In defense of “Dysfunction”

10/25/2010 at 7:25 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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I identify as having female sexual dysfunction. For me, it’s an accurate and neutral term, as honest as describing my eye color or my gender as feminine. (It is, however, a personal thing which I won’t disclose to everyone in my social circle, and you’d never guess with a first impression.) I wouldn’t say I’m exactly happy about having sexual dysfunction, but I’m no longer ashamed of it, either. (At least, I try not to be.) Some folks may question why I say I have sexual dysfunction, since it’s such a controversial term. …Then they find out that the main sex problems that are causing me so much trouble are pain due to vulvodynia and vaginismus. So long as folks know what those two conditions are, the questions about my self-identification tend to back off. Still, there are some experts in the professional field who question the validity of sexual pain as a sexual dysfunction, questioning if it should instead be classified as purely a pain condition. Then, even if sexual pain was considered a chronic pain condition independent of sexual dysfunction, that would still place me on the disability spectrum.

Since I have FSD, I have vested interest in learning more about it – what it is, what treatments are or aren’t available, how it impacts individuals’ lives (if at all,) etc. It’s not just reading though – I’ve talked to and received feedback from women who themselves have FSD in one or more forms. I’m especially interested in how FSD is perceived and what people say about it! It’s meta, and its fascinating. So what are people saying about it? When I read about FSD, I notice a few familiar themes pop up repeatedly…

Again & again I’ve run into mainstream articles and published journal studies like, “Big pharma’s newest fake disease.” “Female Sexual Dysfunction: A Case Study of Disease Mongering and Activist Resistance.” “The making of a disease: female sexual dysfunction.” Magazine articles like “Lust, Caution.” Slogans like, “Sex for our pleasure? Or their profit.” Blog posts covering FSD – or rather, not covering it, because it’s not a valid diagnosis to cover in the first place. Instead, almost all of these articles focus on the role of Big Pharma in the promotion of sexual dysfunction, with the end goal of selling medication for huge profits. The idea goes something like, if a commercial enterprise can create and then capitalize on sexual anxiety, then there’s a potentially huge market to make big bucks off of. After all, who hasn’t dealt with some sexual insecurity issues?

But who is the target audience of these articles? What do these articles say to and say about women who experience sexual dysfunction? How am I, someone who actually has sexual dysfunction, supposed to react when I see “‘Sexual Dysfunction’ in women: Myth or Fact?” as a header on page 543 in my 2005 version of Our Bodies, Ourselves? I’m standing right here, so my immediate reaction is to wonder how much able-bodied privilege (in terms of not having FSD) the editors were stewing in to overlook the fact that FSD is a broad topic that goes beyond libido alone and that perhaps some of their readers would have sexual dysfunction. The above articles make some good points to consider, but I feel very shut out of these conversations. There’s plenty of talking about, but not so much talking with.

To put it very simply, with both the medical and social construction models of FSD, sexual dysfunction is “Bad,” it’s something you don’t want. Both models contribute to the stigmatization of sexual dysfunction.

Briefly, the medical model is like, “You don’t want to be dysfunctional, right? So here take this pill/use this device/have this surgery and you’ll be cured! BTW here’s the bill…” (In practice however, it doesnt always work out that way – it can take a very long time before patients find a doctor who will be willing to listen to sexual problems and then offer intervention. And even prescriptions can have only minimal effects on the problem, plus they come with side effects.)

The social constriction model is more like, “You don’t want to be dysfunctional, do you? Not to worry; you’re not! It’s just that culture’s views of sex are so screwed up and limiting, these limits create sexual anxiety.” (If guided by a therapist through this process of coming to terms with sexual problems, there will still probably be a bill at the end of a long process of changing your world view.) Sounds great, however I’m uncomfortable with the promotion of guilt and feelings of foolishness if you do use sexual medicine that I’ve seen under the social construction model. I am concerned about the means used under the social construction model. For an example let’s return to this comparison of guys with erectile dysfunction to Jackie Gleason of the Honeymooners:

I am a 37 year old man with erectile problems for 2 years. I have used 50 mg. Viagra 4 times. All of those times have resulted in a very good erection and intercourse. The side effects are headache, upset stomach, stuffy nose, and facial flushing… About 30 mins after taking Viagra I take 2 Tylenol and a Tums and start drinking water. After about 15 mins I take another Tums and use a nasal spray for my stuffiness. I will continue this combination and it will work for me.

