Thursday, September 18th, 2014
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Fear and Loathing

Almost immediately, the search for a so-called “pink Viagra” was on. It was only sensible that Pfizer and its rivals would try to develop a product for the other half of the human race. In 2000, the Food and Drug Administration affixed its seal of approval to the medicalization of female dissatisfaction with sex when it issued draft guidelines for the treatment of a newly diagnosable disease entity: female sexual dysfunction (FSD). The FDA broke the disease down into four subcategories: low levels of desire (thoughts, longings), low levels of physiological arousal (blood flow, lubrication), difficulty reaching orgasm (formerly known as frigidity), and pain with intercourse. The definition of FSD was soon broadened by experts and pharmaceutical companies to include women’s disappointment with orgasms perceived to be inadequately intense (or too “muffled.”) An utterly hallucinatory invention—situated at the border between normalcy and abnormalcy, biochemistry and the emotions—FSD soon came to be felt by many as all too real.

The hallucination produced yet another market for fear and loathing. Just when desire seemed to be something that could be turned on and off, the American news media found themselves worrying about the death of desire itself. Where had all the libido gone? Reports surfaced indicating that millions of Americans were trapped in “no-sex” or “low-sex” marriages, that one in three women and one in six men had little or no desire for sex, and that it was often the husbands who were “too tired” or simply not interested. Even the perennially oversexed Cosmopolitan felt obliged to offer its readers tips on what to do “When His Sex Drive Takes a Nosedive.” Magazines for more mature women urged wives to “surrender in the bedroom,” to offer their stressed husbands “quickies” in order not to lose their men’s interest entirely and, as Redbook put it, to “have sex—even when you don’t want to!” Sex counselors and advice columnists made a fortune publishing books with titles like Resurrecting Sex, The Sex-Starved Marriage, Rekindling Desire, and In the Mood, Again. And once pharmaceutical companies discovered that Viagra equivalents were not going to work for women (perhaps because female arousal in the form of vaginal lubrication functions differently from the genital blood flow that Viagra provides men), yet another new disease entity was fabricated: hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), defined as “decreased interest in sex.” Once again, the media rushed into the fray. “Orgasm: How Science Can Help,” blared Psychology Today. “Let’s Talk about Sex—and Drugs,” boomed Science.

The effect of the hype was to heighten people’s anxiety about whether the sex they were having was as perfect as it could be and—crucially—whether it was emotionally meaningful. For the first time since Europeans shuddered at the world uncovered by Kinsey, sex sellers of all stripes worried about how to peddle that unpurchasable product called love. Without emotion, even a thunderous orgasm could leave you feeling disconnected and empty.

Social conservatives, ever on the lookout for opportunities to exploit people’s insecurities about intimacy, welcomed the arrival of the George W. Bush’s administration as an opportunity to advance a comprehensive crusade against premarital sex. Emboldened by its capture of the White House, the Christian Right pushed to increase funding for a more aggressive campaign to inform young people that sex outside of marriage damaged one’s psychological health, precluded the possibility of academic or athletic success, lowered self-esteem, and led to miserable marriages. An intimidated populace acquiesced without much protest to this undignified—and ultimately dangerous—exercise. Americans had allowed themselves to become profoundly confused about why people bothered to have sex and whether they even enjoyed it when they did.

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About the Text

Dagmar Herzog is a professor of history at the City University of New York's Graduate School and University Center. Her most recent book is Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics.

To the moralist prostitution does not consist so much in the fact that the woman sells her body, but rather that she sells it out of wedlock.
—Emma Goldman, 1917
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