Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Mental Health and Asexuality: A Double Standard?

For the purposes of this post, I (and probably most of those reading) will need to suspend certain beliefs and accept others as true. For many, that simply means stepping outside of prevailing heteronormative assumptions about human sexuality. For my part, it will mean operating within the framework of inherent sexuality, as if the psycho-sexual categories this produces were real or even meaningful rather than the aberrant constructs of the modern imagination. I trust, however, that we are all capable of entering into countervailing belief systems to analyze them, not with the end of determining whether they are true but whether they are self-consistent.

A BBC feature article last month sought to introduce the world to asexuality and, of course, to legitimate it as a sexuality on par with more established categories like heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality. There is an extent to which this is noble. From a strictly secular perspective, it stands to reason that if someone can be genetically hardwired to prefer someone of the same sex, someone of the opposite sex, or some admixture of the two preferences, then they can also be programmed to be entirely without sexual attraction. After all, those would seem to be the only four logical categories: one, the other, both, and neither. That there are no parallel organizations campaigning for the rights of asexuals in the way there are for the LGBT community (which is conspicuously lacking an "A" in its acronym) is something of a failure on the part of postmodern proponents of sexual choice. (Choice, which ironically, they would argue you have no part in choosing.)

In a less overt way, the effort to give a face to asexuality ought to resonate with Christians, who should embrace a critique of our culture in a similar vein. In the hyper-carnal culture of the post-sexual revolution West, the virtue of celibacy has been transformed into a vice, or, more in keeping with the modern euphemism, a disorder. On occasion, you will hear a preacher or Christian academic make a token gesture to "singleness" (because celibacy has a nasty Catholic ring) as an acceptable alternative to the more appropriate heterosexual marriage. In reality, Christian singles are under the same crushing social pressures to couple as anyone else, and in the case of those who want to formally serve in the church, being single is looked on with a certain suspicion. This is a far cry from the language of Paul, who saw singleness as a higher path and spoke of it as if it were a spiritual gift. It strikes me as closer to a Christian approach to sex to appropriate the language (or even the biology) of "asexuality" to describe a special dispensation of the Spirit for Christian service.

But my purpose here is really not to discuss the value of advocacy for asexuality and the recognition of asexuals in Western culture. There is a disconcerting tendency in the article to draw lines and as precisely define and subdivide asexuality as possible. The real issue, however, is not the proliferation of neologisms but with a distinction that the article introduces into asexuality which would be completely untenable if applied to any other sexual orientation. Consider how the BBC distinguishes asexuality from HSDD:

Asexuality is distinct from the condition of people who lack sexual desire but find that problematic.

"There has been lots of research on hypoactive sexual desire disorder, which is classified as a personality disorder, and it is if you do not experience sexual attraction and it's causing you suffering."

Imagine, for a moment, if that definition were applied to homosexuality. Homosexuality is the orientation in which a person is attracted to others of the same sex. Homosexual desire disorder is a sexual dysfunction in which a person is attracted to others of the same sex and finds that problematic. Imagine the outrage in the LGBT community if such a definition were offered. After all, anyone who has ever known a person struggling with his sexuality, coming to the belief that he may be gay, knows that the knowledge is troubling. Frankly, that is putting it mildly. Grappling with your sexuality has become the signature right of passage for our generation. Sexual self-discovery, especially through sexual experimentation, is the hallmark of graduating out of adolescence and into adulthood for an entire millennial culture. There are people who never fully come to terms with their sexuality (possibly because the process and the whole ideology undergirding it are sick), those who will always find their homosexuality or bisexuality or asexuality problematic.

If such a thing as inherent sexuality exists, its normalcy cannot be defined relative to whether or not a person accepts or is happy with any given sexuality. The attempt to define HSDD by whether or not a person is troubled by it is essentially to say that asexuals are the mentally ill who are okay with their illness. They are schizophrenics who don't mind their schizophrenia. It's nonsense. If asexuality is going to be incorporated into the cultural mainstream of human sexuality, it should be judged by the same rules and standards as any other sexuality. The association with HSDD and the way the two are distinguished needs to be understood as a relic of a antiquated system of categorizing sexuality. After all, it bears remembering that until 1973 homosexuality was believed to be a psychological disorder. If our culture is going to be internally consistent, perhaps it needs to stop thinking about people with HSDD as heterosexuals (etc.) whose desire needs stimulating but as asexuals who need help coming to terms with their sexuality.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I stumbled onto your blog given my interest in asexuality and HSDD. Your "about" page says that you're interested in history (and I'm very interested in the history of the medicalization of sexuality), and there's a lot that you're missing.
    -With homosexuality (the best book on the matter is "Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis," which is widely respected by people on both sides of the 1973 debate), it became "sexual orientation disturbance" and then "ego-dystonic homosexuality" in 1980. In 1987, ego-dystonic homosexuality and it got replaced by "Sexual Disorder Not Otherwise Specified" (or at least that's the current name). It mentions distress about one's sexual orientation, but doesn't mention any specific one.
    -For the "it's only a disorder if you're distressed about it" part:

    Spitzer, R. L., & Wakefield, J.C. (1999). DSM-IV diagnostic criterion for clinical significance: Does it help solve the false positives problem? American Journal of Psychiatry, 156, 1856-1864.