Doctors debate dyspareunia part 2: Is pain the only valid FSD?

08/17/2011 at 9:51 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Previously on Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction…

Many folks who experience sexual and/or genital pain share the experience of getting bounced around from doctor to doctor when seeking satisfactory resolution to their problems. In a recent post on this blog, I explored one of the many reasons the doctor shuffle occurs: there’s no definitive class of doctor designated to handle sexual & genital pain. And behind the scenes, doctors themselves are debating what medical specialty is best prepared to address this type of problem.

In 2005, a peer-reviewed journal published an article by Dr. Yitzchak M. Binik, Ph.D. His idea was to start a serious debate on how best to handle dyspareunia (painful sex.) Currently, under the DSM-IV, dyspareunia is classified as a sexual dysfunction. When the DSM-V revision comes out, it is likely to be kept there (though under a different name, genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder.)

Dr. Binik made some compelling arguments in favor of of changing the classification of sexual and genital pain from a DSM-recognized sexual dysfunction to a pain disorder. But his position was controversial, and generated many professional responses against making the switch.

One such published response came from Dr. Leonore Tiefer, a feminist sexologist, author, college professor and organizer behind the New View Campaign, an organization opposed to the medicalization of sex, with a particular focus on the role of Big Pharma. I have read and reviewed some of Dr. Tiefer’s previous work on this blog, bringing to it my own unique perspective as someone who actually has FSD.

Unfortunately this time I won’t be able share the full ~2 page text of Dr. Tiefer’s response, Dyspareunia is the only valid sexual dysfunction and certainly the only important one, because it’s locked down behind an academic firewall. I think I can share a summary of what’s in it (with my own commentary,) but unless you’re enrolled at a school with journal access, you’ll have to take my word on good faith.

Dr. Tiefer’s disagreement with Binik’s reclassification argument focused exclusively on one argument: Nomenclature; the power of names. It’s a familiar theme in Tiefer’s earlier work – language is a powerful tool capable not only of reflecting reality, but of shaping it. And Dr. Tiefer has serious concerns about the language used to describe sexual problems in particular. In light of this, I was surprised to find that in her response to Dr. Binik’s article, Dr. Tiefer argued in favor of keeping dyspareunia classified as a sexual dysfunction instead of a treating it as a pain problem – At least, so long as such terminology is used by the American Psychiatric Association.

Dr. Tiefer starts her article by describing the origins and goals of the New View Campaign. One of Tiefer’s criticisms of female sexual dysfunction is that it’s based on the idea of deviations from a “Normal,” universal sexuality, but normal is arbitrarily defined and doesn’t account for all of the human population. In this case, the “Normal” sexual response cycle was defined by Masters & Johnsons’ work – the four-phase model that goes, excitement, arousal, orgasm and resolution. Sex doesn’t work that way for everyone, and so over the last few years – decades at this point – she has challenged the medicalization of sex, with a particular interest in libido and orgasm.

“My criticisms have, however, focused on the universalized notions of desire, arousal and orgasm in dysfunction nomenclature, and not on the inclusion of dyspareunia and sexual pain. Immersed in the feminist literature on women’s health, I was more than aware of the disgraceful history of neglect and mishandling of women’s complaints of pelvic pain and thus it seemed that dyspareunia was the only sexual dysfunction with validity in women’s lives (50, emphasis mine.)

(And that’s where the title of the article comes from. I don’t know whether Dr. Tiefer picked the name out herself, or if some editor arbitrarily decided it, but we have the same sentiment reflected in the body of the text.)

However, when criticizing female sexual dysfunction, Dr. Tiefer has in the past included pain. It’s true that she doesn’t talk about it much, relative to her body of work on orgasm and desire. But in the past she has let pain stay under the broad umbrella of the term, “Sexual dysfunction,” complete with scare quotes:

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. 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.

In the New View manifesto, Dr. Tiefer kept sexual pain disorders lumped with all the other dysfunctions that merit feminist skepticism and critique. Feminist critique, such as the perspective that DSM criteria for dysfunctions (including pain) are excessively genitally, and therefore reproductively, focused (Sex is not a Natural Act, location 737.) However in 2005 we see support for leaving dyspareunia behind, as the only valid sexual dysfunction.

Dr. Tiefer’s quote about the importance of dyspareunia as dysfunction is problematic for additional reasons: The implication here is that no other sexual dysfunctions recognized in the DSM have any merit as a health problem. That’s a key point of the New View Campaign: Desire, arousal, and orgasm problems may not be problems at all, and when they are, the problems can be addressed with lifestyle and social change instead of medicine. But here I interpret the idea that pain is a sexual dysfunction, and the only valid one, as maintaining a sexual dysfunction hierarchy. It elevates physical pain above all others. My problem matters; yours doesn’t. My physical pain is real, your emotional or psychological pain isn’t.

