Friday, February 11, 2011

Analysis #5 - Medicalizing "Deviance"

"Disease" is universally accepted as causing some form of abnormality or state of ill-compromised health that disrupts an individual's normal everyday life experience. Although the actual definition of the term "disease" differs widely cross-culturally and geographically, its existence is acknowledged in all human societies. One culture may view "disease" as being caused by the effects of misfortune or acts of witchcraft or contact with natural/spiritual phenomena, while another may associate it with scientifically proven psychological, physiological, or mental medical conditions interfering with the body. It is this latter definition of "disease" that is of interest here and will serve as the main focus of this analysis, which will concentrate primarily on the causes and effects underlying the medicalization of social problems or "deviance" in Western societies.

The image above, taken from The Global Sociology Blog (, depicts the socially acceptable and socially unacceptable perceptions of what one may generalize to be considered social problems. In this particular cartoon, on the left frame we see a young boy telling his mother that laziness was the reason behind his incompletion of his homework (labeled socially unacceptable) and on the right frame we see the same young boy telling his mother that laziness syndrome had been the culprit behind his uncompleted homework (labeled socially acceptable). This cartoon provides a straight-forward demonstration of Western notions of the tendency (and necessity) to medicalize any (or rather, every) social problem we experience. As the cartoon illustrates, laziness itself is not sufficient to explain why we were unable to finish our homework or mow the lawn or walk the dog or take out the trash or pay our electricity bills or whatever it is that we were just too darn lazy to do. However, laziness immediately becomes a socially acceptable cause of idleness and lack of progress as soon as a medical term is attached. As absurd as it sounds, "laziness syndrome" apparently serves as a legitimate medical condition  that can excuse us from our daily responsibilities and duties. This medicalization of social problems or social "deviance" can be seen quite frequently in our society. Reduced (or uncontrollably heightened) sexual desire among single and married individuals becomes medically coined as Inhibited Sexual Desire (ISD) and Sexual Addiction, respectively. As Janice M. Irvine states in her article on "Regulated Passions", "diseases are artifacts with social history and social practice" (Irvine, 314) and "inhibited sexual desire and sexual addiction are two of the most recent medical constructions of sexual disease and disorder" (Irvine, 315). In a time during which increasing number of people were exhibiting concerns of sexual dysfunctions, "sexologists, with their appeal to scientific legitimacy and medical authority, were riding a wave or popularity in a vast market eager for a new approach to sexual problems" (Irvine, 316). 

ISD and sexual addiction became increasingly accepted as being medical disorders because the "proposal that any behavioral excess could lead to dependence fit nicely with the popular and widespread generalization of ideas about addiction represented by such figures as the workaholic, shopaholic, and compulsive gambler" (Irvine, 317). By medicalizing these disorders as being a form of sexual disease, it allows those suffering from them to remove personal responsibility by blaming uncontrollable sexual desires on mechanisms of the brain that are " early childhood" (Irvine, 321) and "encoded into the hardwiring of the brain" (Irvine, 322). The medicalization of sexual disease can be seen as a result of cultural and social ideologies of sex. Irvine states that "both ISD and sexual addiction rely heavily on self-diagnosis and serve as beacons for the individual who feels a sense of inadequacy or incongruence with cultural or interpersonal sexual norms" (Irvine, 323).  Perhaps this can explain one of the dangers behind medicalizing social problems. ISD and sexual addiction may not truly be medical disorders; they may in reality be socially invented forms of sexual "disease" created as individuals fell under the cultural pressures of sex and how much (or little) sex a "normal" person should be getting. Despite the medicalization of ISD and sexual addiction, "the diagnosis of ISD remains controversial among sexologists, with little consensus regarding operational criteria" (Irvine, 324). I would think if ISD was categorized as being a medical disorder, its method and mode of diagnosis should be more agreed upon and universally understood, at least within the medical professionals. Currently, experts in both sexology and addictionology are "[looking] hopefully and confidently to the future of neurochemistry for unlocking the determinants of their diseases" (Irvine, 326). But what happens if neurochemistry cannot explain the reasoning behind ISD and sexual addiction? If, contrary to what sexologists and addictionologists believe, these sexual disorders are not caused by "a specific neural system in the brain" (Irvine, 321), will their medicalization be invoked? If they are maintained, in which forms will they take?

Much in the same way that sexual desires have been medicalized is the pathologization of male and female homosexuality. Jennifer Terry's chapter on "Medicalizing Homosexuality" states that doctors' expertise concerning the body gave them authority to comment on the causality, prevalence, and treatment of any socially deviant behavior that they could plausibly link to heredity or to bodily processes" (Terry, 40). It comes as no surprise that homosexuality became subject to Western tendencies of medicalization since homosexuality was not very well understood and therefore widely unaccepted in modern societies. "Homosexual bodies, as they were imagined by physicians, were objects to be measured, zones to be mapped, and texts to be interpreted" (Terry, 41). Irvine's piece on "Regulated Passions" also discusses the "biomedical tradition [of quantifying] desire" (Irvine, 320) and exhibiting the "impulse to map desire and its varied disorders in the body" (Irvine, 320). Western notions of medicine seem to emphasize on the mapping of disorders and signs of social deviance on the human body, which isn't surprising since biomedicine seeks to stray away from subjective components of illness and move towards objective aspects of medicalized disorders. Homosexuality has been medicalized and discussed in terms of nervous degeneration, congenital predisposition (Terry, 45-50), evolutionary throwbacks, and what Freud calls "an immature stage of psychosexual development" (Terry, 61). 

Like ISD and sexual addiction as well as homosexuality, behaviors considered to be reflections of social "deviance" are medicalized in an attempt to validate their existence as a result of events that can be scientifically proven. Medicalization of social "problems" can be seen as beneficial to those suffering from the disorders since "the seemingly neutral and scientific language of disease may offer palpable relief to those who secretly worry that their sexuality is inadequate or out of control" (Irvine, 328). 
Homosexual men and women beseeched doctors to make sense of their unusual desires and to defend them against criminal charges and religious intolerance" (Terry, 42). Despite sufferers' opportunity to use medicalized definitions of social disorders to divert personal responsibility to biological causes of disease, medicalizing disorders "cannot really be said said to eliminate moral stigma or enhance "cure"" (Irvine, 330). What really needs to be looked at are the various social, cultural, and political factors allowing for the medicalization of social concerns and the tremendous effects they are having on professionals as well as those afflicted. We need to be able to realize that social and cultural ideologies are shaping the ways in which we view the body as a form of object to be manipulated and studied by science and as an individual entity that should be viewed and valued by the qualities it possesses. 

Works Cited:

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

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

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