The Machines of Sex Research: Technology and the Politics of Identity, 1945-1985 by Donna J Drucker

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The Machines of Sex Research: Technology and the Politics of Identity, 1945-1985 by Donna J Drucker

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Not exactly arousing, but a stimulating nonetheless look at a small subsection of science history, very relevant to the specialist.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 105 Date: July 2013
Publisher: Springer
ISBN: 9789400770638

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I'll start bluntly – this is a very academic, specialised tome, and is not really for the curious reader to flick through. Given that, you probably can work out exactly what this book is like, and therefore move on from this review, but should you stay with me you'll find that if you didn't know much about sex research equipment then the subject might actually manage to fire a curious synapse and leave you with some interest. It is, after all, not a topic to be ignored easily – as I read and write about this book in September 2013 I'm weeks away from Channel 4 making one of the featured scientists a historical figure in a drama, which is only part of a season that controversially includes something like the science of fifty years ago – namely filming copulating couples. Conversely, if you did know something on the topic, this book will be on your shelves quite imminently.

It is a curious and diverse subject. Drucker does not strictly limit herself to the years given in her subtitle, and indeed in expanding backwards really shows a lot of what we would now dismiss as pseudoscience. Basic equipment used to measure heart rate, pulse, and in a then-revolutionary fashion, penis engorgement, was giving people some data on the changes sexual activity has on our physiognomy. But then they weren't helping much by twinning that with a Freudian angle of deviancy and deciding the results should fit into a programme of electro-shock treatment and more to cure homosexuality. They were doing even less when giving electro-shock to sexually aroused S&M participants, though.

And the instruments being used were not always fit for the job. There was an actual ecology and evolution of the tools of these sex scientists, but perhaps the tools that stayed in use were just generating the results the scientists wanted to expect. But the cultural history of the instruments is not confined to the rarefied laboratories of academe – with a Cold War-era homophobia leading to uses for some data, the next generation of researchers– typified by Masters and Johnson – fed the burgeoning spirit of '60s free love, female sexual emancipation and so on.

If this subject does seem too exclusive for you, consider the fact that the implements used fifty years ago – basically a cine-camera in a dildo – have mutated into rampant rabbits and other sexual aids sold on the high street. Both then and now there are some men galled at being made to feel thus left out. There is more depth to the topic than one thought, even if as this book often points out there has never been enough. Masters and Johnson tied themselves up debating vaginal versus clitoral orgasm, and woke a whole generation up to stimuli females were more receptive to, but because the sex research trade was ignoring a tenth of the population everything had to be heterosexual. Nowhere was either gender's anal orgasm given a look, nor anything outside vaginal intercourse.

You're right, there are phrases in this review I could never have predicted using on a site like this. There are some unusual phrases in this book, too, as Drucker delves into Foucault and more for glimpses of the meaning of the scientific equipment, the sexual space, the body politic and the body private, and so on. But this was not as dry nor as pretentious as I feared, and I'm sure I can speak for those with relevant professional interests that the four long papers and other pieces herein will be very much on point.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

For further looks at what science has done with - and allegedly on behalf of - our bodies, Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America by Allen M Hornblum, Judith L Newman and Gregory J Dober is a very sober and galling account.

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