So what does this mean for folks who have one of the less-important, invalid dysfunctions? To whom can they turn when they have exhausted virtually all of the non-medical interventions for long-term sex problems?

Dr. Tiefer then briefly expands on some implications of Masters and Johnson’s work. In the next section of her response, she describes an alternate, benevolent way of looking at the inclusion of sexual dysfunction in the DSM: Recognizingsexual problems as health and medical problems legitimizes such problems in the public’s eye. Suddenly, sexual problems are no longer just about sex, which (according to vocal conservatives anyway) is dirty and wrong and immoral – sexual problems are now about the body and health, which is (relatively) socially and politically acceptable to talk about. “Looked at from this perspective, the inclusion of women’s problems with sexual pain in the sexual dysfunction classification system was a positive step” (50,) because then the ISSVD and NVA can harness that legitimacy for raising awareness and research funding.

It strikes me as odd that Dr. Tiefer mentions the NVA and ISSVD by name as working for the benefit of patients with pelvic pain problems. Not because I have any question that both organizations do good for the public, but because in Sex is not a Natural Act, Dr. Tiefer had this to say about patient advocacy organizations:

These advocates for medicalization include self-help group and newsletter promoters who have created a market by portraying themselves as something between consumers and professionals. The formation of Impotents Anonymous (IA), which is both a urologists’ advocacy group and a self-help group, was announced in the New York Times in an article including cost and availability information on penile implants. (Organization helps couples with impotence as problem 1984.) … The advocates for medicalization portray sexuality in a rational, technical, mechanical, cheerful way. Sexuality as an area for the imagination, for political struggle, or for the expression of diverse human motives or as a sensual, intimate, or spiritual rather than performative experience is absent (locations 2277-2282.)

Basically, according to Dr. Tiefer, patient advocacy groups – at least those for erectile dysfunction – existed partly in order to sell sexual health problems, to promote a select few doctors qualified to treat the problems, and then to sell medical treatments for big bucks. In these earlier statements, Dr. Tiefer made it sound like patient advocacy groups were just part of the packaging that came with so-called selling sexual dysfunction. In fact, the formation of patient advocacy groups is one piece of what motivated Dr. Tiefer to organize the New View Campaign in the first place:

This backlash dovetails with the analysis and critique of “medicalization” over the past several decades within sociology, the women’s health movement, the “anti-psychiatry” movement, and newly, from cultural historians examining the social construction of illness and disease. All these scholars argue that the medical model, with its hallmark elements of mind-body dualism, universalism, individualism, and biological reduction, is not well suited to many of the challenges of contemporary life and suffering.

Yet, at the same time, patient advocacy groups are clamoring for medical legitimacy, increased funding and research, and, above all, new drug treatments. And the drug industry continues to expand.

Allying with the backlash, I convened a “Campaign for a new view fo women’s sexual problems” in 2000 to provide a feminist anti-medicalization perspective in the debate about “female sexual dysfunction” (location 3550.)

Given these prior statements on patient advoacy groups, I’m surprised that Dr. Tiefer didn’t skewer genital & sexual pelvic pain advocacy groups in her 2005 response to Dr. Binik.

Furthermore, by classifying dyspareunia as a sexual dysfunction, isn’t dyspareunia and its treatment subject to the same criticisms that Dr. Tiefer has previously made about sexual dysfunction and Big Pharma broadly? I’ve seen the rhetoric used by the New View used (and unfortunately warped) in feminist arguments against sexual medicine. And let me show you, it can get real ugly real fast. Leaving sexual pain as a sexual dysfunction might lend medical and social legitimacy, but not when you do everything you can to undermine the legitimacy of sexual dysfunction broadly and stigmatize those who experience it.

This post is getting way too long, so we’re going to stop abruptly here and come back after you’ve had a few days to digest our story so far. To be continued…

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3 Comments »

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  1. […] think painful sex is best looked at as a pain problem or as a sex problem. Read part 1 here, and part 2 there. Stay tuned for the thrilling […]

  2. […] or as a sex problem. To catch up with this blog’s review of the debate, read part 1 here, part 2 there, and part 3 […]

  3. […] It occupies a unique place in that it’s a hot potato no one knows wtf to do with. 5. Doctors debate dyspareunia part 2: is pain the only valid FSD?: Start of a 2-part series within a bigger series in which I take a more detailed look at that […]


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