Make Sure To Frame Asexuality, Clearly, as a Sexual Orientation

This is my (1 day late) entry for the June 2017 Carnival of Aces, which was themed around “Asexual Education”.


Today, in the afternoon into evening as we went grocery shopping at a few stores and then cooked dinner together, I had some amazing conversations with my dad, spanning:

  • the nature of asexuality and aromanticism
  • the complexities of what different people experience
  • the often unintentional and subtle erasure in TV shows
  • multiple real people’s experiences in the local ace meetup group and what that ends up playing out like
  • etc

And basically I was engaging in a much more 201 (rather than 101), in-depth version of asexuality education, imparting my nuanced lived experience from 4-ish years exploring these topics and what’s been on my mind lately to a straight ally who has enough foundational groundwork to basically “Get” all of it.

For this month’s Carnival of Aces, one of the suggestions of topics we could talk about was:

How can those of us who aren’t professional educators teach about asexuality? What are some good places/resources to start? Is anyone currently looking for people to teach about asexuality?

and I think there are so many ways!! It’s such a complicated topic.

I’m one of the co-organizers of Asexuals of the Mid-Atlantic, a regional ace meetup group centered in Washington DC but spreading fairly far outside that city too. Our ace meetup group is more social and is struggling to get started doing activist-y things. We were approached to see if we had anyone who would be willing to speak at two different DC colleges, as they have asked for speakers! (Answering that question, “Is anyone currently looking for people to teach about asexuality?”, I believe Gallaudet University is, especially someone both ace and fluent in American Sign Language, as well as Howard University looking for a speaker – or at least both schools were! In the form of a guest speaker!) But I think us organizers failed to find a speaker, didn’t even try that hard, didn’t know where to start? I reached out to the one Howard alum I knew of in our group and then when that didn’t work out… I mean.

This stuff is harder to actually accomplish than you might think, sometimes. Not that many aces who I know personally are super willing to be involved in this sort of speaking engagement. It takes bravery and confidence and more, plus location can be an issue. But more and more people every year are realizing asexuality exists and are eager to learn more.

When educating family, friends, or significant others, is it easier to point them to other resources or sit down and explain it yourself?

I find myself more and more often at atheist related meetup groups, coming out as ace. I flail a lot in person when trying to speak about it off the cuff when I don’t have a lot of time to explain much, but I get better and better at it with more and more practice.

I think pointing people to resources is ideal, if I can trust they’ll actually read them, and then we can have a further conversation later. But with these types of friends and casual acquaintances, asking them to look at other resources tends to feel like asking way too much of them so I don’t usually consider it.

Instead, I try to take the “no big deal” approach to coming out as asexual, and just “be out”. Wait for the questions if they come later. Treat it like they already know what asexuality is and maybe even treat it like they might already know I’m ace. Say “What are your plans for the weekend? Oh, me? I’m going to an asexual meetup group event, should be fun,” or something like that.

This approach certainly has flaws, but I keep coming back to it anyway. I have had two different folks in their 60s, at entirely separate meetups and who never met each other, reveal after we’d been talking a little about asexuality for a full minute or more, that they were thinking asexuality was either “the choice to not date” or “the state of being perpetually without a partner for a while”… at which point I realize ah, they really don’t get asexuality, however much they were acting like or thought they did.

The first time I was too flustered and she wasn’t a captive audience for me to properly explain, although I weakly tried the “uh, not really” response to the “well everyone’s asexual sometimes” thing she’d said.

What do people tend to miss, get wrong, or screw up when teaching about asexuality? What contradictions do people run into?

Well, I think letting someone get away with thinking asexuality is just the state of not being sexually active and not properly making sure they understand otherwise is somewhat me failing miserably when attempting to teach about asexuality.

The second time this situation arose was much more recently, where a guy asked with genuine curiosity that he wonders what causes people to make the choice to be asexual, and I was able to reframe asexuality immediately when I realized the man was under the impression it was a choice. “It’s not a choice though,” I said with a hint of indignation mingled with projected confusion. And he stopped and looked at me and sincerely asked, “It’s not?”, so I could continue. “It’s a sexual orientation, just like being gay or bi,” I tried to clarify.

