None of the Above: Toward Identity and Community-Based Understandings of (A)sexualities
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- Scherrer, K.S. & Pfeffer, C.A. Arch Sex Behav (2017) 46: 643. doi:10.1007/s10508-016-0900-6
Seemingly unfettered by growing concerns about overpopulation (the UN estimates that the world population could reach 11.2 billion by 2100), sexuals continue to engage in activities and behaviors deeply centered in the libidinal. Such practices not only precipitously grow the planet, but channel vital energy and attention away from concerted action to solve some of the most pressing issues of our time as they focus on and pursue (some might contend obsessively and compulsively) sex and sexual interaction. Clustering in communities that reflect, legitimate, and even celebrate their shared commitments to sex and sexual interaction, sexuals organize themselves into household and living arrangements that more readily enable sexual access and develop social media and internet technologies to facilitate nearly instantaneous sexual connections between virtual strangers. Sexuals’ pursuit of sexual relationships, despite the existence of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy (each of which is associated with not insignificant morbidity and mortality risk), defies logic but may be understood as satisfying deeply seated impulses and bolstering fragile egos, even if only temporarily. Sexuals also produce and reside in communities saturated with sexualized media, entertainment, clothing, language, recreational activities, and art, turning even non-sexual activities (such as dining or shopping for a car) into confusingly sexually charged experiences. One cannot help but become overwhelmed and disoriented when considering the extent to which sexuality preoccupies and penetrates nearly every aspect of sexuals’ everyday consciousness, behaviors, and culture today.
Hyperbolic and ridiculous? Perhaps. Yet, as scholars trained in both sociology and social work, we find such turnabout to be not only fair play, but necessary to shake us out of assumptions of which we may not even be aware we are making. Our intention here is to draw attention to the ways in which our writing and academic inquiries may place marginal social groups under the microscope, even pathologizing or dehumanizing them, while taking for granted and unremarkable those at the normative center. In some ways, our response might be described as Szaszian or Minerian. Thomas Szasz (1960), an incendiary figure within the psychiatric community, challenged psychiatry’s approach toward “mental illness,” asserting that much of what has been categorized as such might be more rightfully described as “problems in living,” often eliciting psychiatric categorization due to social norm breaching that makes “normals” uncomfortable. Similarly, anthropologist Horace Miner (1956) penned the infamous, “Body ritual among the Nacirema,” within which he outlined the gendered body rituals of Americans, describing them in such distantly objectified and horrific detail that they became unrecognizable even (and perhaps especially) to American students of anthropology.
As the opening paragraph of our commentary indicates, we find it necessary to draw attention to the questions: Why are we working to categorize asexuals and asexuality, to what ends, and what are the potential implications of doing so? Further, what assumptions may be revealed through a critical examination of the processes of categorization of asexuality? Below, we respond to the evidence presented by Brotto and Yule (2016) for understanding asexuality as a disorder/dysfunction, paraphilia, or sexual orientation. Ultimately, they ascribe asexuality to the category of sexual orientation. Yet their title, provocatively, also leaves room for a fourth option: none of the above. From a social constructionist perspective, and one grounded in published narratives from individuals and communities self-identified as asexual, we find this fourth (yet relatively unexplored) possibility most compelling. In this response, we briefly discuss why each of the three typological possibilities outlined by Brotto and Yule is problematic and why a fourth possibility—asexuality as an identity and community—most effectively describes both asexuality and those who claim membership to this category. We also suggest that advancing identity and community-focused explorations of what have previously been conceptualized as orientations may make sense for a broader constellation of gender and sexual minorities.
The Problematics of Asexuality as a Mental Disorder or Sexual Dysfunction
In considering the appropriateness of asexuality as a mental disorder or sexual dysfunction, Brotto and Yule ultimately conclude that there is insufficient evidence for this categorization. We agree with this assessment, particularly considering the finding that, for people who are asexual (as opposed to people diagnosed with hyposexual dysfunction), not having sexual desire is largely ego-syntonic. In the absence of personal distress over low or nonexistent sexual desire, we can see little evidence for classification of people who are asexual as either sexually disordered or dysfunctional. Brotto and Yule question whether asexuality might be considered a mental disorder comorbid with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Yet, we would point out that ASD is yet another controversial diagnostic category, with some arguing that a more useful framework for understanding the constellation of experiences, behaviors, identities, and social responses to those who most often bear such a diagnosis would be that of neuro-atypicality (Jaarsma & Welin, 2012). We contend that attention to both sexual and neurodiversity may fruitfully lead to more comprehensive modes of understanding not only that considered atypical, but that considered typical as well.
