Sexology and the Pharmaceutical Industry: The Threat of Co-Optation
Tiefer, Leonore, The Journal of Sex Research
It's 1998. Turn on the television and you're sure to see a newsmagazine program about a new prescription medication named Viagra and its wonderful benefits for men's sexuality. Open a newspaper and you're sure to see a story about the promising effects of Viagra on women. Open the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy and find an editorial announcing a "Pharmacological era in the treatment of sexual disorders" (Segraves, 1998).
It's 1999. Open the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) to find an article reanalyzing old data to emphasize the high prevalence of sexual dysfunction in the United States (Laumann, Paik, & Rosen, 1999). Read The New York Times a few days later to find the JAMA article's sexologist authors identified as paid consultants to Pfizer, the manufacturer of Viagra (Grady, 1999). Receive your copy of the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy and find the back cover has become a glossy multicolor ad for Viagra.
The search for aphrodisiacs to stimulate sexuality and potions to resist sexual decline is age-old, but it entered a new chapter at the end of the twentieth century with official federal Food and Drug Administration approval of sex-enhancing drugs. Sex researchers are playing a growing role in the development and distribution of the new sex drugs. Is sexology on its way to becoming a subsidiary of the pharmaceutical industry? I hope not, but the recent history of psychiatry shows how an entire field can be taken over by pro-pharmaceutical thinking and practice, and this example should make us very worried (Healy, 1998).
Is sexology in danger of being co-opted by the pharmaceutical industry? Co-optation is defined as appropriation or takeover of a previously independent group by a larger power in a kind of a bloodless conquest. For the smaller group the takeover offers certain benefits (e.g., increased recognition or protection) at the cost of intellectual or political independence. In this paper, I will argue that the creeping co-optation of sexology by the pharmaceutical industry represents a Faustian bargain, whereby in exchange for some new research and professional opportunities, sexology is in serious danger of selling out a unique and socially important sexual vision and role. Note that this paper is not about the co-optation of sex by the pharmaceutical industry. That's a somewhat different story. This story is about a possible takeover of sexology, a particular professional and academic family, by the pharmaceutical industry. You might say it's an essay on family values.
The paper begins with a wide-angle look at the background of this co-optation threat, which I see as the latest stage in the medicalization of sexuality, a subject I have been chronicling for over a decade (Tiefer, 1986, 1994, 1995, 1996). Once we see how interest in this collaboration arises from a broad array of socioeconomic and political forces affecting both the pharmaceutical industry and sexology, we will be better able to identify its attractions and its dangers.
Coincidentally, or maybe not, a brand new academic multidiscipline, sexuality studies, has developed within the humanities, social sciences, and cultural studies at just the present moment. Organizations, journals, conferences, and the other elements of academic infrastructure are emerging, and participants in the new sexuality studies have proclaimed it to be resolutely antimedical in its approach to understanding sexuality (Gagnon & Parker, 1995).(1) If the new, intense pharmaceutical industry role heralds the sinking of independent biomedical sex research, it appears that an academic lifeboat may be at the ready for at least some scholars.
WHY IS THE PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRY INTERESTED IN SEX?
This section will introduce themes in the larger social and economic culture which sex researchers typically ignore. It's important to notice that the pharmaceutical industry has only recently become interested in sex, and to discuss the reasons why: a favorable political environment, deregulation of the pharmaceutical industry, and favorable commercial opportunities. …