I don’t write a lot about electoral politics, but why not use the Republican National Convention as an excuse to get drunk and write about shit about shit?
Note: I realize this movie has been out for a while now. Many of my problems were addressed in this excellent and thorough post by the good folks at Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction. I wanted to focus on agency, particularly how the film minimizes the agency of women who have FSD. It is also worth pointing out at this juncture, that Canner’s documentary focuses on a very narrow definition of womanhood. There is a great deal to be said about the naturalization of cisness, hetness and whiteness both in the documentary and in the industry it is examining.
Liz Canner’s documentary begins with woman who wants to have an orgasm but is unable to.
Female sexual dysfunction, or FSD, refers to a constellation of problems surrounding female sexual response. In can encompass issues of interest, arousal and orgasm, as well as sexual pain. According to Canner, FSD is a front diagnosis made up by pharmaceutical companies to cash in on the market hitherto available only to men and dominated by drugs like Viagra. It is a unidirectional process, first the pharmaceutical industry sees a market niche, then they make up a condition to fill that niche, finally they market this condition to women, and these women, who were previously healthy and happy, suddenly discover that they have this hitherto unknown condition that needs to be medicated. Profit$ ensue, except for the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has of yet been unable to successfully come up with a treatment for the disease that they manufactured.
In Canner’s documentary, there are two agencies that matter. First is the agency of the pharmaceutical industry. They are the ones acting, making up the disease, marketing the disease, obfuscating about their clinical trials, marketing the product, swindling women. The other agency that is respected is that heroes of the film, those scholars and activists who are pushing back against Big Pharma and its “fake diagnosis”, such as Ray Moynihan and Leonore Tiefer. They write books, give talks, picket buildings, and protest FDA hearings. Completely absent from this is any discussion of the women themselves, the women who the pharmaceutical industry is courting and that Moynihan and Tiefer are protecting. There is one women, Charlotta, the women who begins the documentary discussing how messed up she feels because she can’t orgasm, but she largely functions as a test subject for the silly sounding Orgasmatron. Her problems eventually boil down to “LOL the clitoris” and she is dispatched on her merry, healthy way. Despite the fact that women, particularly those with genital pain conditions, are largely thrilled with the legitimacy of an official diagnosis for conditions that were previously dismissed as psychosomatic, and in fact, are driving much of the commercial market for these treatments , Charlotta is the only patient who is given a voice. And per the cited text, I don’t want to mince words about how deeply heteronormative and biased research on sexual conditions is, because it is, but Canner isn’t doing women with FSD any favors by boxing them out of the narrative and pretending that if these ignorant women would just figure out what their clits were then Big Pharma wouldn’t have a profit motive to stand on.
Then in a coup de grace of agency minimization, Canner raises the spectre of female genital mutilation, with reference to this article from the British Medical Journal. Never mind the fact that FGM and cosmetic genital surgery are in no way, shape, or form analogous in context or practice, it’s also really… racist. African women are not a trump card in the white feminist discourse surrounding sexual dysfunction and the pharmaceutical industry.
Canner, and those she interviews, point to the fact that there is no known somatic etiology for FSD. It’s true, nobody can point to a gene, a gland or a hormone that is responsible. Canner interviews Carol Queen, owner of Good Vibrations, who offers up some kind of bullshit historical argument about how FSD is just like hysteria. I find it generally tiresome that hysteria gets punted around as the exemplar of sexist medical malpractice with very little mention of its long and complex history, but that is a topic for another post! Through establishing as a set of criteria for what constitutes a disorder far stricter then what is normally applied (take autism, fibromyalgia, lupus, all of which do not have a clear etiology), Canner again removes the agency from women, agency that she would ostensibly like to give back through better and more comprehensive sex education, to understand what is happening with their own bodies and instead places that authority with doctors and scientists. But not those doctors and scientists in the pharmaceutical industry. Again, this is not to necessarily defend Big Pharma. I agree with Canner in that industry sponsored trials are frequently poorly constructed and give inflated success rates. The FDA is underfunded, and a more robust regulatory framework would benefit everyone. But the thing is, by having a conversation almost entirely absent of the actual patients who suffer from these conditions, Canner documentary is engineering a space wherein other interested parties can talk past each other, and women will continue to suffer.
. Janine Farrell and Thea Cacchioni, “The Medicalization of Women’s Sexual Pain”, Journal of Sex Research 49 (2012), 333.
