When standard measurement meets messy genitalia: Lessons from 20th century phallometry and cervimetry

AHP readers may be interested in a new piece in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science: “When standard measurement meets messy genitalia: Lessons from 20th century phallometry and cervimetry” by Rebecca L. Jackson and Merlin Wassermann. Abstract:

This paper examines two episodes in the history and philosophy of phallometry and cervimetry in the second half of the 20th century. Phallometry is the measurement of the human penis with special devices (phallometers) in a psychophysiological context, while cervimetry is the measurement of the cervix in laboring women (by hand or by cervimeter). Despite decades of efforts to standardize these measuring practices, we still have only non-standard ways of measuring the dynamics of the cervix during labor as well as penile tumescence during arousal. We adopt the lens of “messiness” as an analytic tool in order to trace historical actors’ methodological assumptions, goals, and decisions that were involved in their measuring practices. It will be argued that, far from being an a priori attribute, the “messiness” of biomedical phenomena (and how to best respond to it) depends on the actors’ methodological priorities. What is “messy” is actively shaped (and re-shaped) by researchers’ instrumental assumptions and theoretical commitments, as demonstrated in their method of measuring. This paper also offers a preview of early findings from our current research on the history of cervical measurement (Jackson) and phallic measurement (Wassermann). Drawing on primary source material we have analyzed, the argument will be developed in two parts. First, in the context of phallometry research: Two different and eventually diametrically opposed methodological approaches developed when confronted with “messy” human bodies and minds, a divergence which still exists today. Second, in the case of cervimetry research: “messiness” emerged when researchers tried to standardize the measurement of the human cervix, to no avail. Ironically, today’s “messy” practice of measuring the cervix by hand has been continually justified by knowledge gained in the continued pursuit (and failure) of standardized replacements of this method.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.