Saturday, February 14, 2009

We're Not All Sexual

Many people have complained about the portrayal of disabled people as asexual. Although I really don't understand what it's like to have your sexuality denied and ignored like that, I do understand that it's not a good thing.
But there seems to be a tendency to assume either that disabled people in general (or in certain categories) have nothing in common with normal people, or to assume we're not really different from normal people - or only in superficial ways. In terms of disability and sexuality, this comes off as either assuming all disabled people are asexual, or assuming all disabled people are just as sexual as anyone else.
The latter assumption is what I see many disability rights activists expressing, when they talk about sexuality. They discuss sexuality as something universal to all human beings, including disabled people. Some acknowledge sexual differences such as being gay, but they still say that everyone has sexual feelings.
Well, not everyone does. Certain disabilities, such as intersexing conditions and autism, are associated with asexuality. Not every autistic or intersexed person is asexual, but a certain number of us are. We exist, even if your claims that all humans are sexual deny our existence.
It's especially bad when sex education materials do this. As a pre-teen, I got sex education that denied any sexual differences - even homosexuality - and left me confusing nonsexual liking for sexual attraction because I didn't realize it was possible for me not to have crushes on boys. I don't really blame my school for not telling kids about asexuality, because it's so rare, they probably didn't know about it. But there are sex education books out there for autistic kids that also suggest that everyone has sexual desires starting in puberty - and asexual people are not rare among autistics, especially autistic girls. There are also some autistics who develop their sexuality later than usual, typically in their twenties, and therefore are asexual as teens but not as adults. I'd estimate that at least a third of autistic teens will have no or very little desire for sex. A third of your intended audience is a lot of people to ignore.
And I think a big part of this is the idea that saying disabled people - any disabled people - are asexual has been portrayed as a nasty stereotype. Somehow, even acknowledging that we exist, that we aren't interested in that sort of thing, seems to be taken as denying that we're real people with emotions. Well, no, asexual people are not emotionless. We're not incapable of love, because love does not just mean sexual attraction. It's possible to love a close friend, a parent, a child, or a sibling. And that love is just as real, and can be just as passionate, as sexual love.
I don't think it's a bad thing at all to be asexual. In fact, I'm glad I am - it seems to save me from a lot of angst, since I'm not constantly looking for Mr Right. I just wish there wasn't this idea that sexuality is fundamental to every person. Our society is obsessed with sexuality, but we're disability rights activists, we're supposed to challenge society's assumptions.

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Blogger Dave Hingsburger said...

You've made some good points, I think in the struggle to recognize the sexuality of people with disabilities we forget that within the disability community will be the same broad range of sexuality expressed from asexual to polysexual. Thanks for this reminder, I promise to be more careful in the future.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Lindsay said...

Good post!

I hadn't known anything about how many people are asexual on the spectrum vs. in the general population. How did you arrive at your figure of one-third?

This --- "As a pre-teen, I got sex education that ... left me confusing nonsexual liking for sexual attraction because I didn't realize it was possible for me not to have crushes on boys" --- and this --- "[A]sexual people are not emotionless. We're not incapable of love, because love does not just mean sexual attraction" --- really resonate with me. I'm not asexual so much as I just have a really, really low sex drive, and for me romantic love is often just an intensification of close friendship.

4:50 PM  
Blogger FridaWrites said...

To me asexuality should be included and at least implied when sexuality and disability are included--asexuality is something I'm aware of and sensitive to, though I didn't write about it specifically. Just as people shouldn't pressure ableds into relationships, for example, they shouldn't pressure people with disabilities into relationships. Asexuality is an orientation people can marginalize.

7:10 PM  
Blogger stevethehydra said...

A very similar post here:

I actually envy asexual people quite a lot - at the moment at least, i would very much prefer to be without my sex drive, because it reduces my concentration, gets in the way of loads of other stuff in my head, makes me paranoid that it affects my friendships, and generally makes me depressed.

The sex-positive/polyamorous circles i move in tend to be fairly accepting of asexuality, actually, but probably less accepting of having a sex drive but preferring to be rid of it.

I have encountered the assumption that all autistic people (in particular all autistic women) are asexual - in fact, thinking about it, autistic people sometimes almost seem to get stereotyped with an exaggerated version of the "mainstream" gender-essentialist stereotypes, in that women are seen as asexual and men as unrestrained sexual predators, but sometimes also get stereotyped regardless of gender as being asexual (which latter one disabled people in general seem to get, but the former seems particular to autistic/developmentally disabled, rather than physically impaired, people)...

I was asexual until the age of about 16, after which i developed (what seems to be, as far as i can) a sex drive of typical strength (tho possibly with some differences in focus from the "standard" straight male sex drive - i'm often told that i'm more like a typical lesbian in those respects), but i am always shocked/amazed by other people's descriptions of how early in childhood they had sexual feelings - i didn't realise for a *long* time that it was "normal" to have sexual arousal, if not always actually sexual feelings for particular people, even before the start of physical puberty.

I also know one person who is almost-asexual at the age of 26, but whose family (at least the men, for several generations) have nearly always been asexual up until their late 20s or even early 30s (despite going through physical puberty at the normal time), then suddenly developed a "normal" male sexuality 10-15 years "late". They have some autistic-like traits in the family, although no one has a diagnosis, but many of the men who were asexual until 30ish seemed otherwise entirely neurotypical.

I definitely agree that in sex-positive discourse about disability and sexuality the attempts to counter the mainstream assumption of all disabled people as asexual can run a risk of falling into the opposite assumption and erasing the life experience of those who actually *are* asexual, and that acceptance needs to run both ways...

11:21 AM  
Blogger Lindsay said...

I've also seen something like this come up on feminist blogs, only the stereotype being complained about isn't asexuality so much as lesbianism and/or celibacy coupled with a lack of conventional attractiveness.

This makes sense in the context of feminism, too --- just as "But we can be sexual too!!!" makes sense in the context of disability-rights activism --- because so much of the backlash against feminism has focused on portraying feminists as prudes who just hate sex. (Or as lesbians who have no interest in sex with men). But sometimes mainstream feminists go beyond just saying that feminism is for all women into implying that no real feminist is a hairy-legged lesbian. (Or asexual, or celibate, or unattractive).

And yes, I think this problem stems from a simple lack of understanding that not everyone has the same level of sexual desire, or even any sexual desire at all. Consider the existence of "Desire Disorder" in the DSM. Not wanting to have sex, or even not wanting to have sex all that often, is considered a dysfunction rather than a difference.

(I will point out, though, that when I took Abnormal Psych in college, my professor made sure to emphasize that he didn't think low sex drive was a disorder unless it actually made the person unhappy to have a low sex drive. Which might happen, especially if you're in a monogamous relationship with someone you really, really like whose sex drive is way higher than yours. That, if anyone is interested, came up in my own relationship, and is one of the major reasons we decided to become polyamorous.)

3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for pointing this out. Indeed it was something I had assumed as well and your post was an important reminder.

6:12 AM  
Blogger Ettina said...

One third is just a wild guess, to be honest. I've met/read about many autistics, and it seems like about that many, but I really have no actual data.

2:47 PM  

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