It probably says something about the quality of a given argument when an eminent scholar from one of the most prestigious universities in the world has it published in that most august of journals, Reader’s Digest. It says that the author wants to get his ideas out into the public, but either failed to pass peer-review, or knows that if he tried to publish them in a real journal, or present them at a conference, the rest of the academic world would realize what a colossal fucking idiot he is. It also says that he’s too enamored of media attention to let controversial ideas go. And it says that these ideas need to be scrutinized and brought to wider attention. If Julian Savulescu, holder of the Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at Oxford University, Director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and Director of The Institute for Science and Ethics, at the Oxford Martin School wants to get the attention that comes with being an out and out eugenicist, let’s give it to him.
Savulescu is an ethicist (he did his PhD under Peter Singer) and not a biologist, so before showing how deeply fucked up his ethics are, perhaps we should take a moment to demonstrate that it doesn’t even matter because he doesn’t understand genetics in the slightest. Read the rest of this entry »
At Tiger Beatdown, s.e. smith has a post up attempting to criticize a (quite good, actually) piece over at RH Reality Check examining anti-choice arguments relating to prenatal screening and disability.
There are a number of problems with smith’s response. Zie embraces anti-choice narratives and frameworks. Zie also completely erases the experiences of people for whom disability is not ZOMG-SUPER-HAPPY-FUN-TIME. And to top it off, there’s a general disregard for logic that, while not atypical for this particular writer, is particularly egregious in this post.
Let’s look at the abortion-politics angle first: Read the rest of this entry »
Science studies has been on the receiving end of a great deal of criticism from self-proclaimed defenders of science. One of the most common targets of that criticism is the examination of science’s social dimensions. It has been thoroughly demonstrated that the authority and legitimacy that science and scientific explanations enjoy is not simply the product of science’s unique access to the Truth, but arises out of a set of historical, social, and political circumstances that have led people in Western societies to trust science over other forms of understanding. One of the projects of science studies is to examine those circumstances and tease out the kinds of work that science is doing socially and politically (whether or not scientists are aware of that work) in addition to its quest for knowledge of nature.
Those who see these lines of inquiry as an assault on science tend to see science exclusively as an epistemological program and perhaps the body of knowledge derived from that program. To these critics, the role that science serves as a legitimator of ideologies or beliefs is either invisible or made up by radical relativists who (for mysterious reasons) are out to discredit the most successful intellectual program in human history.
What’s ironic is that these same people who bristle at the suggestion that there’s more to science that the discovery of awesome facts about nature are also often on the front lines of the fight against misappropriations of science and scientific accoutrements by the purveyors of alternative medicine, self-help gurus, and psychics, not to mention politicians and pundits who see science-y sound bites as an invaluable tool in advancing their agendas.
A prime example of the latter can be found in a recent statement by current US Representative and Senate candidate Todd Akin, who asserted that “the female body has ways” to prevent pregnancy resulting from “legitimate rape.” Akin’s statement does a lot of work to advance his agenda using the role of science in our society. By putting his opposition to abortion alongside a (completely spurious) biological fact, he is framing his political aim as arising out of biology and medicine as opposed to his (very real) rank misogyny. Even better (from his perspective) is that in doing so, he is taking the standard misogynistic distinction between “legitimate” rape (by which he almost certainly means the violent rape of an otherwise chaste woman by a complete stranger) and other rapes (marital or partner rape, incest, date rape, rape of a woman who is drunk/promiscuous/wearing slutty clothes/otherwise asking for it) and making it a fact of nature that is recognized by the human body independently of legal or political concerns.
The naturalization of political ideology is a time-honored tradition. For centuries, science (or its forbearer, natural philosophy) was used to naturalize racial disparities, justify policies ranging from slavery to eugenics, and absolve the white European and American elites of any responsibility for racial injustice (and, as anyone who follows right-wing intellectual trends knows, these activities haven’t gone away). Science has also been used to justify the institutionalization and sterilization of homosexuals, the mentally ill and incompetent, the poor, and criminals of all stripes.
What’s so frustrating about the people who want to save science from those who would critically engage with it, is that they are usually keenly aware of the appropriation of scientific legitimacy by practitioners of homeopathy or creationists but they are unwilling to accept any questioning of “legitimate” scientists or scientific institutions, even though history demonstrates that “legitimate” scientists can abuse scientific legitimacy just as effectively as charlatans and quacks (more so, actually). We as a society have granted science a great deal of authority, and thus power. The study of the social dimensions of science isn’t an attack on science, but rather a necessary check on those who would misuse the power we have given them.
 This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the same asshole who recently suggested that we should “look at or overturn” the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. A class act all the way.
