“Frigid”

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.

About Laura (ace-muslim)

Laura is an aromantic asexual, queer-identified, and a Muslim. She lives in the U.S., works in online tech support, and volunteers for a Muslim anti-racism organization. She blogs about asexuality, queer Muslim issues, and other topics at http://ace-muslim.tumblr.com and has written on asexuality for a number of Muslim sites.
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7 Responses to “Frigid”

  1. Ace in Translation says:

    I am very excited by this post, as well as your Tumblr post on this subject linked with early Islamic discourse. I love how you contrast modern feminist discourse with historical discourse on female sexuality. The history nerd in me is very happy.

    People using pre-sexual revolution ideas on female sexuality to argue that there were times in history “when it was OK to be ace” are a personal pet peeve. It shows a complete misunderstanding of historical fact as well as a real misunderstanding of the lived experiences of asexuals. They’re comparing my asexuality – that which gives me my freedom to express myself on my own terms – with an system that denied women their own (a)sexual self-expression.

    Also, I see you linked to the book “frigidity: an intellectual history”. I’ve got it on my to-read list, because it looks like a book that will give insight in the history of pathologization of asexual and low-desire women. Is it any good?

    • I haven’t actually read the whole book, as it’s awfully expensive, but the parts I was able to access look very interesting and I would like to buy it at some point (you would laugh if you knew how many books I have in that category). I included it because I thought people should know that such a reference exists.

      I’m glad you liked my posts. I’ve been meaning to write on this issue for awhile because it really frustrates me when people misrepresent both asexuality and history, but it took awhile to find the right way to say it without it just being an angry rant, LOL. Reading the “Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam” gave me the idea of approaching the issue from a different perspective and that turned out to be the key I needed.

      • Ace in Translation says:

        I think instead of laughing I’ll nod knowingly, after which I’d proceed to copy at least half of your to-read/to-buy list onto mine 🙂
        I’m very happy you did include the book. I only came across it a week ago by chance and it struck me how great a starting point it would be for exploring the history of asexuality and it’s pathologization.

  2. queenieofaces says:

    I’m really liking all your recent posts, if my enthusiastic reblogging on tumblr wasn’t already a tip-off. One thing I’ve found really interesting is that I’ve had sex-positive women call me frigid, apparently without any awareness of what the term means; they seem to use it as a synonym for “repressed” a fair amount of the time. I wonder if there’s been some sort of linguistic drift occurring in sex-positive discourse.

    I’ve had “frigid” used against me, and I’ve tentatively started writing a post looking at it from a more personal view, but after writing a little bit last night, I realized that it’s gonna be…really heavy, and thus may take a while. When adults in your life started calling you “frigid” and “a prude” basically since you hit puberty, uh, yeah, there’s a lot of baggage to unpack there. (Plus “frigid” intersects with sexual violence in some less than fun ways, sooooooooo yeah.)

    • I have a lot of… thoughts… about women calling each other “frigid” or “prude”. I hope these same women don’t talk a lot about slut-shaming at the same time because I would find that hypocritical.

      I’m glad that my posts are helping to create a space for deeper discussion around these issues, which is what I hoped to achieve 🙂

  3. Carmilla DeWinter says:

    So, a mini-discussion of frigidity (and how science eventually disproved Freud) is also to be found in Hanne Blank’s “Straight. The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality.” Also worth a read, and maybe a bit cheaper?
    Apart from that, yes, while I have yet to be called frigid, or a prude, I am under the impression that most people have no idea what “frigid” actually means.

  4. Aqua says:

    I knew about the ‘nymphomaniac’ and ‘frigid’ labels both being thrown around to pathologize cis women who fall outside the very narrow range of sexuality that they’re ‘allowed’ to have under patriarchal norms, but I didn’t know that they could be applied to the same person at the same time!

    That also reminds me of that also during the Victorian Era, the vibrator was invented to ease ‘hysteria’, which was thought to be from not getting enough sexual stimulation, while at the same time, many cis women were institutionalized after being labeled nymphomaniacs.

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