Sexual Dysfunction History

The medicalization of sexuality has displaced older beliefs in the noxious influence of guilt, sin, bad habits or evil spells to sexual function in both men and women, but such perspectives still linger to this day. Biomedical reasoning is in fact just one layer that is added to the pile of arguments used to explain sexual dysfunction and dissatisfaction.

viagraIn the present-day, pills can treat sexual dysfunction. Image Credit: Yuriy Maksymiv /

Sexual dysfunction in men

In present-day societies, it is of utter most importance to maintain an acceptable level of male sexual function. Although a group of sexual dysfunction in men encompasses ejaculation disorders and low libido, erectile dysfunction (defined as the inability to keep an erection) was definitely the biggest problem throughout history until modern times.

In Greek and Roman understanding of sexuality, penetration was a proof of manhood and a prerequisite for a good reputation. Thus, doctors of the affected provided recipes for restorative agents, while bawdy authors wrote comic stories of men who failed the crucial test.

During the 18th century, philosophers embraced the notion of men and women inhabiting distinct sexual spheres while attempting to counter, cure and explain male sexual dysfunction. On the other hand, the nineteenth-century culture that insisted on privacy found discussion of such problems distasteful, although this important issue could not be ignored.

Throughout that period, the authors of marriage manuals for the middle class popularized the theory of “spermatic economy” in which excesses led to a loss of manly vigor and stamina, which can ultimately result in impotence. The dangers of masturbation, prostitution, spermatorrhea and sexually-transmitted diseases were also highlighted.

There was a shift from moral to psychological explanations of male sexual dysfunction in the early 20th century. The rise of the field of endocrinology in the 1920s legitimized the scientific study of the reproductive system in men, and after World War II impotence was declared a problem for both men and women.

Many historians claim that Viagra (sildenafil) has completely trumped psychoanalysis, sex therapy and even surgery. It was the first oral treatment for erectile dysfunction which was developed at Pfizer Laboratories practically by accident and approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1998. The question still remains as to whether the impotence pills that followed truly revolutionized sexuality.

The Rise and Fall of Erectile Dysfunction | Ven Virah | TEDxUnionville

Sexual dysfunction in women

Although the term “female sexual dysfunction” was a fairly recent introduction to the medical literature, the recognition of this type of problem reaches further back. Even in the 16th century, the diagnosis of nymphomania was not uncommon, and a significant increase in the number of women with this condition was observed in the Victorian era.

The intertwined development of sexology and psychiatry at the end of the 19th century led to the rise of new theories of sexual dysfunction. Based on Freud’s pronouncements, certain sexual dysfunctions (such as the failure of achieving vaginal orgasm) were regarded as foundations of “frigidity” (most notably in the works of Hitschmann and Bergler).

Marital advice literature that accentuated the significance of sexual pleasure in marriage proliferated in the UK and the United States in the early years of the 20th century. Sexual dysfunction in women was seen as technical issue that was part of a wider social phenomenon, and that has to be resolved by education considering the profound emotional, physical and spiritual differences between women and men.

First edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (DSM) in 1952 classified problems such as frigidity to a separate category of “Psychophysiological autonomic and visceral disorders”. The second edition published in 1968 was similar, though it added dyspareunia to the list.

Significant changes were seen only in the third edition of DSM issued in 1980, where a shift from psychoanalytic to biological psychiatry can be observed. In place of separate categories for psychophysiological genitourinary disorders and sexual deviations, an umbrella chapter on psychosexual disorders had been introduced.

On the whole, female sexual dysfunction has been considered a generic or descriptive term (rather than diagnostic) throughout history. Still, treatment was sought as if it was a true monocausal condition, despite the fact that it was constituted of different diagnostic categories. The social aspects of sexuality and the potential for resolving sexual dysfunction have been extensively covered in medical literature of the 20th and 21th century.


Further Reading

Last Updated: Dec 2, 2022

Dr. Tomislav Meštrović

Written by

Dr. Tomislav Meštrović

Dr. Tomislav Meštrović is a medical doctor (MD) with a Ph.D. in biomedical and health sciences, specialist in the field of clinical microbiology, and an Assistant Professor at Croatia's youngest university - University North. In addition to his interest in clinical, research and lecturing activities, his immense passion for medical writing and scientific communication goes back to his student days. He enjoys contributing back to the community. In his spare time, Tomislav is a movie buff and an avid traveler.


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