Asexual Epidemics, Detectives and Spinsters: the construction of pathological asexuality in Victorian fiction

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sci



My thesis will interrogate the development of the concept of asexuality in Victorian literature, culture and medicine. The medical discourse of the age constructed a pathologized understanding of asexuality, diagnosing individuals lacking sexual drives with frigidity. I will consider Dr Simpson's 1834 lecture on frigidity as the onset of the development of cultural anxieties regarding frigidity, investigating their growing presence until their apex at the fin de siècle. As my research will evidence, this concern with sexual coldness is traceable within British fiction, with nineteenth-century fiction employing vocabulary drawn from medical texts on frigidity. By considering the relationship between fiction and medicine as reciprocal, I will also argue that Victorian character construction created a gendered stereotype of the frigid persona that still affects contemporary sexological studies.

My research stems from a recent call to normalise asexuality as a sexual orientation, and builds on ground-breaking criticism such as Decker's The Invisible Orientation (2014). Considering Victorian prose fiction, I will reveal how these novels have a longstanding influence, continuing to affect cultural discourses surrounding asexuality.

This project is divided into three components: first, I will interrogate the development of male frigidity, exploring the portrayal of asexual masculinity as pathology in Brontë's Jane Eyre and Eliot's Middlemarch. Analysing Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, I will investigate how male asexuality developed into the late-nineteenth-century figure of the asexual intellectual, which influences contemporary asexual representation.

Second, I will argue that Victorian doctors stigmatised female asexuality in two opposing ways: William Acton considered women as devoid of sexual desire, while surgeons such as Hewitt pathologized female frigidity as a clinical problem. This translated into the nineteenth-century narrative tropes of the virgin and the spinster. I will highlight the evolution of these figures in Dickens' oeuvre, Gaskell's Ruth, Gissing's Odd Women, Hardy's Jude the Obscure, and Moore's Celibates.

Finally, reading Wells' scientific romances, I will consider the fin de siècle reframing of asexuality as an evolutionary trajectory, in which the cerebral, asexual aliens represent possible futures for humanity.


My project will advance the field in two ways: first, it reveals the continuous presence of asexual anxieties in nineteenth-century British non-fiction writing; second, it discusses Victorian fiction as a site where asexuality was contested.

Literary criticism has examined the concept of Victorian 'sexual continence', as in Adams's Dandies and Desert Saints (1995). Furthermore, Lawlor and Mangham's Literature and Medicine (2021) and Bauer's cultural histories of sexology have demonstrated the reciprocal relationship between literature and medicine in the development of sexual pathologies. Yet, nineteenth-century British asexual anxiety is a new area for research.

The prominence of asexual figures in nineteenth-century European writing has been noted by sexual historians, particularly Moore and Cryle, whose conceptualisation of frigidity as a medico-literary category is fundamental to my research. I build on these studies to trace frigidity's emergence across disciplinary boundaries in Britain.

There is growing demand for histories of asexuality from LGBTQ+ self-advocacy groups, most notably AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network), the world's largest online asexual community. My research contributes one of the first histories of British Victorian literary and medical writing on asexuality.


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