Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Norms, Medicalization, & Deviance

Despite the inevitability of human variation, people seem to have a tendency to categorize and discriminate, label and ostracize. Though there are many ways to create and explain difference, historically people have looked to a variety of sources (religion, morality, authoritative figures, law, etc.) for guidelines on how to interpret human variation. The articles for this week focus on the medicalization of sex, gender, sexuality, and sexual desire. In an attempt to define deviations from a (probably nonexistent) norm, medicalization seems to serve as a means to further enforce already existent cultural intolerance for groups that do not fit perfectly into the mainstream. 

In “Discovery of the Sexes,” Laqueur articulates how “in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, science fleshed out, in terms acceptable to the new epistemology, the categories ‘male’ and ‘female’ as opposite and incommensurable biological sexes” (154). He goes on to point out the terminology with which science defined these new sexes. “It claimed that the body provided a solid foundation, a causal locus, of the meaning of male or female” (163). These inherent (and biological) differences between the sexes set the stage for the construction of gender roles, which are illustrated in the following cartoons:

The first cartoon, which depicts an angry caveman grunting about how his son prefers female work and how his daughter is aggressive, demonstrates how engrained gender roles are in society, past and present. The caveman clearly is struggling to accept the abnormal characteristics of his children, further enforcing the gender binary. The cartoon also expresses how gender roles are completely contingent on time and place, suggesting their arbitrary (and socially constructed) nature.

The second cartoon, which depicts two figures (male and female) disassembling the (literally) constructed framework of gender, demonstrates how ultimately (behind the guise of gender, and beyond the limits of sex) we are all individuals. The structural representation of the sex symbols shows how pervasive the gender binary is in our culture, and how difficult it is to break through it (according to the cartoon, it requires a hammer!). Additionally, the physical separation of the two symbols reinforces Laqueur’s idea of two “opposite and incommensurable biological sexes” (154). This biological distinction serves to legitimize and reinforce this cultural gender binary. Men and women are not the same, nor are they equal.

Since considering homosexuality as an “other” category stems from the normative view that people ought to be attracted to members of the opposite sex and fit neatly into their respective gender roles, the medicalization of homosexuality further exemplifies the desire to precisely map any deviations from a sexual or sex-related norm. Terry outlines the perspectives of many groups and individuals on homosexuality, explaining how the psychoanalysts’ “theories reflected preconceived notions that the individual’s healthy adjustment to normative gender roles and monogamous reproductive heterosexuality were favorable” (57). Though the psychoanalysts did not view homosexuality as some sort of hereditary defect that could be cured, they were worried about its prevalence and its threat to cultural progress (62). Thus, the Freud camp, while resisting the medicalization of homosexuality, still upheld the heteronormative values of gender roles, related sexual preference, and monogamy.

The Irvine article entitled “Regulated Passions: The Invention of Inhibited Sexual Desire and Sexual Addiction” addresses the phenomenon of medicalizing and normalizing sexual desire. Irvine discusses the invention of the diagnostic constructs, their arbitrariness, and how they reflect “cultural traditions and anxieties” (315). She also draws a connection between the field of addictionology and professional expansion (318). She identifies the issues with how “the assertion of exact definitional and diagnostic criteria poses an enormous challenge when ‘disease’ is a generalized set of signifiers of cultural chaos and social control” (319). This concern reflects the inter-dependency of science and culture and exposes the abuse of expertise and medicine in dictating cultural interpretations of natural variation, whether it be “levels of desire,” homosexuality, gender, or sex.

It seems that the medicalization of various conditions and ways of life serves to reinforce dichotomies and cultural norms. Therefore, medical expertise and medicalizing conditions strengthen the walls of normalcy and expectation, as represented in cartoon 2. Though the constructed binary depicted in the cartoon is gender and/or sex, the symbolic value extends to normalizing heterosexuality or sexual desire. Medicalizing these conditions makes it more difficult to break out of these structural restraints and to be accepted in society as an individual -- not a precisely mapped deviation from a correct, valued norm. 


Irvine, Janice M. 1995. “Regulated Passions: The Invention of Inhibited Sexual Desire and Sexual Addiction.” In Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture. Edited by Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla. Pp. 314-337. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.   

Laqueur, Thomas. 1990. “Discovery of the Sexes.” In Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Pp. 149-192.

Terry, Jennifer. 1999. “Medicalizing Homosexuality.” In American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Pp. 40-73.

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