A new view of women's sexual problems.


by the working group on a new view of women's sexual problems (1)


In recent years, publicity about new treatments for men's erection problems has focused attention on women's sexuality and provoked a competitive commercial hunt for "the female Viagra." But women's sexual problems differ from men's in basic ways which are not being examined or addressed.

We believe that a fundamental barrier to understanding women's sexuality is the medical classification scheme in current use, developed by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) for its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders (DSM) in 1980, and revised in 1987 and 1994. (2)

It divides (both men's and) women's sexual problems into four categories of sexual "dysfunction": sexual desire disorders, sexual arousal disorders, orgasmic disorders, and sexual pain disorders. These "dysfunctions" are disturbances in an assumed universal physiological sexual response pattern ("normal function") originally described by Masters and Johnson in the 1960s (3). This universal pattern begins, in theory, with sexual drive, and proceeds sequentially through the stages of desire, arousal, and orgasm.

In recent decades, the shortcomings of the framework, as it applies to women, have been amply documented. (4) The three most serious distortions produced by a framework that reduces sexual problems to disorders of physiological function, comparable to breathing or digestive disorders, are:

1) A false notion of sexual equivalency between men and women. Because the early researchers emphasized similarities in men's and women's physiological responses during sexual activities, they concluded that sexual disorders must also be similar. Few investigators asked women to describe their experiences from their own points of view. When such studies were done, it became apparent that women and men differ in many crucial ways. Women's accounts do not fit neatly into the Masters and Johnson model; for example, women generally do not separate "desire" from "arousal," women care less about physical than subjective arousal, and women's sexual complaints frequently focus on "difficulties" that are absent from the DSM.(5)

Furthermore, an emphasis on genital and physiological similarities between men and women ignores the implications of inequalities related to gender, social class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. Social, political, and economic conditions, including widespread sexual violence, limit women's access to sexual health, pleasure, and satisfaction in many parts of the world. Women's social environments thus can prevent the expression of biological capacities, a reality entirely ignored by the strictly physiological framing of sexual dysfunctions.

2) The erasure of the relational context of sexuality. The American Psychiatric Association's DSM approach bypasses relational aspects of women's sexuality, which often lie at the root of sexual satisfactions and problems--e.g., desires for intimacy, wishes to please a partner, or, in some cases, wishes to avoid offending, losing, or angering a partner. The DSM takes an exclusively individual approach to sex, and assumes that if the sexual parts work, there is no problem; and if the parts don't work, there is a...

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