This sounds more like a Jackie Gleason routine rather than a romantic evening, but I think it is close to the reality of what life with these drugs will be like… How does his sexual partner feel about the whole drama with the Tums and the nasal spray and the Tylenol?

Found in Sex is Not a Natural Act, location 1109. No one wants to be a shill of the pharmaceutical industry, right? So don’t take that pill and whatever else you need to feel stable. It makes you look foolish anyway, bumbling around like that. The author, Dr. Leonore Tiefer, implies that this gentleman’s partner must think he’s a huge joke. Uh-oh – I go through a“Whole drama” with my stretching & dilator exercises when gearing up for PIV sex.

All of these articles I listed above imply that sexual dysfunction is something new and invented only within the last few decades, guided by the invisible hand of the marketplace. Sexual dysfunction, or increased awareness of it, is something to resist the spread of in the future. It’s something to fight against – like there’s something inherently wrong with being or thinking of yourself as sexually dysfunctional, and especially like there’s something wrong with wanting and needing medical help in the bedroom. The aim of the resistance is noble enough; protect women from being exploited medically, in relationships, and financially. But the means used to achieve that goal don’t always do a good job of acknowledging the reality of life with sexual dysfunction for those that do have it.

Some therapists who take a very strong social construction approach to sexual problems state that whatever you’re going through, it’s not a dysfunction:

So as this latest chapter in the medicalisation story closes, let’s be very clear. Women do experience sexual problems that cause them distress, discomfort and dissatisfaction. These are often linked to other factors and do need attention, but they are not a clinical condition or a dysfunction, and they do not require a new and separate diagnosis. A summary of common reasons women experience problems with sex can be found here.

(Emphasis mine.)

So one of the common themes I keep running into, particularly in feminist, social construction-informed spaces, is this idea that female sexual dysfunction isn’t a valid diagnosis. This view is gaining popularity – it’s covered in women’s studies classes: There’s so much sexual diversity that it’s not fair for doctors or Big Pharma to dictate who does and doesn’t have a “Normal” experience. We don’t really know what “Normal” means, even. And indeed, it is well within the realm of normal and fine to have low or absent sexual desire, it is normal and fine to have orgasms that don’t necessarily rock your world. Everyone’s different. Generally, authors who take a strong social construction approach to sexual dysfunction admit that yes, sexual problems do sometimes happen and yes, they’re real. However…

Nonetheless when sexual problems do happen, it’s not a dysfunction. Don’t call it that. Sexual problems are real, but sexual dysfunction isn’t.

What’s scary to me personally about the above quote is also that sexual pain in and of itself can be caused by a clinical condition (like vulvodynia.) My painful sex and all the issues that stem from that is merely a problem rather than a dysfunction?

The very existence of sexual pain is also a source of internal conflict that I haven’t been able to reconcile because depending on who you ask, sexual pain either is a valid and important sexual dysfunction or else pain as dysfunction is still a myth. I cannot figure out how sexual pain can simultaneously be a sexual dysfunction and not a dysfunction, and also sexual dysfunction is something that isn’t legitimate. I also can’t figure out why pain as dysfunction should be elevated to the pantheon of reality (whether it’s considered a pain condition or a sexual dysfunction) but other non-painful sexual dysfunctions shouldn’t be recognized as such.

The problem is that calling sexual dysfunctions by the euphemism, “Sexual problems” does not recognize the degree to which the sexual problem(s) interferes with someone’s life. According to this article from Harvard.edu,a key component of what separates a sexual problem from a sexual dysfunction is personal distress.

I have a few overlapping sexual problems, which cause a lot of anxiety to this day. My problems can (and do) bleed out into other, non-sexual areas of my life, so when that happens it’s impossible to ignore. To this day I can’t afford to slack off too much on my pain management exercises (like the stretches,) because if I do the muscle tension & pain comes back. Other times, the pain is well-managed but the fear remains. This is a serious problem for me; I think about it a lot and it interferes with my quality of life. And I’m one of the lucky ones who was nonetheless able to find significant improvement through medical intervention.

