Sociologist Encourages Scientists to Examine the Social Factors that Influence Women’s Desire

SIUE Sociology professor Alyson K. Spurgas acknowledges the importance of experimental psychology research on sexual dysfunction in women.

Sociology professor Alyson Spurgas hopes to publish a book on her research by 2018. (photo courtesy of Spurgas)

Sociology professor Alyson Spurgas hopes to publish a book on her research by 2018. (photo courtesy of Spurgas)

However, she would like to challenge researchers to dig deeper for more complex explanations for women’s desire troubles. Contemporary research and discourses on female sexual dysfunction suggest that women tend to have a mental disconnect from their physiological response to sexual stimulation, and many researchers frame this in biological terms.

Dr. Spurgas wrote a critical piece titled “Low desire, trauma and femininity in the DSM-5 [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition]” which was published in the January 2016 issue of Psychology & Sexuality.

In this piece, Dr. Spurgas challenges the notion of a neurobiological feminine “disconnect” by encouraging researchers to examine women’s social and sexual histories in order to gain a greater understanding of why their sexual responses sometimes differ from men’s. Spurgas questions current research which indicates that women naturally experience a separation from their physiological response, as researchers often neglect to consider the effects of women’s life experiences on their sexual desire. These experiences could include trauma and sexual abuse. Spurgas used qualitative sociological research with women who experience low desire and discussed the limitations of the current DSM-5 diagnoses.

“I argue that it’s giving women a diagnosis of low desire when in many cases they should actually receive the diagnosis of PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder],” Spurgas said. “Currently, the diagnoses are kind of held apart. Clinicians who are evaluating women should evaluate them with [PTSD] criteria to see if they fit into the trauma category before they put them in the low desire category.”

Spurgas said many of the clinical studies examine a limited number of participants in a laboratory setting and may not paint an accurate picture of how women experience sex. This type of experimental psychology research often utilizes a small sample size and the findings should not be used to generalize all women. The sociology professor said she would like to learn first if men and women truly experience sex differently. If that is shown to be the case, she would like researchers to start thinking about social factors that affect how women experience sex, and why that might be different from men’s experiences.

“If women have this experience, we want to challenge ourselves,” Spurgas said. “And challenge the idea that it’s just because of biology or that we’re just ‘born that way.’ I do want to challenge that because I’m a sociologist and I believe that sexuality is very complicated and that it’s a social issue. I believe that it’s biological insofar as it involves our bodies. But I believe that it’s very social in that it’s influenced by things like gender norms.”

Spurgas began her research on the topic as a Ph.D. student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. During her dissertation research, Spurgas interviewed 37 women who identified as having low desire. During the study, it was revealed that most of the participants had also experienced some form of gender-based or sexual trauma. Spurgas concluded the trauma the women experienced did bear significant impact on their sexual experiences.

In November, Spurgas presented her research at the National Women’s Studies Association Annual Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and discussed her forthcoming article “Ecstatic Therapies, Affective Treatments: Sexuality, Governance, and the Management of Low Female Desire.”

Last summer, Spurgas organized a workshop at Box, a community-based sex education and resource center in St. Louis, and this past October, Dr. Spurgas presented a lecture titled “Interest, Arousal, and Shifting Diagnoses of Female Sexual Dysfunction: The Feminization of Low Desire” as part of the Women’s Studies Speaker Series at SIUE.

Spurgas eventually plans to publish a book on her research. She is currently working on a book proposal and hopes to publish by late 2017 or early 2018. She is also preparing a new presentation for the fall.


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