Circuits of Desire: Science, Therapy, Trauma, Femininity


In this dissertation, I utilize feminist poststructuralism, affect theory, psychoanalytic theory, and sociological critiques of medicalization and biopolitical/biocapitalist investment in bodies to analyze the diagnosis and lived experience of low sexual desire in women. In the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), two different low desire diagnoses are included: one for men (Male Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder), and one for women (Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder). This is a change from previous manuals, in which low-desiring men and women were both diagnosed with gender-neutral HSDD. I track the genealogy of gender differentiation in diagnostic patterns, examining historical configurations of diagnosably low desire from the early 20th century through to the present day. I also analyze how gender differences in sexual behavior and desire patterns are presented within other medical and popular discourses--focusing specifically on current configurations of masculinity and femininity within neuroscience, cognitive behavioral therapy, and evolutionary and experimental psychology--and I examine how these prolific discourses are used to support the gendering of the newest low desire diagnoses via an alternative female sexual response model. I utilize content analysis and critical discourse analysis to examine the linguistic and discursive shifts, participant observation to examine how masculine and feminine desire are presented in a variety of medical and alternative therapeutic spaces, and in-depth interviews to assess the impact of these discourses on women who identify as low-desiring. Findings include that some low-desiring women feel that they have been socialized to experience their femininity as more receptive and responsive than masculine sexuality and that this is also associated with a broader set of gendered expectations in regard to sexual behavioral patterns; that many low-desiring women begin to incorporate embodied, affective, invisible labor in the form of sexual carework into their sexual and relational repertoires from a young age; and that some low-desiring women feel that they must carefully navigate and negotiate sex--specifically sex with men--in order to enjoy it and receive pleasure, and to feel consenting rather than coerced, in the face of a common and widespread experience of feminized trauma

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City University of New York

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This paper was published in City University of New York.

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