The History of 'Female Sexual Dysfunction' as a Mental Disorder in the 20th Century

Katherine Angel


Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2010;23(6):536-541. 

In This Article


Throughout the 20th century, and in diverse locations, female sexual problems have been associated – through psychoanalysis, theories of nervous irritation, or DSM psychiatry – with nervous and mental illness. Different literatures emphasize the social aspects of sexuality and the educational potential for resolving problems in various ways. The shift away from a primarily psychoanalytic psychiatry in DSM-III involved a striking differentiation of sexual 'dysfunctions'. What has since emerged is a fraught debate in which numerous protagonists seek to distance the possibility that 'FSD' be understood as a mental illness – because of a fear that this is equivalent to blaming or disbelieving sufferers. The contested status, with second-wave feminism, of both psychogenic etiology and of psychiatric expertise operates in the current critique of FSD. The legacy of both the scientific and cultural critique of psychodynamic psychiatry in the postwar period, as well as that of the feminist critique of psychotherapy and psychiatry, have, thus, converged to create a heated contemporary debate about sexuality, pleasure, psychiatry, and technology.


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