In the previous module we saw that sex was not always viewed as an object of scientific study in Western society. For much of Western history, sex was approached as a moral, religious and juridical issue, largely associated with moral transgression, sin, and crime. In contrast, in many non-Western societies sex has been understood as an artform rather than as a purely biological phenomenon. While many eastern cultures developed ars erotica or erotic arts, an aesthetic understanding of sex has never been dominant in the West, and in the 19th century the language of “immorality,” “sin” and “crime” was at least partially replaced by Western scientists with the language of “perversion” and “abnormalcy.” While for centuries the only form of sex that had been considered morally, spiritually and legally acceptable from the dominant Judeo-Christian perspective was reproductive sex between heterosexual married couples, in the 19th century this same form of sex came to be seen as the only type that was natural and normal.

In this context, we saw that 19th-century sexual scientists taxonomized human beings in terms of their sexual perversions, socially constructing sexual identities through the creation of novel labels such as “homosexual,” “pedophile,” “sadist,” and “masochist.” With only partial success, these scientists attempted to wrest authority over sex “offenders” away from juridical authorities into the medical realm, insisting that those who violated nature through their sexual acts were in need of medical treatment rather than punishment. These medical treatments for “perverse” sexual acts were, unfortunately, often no less humane than punishment had been, and included notorious “conversion therapies” and lifelong incarceration in hospitals in cases where “conversion” failed. While in some cases – most notably that of “homosexuals” – people so categorized by scientists managed to form political communities from which to resist the negative connotations of the labels ascribed to them, in other cases medical understandings of sexual acts and identities continue to dominate and to co-exist with juridical interventions.

As a gay man who came of age in a society in which homosexuality was understood as a mental illness, Foucault was primarily interested in the case of people who had been pathologized as perverse, and he never got around to writing a book on the “hystericized woman” as he had initially planned. In contrast, feminist scholars and activists have been critical of the gendered diagnoses of hysteria and frigidity that 19th-century sexual scientists applied frequently to women, as well as more recent ways in which female sexuality is pathologized. In this module, we will put Foucault’s ideas in conversation with the work of contemporary feminist scholars and activists, particularly as they have challenged the 20th-century medical diagnosis of so-called “Female Sexual Dysfunction.” We will focus primarily on the work of feminist sexologist Leonore Tiefer, who, as we shall see, has been at the forefront of resisting the FSD diagnosis and its pharmaceutical “cures.”

Learning Objectives

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • Understand some of the main critiques of sexology on the part of feminist scholars and activists
  • Explain both psychiatric and pharmaceutical claims about Female Sexual Dysfunction and feminist challenges to these claims
  • Discuss some approaches to human sexuality that disavow a medical or scientific lens