Design and Violence



Gender and violence in a medical object

An everyday medical object designed for probing the body, the speculum was born into — and helped to perpetuate — a history of discrimination: one of its inventors, J. Marion Sims, conducted experimental surgery on black slaves during its development. It was used as an instrument of power against suspected prostitutes during the nineteenth century, and in the modern era its use on political prisoners, such as the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot, has been reported. There are proposals to redesign the speculum, considering its design from the position of the patient rather than prioritising the examiner. At the same time, rather than simply an oppressive instrument, the speculum is also a site of struggle: feminists in the 1970s aimed to reclaim the speculum by showing women how to use it themselves for self-examination. The medical speculum on display here was bought in a Dublin sex-shop — as an instrument of power it has also been appropriated for sex play. This exhibit was proposed by NCAD design historian Lisa Godson, whose research for the project In the Shadow of the State by artists Jesse Jones and Sarah Browne informed this text.