Saturday, December 6, 2008

Is sexuality a natural part of being human?

When it is claimed that all people are sexual beings, I have a strong suspicion that one of the functions is to communicate to readers that having sexual desires is a natural part of being human so they are nothing to be ashamed of. The issue is not one of having sexual desires or not, but whether to accept them and what sorts of decisions are made concerning them and concerning sexuality more broadly.

Consider an example I used in the introduction to this series. On MSNBC A doctor advises a mother on talking to her daughter about sexuality.
Accurate and relevant information about all aspects of human sexuality — including her own sexual nature and feelings — will empower a young woman to learn how to accept her natural sexuality and eventually express it in healthy, appropriate, and responsible ways that do not harm her or anyone else.
As a part of accomplishing this, the author gives her top three rules for talking to teenagers about sexuality. The first begins,
“Become comfortable with your own sexuality. All humans are sexual beings who have sexual feelings. Sex is a normal part of life.
In order to help the daughter accept her own sexual feelings, she is to be told that all people have sexual feelings. However, insisting that sexual feelings are natural raises a question. If sexual desires are natural, does this mean that not feeling them is "unnatural"? In asking this question, I feel like I'm attacking a straw man. I wish this were true. Unfortunately, if you look at some of the things people quoted as experts have to say about asexuality, it becomes painfully clear that this is exactly the implication some people take--even people who speak with the voice of authority.

In 2004, there was an article in the New York Times about asexuality called For Them, Just Saying No Is Easy. After giving a positive quote from John Bancroft, former director of the Kinsey Institute, they provide a less positive perspective.
Not all clinicians agree that lack of interest in sex can be considered normal. "It's a bit like people saying they never have an appetite for food," said Dr. Leonard R. Derogatis, a psychologist and the director of the Center for Sexual Health and Medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "Sex is a natural drive, as natural as the drive for sustenance and water to survive. It's a little difficult to judge these folks as normal."
In the article Asexual and Proud! on, we find another less-than-affirming quote from a therapist.
"To me, to say that someone is 'asexual' is tantamount to saying that they're not a human being," says Barnaby Barratt, a sex therapist in Detroit and president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. "I would be profoundly critical of the idea that 'asexuality' is an 'orientation' or that it's somehow the inevitable way that some people are born. The basic building blocks of sexual patterning are there in everyone. The real question about what you're describing as 'asexual' is: What sort of history could make someone wind up being that closed down?"
Given the way they are introduced, I assume that these people know quite a lot about sexuality and sexuality education and that their understandings of what it means for sexuality to be "natural" or what is meant by the claim that all people are sexual beings to be representative of many (though not all) people who make such claims.

If this is what is meant by saying that all people are sexual beings and if we take asexuality seriously as a normal part of the sexual variation that exists among people, then I think that asexuals should insist that such claims be dropped from sex education and other contexts in which they are made. Someone could claim that all people are sexual beings in a way that affirms asexual experiences; they could claim that the above quotes are misunderstandings of what what is meant by saying that all people are sexual beings.

However, if you want to insist that everyone is sexual, it is important to understand not only what you mean by it, but what others will interpret it to mean. Given the status of the above quoted people, I think it is clear that many who say that everyone is sexual and many who hear this claim understand it to deny the reality/legitimacy of asexuality. As such, I think the claim should be done away with.

Next time: Debates over definitions are debates over ideologies.


Anonymous said...

I think that there is a conflict of interests when these psychiatric practitioners pathologize asexuality, since they earn money with therapies for healing it. It looks like the case of the psychiatric practitioner Prof. Polaino, who gave a speech in the Spanish Senate (in 2005) pathologizing homosexuality. He was invited by the right-wing party to give an expert-report about the (then discussed in parliament) law for same-sex marriage. Not only Dr. Polaino is a member of the fundamentalist Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei, but he also earns money with therapies for healing homosexuality.

pretzelboy said...

The issue of money is one where I'm not entirely sure where I stand. I don't think I'm ready to say that the reason people pathologize sexuality is just a matter of greed, but I also think it's hard to ignore the financial interests involved.

When homosexuality was "removed" from the DSM in 1973, they replaced it with a disorder called "Sexual Orientation Disturbance." The basic idea was that rather than saying homosexuality was itself a mental disorder, it was only a disorder if the person felt it was a problem. This was a compromise position advanced because an attempt to completely remove homosexuality from the DSM would have failed--too many people were making good money trying to "cure" it. Since then, so-called "reparative therapies" have become much more marginal and homosexuality has been demoted to an obscure part of the DSM and not mentioned explicitly in that diagnosis.

