A conversation about the history of sex medicine

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February 6th, 2012

Omaha, NE – This week’s Science Café explores the intersection of art and science. It’s a conversation with Nebraska’s only licensed sexologist, and the director of a new play about intimacy, loneliness… and sex medicine.

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“So we have the real deal here right on our set,” said Amy Lane, as she walked through the set of In the Next Room, the latest production at the Blue Barn Theater.

An authentic, 1800's surgeon's table on the set of In the Next Room. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

Lane pointed out a rickety-looking, cold metal folding table set up on the stage, which she explained is an authentic surgeon’s operating table from the 1800s. “It’s something right out of Frankenstein,” she said. “It’s just bizarre and frightening kind of looking.”

Lane’s latest play, which opens Feb. 16, is written by playwright Sarah Ruhl. A 2010 Pulitzer finalist, the play follows the story of Dr. Givings and his wife. On the surgeon’s table, Dr. Givings treats women for a condition that was believed to be at epidemic levels at the time: hysteria.

“It’s both fascinating, ridiculous and frustrating all at the same time,” Lane said. “This condition hysteria, the first recorded records of it are back, way back in ancient Egypt. And it was on the books as a diagnosable condition until the 1940s.”

Amy Lane stands with a replica of a 19th century vibrating machine. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

Lane explained the idea of “hysteria” originated from an ancient Greek notion that the womb would fill up with liquid and wander around the body.

“So the practice of vulvula massage … was to coax juices downward so the womb would come back into place.”

In the play, that vulvula massage is conducted by the doctor, with a machine he has invented: a 19th century vibrator that stands five feet high and looks – according to one character in the story – like a piece of farming equipment.

“It’s 100% research sound,” said Lindsey Novak, a licensed sex therapist and board-certified sexologist, who will join Lane at the Science Café discussion this week.

Lane said doctors used to see woman as having a “negative sexuality” and would use these vibrators to remedy a host of symptoms.

“So if women depicted any kind of a symptom from restlessness to insomnia, mood swings, too sexual, not sexual enough, they deemed her hysterical,” Novak said. “And if she was not married, the treatment was to get married. If she was married, she was supposed to have sex. And if she was single, a doctor would actually bring her to a pelvic massage, which basically was bringing her to orgasm.”

At the Science Café, which is hosted by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Novak and Lane will talk about the history of sexuality and sex medicine – and take a few questions. Novak said while the medical, and social, understanding of sex has certainly evolved, the conversation is still stifled.

“I think it is still vastly uncomfortable for those who don’t talk about it all the time,” Novak said. “And I think the Science Café will help.” Novak said she’ll be discussing the history of sex and sex medicine from an artistic and scientific standpoint. “So even how some of Mozart’s music looked at it, or how Michelangelo’s art looked at it, and how religion looks at it, how science looks at it. And I think when we look at it using those constructs, it might hopefully be easier for people to start talking about, as an actual act, as a dysfunction, so we can bring some of the discomfort out of the language.”

The Science Café is set for 7pm, Tuesday, Feb. 7 at the Slowdown in north downtown Omaha. In the Next Room opens at the Blue Barn Theatre in Omaha’s Old Market Feb. 16.

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