In recent decades, Americans have been ever more preoccupied with sexual health problems and entranced by the promise of their solutions. Why this preoccupation, and what might our focus on "sexual health"—a term first coined by the World Health Organization in 1975—be telling us about what we imagine sexuality to be?
Renowned sociologist of medicine Steven Epstein sits down with Penn medical ethicist Lance Wahlert to examine the invention of the term “sexual health” and the latest debates over HIV prevention, HPV vaccines, new drugs designed to treat female sexual dysfunction, and more.
Steven Epstein is the John C. Shaffer Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University. He also holds joint appointments in the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, the Gender & Sexuality Studies program, and Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health at the Institute for Policy Research. In addition, he codirects with Héctor Carrillo the Sexualities Project at Northwestern (SPAN), a new program that promotes interdisciplinary research and education on sexuality and health in social context.
Professor Epstein studies the “politics of knowledge”—more specifically, the contested production of expert and especially biomedical knowledge, with an emphasis on the interplay of social movements, experts, and health institutions, and with a focus on the politics of sexuality, gender, and race. He is the author of Inclusion: The Politics of Difference in Medical Research, which received multiple awards, including the American Sociological Association’s Distinguished Book Award; and Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge, which also received multiple awards, including the C. Wright Mills Prize. He coauthored Learning by Heart: AIDS and Schoolchildren in America’s Communities. Most recently, he co-edited Three Shots at Prevention: The HPV Vaccine and the Politics of Medicine’s Simple Solutions.
In his current work, Epstein is studying the emergence and proliferation of the modern concept of “sexual health,” with the goal of understanding the contexts in which the recent emphasis on sexual health has arisen, the consequences of attempts to lay claim to it, and its implications for what we imagine sexuality to be. This work brings together his interests in knowledge formation, health politics, sexual subjectivity, and the genealogy and standardization of concepts.
After receiving his PhD in Sociology at the University of California, Berkley, Epstein joined the faculty at the University of California, San Diego. He has held fellowships at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and the John Simon Gugenheim Foundation. He is currently Chair of the Science, Knowledge, and Technology Section of the American Sociological Association.
Lance Wahlert is Assistant Professor of Medical Ethics & Health Policy in the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, where he also directs the Master of Bioethics Program and the Project on Bioethics, Sexuality, and Gender Identity. Within the School of Arts & Sciences, he is on the faculty of the Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Program, and regularly teaches in the English and History and Sociology of Science departments. He also serves on the faculty advisory board of Penn's LGBT Center.
Wahlert's research and teaching promote the intersection of the sciences and the humanities. His interests include narrative medicine, clinical ethics, the historiographical legacy of the health care concerns of LGBTQ persons, and disability theory. In other work, he is concerned with the impact of cinematic genres on cultural histories and the relation between literary narratives and clinical forms of storytelling. He has published widely on the intersections of bioethics, queer theory, disability studies, and the history of medicine. Among these are, “Bioethics, Sexuality, and Gender Identity,” Journal of Bioethical Inquiry (2012); “Queer in the Clinic,” Journal of Medical Humanities (2013); and “Mapping Queer Bioethics: Space, Place, and Locality,” Journal of Homosexuality (2015).
He took both his BA in English and History of Medicine and MA in Irish from Johns Hopkins University, and holds an M.Sc in History of Science from Imperial College London, as well as a PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania. Walhert has held residential fellowships at the Wellcome Centre for the History of Medicine (London), Trinity College Dublin, Queen's University Belfast, the University of Oslo, King's College London, the British Film Institute, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. In Fall 2013, he was Visiting Assistant Professor of Clinical Ethics at the Cleveland Clinic, serving as a specialist in medical humanities and LGBT health. He has been twice awarded the Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching.