Asexuality as a Disability?

Okay, so anyone who’s not a total newbie to the asexual community has heard of the idea that asexuality is a disorder. Right? Well, M had a different idea. A couple of months ago, he told me this:

“Parade your asexual banner around as much as you would like, but in my eyes, you are handicapped; and if you could see yourself with my perspective and understanding of sexuality, I am certain you would understand that conclusion.”

Wow. Never mind the frightening similarity to homophobia–that’s actually an intriguing idea, if only because it’s something I’ve never heard before. It got me thinking. What would happen if, once the ignorant masses finally become aware of asexuality, they all eventually adopted this way of thinking? How would the asexual community react, and what about the disabled community? Is it actually justifiable?

The difference between the perception of asexuality as a disability rather than the more common perception of asexuality as a disorder is an interesting one. If it is a disorder, that implies that it is something temporary, something which can be “cured.” If asexuality is seen as a disorder, then the assumption is made that there is either a physiological or psychological problem “blocking” sexuality. One of the most common ideas is that it is a hormonal imbalance; however, this certainly cannot be the case for all asexuals, because several AVEN members have had their hormone levels checked, and the results were within normal range. Another common idea is that it is the result of trauma, or a lack of positive sexual experiences. The idea is that if asexuals undergo psychotherapy and/or open themselves to positive sexual experiences, they will begin to feel sexual attraction. If it is a disorder, then it is implied that asexuality is not a real orientation, merely a delusion.

If asexuality is a disability, on the other hand, the implication is that it is a real and permanent condition, and that there is no cure. We are “beyond help,” as M so accurately phrased it. There may one day be a cure, just as there may one day be a cure for blindness, but until that day, asexuals must be given “special treatment” by sexual people (though I must say, I do not really understand what that entails–I would have to ask M what he meant by that). They must simply deal with their (apparently tragic) condition, because there is nothing else that can be done about it.

I think the perception of asexuality as a disability is more realistic, because at least it accepts the existence of asexuality as a usually lifelong condition for which there is no treatment. It is more consistent from an evolutionary perspective, since the theory of evolution posits that natural variation among species exists, and since some adaptations are more advantageous than others, those will be the ones that survive. Those who would claim that all humans are inherently inclined to engage in sexual activity attempt to justify this claim with Darwin’s theory as well; however, they fail to see evolution as an ongoing process. They say that any nonsexual members of the species would have already died out, so we must simply be repressing our natural desire for sex (this argument, naturally, lends itself well to a perception of asexuality as a disorder). On the other hand, those who see asexuality as a disability accept that humans are not yet “perfectly evolved,” and therefore it is conceivable that some of us may be born with disadvantageous genetic traits, such as a lack of sexual attraction.

However, there are some problems with this view. First of all, it relies on the assumption that sexuality is genetic, but as of this date, there is no proof that this is the case (personally, I’m inclined to believe it is a result of the interplay of many complex factors which we do not yet understand–making a mental note to post more on that later). Second, if one accepts the idea that asexuals are disabled due to some inherited physiological cause, then shouldn’t one also question whether or not homosexuals are also “disabled” due to a similar physiological cause? After all, they do not desire intercourse with any member of the opposite sex, and therefore they are highly unlikely to procreate, which is our evolutionary “goal” as a species. If one day there is a way to rewire asexuals’ brains to make them sexual, why not look for a way to rewire homosexuals’ brains to make them straight?

It is possible to accept this idea and still be consistent, but it’s a terribly heteronormative way of thinking. This conclusion that asexuality is a disability inherently makes the value judgment that sexuality is normal and good, while asexuality is abnormal and bad. Sexuals (heterosexuals, if one extends this view to include homosexuality) are making the claim that they inherently have an advantage over us. But what advantage?

