Essays at the intersection of marketing and life.
Almost ten years ago I began a post-grad in psychology – spending two years learning full time. In celebration of this rich experience, I’m publishing some of the essays I wrote at the time which seem to have resonance today. This one – regarding how seriously we should take the phenomenon of asexuality – feels relevant mostly because it has remained adjacent but silent in the cultural heat around gender. Ten years later, I continue to predict that we will some day arrive to a moment where we deeply respect and acknowledge this hidden community, and rejoice in the insight they bring to those of us who self-describe as sexual beings.
The original title of this essay: Is asexuality a bona fidesexual orientation? A psychological enquiry
The 9-11 Commission Report (National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, 2004), produced two years after such catastrophe for the world’s ‘super power’, is a revealing document describing how a titan was understood and then outwitted by a tiny adversary. In the report’s concluding strategic remarks, one theme stands tall: minority interests tend to have a fresh, penetrating and focused understanding of the dominant interest, and can uncover levels of truth which reification of the incumbent often obscures. In the case of September 11th, this proposition was at the heart of explaining how Bin Laden penetrated American security and re-negotiated the political landscape in the doing. Although wicked in motivation, the thesis at play – how the small player brings fresh insight into the bigger – is very interesting. In the case of human sexuality, such a thesis predicts that examining asexuality may not only enlighten the debate on its place within human sexual orientations, but may also reveal some fresh truths regarding its titans: sexual people.
This paper seeks to trace out the current psychological theory and evidence regarding the evolution of sexual orientation – focusing on non-heterosexual orientations. Rather than root itself in uniquely essentialism or determinism, the author considers it useful to cover the interactionist theories which are considered its most compelling accounts. It then considers the case of asexuality and explores how best it should be categorised – as an orientation or as a pathology. In its concluding remarks, the author weighs the evidence regarding the status of asexuality, offers an opinion, and then goes on to comment on how the asexuality debate informs how the psychological community thinks about human sexuality and sexual orientation.
DYNAMICS OF NON-HETEROSEUXAL ORIENTATIONS
Sexual orientation represents a complex interaction of physical and psychological influences that are set within cultural, political and historical contexts (Bohan, 1996). Its definition is contentious, some seeing it as purely essentialist (rooted in biology) and others seeing it as purely socially deterministic (rooted in environment).
Prior to the 20thcentury, almost all explanations of sexual orientation were without scientific verification and were dominated by political and religious agendas. God was pleased with procreational sexual activity only and the enterprises of ‘sexual inverts’ (non heterosexuals) were considered acts of the devil (Ellis & Ames, 1987). Raffalovich (1901) was the first to assert dichotomy in orientation, positing that the explanation of sexual deviance (e.g. a feminine soul in a masculine body) conflated gender and orientation identities. After millennia of human history, the conceptualisation of homosexual orientation (as distinct from the act) is only 100 years old, indicating the power of the majority to trample the voice of the minority. It is interesting that the word we use to this day to describe the affiliate of homosexuality – a homosexual – is more adverb than noun.
Alfred Kinsey (1948) proposed a continuum of heterosexuality through homosexuality, using the six-point Kinsey Scale (a seventh point, denoting asexuality, was added much later). Placement was determined by behaviour and, notably, not self-identification. Kinsey’s stark absence of self-identification in orientation reflects how socio-cultural norms influence psychological debate.
Theorists critique the Kinsey scale as it conflates two distinct dimensions – the heteroerotic and the homoerotic (Rodriguez-Rust, 2000). More recently, a two-dimensional view of sexual orientation (heteroerotic, homoerotic), determined by a study of males using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (N=1138), was proposed by Haslam (1997), theoretically accounting for asexuality for the first time. This dual scale approach finds strong agreement in the literature as a sound basis for plotting the nuance of sexual orientation.
Minority sexual orientations tend to be described in medical terms and are often pathologised (Hammack, 2005). Foucault (1978) argues that this is driven by a need for power and control of the dominant force. The medical disease model has exerted powerful force through much of the 20thcentury. Homosexuality was only de-pathologised as a psychiatric illness in 1973 by the American Psychiatric Association, and its practice decriminalised in Ireland in 1993.