I think framing is of monumental importance when explaining and teaching about asexuality. Framing asexuality as definitively a sexual orientation and making that extremely explicit is not something to take lightly.

A lot of us who have been identifying as asexual for a long time of course think of asexuality as a sexual orientation – what else would it be? But we can be so comfortable with that truth that we forget that for other people, all they’re hearing is “straight with too low a sex drive” or “can’t find a partner and has given up” or “choosing to be celibate”!

A place where I saw this as so so relevant was back right before Christmas in terms of a comment from David Jay to the FDA.

In October 2016, the USA’s Food and Drug Administration (the FDA) issued draft guidance titled Low Sexual Interest, Desire, and/or Arousal in Women: Developing Drugs for Treatment.  The draft describes FDA’s current thinking on Phase III trial design features for drugs intended to treat low sexual interest, desire, and/or arousal in women and is intended to help foster continued discussions among the FDA, pharmaceutical companies, the academic community and the public about the development of treatments in this area.

I found out right as I was heading out on a vacation for Christmas, immediately before the window for comments closed near the end of December, but was involved in a few conversations about drafting comments from people with “credentials” – and probably not random citizens, but rather perhaps being an organizer of an Asexual group. I was too busy to end up actually helping, but I’m still grateful to have observed what was going on.

This was where comments could be posted: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2016/10/26/2016-25788/low-sexual-interest-desire-andor-arousal-in-women-developing-drugs-for-treatment-draft-guidance-for

Please note that Neva Laurie-Berry and Ria Wilbur are two asexual women who commented, and Asexual Outreach as an organization commented, and the other comments were largely critical in varying ways of Flibanserin and what happened there, as well as more broadly critical of the FDA drafted guidelines as outlined at that time.

All the comments can be found here: https://www.regulations.gov/docketBrowser?rpp=50&so=DESC&sb=postedDate&po=0&dct=PS&D=FDA-2016-D-2817

But the two comments I’ll quote here are…

(1) David Jay’s comment, as the first comment I read, left me very satisfied and pleased. I also was somewhat emotional from how… suprirsingly validated I felt reading something that cut so strongly to the chase. As a woman who lacks sexual desire and also any libido at all, and who has been identifying as asexual for years, this cuts close to home for me.

As a founder and board chair of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, I would urge the FDA to consider industry guidelines on treatments for low sexual Interest, desire, and/or arousal in women from the standpoint of the asexual community, which consists of individuals who consider low or nonexistent levels of sexual attraction or sexual desire a positive identity (similar to being gay or lesbian) rather than a disorder warranting of medical treatment. Our orientation is mentioned explicitly in the definition of FSIAD in the DSM V under the Diagnostic Features section:

“For a diagnosis of female sexual interest/arousal disorder to be made, clinically significant distress must accompany the symptoms in Criterion A. Distress may be experienced as a result of the lack of sexual interest/arousal or as a result of significant interference in a womans life and well-being. If a lifelong lack of sexual desire is better explained by ones self-identification as asexual,’ then a diagnosis of female sexual interest/arousal disorder would not be made.

Our community has significant experience with distress caused by low sexual desire, and while I applaud the focus on patient distress indicated throughout the Draft Industry Guidance I would encourage the FDA to treat this concept of distress with greater nuance. Lines 159-160 (They [subjects] should have a documented history of personal distress related to low sexual interest, desire, and/or arousal) are especially encouraging, as documentation about the distress experienced by patients will be vital to understanding the nature of a candidate drugs efficacy.

I strongly encourage the FDA to provide additional guidelines about how this distress should be documented. Distress is common for those of us who live outside of societys sexual norms. Asexual people are consistently told that we are incapable of forming meaningful intimate connections with others, even that we lack basic humanity. We are often made to feel ashamed and are pressured by friends, families and partners to fix our condition. This pressure can result in significant distress, even when our underlying condition does not. Sexuality is not a necessary component of meaningful emotional intimacy, and members of our community tend to form relationships that are as fulfilling, meaningful, and complicated as anyone else. Accepting and clearly communicating how we feel about sexuality tends to help.