Lots of people have sexual problems that do not pass the threshold into dysfunction. These problems are nonetheless important and valid experiences, or at least as important as it is (or not) to each individual. But I suspect that the person who has a sexual problem does not experience the kind of anxiety and distress that I do from sexual dysfunction. Does someone with a sexual problem as opposed to a sexual dysfunction feel the need to think 12 steps ahead of every sexual encounter and have all kinds of contingency plans ready if and when something does go wrong? Do people without sexual dysfunctions even think of contingency plans in the first place? Do people with relatively minor sexual problems think about what’s going to happen as they age? How would I know? I would think that someone with a sexual problem but that feels overall pretty comfortable with themselves hasn’t had to spend buttloads of time and money searching for a professional prepared to compassionately handle their sexual complaints.

Calling sexual dysfunctions by the euphemism “Sexual problem” lumps all problems and dysfunctions together, and it minimizes the reality for those with major distress. Refusing to acknowledge the personal distress that accompanies sexual dysfunction equates my long-term pain (which I worry about) with the handful of times that I’ve been unable to orgasm from masturbation (which I’m not worried about. I do not perceive these two personal problems of mine as equal. I did not weep for months when I was unable to orgasm a half a dozen times in my life, but I did weep for the hundreds of times I was unable to comfortably insert something into my vagina.

But no it can’t really be that bad, right? It’s just a problem, strongly influenced by some intangible outside force.

It’s ironic when you think about it – part of the resistance against the term “Dysfunction” is because it’s totally not fair to classify every little sexual variation as a sexual dysfunction. Doing so maximizes the assumption of negative feelings regarding sexual performance. But by refusing to leave room for dysfunction, the distress that may be caused by a sexual problem in and of itself is minimized. The phrase “Sexual problem” misses half of what I’m dealing with here.

Refusing to acknowledge the reality of sexual dysfuction erases what is for some people may very well be a valid medical conditon. A few months ago, frequent commenter and occasional guest poster Flora picked up on the similarities between the way vaginismus and non-sexual, invisible chronic conditions were handled:

Some older studies on CFS/ME were on people who were told that their minds were unconsciously manufacturing their symptoms because they wanted to get out of a hectic work life, and called it “yuppie flu.” It happens with purely neurological things, also; it used to be widely believed that autism was symbolic of “withdrawing into yourself” due to child abuse or neglect. So it’s… nasty but also in some ways unsurprising that people would try to interpret vaginismus along the same lines.

This is really happened. But just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not real. Not every bodily phenomenon has to have a deep symbolic meaning behind it… Sometimes things just happen.

So when someone insists that sexual dysfunction is a purely social construct with no medical validity, that is getting stacked on top of a long history of denying the validity of many chronic conditions and disabilities – some of which disproportionately effect women, and which may overlap with sexual dysfunction. I don’t see what’s so new & revolutionary about that.

It’s an act of erasure when someone who is not me, who doesn’t even know me, declares, “You don’t have FSD because it isn’t real.” Oh no; this is quite real. And I’ve worked really hard to accept and incorporate sexual dysfunction into my identity. It’s part of who I am, it will follow me into any future relationships I may have, and to embrace that was not a decision made lightly. But still I must be all wrong; I’m not dysfunctional… It must instead be the case that I am foolish, gullible and brainwashed. Snap out of it. Now isn’t that so much better than having something wrong with you?

But wait!

There’s widespread controversy about sexual dysfunction, yet even among sex therapists, there is not a unified agreement on what is and isn’t sexual dysfunction, whether or not it’s a valid terminology, and when/whether medical intervention should be acceptable. There are some sex therapists out there who accept the validity of sexual dysfunction and who would not rule out medical treatments.

For example here’s Dr. Marty Klein on anti-flibanserin activism:

It’s accurate, of course, to say that there isn’t a single level of desire that’s “normal.” But women who experience dramatic drops in their desire know there’s something wrong. And isn’t it obvious that one definition of “healthy adult” is the experience of sexual desire when the conditions are right?