The third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (APA, 1980) was the first to include Inhibited Sexual Desire Disorders (ISDD). Subsequently renamed Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD), this is defined as a deficiency or absence of sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity, which causes marked distress. Prause & Graham (2007) note that the very act of defining low sexual desire assumes that a certain level of sexual desire is normal, a position which denies any validity to an asexual orientation. It should equally be noted, however, that all commentators acknowledge that HSDD does indeed exist; at issue is the proposition that not all people considered to have HSDD report stress, or feel that their condition is a disorder.
Today, self-identification is considered the touchstone of orientation rather than Kinsey’s behaviourist approach (Ragins, 2008) and reflects a change in focus from the external behaviours to internal motivators – and from the biological to the psychological. This echoes a parallel discussion in the literature regarding essentialism versus social-constructionism which Sullivan (2003), in the context of homosexuality, characterises as a tug of war. Essentialism views orientation as ahistorical and acultural, a natural result of biology; constructionism suggests orientation is defined more by cultural contexts (Weeks, 1991). As there is evidence on each side of the dialectic, a Kuhnian paradigm shift may occur (Sternberg & Ben Zeev, 2001). In the interim, the pervasive approach in psychology is interactionist, seeking to unify both points of view, rather than require a decision regarding which is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ (Newcombe, 2002).
INTERACTIONIST THEORIES OF SEXUAL ORIENTATION
Bem (1996) posits that biological variables (genes, hormones) do not code for sexual orientation per se, but do determine childhood temperaments. These influence a child’s preference for same-sex or opposite-sex activities and peers. In turn, this leads children to feel different from their opposite or same-sex peers, perceiving them as exotic. Through autonomic arousal, this is traduced into erotic attraction for dissimilar peers.
This layered account of sexual orientation is asserted to be particularly insightful in Western gender-polarised cultures as it, itself, is oppositional in conception. Bell, Weinberg & Hammersmith (1981) offer confirmatory evidence, finding that childhood gender non-conformity was the strongest and only significant predictor of non-heterosexual orientation in adult men and women (N = 1000 homosexual men and women; N = 500 control heterosexual men and women).
Peplau, Garnets, Spalding, Conley, & Veniegas(1998) refute Bem’s thesis, claiming its evidence to be weak and poorly interpreted. The authors note Blanchard & Zucker’s (1994) review of six studies of gay men’s sibling gender breakdowns. Exotic-to-Erotic theory predicts a higher incidence of sisters than brothers versus heterosexual men. All studies have failed to confirm this prediction. Importantly, even though Bem claims that his model allows for a panoply of individual differences, it is rather difficult to intuitively see where asexuality, an absence of desire, fits into his oppositional paradigm.
Using Life Course Theory, Hammack (2005) posits a moderate stance between essentialism and constructionism. Life Course Theory concerns itself with socially defined events and roles experienced over time. The author proposes a theory of sexual orientation, acknowledging four tenets:
This theory (intended as a proposition to inspire research) holds some interest for the case of asexuality: it asserts that all orientations are ephemeral constructs invented by humans, and subject to dissipation and replacement. (This author finds the possibility of no heterosexuality in future is intellectually beguiling). Hammack’s theory tends to deny asexuality, however, in its assertion that orientation is an underlying motivational force. Asexuality is all about the absence of such desire.
THE NATURE OF ASEXUALITY
The term ‘asexuality’ has long been used in biology to describe those cells which reproduce without sex. Its usage in the context of human sexuality is recent and evolving (Bogaert, 2006). There is no single universal definition of asexuality, but most researchers include two key themes – absence of sexual desire, and absence of sexual behaviour (Prause & Graham, 2007). The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), an internet-based community of over 8000 people self-describing as asexual, define it thus: an asexual is a person who does not experience sexual attraction (AVEN, 2011). Note that ‘experience’ has just a small possibility of double meaning, connoting desire and behaviour.
Asexuality, subject to several definitions, can thus be manifested in several ways. Many attest to no sexual interest whatsoever. Others attest to sexual desire and actually express it (e.g. through masturbation) but do not direct this sexual interest towards another person or thing (Pagan Westfall, 2004). Obviously, such an assignation is not comprehended in the current literature, suggesting a lack of clarity at the centre of the asexual debate. Interestingly, some asexuals claim romantic emotional relationships which do not include sex; others claim that they maintain sexual relations with their emotional partner for the purposes of satisfying their partner and without any inherent sexual interest (AVEN, 2011).