I do not seek to deny treatment to those experiencing genuine distress due to low sexual desire, merely to caution that such distress is more complex than it may first appear. Patients experiencing distress because of fear that they may lose a partner already fail to meet the diagnostic criteria for FSIAD. Those experiencing distress because of social pressure to modify their natural level of sexuality are not named explicitly in the definition, but there is a strong argument to be made against medicalization in this case.

For this reason, I would urge the FDA to include in the Industry Guidance more detailed criteria for documenting the nature of distress due to low sexual desire. If a significant percentage of patients in a given study describe fear of losing a relationship as a primary source of distress then it may be an indication that the condition targeted by the study falls outside of FSIAD. If a significant percentage of participants report feeling broken or not fully human without sexuality, then it may be evidence that they are experiencing distress due to social stigma surrounding asexuality.

Distinguishing medically significant distress from internalized stigma surrounding a sexual orientation is a difficult task, but it is one that is necessary in order for a viable treatment for low sexual desire to be responsibly prescribed and marketed. I urge the FDA to give due thought to these difficult questions. I am happy to provide further information on the asexual community and to answer additional questions.

Best,

David Jay

Founder and Board Chair
Asexual Visibility and Education Network

That line in the first paragraph about… ” a positive identity (similar to being gay or lesbian) rather than a disorder” just struck such a powerful chord with me. I love how well written this letter is.

I actually read this (or the extremely similar draft?) aloud to my aunt who was driving at the time as we were on a long extended family road trip in a car ride (my brother also in the car). My aunt is a doctor, a urologist, and I asked for her opinion since ostensibly David Jay was asking for feedback from me, and I was curious to hear what she might think. She said what I was already thinking: “He seemed to have covered everything. That was really good. No criticisms”.

And then just now, tonight, while writing this post, I finally read the comment attributed to Aces NYC, which ah I love in a few new ways and directions!

To Whom It May Concern:

As the founder of Aces NYC, the group for asexual and aromantic people in the greater New York City area, I implore the FDA to consider potentially distressing situations for women with low sexual interest, desire, and/or arousal, before warranting medical treatment.

Historically, the lesbian, gay, and bisexual communities have been subjected to medical treatment to rid them of their sexual orientations, which today are seen as valid and healthy. While social stigma and rejection can be quite distressing, attraction to the same sex is not inherently distressing. As the DSM V specifies for FSIAD:

“For a diagnosis of female sexual interest/arousal disorder to be made, clinically significant distress must accompany the symptoms in Criterion A. Distress may be experienced as a result of the lack of sexual interest/arousal or as a result of significant interference in a woman’s life and well-being. If a lifelong lack of sexual desire is better explained by one’s self-identification as ‘asexual,’ then a diagnosis of female sexual interest/arousal disorder would not be made.

Lines 159-160 (“They [subjects] should have a documented history of personal distress related to low sexual interest, desire, and/or arousal”), is a great start. However, it currently could be interpreted to include a variety of causes for distress.

As a woman who grew up experiencing low sexual Interest, desire, and arousal, I experienced considerable distress from the expectation that I would never be able to form relationships without pretending to be interested in sexual activity. The coercion from others, society, and myself was overwhelmingly distressing. Finding relationships that do not require me to participate in any activity I do not want to, removed all of my distress. I urge the FDA to consider the fine line between providing women with an aid to become more comfortable with themselves, for themselves, and an aid used to please a partner.

Questions that would have helped me and those in Aces NYC include:

  • If your partner was happy with the amount of sexual activity you are interested in, would you feel distressed?
  • Who do you expect to be the most satisfied with your increased interest, desire, and/or arousal?

For women who have lost interest, desire, and/or arousal and miss those feelings, I believe that medical treatment could be very helpful. Simple clarifying questions on the type and/or origin of distress would help protect the asexual community, as well as uphold the DSM V diagnostic criteria for FSIAD. Questions such as the ones above would also work to empower women to be in control of their own sexualities, without bias from partners, society, and other third parties. I would be happy to provide additional information on the asexual community if any questions should arise.