According to the evolutionary model, again, we would be at a disadvantage when it comes to reproducing. However, in an era of widespread contraceptives, sexuality has been all but divorced from its reproductive function. Any sexual can tell you that the desire to engage in sexual activity for personal pleasure is entirely separate from the desire to procreate (or at least the conscious desire to procreate). For decades, it has been possible to separate procreation from sex, and now it is even possible to separate sex from procreation. Those asexuals who do wish to procreate but are not willing to subject themselves to sex now have the choice to undergo artificial insemination, and may even find a surrogate mother if they do not wish to carry the child themselves. And for those asexuals who don’t mind it, the desire to procreate can be a powerful motivator for sexual activity they would not otherwise be inclined to engage in. Those who believe that asexuality has already died out do not seem to be separating asexuality from celibacy, or recognizing that not all sexual activity is motivated by sexual attraction (or primary sexual desire).

Who can say whether asexuals are really dying out? There is no study showing that asexuals are less likely than sexuals to want to reproduce (and again, there’s no proof that it’s genetic anyway). Perhaps asexuality will, rather than die out, become more common. Perhaps in a hundred million years or so, with the aid of this technology, humans will become a sexless, genderless race, much like the J’naii of Star Trek. It’s a far-fetched idea, but it has as about as much basis in truth as the idea that asexuals will surely all die out (or have already). Who can say with any solid scientific backing that we are really at a disadvantage when it comes to reproduction? Might there even be some advantages to being an asexual parent which are being overlooked? One could argue, with just as much validity, that asexuals are more likely than sexuals to make good parents, because they are less likely to accidentally conceive children they do not really want, and because they would be less subject to the sexual frustration that inevitably comes with being a parent. This is taking an idea and running with it as far as one possibly can, without regard for the reality of the situation. Aren’t sexuals doing just that, without even examining their beliefs? Aren’t they relying on “common knowledge” rather than objectively examining the situation?

And even if we are at an evolutionary disadvantage, who cares? Why should we bring into the discussion something that will surely happen an unfathomably long time after our deaths? We’re here now, even if most people don’t know it. The question is, are we dealing with a disability or are we dealing with a minority sexual orientation?

If we are dealing with a disability, then what exactly is it that we are unable to do? According to M, we are lacking a sense. He compares asexuality to blindness, deafness, and anosmia. But I question whether this is really an accurate comparison. All three of those things are a lack of a physical sense, but sexuality is far more abstract. One could say that we are unable to experience sexual attraction, but the existence of “gray area” asexuals (like myself) proves that this is not necessarily the case (unless of course we are to be discounted as “true” asexuals, but most of us reject that line of thought). Isn’t asexuality, then, more of a predisposition to a very low level of sexual attraction than a lack of ability to feel it entirely? Maybe one could argue that there are people who can still see a little but are considered legally blind, and grasexuals are the equivalent of that. There are probably some asexuals out there who might accept this model. But I still think this whole comparison is rather iffy, due to the fact that we (humans) just don’t have a very sophisticated understanding of sexuality yet.

Dictionary.com’s definition of a disability is this: “a physical or mental handicap, esp. one that prevents a person from living a full, normal life or from holding a gainful job.” To go so far as to call asexuality a disability, then, even if it is not meant in a legal sense, is to say, literally, that we are incapable of living a “full and normal” life.

There’s that word again. Normal. What does it mean to be normal? The word is completely relative to the context in which it is spoken. Back in the Victorian era, I would have been considered normal, because all women were assumed to be asexual. Now that all people, men and women, are assumed to be sexual, I am not considered normal. And even within this one culture, there are quite a lot of conflicting opinions about what is normal. According to the evangelicals, only vanilla heterosexuality is normal. But according to sex-positive people, many more variations are accepted as normal, including kinkiness, homosexuality, and even polyamory. The rationale behind this is, what’s normal for one person is not normal for another. So why can’t asexuals be accepted as just one more variation?

But what’s REALLY disturbing to me is the conflation of normality with fulfillment. Is it not possible to live a life that, while considered to be quite “normal” by the culture in which one lives, is still profoundly unfulfilling? What is one to do, when one recoils from the values of one’s culture so strongly that to adhere to them is to deny one’s own inner nature?

Exactly what asexuals are now doing: forming communities, making ourselves known. We are shouting out to the world that hey, we don’t fit your ideas of what’s “normal” and what’s more, WE LIKE IT THAT WAY.

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10 thoughts on “Asexuality as a Disability?

