Sex therapists, pathology and asexuality

This article by a sexual health therapist appeared on an Australian news website a few days ago. It cautions against identification as asexual on the grounds that it precludes ‘further exploration’. We are told that “sexuality is as normal as breathing” and that those deliberating about their possible asexuality should “do some exploring, take your time” because “there is no need to give yourself a label, embrace an identity or feel the necessity to join a community”. But there is a need and what the author fails to realise is how arguments such as this contribute to it by propping up a sense of asexuality as being broken.

There’s an interesting tension at the heart of the argument being made. On the one hand, it is asserted that it is “not possible to be without sexuality” and that “sexuality is as normal as breathing”. On the other hand, we are told that “conditions like sex-phobia and sexual aversion disorder (SAD) do exist”. This is what I mean by the sexual assumption: universality and uniformity are imputed to sexual attraction such that contrary cases are seen as deviations to be explained away as pathological. So the initial statement that “sexuality is as normal as breathing” comes to seem somewhat more complicated. I’d never heard of ‘sexual aversion disorder’ before. This is what I found through a quick google search:

To understand sexual aversion disorder, one should first understand that there are circumstances in which it is normal for people to lose interest in sexual activity. The reader can then compare these situations to the loss of desire associated with serious sexual disorders, including sexual aversion disorder.

There are a number of reasons that people lose interest in sexual intercourse. It is normal to experience a loss of desire during menopause; directly after the birth of a child; before or during menstruation; during recovery from an illness or surgery; and during such major or stressful life changes as death of a loved one, job loss, retirement, or divorce. These are considered normal causes for fluctuations in sexual desire and are generally temporary. Changing roles, such as becoming a parent for the first time or making a career change have also been found to cause loss of desire. Not having enough time for oneself or to be alone with one’s partner may also contribute to normal and naturally reversible loss of desire. Loss of privacy resulting from moving a dependent elderly parent into one’s home is a common cause of loss of desire in middle-aged couples. Depression, fatigue , or stress also contribute to lessening of sexual interest.

For something ‘as normal as breathing’ (what does this even mean?) there seem to be an awful lot of conditions in which people don’t experience interest in sexual activity. As this link goes on to explain, SAD “represents a much stronger dislike of and active avoidance of sexual activity than the normal ups and downs in desire described above” (my emphasis). When we look at such a ‘condition’ in terms of the boundaries they draw, with a degree of precision which belies the supposed omnipresence of something akin a continual process we rely upon to live, it becomes interesting to see how this diagnostic category overlaps with others that perform a similar function:

One disorder similar in many aspects to sexual aversion disorder is hypoactive sexual disorder. Many of the signs, such as avoiding sexual contact in a variety of ways, are similar. The primary difference between the two disorders is that a patient with hypoactive sexual disorder is not interested in sex at all and does not have sexual fantasies of any variety. A patient with sexual aversion disorder, by comparison, may have normal sexual fantasies, and even function normally with some partners, although not with a specific partner. Also, a patient with hyposexual disorder will not enjoy or desire any anticipation in sexual activities including kissing and caressing. Some, though not all, people with sexual aversion disorder do enjoy sexual foreplay until the point of genital contact.

Sexual aversion disorder and hypoactive sexual disorder are both considered to be caused mainly by psychological factors and to manifest psychological symptoms. Another disorder that can have some similar symptoms is female sexual arousal disorder (FSAD). FSAD refers to a woman’s recurrent inability to achieve or maintain an adequate lubrication-swelling response during sexual activity. Lack of lubrication is a physical problem that may have either physical or psychological causes. Women with FSAD find intercourse uncomfortable or even painful. As a result of the physical discomfort, the woman often will avoid intercourse and sexual activity with her partner that may lead to intercourse. Although FSAD is a disorder with physical symptoms as well as psychological ones, it is easily confused with sexual aversion disorder because it may manifest as a problem of interest or desire.

You don’t have to be a foucauldian to see the inherently political aspect to categories like this being deployed. What I find so frustrating about articles like the one that provoked this post is how disingenuously they’re couched – the author advocates freedom from categories (“there is no need to give yourself a label”) while in fact implicitly advocating their own pseudo-scientific ones. The reason why “there is no need to give yourself a label” is because the label in question either refers to something that doesn’t exist (sex is as natural as breathing, remember?) or to some pathological factor which needs to be treated in order to restore you to normality.

2 responses to “Sex therapists, pathology and asexuality”

  1. Don’t label yourself with a positive word that speaks to your identity and identifies you with a community, because that’s totally limiting. Instead, let ME label you as a sufferer of a psychological disorder!

    Because that’s not limiting at all.

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