lack of interest in or inability to have sex – the causes were unknown. Pfizer was already trying its blockbuster treatment for male sexual dysfunction, Viagra, on women, but so far the studies showed that, though it increased genital blood flow in some women and, therefore, made intercourse possible, it did little to their levels of desire. Women, it seemed, needed more than an increase of blood flow to the vaginal walls to excite them.

Companies sought and failed to obtain Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval with Flibanserin, an anti-depressant remarketed as an FSD treatment, but with side effects including fainting, fatigue and depression, its risks and benefits were considered unacceptable; a transdermal testosterone patch withdrawn due to concerns over its safety data; and Libigel, a testosterone gel that failed to outperform its placebo.

To date there are only two treatments for FSD that have received FDA approval: Premarin, a vaginal cream for postmenopausal women manufactured from conjugated estrogens isolated from pregnant mares’ urine by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (owned by Pfizer since January 2009) with warnings regarding stroke, coronary heart disease, venous thromboembolism, and endometrial cancer; and the eros clitoral stimulator, a small vibrator with the added (useless) bonus of FDA approval.

Other treatments are in various stages of development. Lybrido combines testosterone with a phosphodiesterase inhibitor (PDE5), a combination intended to increase sex drive and genital sensitivity; Lybridos combines testosterone and buspirone to treat women who FSD and sexual inhibition, the former intended to increase sex drive and the latter to lower inhibition; both are taken sublingually. LibiGel is a testosterone gel intended for postmenopausal women; Tefina is a nasal testosterone spray intended to provide women with orgasmic disorder an on-demand treatment; Alprostadil (Femprox) is a vasodilatory vaginal cream; Apomorphine is an oral treatment for arousal disorder; Bremelanotide is being tested as a subcutaneous treatment for premenopausal women after development as a nasal spray was stopped due to adverse effects on blood pressure; Intravaginal Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) suppositories are being investigated for the treatment of vulvovaginal atrophic changes and possible effects on hypoactive sexual disorder; Ospemifeme is a novel estrogen agonist and antagonist being investigated as a treatment for painful intercourse; and the Viveve Procedure is a monopolar radiofrequency thermal therapy designed to tighten the vaginal walls after childbirth. How close any of these treatments will come to providing a treatment for FSD or gaining FDA approval remains to be seen. So far, the strength of the efficacy data varies.

There are a number of issues surrounding the emergence of FSD and the attendant rush by pharmaceutical companies to find a treatment: diagnostic procedure, company motivation, clinician financial interests, and the origins of the condition as a disorder, to name a few. The area on which I intend to focus is the concept of objectivity in the treatment of the condition.

Having decided that women required more than physiological assistance to aid them with sexual problems, the notion of desire was introduced into the study and treatment process. (This contrasted with the treatment of men who, it was assumed, suffered no lack of desire – only anatomical malfunction.)

When scientists in the sexual health field study female desire, their intention is to determine what arouses women. They study their physical responses to visual and audio stimuli, their professed desires, and their fantasies. When they examine their results they look for correlations and discrepancies between what women say turns them on and what their bodies respond to. Dr Meredith Chivers is one such scientist who carried out a study in which participants were shown clips of heterosexual, gay, and lesbian pornography, a naked woman exercising, bonobos mating (with chimpanzee hooting dubbed in to make up for the lack of sound made by the mating monkeys), and a naked man with a flaccid penis walking along a beach. They were given a keypad on which to rate their arousal and a plethysmograph, a small plastic probe to measure blood flow to the vaginal walls, was inserted into their vagina. What Chivers found was remarkable. “No matter what their self-proclaimed sexual orientation, they showed, on the whole, strong and swift genital arousal when the screen offered men with men, women with women and women with men. They responded objectively much more to the exercising woman than to the strolling man, and their blood flow rose quickly — and markedly, though to a lesser degree than during all the human scenes except the footage of the ambling, strapping man — as they watched the apes. And with the women, especially the straight women, mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person. The readings from the plethysmograph and the keypad weren’t in much accord. During shots of lesbian coupling, heterosexual women reported less excitement than their vaginas indicated; watching gay men, they reported a great deal less; and viewing heterosexual intercourse, they reported much more. Among the lesbian volunteers, the two readings converged when women appeared on the screen. But when the films featured only men, the lesbians reported less engagement than the plethysmograph recorded. Whether straight or gay, the women claimed almost no arousal whatsoever while staring at the bonobos.” (Daniel Bergner, What Do Women Want?, New York Times, January 22, 2009) Women’s desire, it seemed, was a mysterious thing – even to themselves.

