Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pathology and Asexual Politics

I was invited to write a piece about my work regarding asexuality for the online magazine The Sociological Imagination, and I wrote a piece called Pathology and Asexual Politics, in which I address the relationship between asexuality and HSDD, as well as what approaches the asexual community and our allies can take. I've wanted to blog about this topic for some time, but kept having writers block. This article is an attempt on my part to articulate things I've been trying to make sense of for some time.

After the formation of the asexual community, it was not too long before the community became aware of the fact that in the DSM, there is a disorder about not being interested in sex. (The diagnosis is also in the ICD, but the ICD attracts less controversy). As one of the major political goals of the community is to convince people that there is nothing wrong with not being interested in sex, this diagnosis is not especially helpful for that goal.

In considering what kind of approach the asexual community should take toward the matter, one question that seems like a good starting place is whether asexuality is a sexual dysfunction. I have sometimes seen the question posed as an either/or: Is asexuality a sexual orientation or a sexual dysfunction? Some authors (e.g. Prause & Graham, 2007) have done data collection regarding asexuality and claimed that their results suggest that asexuality is not a sexual dysfunction. Such claims are likely good for our politics, but they make absolutely no sense to me.

After discussing the issue of how to define disorder, I continue:
As I do not think that asexuality objectively is or is not a sexual dysfunction, the question I think we should be asking is whether regarding it as such makes sense conceptually and pragmatically. Conceptually, I do not think that it does. Pragmatically, we need to be cautious—what effect, if any, this diagnosis has on asexuals is unknown. We simply do not have the data. Posing the question in this way motivates us to ask another essential for asexual politics: how is asexuality different from HSDD? There are two kinds of answers to this question: extensional and valuational/practical. Extensional differences—who fits which group—are often the only ones that come to mind. They are, for instance, the only ones addressed in Bogaert’s (2006) discussion of the matter. This line of thinking seems to stem from treating asexuality and HSDD as somehow “objectively existing” rather than as more nominalist type categories. I am more interested in valuational and practical differences.

One such difference is that HSDD focuses on lack of sexual desire, and asexuality on lack of sexual attraction. HSDD is a more negative valuation of sexual disinterest and asexuality a more neutral/positive one. HSDD was created by physicians (Kaplan, 1977; Leif, 1977) and is diagnosed by clinicians. The conceptualization “asexuality” was created by asexuals, and the designation—an identity—is self-assigned. Moreover, the conceptualizations HSDD and asexuality will give rise to very different research questions. However, one important similarity should be noted: lack of interest in sex often causes difficulties in people’s lives that they want help with. [3] Both asexual identity and HSDD are conceptualizations that exist to try to help people deal with these issues.

Also, the a few weeks ago, the same magazine published another article on asexuality that is well worth reading Reflections on a year spent studying asexuality by Mark Carrigan. I found especially interesting some of his comments about how asexuality can inform our understanding of sexuality more generally:
I think that a wider recognition of asexuality would inevitably give rise to a much deeper understanding of what it is to be sexual. Despite the pervasiveness with which the importance of sex is affirmed within our culture, we’re often profoundly inarticulate about the role that sex plays in our lives and why it is important to us. At least in terms of the younger generation, we’re far more likely to discuss sex (good sex, bad sex, weird sex ) then we are the place we presume it ought to occupy in our lives. We’re so prone to seeing sexuality as a marker of personal fulfilment that we rarely stop and ask ourselves where we, as individuals, stand in relation to it and what importance it genuinely holds in our lives. Crucially some of us don’t feel particularly free to say that, while we may want sex, it holds no great importance in our lives (at least not relative to other things like friends, romance and love).

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