As Brotto and Yule note, one challenge mental health professionals face in assessing experiences of distress is in disentangling internal sources of distress from that deriving from social contexts. Given that people who are asexual may experience distress because of others’ expressed discomfort with their asexuality, future research might fruitfully examine the social stigma and discrimination processes associated with asexuality and how they normalize and privilege sexual identities and communities. Helping individuals cope with the stress of social stigma and marginalization is an important goal for mental health services. However, to improve the lives of people who are asexual, an equally (if not more) important goal is to destigmatize what might be best understood as benign sexual difference. Depathologizing asexuality, and other forms of sexual difference, is one important mechanism toward achieving this goal.
The Problematics of Asexuality as a Paraphilia
As Brotto and Yule discuss, paraphilias are defined as “atypical sexual attractions” and do not meet criteria for a mental health disorder unless they are coupled with significant personal distress or distress for others (for instance, in the form of a non-consensual partner). The inclusion of paraphilias in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) reflects a puzzling decision on the part of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), as many paraphilias do not meet criteria as mental health disorders per se.1 Why, then, are these paraphilias included in the DSM, if not to inform treatment and support for individuals with mental health challenges? When examining this issue through a social constructionist lens, we might reasonably ask: What purpose does diagnosing these paraphilias serve? Who and what benefits from retaining such diagnoses?
Potential evidence for classifying asexuality as a paraphilia include, according to Brotto and Yule, some asexual community members’ reports that their masturbatory fantasies (if they do masturbate) include focus on fictional characters having sex (rather than themselves) or attraction to an imagined self in sexual interactions. Here, we inquire: Is this not also true for many, if not most, sexual people? We find a potential parallel here to another controversial diagnosis—autogynephilia. Autogynephilia, diagnosed almost exclusively among transgender women, involves sexual excitement generated around the thought of oneself as a woman. As Bettcher (2014) convincingly argues, many sexual fantasies pivot upon seeing ourselves not quite as we are but as we wish ourselves to be. Perhaps we are thinner, more beguiling, kinkier, or younger. To characterize such attachments and excitations as pathological only among a select group of marginalized people, and not the broader population, suggests the operation of stigma and discrimination rather than diagnostic acuity. While Brotto and Yule point to this possibility, they also suggest that future research should “aim to document the frequency of paraphilic fantasies exhibited among asexual individuals.” We do not concur.
Ultimately, we argue that the inclusion of non-disordered paraphilias in the DSM does more to reify and shore up normative forms of gender and sexual desire than to improve the lives and well-being of those who express less conventional genders and sexualities. Instead of embracing gender and sexual diversity, particular forms deviating from the expected or normative are pathologized under the logics of a “lack of a concept of benign…variation” through which some gender and sexual expressions are “burdened with an excess of significance” (Rubin, 1984, p. 151). We urge a departure from research that renders benign gender and sexual variation disordered, dysfunctional, or pathological.
The Problematics of Asexuality as a Unique Sexual Orientation
Brotto and Yule indicate that there is no consensus regarding how best to understand the concept of sexual orientation. Despite this, they offer the following definition: “an internal mechanism that directs a person’s sexual and romantic disposition toward females, males or both, to varying degrees.” One way this definition fails to reflect experience is through focus on the sexual object choice of one’s partners. This conceptualization relies on assumptions about both sex and gender as immutable and binary despite the proliferating literature to the contrary (Davis, 2015; Pfeffer, 2012; Preves, 2003; Westbrook & Schilt, 2014). Brotto and Yule draw heavily upon Seto’s (2012) three-criteria model for operationalizing sexual orientation as grounded in: age of onset, sexual and romantic behavior, and stability of attraction over time. Based on empirical evidence, we find this conceptualization woefully inadequate, particularly when generalizing to and understanding women’s sexual identities (for a more complex theoretical treatment, see van Anders, 2015).
Early age of onset as a criterion for sexual orientation fails to consider how the lack of available language around certain types of experience related to gender and sexuality may make it difficult or even impossible for some people to identify, label, or speak about their attractions and experiences (Pfeffer, 2014; Scherrer, 2016). Empirical research also demonstrates that women often arrive at non-normative sexual identities later in the life course than men, that there is broad variability in sexual behaviors despite sexual self-identification, and that sexual attraction often varies across time (Diamond, 2009; Dodge et al., 2016; see also van Anders, 2015 and associated commentaries by Moser, 2016; Reiss, 2016; Valentova & Varella, 2016).
