Screwing With Our Minds: Carolyn Herbst Lewis on the medical profession, heteronormativity, and history

What I remember about Carolyn Herbst Lewis’ work when we first met in graduate school was how excited she was by what she’d figured out about pelvic exams. At the time we were both working on an emphasis in Women’s Studies as part of our PhDs.  Now she’s an assistant professor of history and a member of the Women’s and Gender Studies faculty at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and you can read what she knows about pelvic exams and a whole lot more besides in her book Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era.

I asked her about her book and what it’s like to be a professor who writes and talks about sexuality.  Here’s what she had to say:

I haven’t gotten to read your book yet, but I understand that Prescription for Heterosexuality is about the way Cold War era medical doctors reinforced heteronormative sexuality and linked it to national security. Could you tell us just a little bit more about the argument of your book?

In the wake of World War II, the United States entered into the Cold War an ideological battle against communism. Our primary foe was the Soviet Union, and we were convinced that communist agents were infiltrating every aspect of our society, from the schools to the media to the federal government. We believed that the communists wanted to destroy all of our values in order to pave the way for a Soviet-led takeover.

The family was one of our most sacred institutions. So, those people whose appearance or lifestyle in some way threatened the family were suspect. The main group targeted, of course, was those identified as “homosexual”. Same-sex acts were prohibited by law and those laws were increasingly enforced. Those suspected of desire for the same sex were fired from their jobs. Many were subjected to horrifying medical treatments. You couldn’t even get a travel visa to enter the country unless you were willing to swear under oath that you were neither a communist nor a homosexual. My book looks at the flip side of this: if the sexual desires and behaviors that were labeled homosexual were so denigrated, then how were those labeled heterosexual valorized? If homosexuality was the threat, then heterosexuality was the safeguard.

In Prescription for Heterosexuality, I consider how the American medical profession defined sexual health in the postwar decades and communicated that definition to their patients. This definition of sexual health included not only specific performances of heterosexuality, but also gender and reproduction as well. Medical professionals linked this definition and its performance to national security in the sense that by guiding individuals into heteronormative identities, they would marry, have successful marriages, raise heteronormative children of their own, and thus the future would be secure. Marriages and the families they produced were the building blocks of American society. Doctors wanted to make sure the raw materials were the best they could be. In this story, that meant that they had to conform to certain gender and sexual traits.

How did you get the idea to write Prescription for Heterosexuality?

The project that became this book actually started as my masters’ thesis topic about twelve years ago. I knew that I wanted to do something on the history of sexuality in the post-World War II United States, and I had a strong interest in the scientific side of sex. I was at a bit of a loss as to how to proceed, however. Then I was at a yard sale and picked up a book about how psychoanalytic practice had changed as a result of the women’s liberation movement. It was called Women in Therapy, and it had been published in the late 1970s. I was startled at the idea that Science, which I still thought of as being absolute and objective, would have to change as a result of a social movement. I also read the 1953 Kinsey Report, and that made me wonder more about the relationship between science and intimate life how does one influence the other? I think in the end it was my future spouse who suggested that medical journals might be a good resource for looking into this. I ordered a couple copies of the Journal of the American Medical Association from the university library, I quickly became intrigued with the complex discussions about sexuality that were taking place in those volumes, and I was hooked.

Most Good Vibes readers are probably not historians.  Why would they want to read Prescription for Heterosexuality? Could knowing the history that you uncovered matter for a sex-positive activist or even for a woman scheduling her next pelvic exam?

 In my opinion, the most useful aspect of this book is the way in which it attacks this notion that any sexual act is removed from culture, politics, history. A lot of people today still want to claim that what we call “heterosexuality” is somehow timeless. The act of reproduction hasn’t changed much over the millennia (really, new possibilities for reproduction have only appeared in the last 60 years, and that is one of the chapters in this book), but the context in which those acts are performed most certainly has.

That context the politics, the demographics, the moral codes, the legal codes, the social norms is really important. It determines what meaning we give to sex beyond reproducing the species. My book discusses how we thought people should perform sex and why they should perform sex in one particular moment. There also is a secondary story here about medical authority “ where it comes from and why. Anyone who is interested in the politics of sex, the politics of science, and the intersections between the two should find something of use. As far as preparing for a standard pelvic exam, I’m not so sure. I find that sometimes I wish I knew a little less about that part of the history when I hear the click of the speculum.

In Religious Studies we talk about the “airplane conversation” that often awkward yet illuminating conversation you have when the stranger trapped next to you on an airplane asks you what you do for a living and then tells you what they think of your answer.  How does the airplane conversation go for you?

Oh, it rarely goes well. When I say I’m a history professor, the person either wants to tell me about how much s/he hated history in high school or about how much s/he still loves history and watches the History Channel all the time. Then they ask what kind of history I teach, and when I say American women’s history, most people get uncomfortable. I can’t remember the last time a stranger asked for more information after that. Even when I’m talking with family or friends about my research, there is often at least one person who isn’t quite convinced that what I do really counts as history.

One of my classmates in graduate school once flat out told me that he couldn’t believe I got funded to do this research. My father who I know is very, very proud of me doesn’t have a copy of my book on his office desk the way he would have if I’d written the history of some battle or president. People always want to tell me about their medical experiences and sexual concerns. I think it’s different with the history of sex than it is with other, more conventional fields.

You’re working on a new book project called The Chicago Maternity Center: Gender, Medicine and Power on Maxwell Street. What’s that about?

Well, I’m just beginning this project, but I’ve already changed the title a few times! I think the current title is something like The Gospel of Good Obstetrics: The Chicago Maternity Center and American Medicine. Whatever it ends up being called, this project is shaping into a history of the Chicago Maternity Center, which was an out-patient clinic founded in the 1890s in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. In fact, it was the same immigrant neighborhood where Jane Addams founded Hull House.

The founder of the CMC, a physician named Joseph De Lee, envisioned a network of clinics that would provide low-income and impoverished Chicago women with safe, medically-attended home births. Between the 1890s and the 1970s, the CMC performed this role, and the Center had one of the lowest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. Much lower than that of Chicago or the United States as a whole! The history of the CMC fits into larger stories about turn-of-the century Chicago, the growth of obstetrical science, and the home birth movement, but there has not been any substantial scholarship on it. I’m planning to fix this problem.

I’m glad to hear you’re fixing that problem! Readers, if you’ve read Prescription for Heterosexuality please tell us what you thought. In the meantime, check out my previous Screwing With Our Minds interviews with Delilah Wood and Vinne Tesla.

Sarah Whedon

Sarah W. Whedon earned her Ph.D. in Religious Studies with an emphasis in Women's Studies from UCSB. She teaches in the Department of Theology and Religious History at Cherry Hill Seminary and is the founding editor of Pagan Families: Resources for Pagan Pregnancy and Birth. Sarah's teaching, research, and advocacy work center around topics of spirituality, feminism, and reproduction.

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