To begin with, perhaps as a disclaimer, perhaps as an invocation of the muse (or lack there of), I should say that I am not a perfectionist. No, if there is an easy way, a cutting corners half ass of a way, a mildly sloppy good-enough that will allow me to drink some wine, play some video games, watch BSG and then go to bed, I will go that way. So, I imagine, would most people. My success, if you want to call it that, is more about my obsessive need to win rather then my obsessive need to get things right (just relax, I’m not endorsing cheating). Frequently these things overlap and I am very fortunate in that regard.
I doubt that most people are, truly, perfectionists but I hear about perfectionism a lot. From my friends, colleagues, mostly women, mostly in the context of making a demand. They say, “I’m just a perfectionist” and that means “indulge my silly whims and do it this way” instead of “my way is right, you should follow it.” It’s a way of softening the inevitable ego blow of being told what to do, a way of embodying assertiveness as a kind of character flaw, or at least, a quirk.
Perhaps I’m overstating it.
It’s like that asinine interview question: “what is your biggest flaw,” to which everyone responds: I work too hard. As an aside, if I ever get asked that question again I’m going to say something interesting and true, like “I’m an arrogant bitch-monster”, or maybe something interesting and false, like “I killed a man in Reno just to watch him die.” People rarely work too hard. Not even me, who got rid of most of my friends so I could hang out in my apartment reading blogs, Bruno Latour, and watching stupid documentaries on the porn-industry* is working too hard. I just have dubious work-play distinctions. As a counterpoint, I know a woman who works full time at an extremely demanding job suffers from extreme fibromyalgia but comes home from work everyday to sweep the house (by hand, with a broom) because she has 6 or 7 inside cats, a poodle, a husband who’s a farmer and she cannot handle her house being dirty. She works herself sick.
Academic culture, at least for me, is rife with misrepresentation and hyperbole. Back in the day, it seemed everyone was underestimating how much work they were doing; now, I feel like it’s all about the overestimation, the “I stayed up for 32 hours straight reading Derrida therefore I am worthy of being taken seriously,” or “I’m a perfectionist, I’m a work-a-holic, please take me seriously.” Inevitable this burden of proof falls unevenly on the portion of academia that consists of non straight, white, het dudes. It’s obnoxious, to say the least, to participate in a class where the bar for “engaged participation” is set at “doing everything, all the time,” especially when adjuncted to other criteria such as “being male”, “being white”, “being a mansplainer.”
Some of those criteria I can never meet, it’s pointless to even attempt it through self-serving hostile space making, where others, particularly minorities, feel like they have to go over-the-top just to fit in. Like, I don’t study all the time. Not at all. I’m even a little sloppy. I half-ass things, I make mistakes, I enjoy fielding the juggernaut of Kardashian-themed reality shows. I have pretty horrific spelling. I don’t care that much about my spelling. I like clothes. And do you know what? People have to take me seriously anyway.
*This one was really awful. I had to turn it off. I can handle soft-core wank material (although REAL TALKE: why would you watch this when you can just beat it to the nubile, soft-skinned internet), or alarmist propaganda for the evening news crowd, but I cannot deal with faulty methodology in a scientific study. Listen guys, if you’re going to do a “study” on the effects that porn has on a relationship, you really should include both partners, and hey, a woman or two more generally would have been nice also. Although, I mean really, why should you control for sex differences? Also, Art Alexakis, WTF are you doing, broski?
At my undergraduate institution, I took a seminar on Early Modern England. The first day of class, we all introduced ourselves and mentioned our areas of study. When I said that I study the history of science, one particularly aggressive (and not overly bright) classmate attempted to correct me: “You mean the Science of History!” At the time, I didn’t really understand what he meant. After all, history isn’t a science, and no one these days even thinks that it should be.
Well, almost no one. It turns out that there are a group of scholars led by Peter Turchin, a professor of ecology and mathematics at the University of Connecticut, that do think that the discipline of history just isn’t scientific enough. Last week, a bunch of nerd-media outlets (Endgadget, io9, Neatorama, and Metafilter to name a few) picked up on the existence of “Cliodynamics”, as Turchin refers to his new-and-improved version of history. These accounts were all based on an article in Nature which provided a brief overview of the state of the emerging discipline.
The Nature article points out that historians are skeptical of this approach (the journal launched by Turchin in 2010 failed to get a the contribution of a single historian in its first issue), but it fails to engage with any criticisms of Cliodynamics beyond the most superficial (primarily the “lack of data”). The problems with Turchin’s approach, however go much deeper, and stem from the fact that he is trying to remake a discipline he is completely ignorant of.
