Article

Female Sexuality and Consent in Public Discourse: James Burt's "Love Surgery"

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Abstract

Beginning in the mid-1960s, gynecologist and obstetrician James Burt developed what he called "love surgery" on unknowing women after they gave birth. It was, he later told them, a modification of episiotomy repair. In the mid-1970s, Burt began promoting love surgery as an elective sexual enhancement surgery and women came to his clinic in hopes of a surgically-enabled better sex life. But though Burt now offered love surgery, he continued to perform it on patients who did not come to him for it through the late 1980s. Over the course of more than two decades, discourse on love surgery occurred twice nationally. In the late 1970s, feminists and sex therapists attacked love surgery as altering a woman's body for male sexual pleasure. Though Burt never hid his continued use of love surgery on women who had not elected for it, the public discourse at this time focused on love surgery as a reflection of larger cultural ideas about female sexuality. In the late 1980s, when Burt's love surgery again appeared in the national media, the issue of informed consent, largely absent from the discourse about love surgery in the late 1970s, moved to the center. Though significant activity happened within the local medical and legal communities beginning in the mid-1970s regarding Burt and his practice of love surgery, my interest here is on these two periods when the discourse regarding love surgery, female sexuality, and informed consent occurred within a national frame.

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