Thursday, April 28, 2011

Asexuality and Psychiatry


As might be obvious by the fact that I am plainly in no way, shape, or form a passionate Aries, I am not your usual blogger.  Your usual blogger was kind enough to give me some help with homework last week, and to express appreciation I have chosen to guest blog for him.

As far as I am aware, asexuality is very new to public understanding.  Science has understood asexual reproduction for quite some time, but the term "asexuality" used to describe a sexual orientation is fairly new.  Even newer is the idea that some people who, for whatever reason, do not experience sexual attraction or do not desire sexual relationships might still desire romantic ones.  Many times when I (or when people I am close to and have talked to about this subject) have attempted to discuss asexuality with others, the reaction is to assume that something is wrong because we do not want sex.

"Well...okay so...were you raped as a child?"

I have gotten this question a lot since I started discussing my asexuality.  I often respond by asking why this is relevant.  The LGBT community has already had to make strides to dispel the myth that lesbianism or male homosexuality are "caused" by abuse, and this battle is not won either.  I am romantically exclusively attracted to women and so I identify as gay despite my asexuality.  When I came out this way in high school, I did receive the occasional stupid question about whether or not I was raped as a child.  The assumption was often that a love for women could not possibly just be natural, clearly a terrifying Satanic monster of a man must have forever scarred me and warped my fragile, innocent mind.  Now, the assumption is that the same Satanic monster must have damaged me so badly that not only am I afraid of men, I'm also just afraid of sex in general.  Aside from the extreme frustration I feel at the assumption that if someone is raped, the perpetrator MUST be male, I get very frustrated with the assumption that any sexual or romantic orientation that deviates from the heteronormative mold must be a result of trauma.  Both my coming out experiences (my gay one and my asexual one) have exposed me to this breed of ignorance.

So what is the difference?

In the DSM-IV TR (the current diagnostic manual for psychiatric disorders), homosexuality is not included.  Granted, there are still therapists (like the one I saw in high school) who will look for ways to pathologize homosexuality anyway.  Generally speaking, however, most psychiatrists and psychologists at least medically understand that homosexuality is not an "illness" or a "disease."  This is not so for asexuality.  In the current DSM, there is a disorder known as Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD) characterized by a lack of sexual desire or fantasy for some period of time.

I'm not completely ignorant on the topic of sexual pathology.  I'm a psychology minor at an overrated, highly expensive liberal arts college and I took a course in abnormal psychology my sophomore year.  We learned in this course that for something to be called a "mental illness," it must be a source of distress for you or those around you.  With this in mind, one might think "oh well in that case an asexual can just tell a psychiatrist he/she is happy that way and then he/she won't be diagnosed that way, right?"


In a society where asexuality is already very poorly understood, many men and women who are asexual enter relationships with partners who do desire sex.  Not wanting to threaten the relationship (or their chances at having any relationship) many asexual individuals have sex while deriving very little (if any) enjoyment from it.  In some cases, the asexual person in question will believe he or she is simply not ready or isn't in the mood or what-have-you.  This is what happened to me in my last relationship a couple years ago.  I told my partner I was not ready for sex.  It was obvious that she was becoming frustrated and impatient.  I would essentially force myself to kiss her and not feel anything.  No intimacy, no arousal, etc.  So, if you had asked me "does your lack of sexual desire cause you distress?" I probably would have said "YES!"  At the time, I had no idea that non-sexual romantic relationships were an option.  All I could see what that something about me made me unsuited to relationships and yes, that made me miserable.

My experience here is actually not that different from the experiences that many homosexuals likely had when homosexuality was pathologized in the DSM.  Originally, all homosexuality was seen as a mental illness.  In later revisions, homosexuality was only pathological if it presented itself as an "ego-dystonic sexual orientation."  This essentially meant that, like many people who would fit the bill for Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, homosexuals were only pathologized if they did not want to be homosexual.

So in other words, if you're sick of belonging to an orientation minority that:

1. Cannot legally marry in most states.

2. Can legally be fired from jobs in many states.

3. Is often rejected by religious communities and families alike.

4. Is still widely discriminated against, stereotyped, and socially excluded.

5. Has a more difficult time finding people to have relationships than their heterosexual counterparts.

You must have an illness that requires therapy and possibly medication.


