(a)Sexuality and Pathology

As the AVEN website describes, “in a world where sexuality is promoted as the norm, many asexuals grow up thinking that they’re somehow sick, broken or deficient” (AVEN, 2011). This raises the question of the nature of this norm, as well as how it is formed and propagated. Why would individuals who do not experience sexual attraction be so pervasively prone to considering that this might be a function of some underlying pathology? Seemingly the association between sexual desire  and ‘normal’ physical and psychological functioning is sufficiently pervasive that it goes largely unrecognized and unquestioned. Kim suggests that reaction to asexuality can be understood in terms of the “pathological framework for asexuality” which results from a “larger trend in which sexuality is tied up with the image of ‘normal bodies’”. On her account stigmatizing reactions to asexuality should not be assumed to be particularistic prejudicial responses to a newly emerging minority identity but rather stem from culturally pervasive and near hegemonic ideas about health and the body. She suggests that “the absence of sexual desire, feelings and activities is seen as abnormal and reflective of poor health because of the explicit connection made between sexual activeness and healthiness”. This association is echoed in the everyday experiences of many asexual individuals.

Kim places much stress on contemporary attitudes towards health and the body as an explanation of the marginalization and stigmatization which the asexual community is widely subject to. She suggests that “health information and interpretations about sex are grounded too much in belief in universal sexual desire and given too much authority to health professionals to produce ‘cures’ marketed by sex therapy and pharmaceutical industries”. This stands as a plausible claim given the high visibility which such ‘lifestyle and health’ discourses are afforded in a world saturated by information television, lifestyle magazines and health websites. The aggregative effect of such phenomena is to propagate a sense of normalcy which equates bodily health with sexual satisfaction. Within disability studies, much attention has been paid to the ‘myth of asexuality’, identifying the role which outward markers of disability are equated with an underlying lack of sexual function.

This pervasive tendency within contemporary culture to equate health with sexual activity expresses itself in the trend, discussed earlier, for asexual individuals to initially consider that the difference they recognize in themselves (i.e. their lack of interest in sex) is the result of some underlying pathology. Though the vocabulary used and the stress placed varies from person to person, the notion in play is the same: ‘if I don’t have a desire for sexual activity does this mean there’s something wrong with my health?’

However while this prevalent discourse of the healthy sexual body clearly plays some role in the sexual assumption, it does not explain it in its entirety. To suggest that it does would assume firstly that individuals in contemporary society are ‘cultural dupes’, with attitudes entirely determined by medical discourses propagated in the media and secondly that the emergence of the sexual assumption correlates directly with the increasing proliferation of lifestyle advice about sex and the body. While an empirical investigation of this latter claim is beyond the purview of the present chapter, it seems implausible that this could be so, not least of all because the bringing into being of such an idea through massive exposure in the media would surely prompt a degree of reflection upon it which has heretofore been lacking. Therefore I will argue that other factors play a crucial role in explaining the genesis and trajectory of the sexual assumption within contemporary society.

I found an incomplete draft of a book chapter I had intended to write a couple of years ago. I’m unlikely to ever do anything substantive with it so I’ve posted it in sections on my blog. 

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