- Frigidity at the Fin de Siècle in France:A Slippery and Capacious Concept
To take feminine sexual "frigidity" as an object of study across the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries is not just a historically demanding task but a conceptually challenging endeavor. The terms froideur (coldness) and frigidité (frigidity) in French literary texts, medical treatises, and psychoanalytic writing were, by contrast with the imagined sexual organs of the female subjects identified in these terms, remarkably slippery. This article will not attempt to trace that long history in detail but will take cognizance of it while examining one of its key moments. Our focus here will be on the construction of feminine frigidity in French texts at the turn of the twentieth century as exemplified by the work of the popular medical writer Jean Fauconney (also known as Caufeynon or Dr. Jaf).
Eighteenth-century libertine writing had been inclined to consider female coldness as a matter of natural temperament, thereby defining a whole class of reserved or unresponsive women without reference to any notion of disorder.1 It was not until the mid- to late nineteenth century, in fact, that a pathologized notion of female frigidity came into regular usage. The late nineteenth century had a range of pertinent notions at its disposal. Sexual coldness in women could be envisaged as a sign of the natural lack of sexual agency in women generally. Or it could be associated variously with sterility, with a humoral predisposition, with a sickly constitution. Indeed, all of these various accounts of it can be found in the work of Fauconney alone. Yet by the turn of the century medical and literary talk about frigidity increasingly constructed it as an aberrant behavior: a physiological disorder like male impotence or sterility or a perversion like nymphomania or lesbianism. By the period between the two world wars and after psychoanalytic definitions had constructed frigidity as a failure of penetrative receptivity in heterosexual vaginal coitus. That failure was attributed to an excess of "phallic" clitoral desire and was thus bound to failures of gender differentiation and feminine [End Page 243] sexual maturity.2 In this article, rather than focusing on the more abundant discussion of frigidity that took place in the interwar and World War Two periods, we intend to dwell on the period at the turn of the century when the term first began to appear and when a genealogy of the concept is still discernible in all its complication.
The messiness of fin-de-siècle notions of frigidity, the very thing that has made them such unappealing sources for historians of sexuality, is considered here as a symptom of equivocation and transition between classical libertine coldness and modern phallic clitoridism. Fin de siècle texts, in contrast to later ones, still maintained the notion that women were only mildly sexual in the first place and sought to combine that with the notion of an aberrant feminine frigidity. It is intriguing that the word frigidity and its various equivalents became widely used in European languages, as we shall shortly indicate, at a time when the sexual nature of females was imagined to be naturally cool and requiring an infusion of natural heat from males to bring about normal relations. So here is a paradox: how could a gender that was naturally sexless be deemed pathologically so? There was a kind of constituent ambiguity, in fact, in the notion of "frigidity" that tended to encompass sterile women, women who did not desire sex of any kind with their husbands, women who experienced no orgasmic pleasure, women who had been sexually traumatized, women who desired no sex at all, women who desired no sex with men, and women who resisted or disliked penetration. The oeuvre of Jean Fauconney allows us to see that this multiplicity was not merely brought about by a lack of consensus, since all the possible definitions of the frigid woman described above are present in Fauconney's own accounts, frequently within the same text and sometimes even in the same paragraph. One could conclude from this variation that Fauconney's ideas about female sexuality lacked coherence. But we...