  1. To me, the idea of asexuality being a disability makes absolutely no sense. It shows a lot of anti-asexual bias on M’s part, but that’s about it. There is always a serious question to be asked about what is a “disorder” or “disability” and what is “just different.” What makes being left handed “just different” and only have one hand a “disability?” The answer cannot come from any statistical deviation from what is typical. The difference lies in the fact that having two working hands is very useful in everyday life. And if you only have one, it makes everyday tasks a lot more difficult in some cases and impossible in others. Asexuality in no way limits ability to function in everyday life–the vast majority of people I’m around I’m expected not to have sex with (and I’m doing a pretty good job.) The whole problem people have with asexuality is that they have put sexuality in such an important part of their world-view that they have become unwilling to accept that some people are different from themselves.

    Anyway…I’m enjoying your blog and look forward to reading more.

    p.s. I think that there is evidence that asexuality is evolutionarily maladaptive (at least in the U.K.) Tony Bogaert’s 2004 study indicated that asexuals were much less likely to be married, to have been married or to have been in a long-term relationship than sexuals.

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  2. Yeah, that’s the way I see it, too. I think the thing is, M is equating “everyday life” with sexual situations, because they are so much a part of his everyday life that he can’t even imagine what it’s like to be asexual. And it’s true that I’m at a disadvantage when it comes to sexual situations, but wouldn’t he (as a heterosexual) be at the exact same disadvantage if he tried to have sex with another man? I would hardly call such context-specific disadvantages grounds for labeling oneself “disabled.”

    As for Bogaert’s study, that’s true, there is that… But I do think we have to take into account that the statistics are probably distorted, considering that maybe asexuals who haven’t been married etc. are more likely to have realized that they’re asexual, than those who have been involved in what they consider fairly normal sexual marriages/relationships–if they don’t have a reason to question it, why wouldn’t they default to defining themselves as heterosexual?

    Anyway, glad to hear you’re enjoying the blog! :)

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  3. Random sidenote—-I (very unfortunately!) have not read the Bogaert study, but it might not necessarily be too reliable at least in terms of the relationship success stuff. I agree that “maybe asexuals who haven’t been married etc. are more likely to have realized that they’re asexual,” but it also seems quite likely that Bogaert (and again, I apologize for not having read the study) did not include only relationships between asexuals. Do either of you (or anyone else reading this post) know if Bogaert counted for the asexual relationships only those with other asexuals, and not those between an asexual and a sexual? As an asexual, it’s not hard to imagine how difficult a relationship with a sexual would be … and I am quite romantic, it’s not that I don’t want to have a relationship.

    The only way I can agree with M’s theory that asexuality is a “disability” is that (at least for me) asexuality can be a barrier to starting relationships, since there’s always the fear that the other person will turn out sexual and it will all end in nothing, just because they’re so much more likely to be sexual than asexual. Sex isn’t an option for me (at least for now, though I don’t see that changing any time soon), so I can’t really see how a relationship would work with a sexual. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life alone (without a romantic partner, I mean), but I would prefer to be alone than to have to have sex. In that, it sometimes does feel like a disability, that I can’t have a relationship if and when I want out of fear that the other person will turn out sexual——but, of course, I know that it’s always possible that I’ll meet a good asexual guy (I’m hetero). There’s always the possibility of a way out, of a future that can involve love without sex, that doesn’t depend on technological innovation or whether the ability to pay for a certain operation. And in that, it is not a disability, but rather … an obstacle.

    PS: I love that someone else uses the term “graysexuality”! I used to identify as graysexual (though I don’t any more, I’ve recently shifted towards being more purely asexual).

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  4. Well, I have read the study, but it’s been a couple years since I did, so do forgive me if my memory’s a bit faulty. Heh. But I believe the 2004 study was the one taken from a national survey, and Bogaert just happened to notice that some of the respondents said they had never experienced sexual attraction. Since the survey was not written with asexuality in mind, I don’t think they would have collected information about whether the spouse was asexual or not, and I don’t remember reading anything about it. But again, I’d have to reread the study to be absolutely sure. Probably wouldn’t be a bad investment of my time, really, considering I’m not even sure I’m talking about the right study.