The findings of such studies as Chivers’ complicate attempts to find a treatment for FSD. Or, at least, they should. The extent to which pharmaceutical companies, looking to find an easy fix for a vast number of sufferers (read: huge market) would have any intention of exploring the complexity of women’s sexual desire is debatable. Women diagnosed with Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD), the most common disorder, are said to have deficient fantasies and desire – for there to be a deficiency, there first needs to be a standard of expectancy or normalcy. This is problematic because there is no way of measuring sexual normalcy that isn’t, in some way, influenced by societal factors. Even a basic numerical study to determine the average number of times per week a couple has sex is complicated by factors such as age, sexuality, definition of sexual activity, and health. There is also the influence of attitudes, both personal and societal. Gayle Rubin created the “Charmed Circle” to show the divide between acceptable sex acts  – monogamous, hetereosexual, bodies only – inside the circle and unacceptable sex acts – multiple partners, homosexual, sex toys – outside the circle. It’s a simple and, in some aspects, slightly out-dated model, but it illustrates the point that there is no coherent view of sexual normalcy. Yet normalcy is what every pharmaceutical company searching for a treatment is promising women it will bring them.

This is a point in the treatment of FSD at which the significance of the concept of objectivity can be seen. Women seeking treatment for FSD are asked about their levels of sexual desire and the content of their fantasies. They speak to drug trial organisers about how often they and their partner used to have sex and the infrequency with which they do so now; to analysts about their longing to feel desire and desired; to researchers like Chivers about what they believe turns them on; and to clinicians about the vaginal pain that stops them being able to have sex. All these women feel sexually faulty: they believe that, however it is they’re supposed to feel about sex, whatever standards they’re supposed to be reaching, they’re failing to do so. The existence of sexual desire predates homo sapiens (or we wouldn’t exist), but the study of it is very much a contemporary phenomenon. It follows that the studies carried out and the conclusions drawn are likely to reflect the time at which they were done. Had Chivers’ study been conducted at another time, the content of the pornography used could have been quite different and who knows whether or not it would have elicited the same responses?

The sexuality that women are being encouraged to experience by pharmaceutical scientists is worth some unpacking. The marketing for Viagra promoted the manly man – capable, strong, spontaneous, he would surprise his wife by trading in his car for a motorbike and whisking her off or use the horses in his trailer to pull the truck out of mud so he’d be able to get home to her. He’s monogamous and willing to talk about sexual problems, implied by the fact that he’s spoken to his doctor about erectile dysfunction and got a prescription for Viagra. The leading competitors in the erectile dysfunction market, Cialis and Levitra, promote a similar figure.

What figures and scenarios will be used to promote an FSD treatment to women? If Chivers is right and women are aroused by such a range of stimuli, it should be a veritable panoply. Possibly not bonobos, but all manner of sexual arrangements appeal to women: one-night stands; same sex dalliances, flings and relationships; polygamous relationships; monogamous relationships; relationships across ages. Will there be images of groups of women out on the town and looking for some action or will they all be padding off to bed in soft focus with a sole male partner? Treatments for erectile dysfunction have never been marketed at gay men so will the companies avoid lesbians in their marketing?

During the clinical trials and in consultations for erectile dysfunction treatment, men have been asked about their ability to attain and sustain an erection and whether or not this erection was sufficient to penetrate their partner’s vagina. There are no questions in the criteria for the diagnosis of erectile dysfunction pertaining to how much time they spend thinking about sex or what they think about – for men, it is about function, not fantasy. Yet for women, a key component in the diagnosis of the most common form of dysfunction, HSDD, is the presence or absence of sexual fantasy in their lives. If drug companies are prescriptive about the sort of sexual behaviour they encourage through their marketing, will they also encourage clinicians to behave in a similar manner during diagnosis? Perhaps certain sorts of fantasy or desires will discouraged or will disqualify women from treatment. Fantasies that suggested abuse or rape, for example. In my opinion, for which the only qualification I have is that of being female, the rape fantasy in women is from a narcissistic urge to be desired so strongly by a man he is unable to control himself and has nothing to do with the reality of rape. It’s an ersatz rape, if you will – a role play of non-consensual sex between consenting partners. Women are asked about their fantasies, but what would happen if men were asked the same? Would a man who admitted to fantasies of rape still be prescribed Viagra or would he be denied it on the grounds of a fantasy he might never enact?

