Whether or not you believe that Female Sexual Dysfunction is a real condition, or one invented by pharmaceutical companies to manufacture a disease and reap the benefits, it is undeniable that many women have trouble reliably achieving orgasm during intercourse. And some women can’t even have orgasms from masturbation, while others think masturbation is wrong, so they don’t even try. Something needs to be done about women’s orgasm deficit, and a commercial solution appears to be the only workable way. While non-profits are doing their best to improve women’s sex lives by promoting sex-positive lifestyles , they are underfunded and too obscure to make a real change in the functioning of vaginas across Americas. Universities tend to shy away from this type of research, because politically it’s safer to study sexual diseases than it is to study sexual pleasure. Consequently, there’s no wing of the University of Chicago Medical School dedicated to studying the clitoris, nor do doctors specialize in the field of bringing women sexual pleasure. Academia is usually conservative and bureaucratic, and simply studying the history of sex toys raises eyebrows, let alone studying sexual pleasure. Although, research universities have done some work on women’s sexual pleasure—discovering in a study that heterosexual women are indiscriminate in their appreciation of pornography, getting turned on by straight sex, gay sex, and monkey sex alike—it’s unlikely that any breakthrough discoveries about the female orgasm will occur there.
That’s why the cure for women’s sexual problems has been most strongly pursued by commercial interests: from the patent-medicine companies of the 19th and early 20th century that promoted cocaine-filled concoctions to solve female troubles to the pharmaceutical industry and sex-toy companies of the 21st century. Obviously this system is imperfect, but it’s all we’ve got, so we should heartily support it. That’s why glum feminists like Leonore Tiefer really bother me. She created something called the New View Campaign that rails against drug companies who try to improve women’s sex lives. Its slogan is “Sex for our pleasure or their profit?” I don’t think it’s an either/or question, nor are the two diametrically opposed, but Tiefer clearly believes otherwise. She argues that the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Disorders (DSM) has been defining Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD) in a reductionist way, reducing women’s sexuality to their vaginas, while ignoring the psychological aspects of female arousal and the wide variety of ways that women experience sexual pleasure. Of course their approach is reductionist, because the only way to diagnose a disorder is to have some sort of criteria for it. But she believes that it is this approach that has led drug companies to attempt to capitalize off of FSD by focusing on a narrow goal of increasing physical arousal, a practice that she finds upsetting. She proposes instead that we should:
“resituate women’s sexuality within the political domain rather than the health-and-treatment domain. We believe that addressing issues of political equality, women’s emancipation and entitlement, sex education and health care access will lead to the prevention of many sexual problems.”
While I think that this is an admirable goal and would probably lead to improvements in third-world countries where women lack basic human rights, I don’t think this is the solution to sexual problems in the United States. In America, the only way a woman can obtain orgasms through a political route is if she receives cunnilingus from Bill Clinton.
The sex toy industry has been driven by profit, and it has brought pleasure to millions of women (and men) worldwide. A physician may have invented the vibrator, but it only became a widely available product, produced on a massive scale, because companies and investors believed they could make money from it. Advertising and marketing played a large role in the success of the vibrator in the early 20th century, so it should come as no surprise that commercial interests are leading the charge to discover a cure for women’s sexual problems in the 21st . There’s nothing morally wrong with accruing cash from powerful orgasm machines. If we had been forced to wait for a large research university to develop and market a commercial sex-toy, we’d still be masturbating with Indonesian bottle gourds.