I read an article today, I can’t remember what it was (actually yes I can, it’s this Ask a Queer Chick on the Hairpin I lurve you Ask A Queer Chick, I lurve you the Hairpin!!!!!) And I’m totally not nitpicking because, this really has nothing to do with the amazing advice she’s laying down but I wanted to circle in on this because it touches on some Thoughts I’ve been having:
“[Grad students are] working hard, putting in long hours for little pay or no pay or the ever-popular negative pay, usually on projects so specialized they’ve given up trying to explain them to anyone outside their department”
What she’s referring to is what here in these parts we refer to as The Struggle. It starts innocently enough, someone will ask what I study. This conversation goes several different ways:
1. Q: What do you study?
A: The history of science.
Q: What’s that?
ENTER THE STRUGGLE: How do I explain this without getting all like “well, you know what science is don’t you?….” And generally being a condescending pile of stereotypes about somebody who paid to much money for their Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless degree.*
A: It’s like the history… of… science, you know? Like science in the past, I guess?
Q: Oh, right, like Galileo.
2. Q: What do you study?
A: The history of medicine.
Q: Oh yeah, what part?
ENTER THE STRUGGLE: This is actually rougher then the bit outlined above. How specific do you get? Chances are, the person asking isn’t looking for a dissertation, or even a moderately long research paper. At the same time, I hate dumbing down my own thoughts on the assumption that the Q in this Q & A has NO HOPE of understanding what it is that I’m talking about.
A: I generally look at 20th century medicine, although lately I’ve been getting into this collection of 17th century medicinal recipes. I’m particularly focused on gender and women.
[We’re assuming that Q is not going to get all “gender and women… LOL” -Ed.]
Q: That’s cool.
3. Q: What’s your thesis on?
ENTER THE STRUGGLE: How do I say “I’m looking at how gender as a metaphorical category shaped and was shaped by the study of hormones in the context of the disciplinary development of endocrinology in the early 20th century” without actually saying that?
A: I’m looking at how gender as a metaphorical category shaped and was shaped by the study of hormones in the context of the disciplinary development of endocrinology in the early 20th century.
Q: That sounds complicated.
The problem with these scenarios is that, when moving between the two polls of “needlessly simplistic” and “needlessly esoteric” I’m not actually communicating anything about what it is that I study, or why I think it’s important. And I do think it’s important, important on more levels then just “important to my future relationship to Sallie Mae”.
Historical narratives are powerful, and I don’t just mean in that reductive history repeats itself kind of way. People (historians and lay public) have this unfortunate tendency to view the work that historians do as producing an immaculate chronicle of The Past as it Really Was, and that if we are doing a good job, then we are producing a pristine set of data points, each point being a distinct event and maybe if we were lucky we could then begin to piece out What People Actually Thought. Wouldn’t that be great? Our historical TV would be so much better (ahem, The Tudors, ahem).***
Then maybe we could turn to whether or not our friends are Actually Racists.
See, it’s bullshit. I’m sorry, but it is.**** Historical events are too complicated, to multi faceted and unique. They can’t be dissected, anatomized, plotted out, or totally explained. There are too many contingencies, too many nodes in the network. Furthermore, besides being lazy and boring, this way of thinking about history serves to obfuscate the very real participation of historical narratives in contemporary discourse.***** It’s like Ronald Reagan. Do you think that all this political trumpeting about who is more like Reagan, is Reagan the best president ever or the very best?, what would Reagan do now has shit all to do with the what Ronny actually did whilst he was president? The supplicating to the Holy Relics of St. Gipper have more to do with legitimation then they do with the past, in ways that completely transcend the historicity of any given claim.
Which is why I get all bent about The Struggle, why I keep fussing and bothering about how to best communicate what it is I spend all of my time doing: because people need to understand that history is not about what happened in the past, but how those things function in the present.
*Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless are the cows in Cold Comfort Farm, which is a really hilarious book, btws. It’s a C/C- level metaphor, I think.
**Except that I don’t study Galileo AT ALL. In fact, I never talk about Galileo unless it’s to score cheap rhetorical points.
***J/K I love the Tudors, dubious historicity and all. Is it accurate? Of goodness no. Is it a fine approximation of what I want when I bother to tune into a dramatization of the life and time of Henry VIII? Absolutely. It’s really not taking itself seriously, nor should you.
*****You know shits about to get real when I start throwing down the D-word.