What Mid-20th Century Gynecologists Were Taught About Female Sexuality

The FDA’s denial of approval to a drug marketed as “Viagra for women” has stirred up a feminist debate. One side argues that the agency is applying a double standard when it comes to men and women’s sexual satisfaction. The other says the medication just isn’t effective enough to justify its side-effects and, in any case, popularizing such a drug could create an environment where women feel obligated to tailor their sex drives to their male partners’.

The fact that this conversation is even possible shows just how much things have changed over the past few decades. In a 1973 paper for the American Journal of Sociology—with the very 1970s title “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Orifice”—Diana Scully and Pauline Bart of the University of Illinois looked at what 27 gynecology textbooks published between the 1940s and 1970s had to say about female sexuality. The answer is, basically, a lot of stuff that very few people would say in public today.

One of the first things that jumps out in Scully and Bart’s account is that, at the time they were writing, more than 90 percent of gynecologists were men. That’s changed a lot since then, and it’s continuing to change. Between 1990 and 2010, representation of female OB-GYNs rose from 22.4 percent to 49 percent, and in 2012, 83 percent of first-year OB-GYN residents were women.

So, what did young men looking to enter the profession learn about female sexuality during the decades when women were mostly excluded? Of four textbooks published between 1943 and 1952, Scully and Bart write, one presented a “strikingly egalitarian approach to sexuality.” But two others suggested gynecologists teach their patients to fake orgasm, since, according to one of the books, women are “almost universally generally frigid.”

In 1953, Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues published the first modern scholarly study of female sexuality. Scully and Bart found this text influenced textbooks published between 1953 and 1962, but that the authors chose which information to include selectively. “For example, one often finds in the textbooks that the male sets the sexual pace in marital coitus, but nowhere is it mentioned that women are multiorgasmic,” they write.

In the early 1960s, the work of William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson began to influence the textbooks. Still, eight of the 12 books published between 1963 and 1972 stated, contrary to Masters and Johnson, that sex drive is stronger in men than women. Nine of the 12 promoted “the traditional female sex role,” with one book stating that “an important feature of sex desire in the man is the urge to dominate the women and subjugate her to his will; in the women acquiescence to the masterful takes a high place.” And half the textbooks from this era said that, for women, sex was mainly about procreation.

The authors of those textbooks might be kind of shocked by the parameters of the current debate over female Viagra.


JSTOR Citations

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Orifice: Women in Gynecology Textbooks

By: Diana Scully and Pauline Bart

American Journal of Sociology Vol. 78, No. 4, Changing Women in a Changing Society (Jan., 1973), pp. 1045-1050

The University of Chicago Press

Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance writer in Nashua, New Hampshire. Her writing has appeared in publications including Salon, Aeon Magazine and the Good Men Project. Contact her on Twitter @liviagershon.

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