Arguably, the purpose of the concept of sexual orientation is to categorize and describe people’s (a)sexual lives and proclivities. Therefore, a key requirement of any conceptualization should be: How well does the definition and criteria put forward by researchers capture the experiences associated with people’s sexual and romantic identities? Brotto and Yule’s discussion of asexuality, we argue, prompts additional questions about the utility of such a definition/concept for capturing the complexities of people’s (a)sexual and (a)romantic dispositions. As such, we turn toward a conceptual approach that allows for more holistic assessments of (a)sexual lives, identities, experiences, and communities.
Toward Asexuality as an Identity and Community
While it is not the intended subject of Brotto and Yule’s paper, the themes of identity and community are woven throughout their analysis. Brotto and Yule note that use of the concept of asexual in their paper refers to self-identified asexual people. Brotto and Yule describe how asexual advocates have lobbied for inclusion in sexual minority communities (e.g., Pride events), created identity-based communities in online spaces, and faced challenges from those outside asexual communities because of their identities. They also concur with previous research calling for the need to move studies of asexuality “from pathology to identity.”
We find that the concepts of identity and community are particularly salient frameworks for understanding asexuality, as well as other forms of gender and sexuality, perhaps particularly those that fall outside normative or binary categories. By identity, we mean the ways that people understand themselves and the language they use to explain themselves to others. Identities are locally, socially, and historically contingent as they rely on the availability of language to make oneself intelligible to others (Kazyak, 2012; Pfeffer, 2014; Scherrer, 2008, 2016). Although identities are profoundly social, they are also deeply internal and personal. Self-identification uses shared terminology and meaning to convey how people understand themselves (Pfeffer, 2014; Scherrer, 2008). Gender and sexual communities extend this concept, as they enable broader understanding of meaningful social interactions and relationships that produce, reinforce, provide support for (or challenges to) one’s identities (Pfeffer, 2014). Communities represent an extension of one’s internal sense of self, as they provide opportunities for people with similar experiences to come together, outside of the imposing, curious gazes of experts. Gender and sexual communities have important implications for sexuality research, as these communities often help individuals find instrumental support such as information and resources, as well as emotional support, for instance in finding support in coping with stigma and marginalization. The concepts of identity and community, we argue, facilitate more holistic understandings of how attraction and desire are manifest in everyday life.
As the introduction to this commentary implies, we are interested not only in contributing to the dialogue about how asexuality may be understood within our contemporary lexicon of sexual categorization, but also in examining how asexual identities and communities can help us better understand all of our work as scholars of gender and sexuality. For instance, Scherrer (2010a, 2010b) discusses how asexual people’s relationships challenge and extend conceptualizations of sexual people’s relationship possibilities. If the purpose of research is to better understand and explain human experience, perhaps ultimately to improve people’s lives, then researchers need categories that meaningfully reflect people’s experiences. Identities and communities offer complex, relational, and contextual categories for doing this work.
We are not necessarily suggesting doing away with categories of sexual disorder, dysfunction, or orientation. Rather, we encourage that these concepts are used purposively, allowing research questions to guide the analysis. When conducting research on gender and sexuality, it is critical to center questions of social context, power, hierarchy, and normativity in the analysis. These issues undergird our scientific frameworks and, without explicit attention to them, we risk reinscribing the same systems of normativity that have, historically and contemporarily, been used to pathologize gender and sexual difference.
In this commentary, we have taken a step back from asexuality per se and, instead, refocused attention on exactly what is at stake as we engage in diagnostic and categorization processes. How do concepts such as sexual dysfunction and disorder, paraphilia, and sexual orientation hold the potential to produce social subjects and certain understandings about them rather than simply describe them? Why might it be productive to move toward “people first” language when discussing asexuality so that individuals are described as “people who are asexual” rather than “asexuals”? How might closer interrogation of normative categories and identities tell us more about social stigma, discrimination, and marginalization processes directed toward gender and sexual minorities and their communities? How might these inquiries destabilize what we take for granted as normal?
Brotto and Yule offer a provocative overview of the literature on sexual dysfunction and disorder, paraphilias, and sexual orientation, as these three categories relate to asexuality. Our sociologically informed analysis provides an opportunity for examining processes of categorization to propose a fourth possibility for understanding asexuality. Moving toward conceptualization of asexuality as an identity and community allows us to avoid two potential pitfalls Szasz (1960) and Miner (1956) illuminated decades earlier—institutionally pathologizing difference and rendering it grotesque, even unrecognizable, to those it seeks to represent.
Each of the co-authors contributed equally to the conceptualization and writing of this commentary.