Sex Therapy in the Age of Viagra: 'Money Can't Buy Me Love'

59 Pages Posted: 5 Nov 2011 Last revised: 7 Nov 2011

See all articles by Susan Ekberg Stiritz

Susan Ekberg Stiritz

Washington University in St. Louis - George Warren Brown School of Social Work

Susan Frelich Appleton

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law

Date Written: October 5, 2011


What can sex therapy tell us about sex — and about gender, power, fantasy, culture, and law? Part of a symposium on "For Love or Money? Defining Relationships in Law and Life," this article proceeds from the premise that sex therapy is a vital topic for scholarly investigation in general and feminist analysis in particular. Studying sex therapy illuminates a society’s fantasies of healthy and adequate sexuality and provides insight into the tensions between love and money, the purported divide between private and public, and the reproduction and persistence of gender hierarchy in America, notwithstanding several decades of equality-minded law reforms and feminist developments.

In this article, we explore changes in sex therapy over the past sixty years, beginning with the pathbreaking research undertaken by William Masters and Virginia Johnson and the therapeutic interventions they developed, as recounted in Thomas Maier’s recent book, "Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, The Couple Who Taught America How to Love." Masters and Johnson’s innovations included discovery of female sexual prowess, rejection of the Freudian ideal of the vaginal orgasm, and scientific celebration of the expanded role of the clitoris, as well as therapies based on touching exercises and communication. These innovations, nurtured by a supportive legal and cultural environment, held out a promise of liberating transformation, including new understandings of “sex” and new sexual expectations and practices for women. Yet, as we show, instead of realizing the promise, these discoveries inspired a contradictory therapy, the prescription of Viagra, which has now become the preeminent treatment for “sexual dysfunction,” a term that Masters and Johnson coined. These contrasting therapies help make visible the ethos of two different ages or cultural moments: the period of Masters and Johnson’s project (beginning in the late 1950s) and the period of Viagra’s ascendancy (beginning in 1998, when the drug received FDA approval). In addition, using the lens of fantasy to examine each of these competing therapeutic approaches, we theorize that they embody contrasting (and we think gendered) visions of what constitutes “good” heterosex. In particular, in tracing how Viagra emerged from earlier versions of sex therapy and ultimately triumphed, we expose how androcentric notions of “sex” as intercourse have both resisted change and upheld patriarchal authority, frustrating the transformative potential of Masters and Johnson’s contributions.

This story of sex therapy has two discernible lessons: First, in these neoliberal times, money overcomes love, often even in the name of love. Second, interventions that ask us to be present and do what we fumblingly and imperfectly can do will lose out to a quick fix promising to give us the idealized kind of sex the dominant fantasy teaches us is sexy.

Keywords: Sex therapy, Masters & Johnson, Viagra, sexual intercourse, clitoris, gender, sexuality, fantasy

Suggested Citation

Stiritz, Susan Ekberg and Appleton, Susan Frelich, Sex Therapy in the Age of Viagra: 'Money Can't Buy Me Love' (October 5, 2011). Washington University Journal of Law and Policy, Vol. 35, p. 363, 2011, Washington University in St. Louis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 11-11-01, Available at SSRN:

Susan Ekberg Stiritz

Washington University in St. Louis - George Warren Brown School of Social Work ( email )

St. Louis, MO 63130
United States
314 422 0944 (Phone)

Susan Frelich Appleton (Contact Author)

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States

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