    In any case, re: asexuality being a barrier to starting relationships–I’m glad you brought that up, NaNolover. I had thought about including a section on that in my post, but I feared it would turn out much too long. I do agree that asexuals are at a disadvantage when it comes to forming relationships, but I think the key point in whether or not we can define it as a disability is this: Is this an inherent disadvantage, or is it contextual?

    Under the right circumstances, are asexuals capable of forming successful romantic relationships? AVEN provides several examples that yes, we can–both with other asexuals, and even sometimes with sexuals.

    However, we are certainly few and far between, and this demographic situation does make it much less likely that we will find those “right circumstances” under which to form successful relationships. But should we call asexuals disabled because they face a shortage of suitable potential mates? If so, then we must also call the straight men of China disabled, because of the shortage of women there. That makes no sense. Plus, in a different cultural context, like that of the Victorian era, I daresay most of us would be quite happy with our ability to form romantic relationships. Therefore, as you said, asexuality is not a disability, just an obstacle.

    And btw, thanks for commenting! :)

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  8. I’d have no problem considering my asexuality a disability, but that’s because I don’t see disability as a bad thing. I believe in the social model of disability, which defines disability as a mismatch between the abilities that society expects all people to have and the abilities that a given person actually has, which means that this person needs something that society deems as an unusual or special need. For example, most people don’t need to use an elevator – stairs work too. But for some people, stairs are useless and only an elevator will work, because their (physical) abilities aren’t what society expects.
    I’m a sex-repulsed asexual who wants to have a child. In our society, the standard accepted method of having a child is something that I can’t tolerate doing, so instead I’ll need to seek out another method that works for me. So in that sense, my asexuality is just as much a disability as infertility is.
    Other asexuals may not be disabled. If it doesn’t render you unable to do anything that you want or are required to do, it’s not a disability. If you’re a sex-indifferent romantic asexual, it might not significantly impact your ability to reproduce in the standard method. Or if you’re happy being childless, it wouldn’t be a problem if you’d have trouble having one. Of course asexuality could be a disability in other ways, for example if it impedes your ability to achieve your relationship goals. Similarly, a Deaf person who lives in a community where everyone knows sign and isn’t required to do any tasks that are significantly easier if you can hear wouldn’t be disabled either.
    The key thing is that I don’t think a disability is a bad thing – just something that makes you have trouble fitting into society in some way. Granted, some disabilities also cause problems that are much less societally dependent, like chronic pain or health issues, but those aren’t necessary to have a disability.
    A lot of people think of disability as a mechanism that isn’t working, but that view fails in several ways. Firstly, all or most humans have mechanisms that don’t work, such as wisdom teeth and the broken jaw muscle gene that makes our bite force so weak. (Other ape species have a working form of this gene, so they can bite a lot harder than we can.) Secondly, not all disabilities result from a broken mechanism, many are a lot more complicated than that. (For example Down Syndrome results from having too much function from several genes.) The social model works much better.

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    • Well, keep in mind that the post you’re commenting on is, by Internet Time standards, pretty much ancient. I agree with the social model of disability and that it’s not a bad thing to be disabled. The issue is that the person who told me “you have a disability” (because I am asexual) WAS saying that it’s a bad thing to have a disability, and in the same breath telling me that it made me “like a 5 year old with a gun”—and using it to excuse his own atrocious behavior (that is, saying that there was no problem with the way that he treated me, it’s just that I’m incapable of enjoying sex). That is not factually true in my case, as my later experiences have proven.

      But, all that aside… I mean, yeah, let’s say we are describing things as a disability, in just the way you describe. But in that scenario, then isn’t it sex-repulsion that is actually the disabling factor rather than asexuality?

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      • I guess I don’t see my sex-repulsion as separate from my asexuality. I think of it a bit like gender dysphoria for transgender people – not all trans people have dysphoria, but for those who do, it’s pretty integral to their experience of being trans. Same for me as a sex-repulsed asexual.
        I also agree that the guy you described was an awful person, and was making that argument for all the wrong reasons.

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