Winner of the 2021 Cultural Studies Association First Book Prize
“Elegantly written … Spurgas’s book expands the cultural studies repertoire of sharp conjunctural analysis, specifying the role that neoliberalism, biopolitics, and conceptions of sex, gender, and whiteness play in rendering contemporary feminine sexuality.” —Judges’ citation, 2021 Cultural Studies Association First Book Prize
“[As a] a timely and critical contribution to social studies of sexology and trauma, and to feminist science and technology studies more broadly, Diagnosing Desire demonstrates how feminist scholars across the disciplinary spectrum can engage in radically empathetic work in an approachable and appealing way.” —Sophie Webb, Lateral: Journal of the Cultural Studies Association
“Diagnosing Desire is a compelling feminist engagement with the science of sexuality. Nothing is spared in this powerful critique—from plethysmographs to mindfulness therapies, Spurgas identifies the governance technologies that render women’s sexuality unfathomable and that modulate their desires within a framework of receptivity. This book makes substantial and vital contributions to discussions of (feminized) trauma; power, gender, and sexuality; consent and coercion; and gendered labor and carework.” —Christine Labuski, author of It Hurts Down There: The Bodily Imaginaries of Female Genital Pain
“Diagnosing Desire is a very provocative, critical, and strongly argued book, which goes beyond a discussion of women’s sexual disorders to explore the anthropological, historical, and ontological dimensions of desire and gender.” —Alain Giami, editor of Sexual Revolutions
In Diagnosing Desire: Biopolitics and Femininity into the Twenty-First Century, Alyson K. Spurgas examines the “new science of female sexuality” from a critical, sociological perspective, considering how today’s feminist-identified sex researchers study and manage women with low desire. Diagnosing Desire investigates experimental sex research that measures the disconnect between subjective and genital female arousal, contemporary psychiatric diagnoses for low female desire, new models for understanding women’s sexual response, and cutting-edge treatments for low desire in women—including from the realms of mindfulness and alternative healing.
Spurgas makes the case that, together, all of these technologies create a “feminized responsive desire framework” for understanding women’s sexuality, and that this, in fact, produces women’s sexuality as a complex problem to be solved. The biggest problem, Spurgas argues, is that gendered and sexualized trauma—including as it is produced within technoscientific medicine itself—is too often ignored in contemporary renderings. Through incisive textual analysis and in-depth qualitative research based on interviews with women with low desire, Spurgas argues for a more radical and communal form of care for feminized—and traumatized—populations, in opposition to biopolitical mandates to individualize and neoliberalize forms of self-care. Ultimately, this is a book not just about a specific diagnosis or dysfunction but about the material-discursive regimes that produce and regulate femininity.
Alyson K. Spurgas is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
Author photo: Christian Rutledge
Introduction Diagnosing Gender through Desire: How You Know You’re in Bed with a Woman
Chapter 1 Sexual Difference and Femininity in Sex Therapy and Sex Research: Examples from the Nineteenth, Twentieth, and Twenty-First Centuries
Chapter 2 Interest, Arousal, and Motivation in Contemporary Sexology: The Feminization of Responsive Desire
Chapter 3 Women-with-Low-Desire: Navigating and Negotiating Sexual Difference Socialization
Chapter 4 Embodied Invisible Labor, Sexual Carework: The Cultural Logic and Affective Valorization of Responsive Female Desire
Chapter 5 Reclaiming Receptivity: Parasexual Pleasure in the Face of Compulsory and Feminized Trauma
Conclusion The Freedom to Fall Apart: Feminine Fracturing and the Affective Production of Gendered Populations