An "Elusive" Phenomenon: The "Normal" Female Sex Drive

An "Elusive" Phenomenon: The "Normal" Female Sex Drive

Kirsten Leng

Beginning in the 1880s, inspired in particular by feminists’ challenges to the state regulation of prostitution, female sexuality became the subject of widespread scientific, social, and political interest as part of the broader “Woman Question.” Reflecting the influence of Darwinian evolution and psychiatry, these investigations centered on the female sex drive, alternately referred to as a sex instinct, sex need, sex impulse, sex feeling, and libido. This project examined how German-speaking and British feminists engaged sexual science to reveal the true "nature" of female sex drive. The focus in particular was on the writings of Johanna Elberskirchen, Henriette Fürth, Ruth Bre, Grete Meisel-Hess, Jane Hume Clapperton, Olive Schreiner, and Stella Browne. Through their attempts to define the "true nature" of the female sex drive, these feminists sought to establish a norm around which sex life could be more rationally and justly organized. Specifically, these feminists sought to establish as normal a new female sexual subjectivity: that of the sexually autonomous woman who had a “biological right” to engage in personally enriching (hetero)sexual experiences.

However, these feminists’ attempts to scientifically establish a new norm for the female sex drive raised more questions than it resolved. Their definition of the female sex drive provoked considerable internal debate among both German-speaking and British feminists, and exacerbated existing conflicts regarding what constituted "feminist" sexual politics. Ultimately, feminists’ definitions of, and debates surrounding, the female sex drive illuminate both the potential and problems involved in engaging scientific theories and evidence for "first wave" feminist sexual politics.