Hold up.  If you are unhappy because you are a member of a marginalized group of people and are having trouble finding happiness in a world that does not accept you, that means you're sick?  Does this seem ridiculous to anyone but me?  In the case of homosexuals, especially in light of many of the gay suicides in the news, some people are beginning to understand that the distress homosexuals might experience surrounding their orientation does not derive entirely from their own psyches and may actually be a reaction to the world they live in.  Though asexuals generally will not get fired from their jobs for being asexual, even heteroromantic asexuals do share many things in common with homosexuals:

1. Many of us still have parents who want grandchildren and are disappointed in us and/or for us.

2. Many of us still have friends who we will grow apart from because our interests, beliefs, and lifestyles are different.

3. Asexuals who want romantic relationships are likely to enter relationships that do not meet their needs.  Many of them will be pressured into being sexual relationships.  Unlike homosexuals who at least are generally aware that homosexuality is an option and may seek it out when they realize heterosexuality is not working out, asexuals often do not know that non-sexual relationships are an option and will continue to live unsatisfying and often emotionally damaging lifestyles in relationships that do not work for them.

5. In some cases, asexuals are victims of "corrective" rape by partners who wish to "show them" that they are not truly asexual, just like homosexuals can be victims of such rapes intended to prove that they are "really" heterosexual.

Obviously I am not interested in starting oppression Olympics between asexuals and homosexuals.  I have seen it happen before, ie: an asexual will express frustration at not being able to find a visible community and a homosexual individual will say that the real victims are those seen as sexual deviants, not those who are abstaining, blahbiddy blahbydoodahday.  I do not care whose pain is "worse" than who else's.  My point is to express that there are valid reasons for an asexual person to dislike who he/she is that do not relate to an "illness."

It is my opinion that sex is something a person should only engage in if he/she wants it for himself.  It should not happen if an individual is having it exclusively to please someone else, to keep a partner who will otherwise leave, or to prove something about his/her value or worth.  I keep wondering how many of the countless Americans who are on libido medication, marriage counseling for sexual issues, and so on and so forth might simply be asexual and unaware of it.  Of course I am not going to say that all (or even most) people with low sexual desire are genuinely asexual and would be best off in non-sexual relationships.  But if even some of the people diagnosed with HSDD are asexual and are exhibiting signs of a natural, healthy orientation, that is a problem.

Also problematic is how asexual is treated.  Let's imagine a marriage where one partner is sexual and the other is asexual.  To avoid gender stereotypes, the sexual person is named Teri and the asexual person is named Jaden.  They go into marriage counseling.  Teri wants to have sex every day and is extremely upset that Jaden does not seem to enjoy sex at all.  Jaden never wants to have sex and is upset about being pressured.  No psychiatrist is likely to tell Teri to take sex-drive eliminating medication so that both partners can be asexual.  Instead, most psychiatrists will focus on Jaden as the source of the problem.  Jaden will be put on medication or at the very least put into treatment designed to turn Jaden into a fully sexual person.  This quickly becomes an issue of privilege.  Who is being pathologized and why?  Why, in a situation where two partners have differing levels of sexual interest, is one considered healthy and the other not?

Jaden will likely be asked about early experiences with sex and messages about sex.  "Were you abused as a child?"  "Did your parents tell you nice things about sexuality?"  "Do you feel that sex is dirty/shameful/etc?"  I could just as easily turn these questions on Teri though.  "Did an abuser make you feel like your only worth was sex?"  "Did your parents tell you that you had to have sex in order to be valued in a relationship?"  "Do you feel like you can't be intimate without sex?"  "Do you resent people who won't have sex because it makes you feel insecure about your own desire?"

Most people would laugh at this.  They'd say, "but Teri wanting sex is NORMAL.  Of course a therapist isn't going to ask those questions because there's nothing wrong with Teri."  But who says there's anything wrong with Jaden?  Is Jaden unhappy with being asexual, or is Jaden unhappy being in a relationship that requires an undesirable activity?  This question, which seems important to me, is not asked often enough.

A Friend of Rius

1 comment:

  1. Asexuality is pathologized because it is anti-Capitalist. Asexuality is a lack of desire; desire is what drives the economy. In particular, sexual desire really is what drives the economy, as the vast majority of things we buy are either advertised WITH sex and/or purchased in the hopes of obtaining it. As my friend mentioned, asexuals and their former friends tend to drift apart, even if they are accepted, for reasons relating to this.

    Basically, being asexual is an assault on the philosophies of the market and desire, and is in turn an attack on the inner "life of spectacle" that advanced capitalism has created. This "life of spectacle" exists in the subconscious of every member of the advanced capitalist society, and when it is threatened, the person in question feels similarly threatened. Wanting sex isn't just a basic fact of life, it is one of the basic mechanisms by which our entire economic system works. I think people, whether they are aware of it or not, are tuned in to that fact enough to sense it being challenged.

    Personally, I support that challenge wholeheartedly.