views updated


Frigidity, also known as inhibited sexual desire (ISD), sexual apathy, or hypoactive sexual desire, is characterized by a decreased or nonexistent interest in sexual activity, lack of sexual fulfillment or satisfaction, difficulty reaching orgasm, insufficient lubrication in women, and inability to achieve or sustain erection in men. In European and North American medicine, ISD is considered a common sexual disorder. The most common causes are stress (and its associated problems, such as insomnia and digestive disorders), physical fatigue, and relationship problems wherein one partner does not feel emotionally supported by the other partner. Frigidity has also been known to be caused by, or associated with, a very restrictive upbringing concerning sex and religion, negative attitudes toward sex, or negative and traumatic sexual experiences, such as rape, incest, or childhood sexual abuse.


ISD may be a primary condition (where the individual, male or female, has never felt much sexual desire or interest) or secondary (where the individual at one time felt sexual desire but no longer has interest). In monogamous relationships, the situation also varies from partner to partner: An individual may have interest in other people sexually, but not toward the primary sexual partner. In men, impotence or erectile dysfunction can lead to sexual disinterest but are rarely defined as frigidity. In women the inability to attain orgasm during sexual activity is more commonly and historically known as frigidity. The term has more often been used to describe a woman's lack of sexual response to heterosexual, vaginal intercourse. According to Suzanne Laba Cataldi (1999), "the term frigidity covers a wide range of meanings—including lack in ardor or warmth; a marked aversion or abnormal indifference to sexuality; and a physical inability to attain orgasm. The word is, or was, usually applied to women" (p. 70).


In the 1950s and 1960s, especially in response to the 1953 publication of Alfred Kinsey and colleagues' Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, physicians turned closer attention to the sexual health of heterosexual marriages, and based that health, on normal female sexual behavior. The notion of the vaginal orgasm was instituted as a barometer for the sexual health of the female, as well as that of the married couple. Carolyn Herbst Lewis, in a 2005 study of premarital medical practices in post-World War II America, points out that physicians "asserted that just as a vaginal orgasm was integral to a woman's psychosexual health, the performance of a healthy heterosexual gender and sexual role—as evidenced by a satisfying sexual relationship—was crucial to the establishment and maintenance of a stable marriage" (p. 87). Lewis cites the rising rates of venereal disease and the increasing sexual permissiveness of the nation's youth as reasons for this concern about women's sexual health. Physicians and psychiatrists, following predominantly male studies of female health, instituted the premarital pelvic exam as a means by which to monitor and guide a woman's sexual growth away from the clitoral and toward the vaginal orgasm.

Influenced by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud's (1856–1939) theories of psychosexual development, physicians defined "healthy female sexuality by such factors as passive acceptance of male sexual direction, a soft and submissive femininity, and a self-sacrificial drive to motherhood. The vagina formed the epicenter of this heterosexuality" (Lewis 2005, p. 90). This emphasis on the vaginal orgasm, along with the primacy of "male sexual direction," inevitably created problems for women who were unable to have vaginal orgasms. These women were labeled frigid by their husbands, as well as by the medical field—even though they may have been able to have a clitoral orgasm.

The reason for this, according to Freudian theory, is that the clitoris was "the primary organ of sexual pleasure during childhood, but in puberty, and particularly with the approach of marriage, a healthy, mature woman transferred her focus to the vagina [as receiver for the penis]" (Lewis 2005, p. 90). If a woman was psychologically unable to make this transfer, then she was diagnosed as frigid. In the mid twentieth century, frigidity did not define only the absence of sexual desire; it defined inappropriate sexual desire, or sexual desire that did not depend on the penis. Lewis also point out that this

inappropriate sexual outlet was [linked to] inappropriate gender role behavior. In addition to her improper sexual performance, a frigid woman would display improper gender identifications as well…. This reflects the physicians' assumption that lesbians, as psychosexually maladjusted women, would rely on clitoral stimulation rather than vaginal penetration in their lovemaking.

                              (pp. 90, 96-97)

Cataldi's analysis of frigidity, also focusing on the mid twentieth century, is specific to her research on the work of Simone de Beauvoir, the twentieth-century feminist novelist who published The Second Sex (1949), a groundbreaking analysis that expresses Beauvoir's views on female eroticism and socially prescribed roles in European and American culture. Cataldi's analysis reveals that Beauvoir viewed frigidity as a "symbolic use that women may make of their bodies" (1999, p. 70). As a powerful bodily statement, female frigidity could, according to Beauvoir, be caused by "shame of bodily appearance … resentment of male power and privilege … fear of pregnancy … repugnance at the idea of treating, or having one's body treated, as a thing … the 'humiliation of lying beneath a man'… hygienic procedure [such as the pelvic exam]" (p. 71). Cataldi supports Beauvoir's argument that women, as an oppressed group, have few options other than to use their bodies as weapons or places of refuge.

Physicians saw the premarital pelvic exam of the 1950s and 1960s as a way for women to deal with their fear of penetration. Upon such an invasion to the body, under such pretenses, it would be understandable, according to Cataldi's argument, for a woman to experience an absence of sexual desire. In fact, "resentment over patriarchal injustices and constraints is the most common source of frigidity in women, according to Beauvoir" (p. 71). In order not to be accused of being frigid, because the word connotes such strongly negative qualities—coldness, death, stiffness, lifelessness—some women resort to faking orgasm. Faking it also allows a woman to get it over with, although at the same time it silences any dialogue she might have about the myth of the vaginal orgasm. It also forces her to subvert and distance herself from what may be her true sexual epicenter, the clitoral orgasm, which has been feared and decried by the male medical community. Cataldi contends that "Beauvoir contributes to the literature on this topic a social and historical approach lacking in the clinician's vision" (p. 80).

At the end of the twentieth century, studies based on classifications in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV showed sexual dysfunction as being more prevalent for women (43%) than for men (31%). Studies done since the 1950s and 1960s address this issue (no longer so commonly referred to as frigidity) as a problem that has many possible causes and cures for both men and women, in hetero- as well as homosexual relationships.

see also Anorgasmic; Orgasm.


American Psychiatric Association. 2000. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th edition, text revision. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Beauvoir, Simone de. 1993. The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf. (Orig. pub. 1953.)

Cataldi, Suzanne Laba. 1999. "Sexuality Situated: Beauvoir on 'Frigidity.'" Hypatia 14(4): 70-82.

Hirsch, Edwin W. 1966. Impotence and Frigidity. New York: Citadel Press.

Hitschmann, Eduard, and Edmund Bergler. 1936. Frigidity in Women: Its Characteristics and Treatment, trans. Polly Leeds Weil. Washington, DC: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing.

Hoberman, John. 2005. Testosterone Dreams: Rejuvenation, Aphrodisia, Doping. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kinsey, Alfred C.; Wardell B. Pomeroy; Clyde E. Martin; and the Staff of the Institute for Sex Research. 1953. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Lewis, Carolyn Herbst. 2005. "Waking Sleeping Beauty: The Premarital Pelvic Exam and Heterosexuality during the Cold War." Journal of Women's History 17(4): 86-110.

Paludi, Michele A. 2002. The Psychology of Women. 2nd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Rich, Adrienne. 2003. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Journal of Women's History 15(3): 11-48. (Orig. pub. 1980.)

                                                  Amy Nolan