Perhaps there is no purpose to be served in looking or hoping for objectivity in the study of female sexual desire. Vested interests in women’s favour might actually make for a more favourable outcome to any research than the declared objectivity of scientific method. As Sandra Harding puts it, “…how should one explain the surprising fact that politically guided research projects have been able to produce less partial and distorted results of research than those supposedly guided by the goal of value-neutrality? Second, how can feminists create research that is for women in the sense that it provides less partial and distorted answers to questions that arise from women’s lives and are not only about those lives but also about nature and the rest of social relations?” (Sandra Harding in Feminist Epistemologies: 49-50)

Scientists researching pharmaceutical treatments for FSD are focusing their efforts on women’s endochrine systems and sex organs. They may have decided that women need more than simply an increase of blood flow to their vaginal walls to arouse them and that the causes of the disorder might lie outside anatomy, but they are still using it as their primary source of knowledge about women’s sexuality. If they have any hope of finding a way in which to treat FSD, they need to look to the knowledge created by the women themselves.

Stabbed to Death by Stigma

I wrote this for the Huffington Post, but thought I’d share it here, too.

On July the 19th protests were held around the globe against the violent abuse and murder of sex workers. Targeting the Swedish and Turkish embassies, they’re being held in memory of murdered sex workers, Petite Jasmine and Dora Ozer.

Swedish mother of two, Petite Jasmine was stabbed to death by her ex-husband during a custodial visit on the 11th of July. Having been deemed an unfit mother due to her choice of profession, Petite Jasmine had lost custody of their children to their father, in spite of his record of violence towards her.

Despite being the poster nation for sexual equality, Sweden’s laws on sex work and attitudes towards it are woefully patriarchal. The purchase of sex is illegal and the prevailing view is that sex work is a form of self-harm and women who choose to work in the sex industry are victims without agency or reason. The call by sex workers for “rights not rescue” has consistently been ignored by authorities that would prefer to remove women from the sex industry, offering them no economic alternative, than address the issues for those working within it.

The resulting stigma pervades Swedish culture to the point that decisions such as that regarding the custody of Petite Jasmine’s children are based upon it. Had Petite Jasmine left the sex industry to appease the social services, she might be safe with her children now. However, she chose to stay and her children are in foster care while their father awaits trial for her murder.

Dora Ozer was a Turkish transgender sex worker, murdered by a client on the 9th of July, the latest in a string of murders of transgender people in Turkey in the past five years.

Under Turkish law prostitution is legal if carried out in a regulated brothel and by registered sex workers, but many are being closed down by local governments keener to appeal to a moral majority than to consider the safety of those working in the sex industry. This forces sex workers out of the comparative safety of brothels and onto the streets.

The stigma faced by transgender people in Turkey is such that many can find work only in the sex industry. Here they are forced to work illegally due to regulations that state that only women can register as sex workers. This leaves them unable to work in brothels and, therefore, at greater risk of attack.

Dora Ozer chose to work in the sex industry, but she didn’t choose the conditions under which she did so. As they were for Petite Jasmine and the hundreds of thousands of sex workers like them, those were determined by a state and society wilfully blind to her rights.

For details on the protests, go to

Dove’s Dirty Tricks

The nice folks at Dove are at it again: in their bid to convince women that they don’t have to look on the point of collapse or have preternaturally symmetrical features and skin unmarked by life to be beautiful, they’ve conducted what they’re calling “a compelling social experiment”. Real Beauty Sketches is a film in which a group of women each sit on the other side of a curtain to a forensic artist and describe themselves. Based on their description he draws them, then does another drawing based on a description of them by a stranger.