Thank you for your consideration,

Caroline (Bauer) McClave

Founder

Aces NYC

I mean… those two questions in the bullet points! So concise, so easy to understand, and so important and huge.

Also explicitly spelling out: “Historically, the lesbian, gay, and bisexual communities have been subjected to medical treatment to rid them of their sexual orientations” is a really important parallel for people to keep in mind, as far too many people seem to be unaware, forget, or deny that pathologization of asexuality as an orientation can and does exist.

(This pathologizing comes in a very different form, as it’s not about stopping what you do feel, but largely “treating” a “lack” of feeling what a heteronormative society entrenched in compulsory sexuality deems “necessary” for everyone to feel.)

3.5 years ago, when I was first starting to come out to people in my life as asexual, I presented it as a sad thing, or at least as a negative identity, and with this describing the lack of what I felt, I conveyed, perhaps unintentionally, like I was missing certain experiences certain others have. I might’ve been allowing myself to be influenced societal pathologization of a lack of sexual desire even after deciding “no, this is my sexual orientation”, and still was presenting myself as embarrassed and ashamed to be this… this broken thing that no one would’ve already heard of. I worked myself super close to tears when I came out the first few times.

In fact, the very first time I was breaking up with my boyfriend and feeling guilty for not being capable of giving him what he sexually craved!  And he found himself reassuring me, telling me I didn’t choose my sexual orientation.

The times immediately after that, ~50 year old women in my life were telling me I still might meet “the one” one day to try to “Reassure” me, which was frustrating but I do think largely the fault of me not expressing my differences in experience starkly enough. I’ve literally NEVER felt attraction to someone.

David Jay framing it though as very much not a disorder, but rather a “positive” identity, is so important for me to keep in mind.

Or, as swankivy so brilliantly phrased it back in this tumblr post about writing asexual characters in fiction:

Don’t write an asexual character as yourself minus something. Don’t write an asexual character as a person with a missing piece.

because instead one should:

Write the asexual character as a person who grew whole without that part

and it’s really not something that can be said enough. If you’re a non-ace person, you shouldn’t

think of yourself as the baseline and them as defined by how they aren’t like you. Write about them. What do they have?

Because we are full, complete people with just a different perspective. It’s certainly not a lesser one, and if we frame things as a sexual orientation that can be clearer!

I think my post ties in nicely with Isaac’s entry for the carnival this month, actually, because he wrote about how

framing asexuality as a sexual orientation… prevents the common misconceptions like equating asexuality with being antisexual or abstinent from sex.

and I ultimately agree. And I think it’s one of the most important aspects of asexuality, personally.

I know for some people this doesn’t quite cut it because romantic orientation is experienced so strongly.

But I feel like this is, for so many of us, an important stepping stone; a baseline that needs to be fully established before moving onto romantic orientation even has the possibility of being understood.

Asexuality is not exactly like other sexual orientations, but it importantly is one, it is that much a huge thing, it is something that isn’t a choice, it is something that requires “Coming out” or choosing to “Stay closeted” about in many people’s cases, and it affects every ace’s dating life or lack-thereof.

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3 thoughts on “Make Sure To Frame Asexuality, Clearly, as a Sexual Orientation

  1. Thanks for this, it’s a great post. I was particularly interested in the discussion around “distress.” I have experienced alot of distress about my asexuality, but the cause was not the asexuity itself. The causes were things like lack of awareness (thinking something was wrong with me), coercion to participate in sex I didn’t want, and the cultural myth that oy sexual relationships are important.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh me too! I don’t know if you saw this post of mine from a few months ago: https://luvtheheaven.wordpress.com/2017/04/01/asexuality-shame-and-the-importance-of-ace-pride/

      (Not to mention older posts like: https://luvtheheaven.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/when-someone-learns-a-word-but-it-will-take-a-lot-for-them-to-grasp-the-concept-it-describes/ )

      But… yeah it’s definitely a huge thing many aces go through. I’m really sorry you went through that stuff.

      Thanks so much for the comment!

      Like

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