What to make of modern medicine’s attention to men

Ageing men are seen as an especially lucrative niche sector. Sean MacEntee

Women have long been subject to intrusive biomedical interventions. And the control that modern medicine exerts over women’s bodies has been the focus of much feminist activism. Men are usually seen as the perpetrators rather than victims of this medical control.

The history of the Boston’s Women’s Collective and the book Our Bodies, Ourselves occupy a central place in the story of the women’s liberation movement. This history reveals that biomedical knowledge and practices are far from being gender neutral. On the contrary, they have served to pathologise pregnancy, sexual “dysfunction”, and other “conditions” that exclusively or disproportionately affect women.

Until recently, such a narrative of biomedical control has been lacking in the burgeoning literature on men and masculinities. But there’s now growing awareness of how men’s bodies and lives have also been subject to biomedical control – albeit of a different kind and order.

As in the case of women, there are a number of factors contributing to the biomedicalisation of men.

First, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries have “discovered” a growing potential market of the aged. Ageing men are seen as an especially lucrative niche sector because marketers of new medical treatments recognise that post-war male baby boomers tend to be cashed up. Many will pay for procedures that enhance their appearance and performance, potentially prolong life, or mask the effects of ageing.

An internet search will reveal an abundance of advice and products targeted exclusively to men. And because these treatments are marketed directly to consumers via the internet, they’re not easily regulated.

Meanwhile, biomedicine itself is expanding its categories to newer populations, including men of all ages and social groups. For example, “growth hormone deficiency” is increasingly seen as a problem requiring medical intervention; this can be seen as a manifestation of a general process of rationalisation and (bio)medicalisation in modern societies.

And the recent attention to men’s health, in government enquiries, organisations such as the Australasian Men’s Health Forum, and numerous information sources has no doubt contributed to men having more encounters with the institutions of biomedicine.

These developments bring some benefits, such as encouraging more men to visit their doctors regularly to undertake tests for prostate cancer and other conditions. But they also engender consumer demand for interventions that, in some cases, serve to medicalise problems that would be better dealt with outside the institutions of biomedicine.

The biomedicalisation of men can be seen as a recent manifestation of “bio-power” as described by Michel Foucault. It’s one aspect of a wider transformation of human life that is under way in the name of “human betterment”.

It’s no coincidence that the medicalisation of men is occurring during a period of the radical deregulation of health care. The “direct-to-consumer” advertising of an increasing array of new biomedical treatments, including those marketed to men, is congruent with the neoliberal political project. More and more, individuals are being called upon to express their agency in the market of medical treatments – a trend often portrayed as enhancing consumer choice.

We need to ask what such choices mean in the context of deregulated health care dominated by biomedical knowledge and practices. Which groups of men benefit and which groups are disadvantaged?

While recently co-editing the book Aging Men, Masculinities and Modern Medicine, I was struck by the disproportionate attention given by researchers in the field of men’s health to issues such as erectile dysfunction, sexual enhancement, and testosterone treatments.

This is not to say that these issues are not important to some men. But such a focus obscures the workings of biomedical power and diverts attention from issues of arguably greater concern to the majority of men. Those issues include loneliness, mental health problems, and concerns about changes to one’s health and to one’s social status as one grows older and is no longer able to work.

Questions about the politics of knowledge and political economy, in particular, have been neglected in recent research on masculinities, health and medicine. I would like to see more work exploring why certain fields of research are given more attention than others, and who benefits and who is disadvantaged as a consequence.

Alan Petersen’s most recent book, Men, Masculinities and Modern Medicine (edited with Antje Kampf and Barbara Marshall) is published by Routledge.