The women talk about the height of their foreheads, shadows, lines, protruding chin and rounded cheeks. Then the strangers say things like “nice, thin chin”, “short, cute nose”, and “very nice blue eyes” which, somehow, the forensic artist turns into an image that looks less like Barbie than it should.

The result is two drawings depicting average-looking women that both bear some resemblance to the one on camera. The women tear up, one saying, “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty…It impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness”. I can think of several things I’d consider more critical to happiness, but none of them has anything to do with obsessing over appearance. Nor do they have anything to do with needing instructions from a corporate brand on how to think and feel. Basing its claim on some unreferenced data (“Only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful.”), Dove seems to have assumed that women are in need of this sort of instruction, as though we’re incapable of forming our own opinions about our appearance and just how much importance we give it.

There’s a fatal flaw in the experiment: any woman who has a face or features like those in the self-described drawings is deemed unattractive or, to attempt Dove parlance, less beautiful. I happen to have a friend who looks very like one of them and she’s happy with her appearance, as well she should be. The woman it depicted wasn’t, saying it looked “closed off and fatter” than the drawing done from the stranger’s description. Not intended as a compliment, but then maybe women being nicer to each other isn’t part of Dove’s plan. For all its talk of democratic notions of beauty, Dove Real Beauty Sketches pits women against each other as much as any pageant by giving the women a choice of which drawing they’d rather resemble.

I appreciate that there’s a company in the beauty industry making an effort to offer consumers a change from the usual pristine faces and bodies, but really, it’s all just so much marketing. If Dove’s professed attitude of care towards women were based on anything other than corporate profit, they’d stop using known carcinogens in their products. They’d also stop testing them on animals, in line with the wishes of the majority of consumers. Instead of films about women fixating on their flaws until some stranger tells them they’re not all bad and they tear up in gratitude, Dove could show happy rabbits frolicking in meadows and not being kept in labs having chemicals tested on them. I reckon the feel-good factor of that would outweigh any negative feelings a woman might have about her appearance. I suppose they’d have to work out how to tie the rabbits to the products and the campaign. Maybe women of all sizes having a super time playing with the rabbits and not giving a thought to their bulges and creases? Sounds like marketing gold to me. I may have missed my calling.

How We Do Death

Four years ago today, I lost my dad.  A veterinary pathologist his whole working life, the doctors knew better than to try and fob him off with the white-coat-god-complex bullshit they usually reserved for their patients.  He was given his pathology reports, indicating cancer of the bowel and offered his treatment options.  He decided to do everything – surgery, chemo, and radiotherapy.  It was an ordeal as these things always are, not least because he hated the boredom of being stuck in hospital.  He’d always hated being bored.  He was used to days spent single-handedly renovating derelict buildings, working on his land rover, and heading off to the west coast for a spot of his late-found pastime, sea kayaking.  They weren’t to be spent sitting in a hospital bed waiting to be allowed to go home.  The treatment worked, though.  Within a few months he was given a clear CAT scan and told the cancer had gone.

Then, at Christmas, he started to feel ill again.  Investigations showed that the cancer had come back in his spine and abdomen.  My mum kept all this to herself, only telling us when it became clear that he might not be long for this world.  The fucking bastard disease, as my mum called it, had come back.  Unwilling to go through treatment again, he decided not to have it.  His time here was drawing to a close, but he didn’t mind – it was just the next stage, he said, and he’d see us all again soon.  He was only going to go sit on the hill with his dog, Archie, and have a dram and a cigar while he watched the sun set.  He would never be far away.

I moved back to my parents’ and two of my mum’s sisters and her mum came to stay so they could keep the house running while my mum and I spent all our time with dad.  I sat in bed beside him and read to him.  “If I don’t say much, it’s because I don’t have much breath, but I am listening,” he said.   I brought my first rats, Texas and Carolina, in to see him and, always a rat-lover, he scratched their heads and smiled at their big eyes and out-stretched whiskers, sniffing all over him.  He’d always felt an affinity with all things Greek, travelling to Mount Athos to meet the monks, so my mum and brother arranged for a priest to visit and receive him into the Greek Orthodox Church.  One night his breathing grew so slow we thought he was going and gathered round him.  He kept us waiting until my brother came in to measure the windowsill to see if the coffin he’d built would fit on it.  At the sound of a tape measure, he opened his eyes.  “What are you doing?” he said.  My brother tried to appear nonchalant.  “Oh nothing,” he said.  We’d talked amongst ourselves about funeral and burial plans, but weren’t sure whether we should tell him.  My mum decided she would – she told him Alex was going to dig the grave in the garden, line it, and build a sarcophagus we would all help to shift into it to support the coffin.  The Greeks were going to perform the funeral.  “What do you think?” she asked him.  “A deep sense of joy,” he said and managed a bite of cauliflower cheese and a sip of red wine to celebrate.