Millions of women (and their partners) know their lack of sexual desire causes suffering. Whether taking a drug is the best treatment for any woman isn’t the point. Dismissing B-I’s drug and its marketing as “disease mongering” is terribly disrespectful to the many women who struggle with low desire.

You may know Dr. Klein as a Ph.D., sex therapist, as the blogger behind Sexual Intelligence, and as the author of several books about sexuality. So he’s been working at sex education and therapy for literally decades. Yet after everything he’s seen, after raising his own questions about the validity of certain diagnoses such as sexual addiction, still, he acknowledges the importance of potential treatments for low libido types of sexual dysfunctions.

Still don’t believe me when I say that there’s disagreement among sex therapists about what constitutes sexual dysfunction? Here’s another well-known sex educator, Dr. Carol Queen, on nomenclature, in response to a reader query:

Question: Hello. I am twenty years old and unfortunately suffer from sexual dysfunction. Before seeing your blog on Good Vibration’s website I had no idea this was an issue with other woman. I was wondering if you knew where I can find help, any kind of help with this issue. I didn’t know there were people who studied this or that I could talk to. So if you can, please help me out. Thank you so much.

…it is really pretty common for young women to have sexual issues that might be called “dysfunctions.” Keep in mind that it is only a dysfunction if you are unhappy about it. If you have low libido, or have a hard time getting aroused, and you don’t have or want much sex and don’t feel troubled by this, it is simply the way you are, not a dysfunction. If, however, you are concerned about it, then that language might be appropriate.

…In short, unless you have really gone on a hunt to get good information, the schools and the culture have not made sure you learned enough about sex to have *good* sex. And this does not make YOU dysfunctional — if anything, it means our society is dysfunctional!

…So far I haven’t really said anything about sexual dysfunction itself; I’ll do that now. It’s possible that in spite of what I said above, you *do* have some sort of sexual dysfunction, but it’s likely that it is something that can be helped via knowledge. It’s not as likely that you need some sort of medication, which is good, because so far, the pharmacological remedies available to women to help us with our sexual problems are, at best, untested and insufficiently understood.

Emphasis mine. What’s this? Dissent among the ranks! Here, Queen explicitly recognizes that every once in awhile, sexual dysfunction is a valid and proper terminology. Unfortunately even when it is, there still aren’t a lot of medical options available for many sexual dysfunctions. Knowledge helps, but it only takes me so far. You may recognize Dr. Queen as a prolific author and editor of sexuality anthologies and she’s a sex-positive Ph. D., sexologist and activist – so like Dr. Klein, she has seen plenty of shit go down in the realms of sexuality and politics.

So these two sex therapists who are open to recognizing sexual dysfunction and treatments for it, aren’t at all fly-by-night therapists, or in the pockets of Big Pharma. These two have been around long enough to have seen the positive and negative effects of sexual medicine.

Humm… I guess that if you’re seeing a sex therapist for sexual dysfunction, how you’re treated, what language you’re allowed to use to describe your experience, how you’re allowed to identify and what options are made available to you are going to depend on who you’re talking to. I guess that’s why it’s so important to find a sex therapist who’s right for you if you choose to go that route.

Of course, I speak only for myself here. I’m comfortable with the term sexual dysfunction, but not every other woman with a sex problem is, (especially since not every little problem is the same thing as a dysfunction) and probably very few folks will embrace it, perhaps for some of the reasons enumerated by experts on the social construction model of sexual problems. Remember though, I do not claim to be an expert on the topic by any means; don’t have a Ph.D. or a journalist resume to flaunt (yet); I just blog so I don’t know everything. But I’ve come to terms with it – I’ve come to terms with the term. I’m starting to think that this binary vs. mode between the medical model and social construction is creating some messed up language on both sides.

5 Comments »

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  1. Hmm…I think I tend to refer to the biological issue (vestibulitis) as “dysfunction” when I talk about it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the term. I don’t find it to be upsetting. That particular part of my anatomy is not “functioning” correctly so that, to me, is a dysfunction. No?

