My first book, Diagnosing Desire: Biopolitics and Femininity into the Twenty-First Century, was published with The Ohio State University Press in October 2020. It’s the third book in Scott Herring’s “Abnormativities: Queer/Gender/Embodiment” series.
Diagnosing Desire won the First Book Prize from the Cultural Studies Association in 2021.
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FROM THE PRESS:
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.
In Diagnosing Desire, I also interrogate the white liberal and cultural feminism that is foundational to what I call the feminized responsive desire framework within contemporary experimental sex research, self-help sex therapy, behaviorist models of receptive feminine arousal (including as they are embedded in the new low female desire diagnosis in the DSM-5), and anti-medicalization activism—I argue that this framework is not only heteronormative, but also cisnormative, bourgeois, and whitewashed. These aspects tend to fly below the radar, however, as this approach to women’s sexuality operates under the sign of contemporary “feminism”—and thus the framework is posited (and interpreted) as unquestionably beneficial for women. Critically intervening in this discourse, I show how hidden assumptions about white feminine receptivity are actually part of this broader liberal feminist project today—including as it is deployed through so-called “female-friendly” science, medicine, and sex therapy. Finally, I illuminate the damage this does or could potentially do (including to those who are not white, cis, straight, receptive, and/or feminine). Receptivity is assumed to be typical of “women,” but the discourses surrounding it in fact produce (cis, straight, white, and receptive) feminized populations—and delimit people’s sex lives.
“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.”
— Cultural Studies Association 2021 First Book Prize Awards Committee
“[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, book review for Lateral
“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