In the first session of the Asian Regional Dialogue on Sexuality and Geopolitics, held in the Sofitel Plaza Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam on April 10th, 2009, participants had the chance to reflect upon two popular sexually oriented technologies, condoms and Viagra, and how they intersect with each other, as well as the implications of their use, both separately and combined together.
The session chaired by Professor Lenore Mandelson, from the School of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychological Medicine of the Monash University in Australia, highlighted that the history of research on sex, entwined with the history of sexology, has paralleled an increase in biomedicalization in all walks of life. She also explained that Viagra and the dissemination and use of condoms have ignored the economic and political context in which sexuality is located.
She recalled that in the neoliberal era one key message spread out in societies has been: “health is your responsibility.” She also underlined how the public health industry is attracted to this line of reasoning because it allows for sustaining medical control over individuals.
“Condoms and Viagra are cheap, effective, very portable and most importantly, self-controlled. They do not address power relations within a relationship. Viagra is about pleasure. Condoms are not about pleasure. Viagra is about erection–power. Condoms are about covering up–no power. Something more is going on here than pleasure vs. non-power. This is also about power between men and women and about survival: protecting people from infection,” stated the Professor in her brief introductory comments, which were followed by the presentations of Jayashree Ramakrishna (Department of Health Education of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences of Bangalore, India) and of Huang Yingying (Institute of Sexuality and Gender, Renmin University of China).
Jayashree presented the outcomes of research that explores the processes and forces that shape notions of sexuality and policies associated with condoms and Viagra in Indian culture, reminding us that condoms are a very old technology and Viagra is a brand new one. She reiterated the fact that Viagra is a drug aimed for men over 50 even when many of these men use medication for diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol – all of which pose contraindications to the use of Viagra. She explained that another key aspect of the issue is that the drug has been approved in India with very little discussion of the side-effects even after it has been in use after more than 15 years. In addition, and interestingly enough, while Viagra has been widely and quickly accepted,sexual abstinence is being stressed in Indian sex education. In many settings people even today express fear that condoms may not be safe enough to prevent pregnancy and STDs.
Jayashree also underlined that even though Viagra marketing is quite successful in the case of India, it competes with many other products from the Ayuvredhic tradition that are also aimed at enhancing male, and more rarely female, sexual performances. And, not surprisingly, a clear class/cast distinction is observed in terms of the markets of these products. Viagra is more widely used by middle-class groups who are more easily influenced by the tenets of the Western medical establishment.
The paper on infertility, zhuangyang and condoms in China, presented by Huang Yingying, addressed how sexuality related advertisements are regulated and practiced in China. It examined how a contradictory “sexual revolution” is underway in Chinese society, which expresses itself both in private practices and public discussions, and can eventually be tracked through the examination of TV and press advertisements. For instance, all public campaigns on condoms are crafted within the framework of HIV, but no picture of a condom appears, nor is there mention of the word–only the company brand is indicated. Also, while prudery characterizes those advertisements more directly related with sexuality, publicity on abortion and painless methods for pregnancy termination are wide spread and open in terms of content. This pattern reflects a long trajectory of sexual morality and population control in China. Huang also called attention to the fact that clear distinctions are found when advertisements disseminated by central mainstream media – such as the national TV or Beijing based press – are compared with regional, local and more popular outlets.
Michael Tan, who is a member of both the SPW Advisory Group and the task force that designed the Asian Dialogue, reacted to the panel saying that he felt like he experienced a “postmodern moment.” He viewed these processes as extending from the sexology tradition, moving towards a second moment that turned around the social construction of sexuality, and then to a sort of ‘big picture’ perspective that recognizes both the constructed nature of sexuality and the economic and political processes that surround it. “This is all the more exciting given the vastness and diversity of Asia,” he said. “We had tantalizing glimpses of the issues in this session and what better way than to problematize Viagra and condoms!”
For Dede Oetomo, from the GAYa NUSANTARA Foundation in Indonesia, Viagra and Condoms are topics that not many people have thought of as part of the same picture and therefore, the panel was very inciteful. However, he also felt that in some ways the discussion turned more emphatic toward male sexuality: “Viagra is pleasure for straight men. Comments were made that perhaps men want to please women, but if and when this happens will be culturally specific because this is not usually the norm. Also, condoms are related to the lack or decrease of men´s sexual pleasure. Another clear contradiction that emerged from the panel was that while the approval of Viagra – which aims to enhance male sexual power – was so quick, the acceptance of condoms remains weak. For example, the approval of female condom took a long time and condoms are much cheaper and are proved to be effective in protecting people from STDs and unwanted, pregnancies.”