    I’m not sure how I feel about it only being a dysfunction if I have a problem with it. It’s not a problem because I accept that there is one. It’s a problem because it is what it is, anatomy and chemistry gone awry.

    • That’s another way of looking at it, especially when it’s pain like from vestibulitis we’re talking about. Sexual pain screws up conversations about sexual dysfunction… a lot of the conversations & materials about FSD place the most focus on libido, arousal and/or orgasm problems, but overlook pain. At least that’s what I’ve noticed. So then what I see is professionals talking about how it’s inappropriate to use medical treatments for FSD but it’s like they forget that pain is a type of FSD. So if pressed for details then someone might concede somewheres along the line that yeah pain is probably biological and medication should be allowed for it… …but then I never know how I’m supposed to respond after just having read a lot of anti-medication sentiment before that.
      Like if I just read a 1000-word essay on how Big Pharma is meddling in how people view sex and sexuality and how we all need to be very cautious around the workings of Big Pharma, then how and why should I feel comfortable accepting medication even if it IS to manage pain????

      A problem with ‘function’ though is that since everybody is different, what is functional for one person may not be fully functional for another. Like having zero or low libido, there may be biology & chemistry involved there, but there’s times when it’s also due to other stuff going on in your life or it may actually be orientational. So I think that’s where the distress is supposed to separate differences in perspective out.

      But with pain, yeah I’ve seen agreement that pain is more acceptable as a dysfunction or as a biological phenomenon regardless of whether or not someone is disturbed by its presence.
      It’s just weird though. I don’t know 100% either.

      And I’m like, so then why isn’t the other stuff.

      • nothing like being late responding to your answer…sorry.

        Just my thoughts on some of the points you mentioned:

        I’ll start with the physical first since that’s the easiest. I think anything anyone claims to be out of the ordinary for them (in this case pain) should be examined by a doctor to determine the actual cause (or in the case of VVS what they speculate is the cause)and then the patient should have all possible treatment options presented to them, if that’s medication so be it. I don’t understand why medication is often immediately seen as something harmful. I’ve mentioned here before on discussions like this one that I’m frustrated with the pain AND the lack of libido and I’m totally open to testing a drug that’ll solve both things and make my life easier.

        On to the libido:
        I think, like Ettina said, it’s up to the individual to say they do/don’t have a dysfunction concerning their sex drive. I think it’s no different than dealing with physical pain/problems. If it’s out of the ordinary for you or from what you’re used to; it concerns you and you wanted it “fixed”, then seek medical evaluation to rule out possible biological causes first and go from there. If you want to call it a “dysfunction” call it a dysfunction. If that term is upsetting call it whatever makes you happy, or don’t call it anything at all. It’s just a label. You can use it to identify “something” or you can use it to identify yourself.

        I don’t think the medical community is over diagnosing women with sexual dysfunction. To be honest, I’m happy it’s recognizing it as a potential medical issue at all and not just chalking it up to “Well, you know, women just don’t like sex as much as men do.” I wish there were more doctors and researchers out there saying, “Let’s give this a shot.” Because there ARE people out there that DO want something feel better and who are frustrated with the lack of options to help them get where they want to be. And it’s not because the media tells them to, or because society tells them to, but because they want that for themselves.

        My last little bit here…I’m a reasonably healthy, young(ish) woman. All biological factors considered, I “should” have a libido. Years ago I DID have one, a strong one. I miss that. I want it back. I don’t care if the treatment requires me to be labeled as “dysfunctional”. It doesn’t mean “I’m” a dysfunctional person. It just means I need a little help, biological or psychological or whatever it takes. And I’m ‘ok’ with that.

  2. I’d say that low or absent libido isn’t a problem, but when you *want* to have & enjoy sex and you can’t, that’s a problem. (Or dyfunction, or whatever term you prefer.) I’m asexual – I have never felt any sexual desire in my life, and even masturbating feels no different from touching any other body part. This is not a problem, it’s just the way I am. I can live a full and happy life without ever losing my virginity, because I don’t have those desires.

  3. [...] First, K at Feminists with Female Sexual dysfunction writes In Defense of Dysfunction. [...]


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