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Some people think that a mental disorder of some sort might be at the root of their asexuality. After all, something like Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder sounds very much like asexuality when you read about it.
Before we dive into that, let me first say that even in the case where there is something that makes you feel asexual, that doesn’t prohibit you from using the word. If this is who you are, if this word accurately describes you and you find value in using the word, then you are allowed to use it, regardless of whether or not there’s some underlying reason.
Now, it is true that there are a number of conditions described in the DSM have criteria which sound like they’re talking about asexual people. Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder lists “persistently deficient sexual/erotic thoughts or fantasies and desire for sexual activity”. Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder lists “Absent/reduced interest in sexual activity. Absent/reduced sexual/erotic thoughts or fantasies.” (FSA/ID is actually the combination of two diagnoses listed separately in an earlier edition of the DSM. For some reason, they combined a lack of sexual interest, which is a mental thing, and a lack of sexual arousal, which is a physical thing. That seems like an odd pair of things to combine.) Schizoid Personality Disorder lists “Has little, if any, interest in having sexual experiences with another person.” And those aren’t the only conditions with similar descriptions, and the DSM isn’t the only diagnostic guide, these are just a sample of what’s out there.
So, there are things that psychiatric manuals describe in words that make them sound similar to asexuality. What does that mean?
Maybe not as much as you think. There are two important things to keep in mind.
- All of these guides and diagnostic manuals are descriptions based on observations. They are based on the idea of a mythical “normal” person, and any deviation from that is noted. If they start seeing a pattern of these deviations, it can get labeled a “disorder”. This is called “pathologization”.
- These guides are not infallible. There have been five major revisions of the DSM so far. Some “disorders” are dropped, some are added, and some are refined to take into account new discoveries or new understandings. There are things that are in the DSM-5 today that are flat out wrong and which will be removed in the next edition.
With that in mind, let’s look at how asexuality fits into this model.
First, between DSM-IV and DSM-5, the HSDD and FSI/AD descriptions were drastically changed and restructured. One of the primary additions was and explicit exception that says that someone should not be diagnosed with either one, if they self-identify as asexual. So that’s a direct recognition that asexuality is not HSDD or FSI/AD. And one of the main things that was removed was the part of the diagnostic criteria that considered a partner’s distress. Under the DSM-IV, someone could be diagnosed if their partner were distressed by the person’s lack of sexual interest, even if the person themselves were perfectly fine with it. So, the DSM-5 has fixed some of the more egregious problems in the DSM-IV and that’s good, but that’s not enough. Someone still has to know about asexuality in order to be able to “self-identify” as asexual. If they’re ace, but have never heard the word before, they’ll get marked as having “Lifelong Generalized” HSDD or FSI/AD. Why should a diagnosis depend on your vocabulary?
Let’s take a step back. In point #1, I noted that things get into these guides because people notice patterns and put a name and some diagnostic criteria to them, and call them a “disorder”. But in the case of HSDD and the “Interest” part of FSI/AD, maybe the pattern they’re describing actually is asexuality, and the only reason it’s listed at all is that no one really had the words to talk about it, so no one really understood it. It became pathologized and called a disorder, instead of being recognized as a perfectly normal thing that a lot of people are. And now that we have the words, we’re able to talk about it, we’re able to find others who feel the same way, and we’re able to say, “Hey, that sounds an awful lot like us, and there’s nothing wrong with us, so stop saying we have a problem.”
“What about distress?”, you say? What if someone is distressed about their “Absent/reduced interest in sexual activity” or whatever? Look at the source of that distress. Very often, the source is the pathologization itself. You are repeatedly told that everyone wants sex and everyone likes sex and that everyone will have sex and that everyone will find someone that they want sex with. You are expected to provide a partner with an adequate and regular supply of mutually desirable sex. TV, books, movies, music, friends, coworkers, all of it drills this message into your head. So, if you realize that you don’t fit these expectations, that none of that is really part of your world, and you don’t know why and no one tells you that it’s okay, then of course you’re going to feel distressed. Even when someone tells you that it’s okay, because the rest of the world still tells you that it’s not.
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That final paragraph, wow. I love how you succinctly summarized the whole issue we’re dealing with.
The last paragraph says it all, and expresses it perfectly. It puts what I feel so well into words, it almost made me cry when I read it. Thanks so much for your post.
One critical criterion of behavioral/psychological disorders that doesn’t get raised often enough is the 3 D’s: distress, dysfunction, and deviance. (Sometimes a fourth – danger – is added, but that’s superfluous in this context.) Without those three elements, there is no disorder. Consider:
Lots of Americans hate paying their taxes. This antipathy causes distress around April 15 and makes a difficult task even harder (dysfunction). But of course it’s not the least bit deviant. To the contrary, you’re considered a bit of a weirdo if you cough up the money without griping. No deviance, no disorder.
Some folks simply cannot bear to drink coffee. Just CAN NOT. The smell, the taste, the whole culture of “gotta have my caffeine, LOL!” That’s deviant and distressing, but you could hardly say that any major life tasks are undermined by it. No dysfunction, no disorder.
And then there’s asexuality. Deviant? Yeah, in this society, at least. Dysfunctional? Again, yes, because of what our culture deems a major life activity. But distressing? Highly debatable. What I hear most often isn’t “I hate not wanting sex” but rather “I hate people’s expectations conflicting with my lack of desire for sex!” That’s distress but it isn’t the same subject matter as the first two criteria were directed at. If you pulled that kind of sleight-of-hand in an argument, you’d be fairly accused of dragging a red herring.
And hating being told to behave differently than you feel is the most normal thing in the world. Not deviant. Either way you approach it, asexuality doesn’t appear to fulfill the 3 D’s unless there’s a secondary issue involved.
The last paragraph, wow! Thanks! That says it all. Just before I found out that I was asexual, I considered autism. I even do spoke to a doctor, who didn’t actually give me any advice. This was 15 years ago. I still have never been diagnosed with autism, but I do see some of the symptoms within myself. Just mildly. And I do know I am ace. But last year i read that people who are asexual often times have autistic-like tendises. I figured that out on my own & it seems to be true in me.
Hugging has also been awkward for me. I can do it, and there’s no problem if I do, it’s just uncomfortable. No matter what I say to everyone, no one listens. I hear things like, “oh, everyone likes hugs. Come here. ” and then I’m forced into another one. No one believes that it’s possible that I don’t like hugs. I try to get everyone to wave to me instead, but no, they MUST have a hug from me too. And sometimes I get coached how to hug the “right “way. Hug,put your arms around me, tighter, squeeze. It’s annoying. Why would I need lessons on doing something I clearly don’t want to do anyway? But no one believes me. It’s not a part of their world, so it’s not OK to believe how I feel. But my mother is catching on.
I googled ‘why don’t I ever want to have sex?’ And all I got was pages on HSDD. I was so frustrated because I knew what I was really looking for was validation because I don’t want to want to have sex. I’m fine with it! And I spent years forcing myself to because I thought it was normal and just something to be done for the sake of a partner (‘lie back and think of England’ and all that). I’m 38, married, with two children I love, and an amazing (allosexual) husband, but whilst I have very happily gone the last 6 years since our second was conceived having only had sex twice I know my husband is sad about it. Life is hard.