With asexuality, the issue of money is more complex. Not a lot of money is made in trying to cure asexuals. There is a diagnosis that pathologizes asexuality called "Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder," however the "lifelong" cases are generally said to be very difficult to "treat," and they are a definite minority of people therapists see. The money to be made is with sexual people who aren't interested in sex anymore (especially, but not exclusively, women.) The pharmaceuticals are trying to develop a drug to make women more interested in sex (since they are the majority of people diagnosed with HSDD.) Critics say that once the pharmaceuticals realized how much money can be made with Viagra, they wanted to make the Viagra for women. The question, however, is what problem it is supposed to cure. The answer is Female Sexual Dysfunction.

Testosterone patches have been shown to slightly increase sexual activity in women with both ovaries removed, but the FDA didn't approve the drug because of questions concerning long term effects. And everyone knows that if such a drug were made legal, it would be enormously over-prescribed.

With the study of sexuality, there are major conflicts of interest. Science costs money, and money has to come from somewhere. Government money is hard to get because some conservative politicians like to shoot down grants for studying sexuality. One of the biggest sources of funding is pharmaceuticals, and they want to make drugs to "cure" people. (Sometimes they create things that really do help people, but sometimes, to create a bigger market, they aim to convince healthy people that they're sick, and convince people that minor ailments are major problems.)

With the DSM, this is a huge problem. Most of the people working on the DSM have conflicts of interest because of connections with pharmaceuticals. However, it would be hard, if not impossible, to find enough qualified people without pharmaceutical connections. Because of this, the APA requires people working on the DSM-V to make disclosures of the connections with pharmaceuticals. (These are available online. For an example of a major ethics violation with regard to a prominent psychiatrist and money coming from pharmaceuticals, see this NYTimes article.)

I think that the real conflict of interest is this: if experts say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with asexuals not being interested in sex, people might think that that there is absolutely nothing wrong with sexuals not being interested in sex.

Anonymous said...

It's a question of number. Large scale corporations are not interested in the asexual population because it's very small. Even a psychiatrist opinion may be more reliable than a sex educator's, as you compares in this blog, I think that, if it comes form a therapist of sexual disorders, this conflict of interest corrupts this reliability. Even if they are as minority as asexual population, once a psychiatrist makes money from therapy for increasing libido, there exist a conflict of interest. At least, sex educators do bona fide.

Of course, due to the number question again, the real problem is that visibility and acceptation would let ex-sexual people be comfortable becoming asexual. Would it be comparable with a visibility of the Kinsey-1 population, which would let straight people be comfortable with their slight homosexual attraction?

pretzelboy said...

My impression is that sex educators seem generally more accepting of asexuality than sex-therapists. I know of at least three college level human sexuality textbooks that have included asexuality in recent editions, even if only very briefly. In media articles, I've only seen one person cited specifically as an educator (as opposed to a sex-therapist or professor.) That person had a positive view of asexuality. In media articles, my impression is that the most negative comments tend to come from sex-therapists. Most positive ones come from professors, though some professors have negative things to say. (Also, some professors are also therapists and those professors can go either way.)

Again, I'm hesitant to say it's all about the money, but the fact that sex-therapists' profession has a vested financial interest in the matter is hard to ignore. Even though I suspect that sex-therapists are less likely to be supportive, I don't think it's mostly because of money. Sex-therapists are professionally tried to view sub-"optimal" sexual functioning as "dysfunction" to be fixed. My guess is that it's more a matter of their professional training and the way they come to think about sexuality through their professional experience that causes them to be suspicious of asexuality. However, these opinions are more speculation and impression that anything else.

Queers United said...

It must be very frustrating when doctors like this insinuate that everyone is sexual, im sure they are not saying it out of mallace but clearly they are ignoring a chunk of the population.

pretzelboy said...

I agree that it's not out of malice, but the same is true for a lot of people who assume everyone is heterosexual. Even if done out of ignorance, the people who are made invisible by it still don't like being made invisible. But when it's more a matter of ignorance rather than malice, hopefully a little bit of education in how to be sensitive can go a long way.

bmmg39 said...

Whether they're motivated by money or not, those who equate being asexual with not being human are bigots.

pretzelboy said...

I'm generally not a huge fan of calling opponents bigots. While it is sometimes warranted, it often functions to demonize them so that people feel no understand the viewpoints of people who disagree with them. It often leads to polarization, and it often discourages people from thinking critically about things.

That said, I think the "saying someone is 'asexual' is tantamount to saying that they're not a human being" guy is a jerk. If someone wants to go on record saying something about asexuality from a position of authority, I would hope that they actually took the time to become acquainted with the subject and attempt to understand the experiences and perspectives of the people he's making pronouncements about.