This article first appeared on The Online Citizen.
I was browsing through the October issue of an expat magazine recently when I chanced upon an article entitled, “Well-being and Sex”. Intrigued, I read the piece, only to come upon the sexual terms: ‘sexual transmitted diseases’, ‘impotence’ and ‘frigidity’. The author is obviously not a sexologist because these terms are passé.
In the same week, a client asked why I used the term ‘STI’ to refer to ‘sexually transmitted infections’ instead of STD. I have also dealt with journalists who have on occasions admitted that they were unfamiliar with the terms I used. Hence, I thought this is a good time to address how sexual terms have evolved with time.
Use “STI” not “STD”
Before the term “sexual transmitted disease” (STD) was used, all diseases related to the genitals were called “venereal disease” (VD). “Social disease” was another euphemism. In recent years, the term “sexually transmitted infections” (STIs) has been preferred, as it has a broader range of meaning; a person may be infected, and may potentially infect others, without showing any signs or symptoms of disease.
Also, not all STIs are transmitted through sexual intercourse. Some STIs can also be transmitted via the use of drug needles after its use by an infected person, as well as through childbirth or breastfeeding. Sexually transmitted infections have been well known for hundreds of years. “Infection” is a more encompassing word, in that it can also refer to a germ: be it a virus, bacterium, or parasite, that can cause disease or sickness in a person’s body – whether with or without symptoms. On the other hand, a disease means that the infection is actually causing the infected person to feel sick, or to notice something is wrong. For this reason, the term STI is a much broader term than STD.
Say “Erectile concerns”, not “Impotence”
The word “impotence” is a venerable term that dates back to the fifteenth century. Its literal meaning is “powerlessness” and so it possesses obvious pejorative connotations. The advent of sildenafil (Viagra), which is the first oral medication approved by the USFDA for the treatment of impotence, popularized the more recent term “erectile dysfunction” (ED).
ED is actually a common men’s health problem characterized by the consistent inability to sustain an erection sufficient for sexual intercourse, or the inability to achieve ejaculation, or both. This problem can be occasional as well as periodical. The word “dysfunction” means “function incorrectly or abnormally”.
A sexologist, such as myself, would use the words “erectile concerns” or “erectile difficulties”, as they are much gentler on the ear. Clients who come before me are distressed as it is about their condition, and there is no need to stick the knife in by telling them they are “abnormal”. Most men will have erectile concerns or difficulties at some point in their lives.
Who are you calling ‘frigid’?
In the early versions of the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association), there were only two sexual dysfunctions listed: frigidity (for women) and impotence (for men). Since then, we know that there are more to the sexual difficulties a woman can experience than the failure to have vaginal orgasms.
As such, “female sexual dysfunction” is now the blanket term that replaces the word ‘frigidity’ when referring to the inability of a woman to function adequately in terms of sexual desire, sexual arousal, and/ or orgasm. The term ‘frigidity’ continues to be used but like ‘impotence’, it is seen as an insult or a derogatory term for women. As explained above, I might use the words ‘sexual issue’, ‘sexual concern’ or ‘sexual condition’ when speaking with a client because we all have them from time to time.
You might say sexual terms are just words. What difference do they make? Indeed it does not make that much of a difference to the sexologist who is expected to know them all and reflect only positivity and support during sessions. Yet it does to the person who has that sexual condition. Also knowing and keeping up to date with the sexual terms also means you have the vocabulary to communicate clearly what you intend when you wish to.
Surrounded by friends who were sexually inhibited and struck by dire lack of positive conversations around sex and sexuality in Singapore, Dr. Martha Tara Lee decided to take it upon herself to right this societal injustice in 2007. She set out to make a positive difference in embarking on her doctorate in human sexuality, then launching Eros Coaching in 2009. Today, she remains dedicated to working with individuals and couples who wish to lead self-actualised and pleasure-filled lives.
She also holds certificates in counselling, coaching and sex therapy, and is currently pursuing her fourth degree – a Masters in Counselling. In practice for more than seven years, she is the only certified sexuality educator by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) in Singapore.
Martha works with individuals and couples in private coaching sessions, and conducts her own workshops. She takes prides in making sure all her workshops are also fun, educational, and sex-positive. This comes easily to her because even though she is extremely dedicated and serious about her work, she fundamentally believes that sex is meant to be fun, wonderful, amazing and sacred. As such, this serious light-heartedness has shone through again and again. For her full profile, click here. Email her here.