I’ve always thought that “frigid” is one of the uglier misogynistic slurs that can be used against a woman. It’s also one that could particularly be used against me, given my sex-aversion, lack of sex drive, and overall complete lack of interest in any kind of sexual activity. (I say that it “could” be used against me, because I have been successful in avoiding being in situations where it would be.)
Frigidity as referring to a cis woman’s lack of “adequate” sexual responsiveness or enjoyment (however that is defined) has a long history. However, the concept as it is understood today is primarily a construction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
According to Freud, cis girls start out associating sexual pleasure with the clitoris, but as mature adults need to transfer this association to the vagina. Failure to do so is a sign of penis envy and inappropriate “masculinization” and is, according to Freud, pathological. The cis woman who seeks out clitoral pleasure (particularly through masturbation or same-sex sexual contact) is thus both a nymphomaniac and also frigid, the latter in relation to her husband (where her sexuality should properly be directed, according to Freud).
While Freud himself does not seem to have been overly concerned with whether cis women actually achieved orgasm during penile-vaginal intercourse, early 20th century psychoanalysts and sexologists fully developed an ideology* that cis women should achieve vaginal orgasm and that frigidity was the failure to do so. By the 1950s, this resulted in a psychiatric and sexological discourse that depicted a large number of cis women, perhaps even a majority, as sexually disordered. Because these women failed to sufficiently enjoy sex with their husbands, according to this discourse, they were not only unhappy in themselves but were responsible for causing their husbands to seek better sexual experiences elsewhere and even sometimes for their husband’s impotence (on the grounds of performance anxiety). This is a profoundly patriarchal and misogynistic worldview.
The discourse I have described thus constructs an idealized female sexuality in which a woman must not only submit sexually to her husband but also enjoy it in a very specific way or she is to blame for any marital problems that result. While Freud’s presentation tended to pathologize cis women who enjoyed sex in the wrong way, the mid-century discourse strongly pathologized also those women who did not enjoy sex enough.
I have previously critiqued a certain type of sex-positive discourse that depicts some or all women prior to the Sexual Revolution as having been expected to be “pure asexual virgins“. I noted that patriarchy has always required from women, within marriage if nowhere else, a state of receptive willingness (a passive yes) to sex and that the conflation of this state with the concept or label “asexuality” is not only wrong but actively harmful to asexual women, especially sex-averse and sex-indifferent asexual women.
What the history of frigidity shows is that cis women were not only not expected to be “asexual” but that in 20th century patriarchy they were in fact pathologized** if they behaved in ways that the vast majority of actual asexuals do (55% of those on the asexual spectrum are sex-averse, another 27% are sex-indifferent and only 4% report actually enjoying sex).
The cause of women being able to enjoy sex on their own terms, if they want to, and to have their autonomous sexuality recognized is important. But let’s do this without distorting the past or erasing the stigmatization that asexual women may experience. There are many ways in which sex-positive feminism has acted to seek the empowerment of some women at the expense of the continuing subordination of others. Let’s not add the marginalization of asexual women to this list.
*Ianna Hawkins Owen argues that the development of modern sexual ideology is inextricably linked with the modern construction of whiteness, which is idealized as self-mastery of raw sexual desire; the raw sexual desire without self-mastery is associated with Blackness and depicted as whiteness’s opposite. She further argues that early and mid-20th century fears of the decline of the white family through insufficiently vigorous reproduction are the context in which to understand the shift towards requiring an “active” sexuality that we see here.
**It’s worth noting that although “frigidity” is no longer used as a diagnosis, hypoactive sexual desire disorder and sexual interest/arousal disorder are and asexuals may face a very real risk of being diagnosed with these disorders and subjected to treatment, rather than their asexuality being recognized as a valid sexual orientation.