A few days later, he died.  My brother’s last conversation with him had been about preparing the grave.  “Make sure you put a damp course in,” dad told him.  Then my mum, granny and I sat by him until, with my arm around him, he took his last breath.  We made a circle around him – my aunts, granny, mum and I – and sent him off, telling the heavens that here was a good man.  He lay in his coffin in my parents’ bedroom with oil burning beside him until the Greek Orthodox funeral a few days later.  The priest said he had lived his life in a state of grace and he had.  We kissed him – “god speed, dad,” I whispered – and my brothers and uncle carried his coffin up the garden to lay him in the grave Alex had refused to dig until he died.  It overlooks trees and a field with the path up the hill where he walked his dog behind it.  My aunts had made posies which we placed on him and my brother filled in his grave.

That night we toasted him, ate chocolate cake, and sang songs, most of which we had to look up online because – a few glasses of wine too many – we couldn’t remember the words.

It was a graceful and close passing.  Death – in a Western culture, at least – is taken from us and made clinical and clean.  People die under fluorescent light, with tubes, wires, and beeping monitors around them.  We can hardly touch them and only see them when visiting hours allow.  Bodies are taken from the hospital bed by the undertakers to the funeral director. The only say we might have is the material with which the coffin is constructed.

It was a privilege to care for my dad until his dying breath and to know that his body lies close while he sits on the hill. That is how death should be – it is a privilege to be beside someone and to care for them til they take their last breath and we should be allowed to regard it as such and be given the help to make it so.  There is little in life that is more personal than death.

Now my nephew sits by his grave and chats to him when he visits.  He says hello to Archie as he walks past his grave.  It’s as natural to him as chatting to his mum and dad.  He tells his grandad about the naughty boys at school, his troublesome sister, his thoughts about the world – anything he thinks might interest him, nattering like they used to with cups of tea in hand and matching dressing gowns.  “I’m sad in my heart for grandad,” he said at first.  Then he called his granny to tell her “I was sitting at home feeling worried and sad about grandad and Archie then I thought about Winnie the Pooh getting stuck in the hole by his bum and I laughed.”  Suddenly he realised “my daddy doesn’t have a daddy” and set about trying to find him a new one.  He asked his granny how she was without grandad and told her it was alright – it was just the world and grandad was happy sitting on the hill with Archie and he’d see them all again so not to worry.

We let off sky lanterns at New Year to float above him. Rather than attend the Greek Orthodox service held to mark a year since his passing, I made up my own remembrance day.  I lit a yellow candle (his favourite colour) and sat it on the windowsill, then sat outside on the bench he made, eating chocolate chip cookies and knitting a bit more of the angora hammock for Texas and Carolina that they refused to sit in but were delighted to unravel.  I went to the seaside with my mum and had fish and chips.  She went to the service while I watched something funny on tv.  It was a day he would have enjoyed.

I don’t have any plans for today other than to light a candle at half two to mark the time he died.  I just had to wrest it off a rat who’s now climbing up the inside of my jumper and have another giving herself a wash in my tea.  My dad had pet rats rescued from laboratories when he was a kid.  When I first got mine, he answered my barrage of questions (roughly 20 a day).  He found me a rat health site online ( when I’d exhausted his veterinary knowledge.  It didn’t answer the more existential questions (‘do you think my rats like me or am I just a food source’, ‘do you think they’re happy’, ‘are you sure they’re not capable of abstract thought – I mean, look at this picture of Texas, you can’t say she doesn’t look contemplative’) so he still got those and, though it’s four years on, I still go to text him whenever I have a question.  It’s a cliche, I know, but it’s true – the little things are what you miss the most.  No one can answer the existential fancy rat questions quite like your dad.