Pagan Westfall (2004) notes that asexuality attracts a measure of stigmatisation, explaining this in the context of the highly sexualised Western society. Although asexuality does not create feelings of revulsion long associated with homosexuality, it is poorly understood, condescended to and considered a ‘dud’. In short, it is singular in sexual orientations, attracting zero aspirational value in our current culture.
Bogaert (2004) used pre-existing data from a U.K. National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Wellings, Field, Johnson, Wadsworth, & Bradshaw,1994) to suggest that approximately 1% of that adult sample was asexual (Defined as those who endorsed the statement: ‘I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all’). Other studies estimate its prevalence on a par with homosexuality and bisexuality (Scherrer, 2008). Naturally, prevalence is particularly difficult to determine with such a stigmatising subject; even researchers often use the term ‘asexual’ in a pejorative sense, perhaps driven by the necessary description of absence at its heart (Ragins, 2008).
WHERE SHOULD ASEXUALITY SIT?
Researchers’ arguments against asexuality as a sexual orientation are expressed thus:
Heiman (2002), directly contradicting Anders (2005) above, points out that evidence for the effective treatment of HSDD is limited, suggesting the possibility of an inherent and enduring lack of desire, rather than a temporary deficiency. Bogaert (2006) argues that those who believe asexuality is not an orientation represent an essentialist position, as they assume an underlying orientation towards an opposite other which simply needs to be uncovered.
Scherrer (2008) notes connections between asexuality and other sexual minorities, notably that it is medicalised and marginalised, like homosexuality in the past. Perhaps at the core of this argument is the volition of the individual patient; if he / she self-reports an absence of distress experienced or caused in feeling no sexual desire, why then should the psychological community pathologise this?
Importantly, Rodriguez-Rust (1996) claims asexuals share the vital psycho-social experience with the LGBT community of disclosure, whereby ‘coming out’ is a cathartic expression of the self in relation to others, leading to improved psychological well-being. (Note that this claim is not substantiated with evidence for asexuals, thus far).
WEIGHING THE ARGUMENTS
On assessment of the arguments on both sides, it would appear that the categorisation of asexuality is driven as much by philosophy as by evidence. If it is accepted that sexual orientation should use self-identification as its principal vector, it is likely that a growing (and louder) minority of asexuals will drive change in public perception, which will, in turn, change psychology. Prause and Graham (2007) note that asexuality has been driven by online communities. The potential of such bottom-up connection and emancipation is difficult to assess, but it has the author’s backing.
To label something as pathology is to stigmatise it (Bogaert, 2006), and such definitions must be based on the distress to self / othersmodel for validity. If psychology is indeed about understanding human lives and making them better (Brunner, 1996), the psychological community must consider the true merit in its lack of recognition of asexuality, and its blanket approach to HSDD as described.
Essentialism and social determinism are philosophies, not universally falsifiable truths. Why then, should a viewpoint govern what is and is not an orientation? In the end, this author believes that minority sexual orientations tend to be fought over – until a tipping point for change is established. It is noteworthy that neither of the theoretical approaches to sexual orientation discussed can fully comprehend the issues of a potential asexual orientation; a Kuhnian paradigm shift is indeed in need.
On reflection, the present author would like to make two comments:
It is not yet agreement that asexuality should indeed be considered a bona fide sexual orientation. The area as yet lacks both the theoretical constructs and the psychological evidence to make such a judgement from a psychological perspective. What is clear, however, is that a significant number of people choose to self-define by using the term ‘asexual’. It is for psychology to truly interrogate its meaning, hone its definition, objectively measure its prevalence, and assess its ability to confer harm or distress on others, or on the individual. Such building blocks will help build the psychological case, and possibly avert the torture of a non-pathology being pathologised.
From a sociological stance, perhaps it is true that changes in science happen through evangelists, not the iterative nudges of many. Perhaps this is also true for human sexuality? For the asexual community to garner respect in psychology, it is likely that a charismatic proponent of the cause must emerge. (The gay community effected this through the community of the arts). This is what is missing from the debate on asexuality – a critical mass of voice, so that it will be heard. Perhaps, in of course a constructive and wholly positive manner, the asexuals of the world will execute their own 9/11 on the dominant sexual public, and their voices will then be heard. Indeed, perhaps then a misunderstood out-group of human sexuality may be welcomed to the in-group. And explain to those dominant sexualsa few home truths garnered from the edges.
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