Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Women Who Want To Want

I feel somewhat obligated to write about a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, titled "Women Who Want to Want". The article is about low (or no) sexual desire in women, as well as the DSM revision process, and features Lori Brotto, one of the few people who has done any research on asexuality. Asexuality is, oddly, never mentioned. I'm not gunning for a random insertion of asexuality into articles, but here it would have really fit.

This article was very hard to read, and not just because it was long and written in the typical flowery style of the NYT Magazine. While the emotional pain of the women in question is clearly conveyed, it's not clear that there is any way to help them. These women without sexual desire are portrayed as a diverse group, having all sorts of histories. They're described as sexual women who are too much in their heads to enjoy sex ("oblivious to their bodies’ excitement, their bodies’ messages"), or who are lost in a male-centric model of desire that too often, doesn't take their lived experiences into account. However, constantly pressured by social mores, asexuals also "want to want". One woman in the article "who had no period of lust to look back on" claimed that “I want to have sex where I feel like I’m craving it". Maybe this woman would not identify herself as asexual. However, it seems hard to deny that her experience is virtually the same as many asexual experiences.

It made me cringe to read that women in Brotto's support group were told to repeat, "'My body is alive and sexual,' no matter if they believe it." Maybe some of those people could really identify as asexual, and could be helped by knowing there is a community of people who are very much alive, and yet aren't sexual. Even the women with low/no desire who would never call themselves asexual, or obviously are not ace, would probably have a lot in common with us anyway. What is Brotto thinking? That if these women were told that perhaps they might not all be sexual, that suddenly the inmates would be running the asylum and chaos would reign?

For all I know, Brotto had loads to say about asexuality and it wasn't included-- apparently, descriptions of her clothes and hair were more important. As someone who has been an interview subject, I know that your entire message is not always conveyed. I want to give her the benefit of the doubt, but she, of all researchers, should know how damaging asexual repression can be. I guess we'll never know whether the omission of asexuality was due to an oversight (intended or not) of the writer, silence on Brotto's part, or both.

That said, I'm glad the article mentioned, albeit briefly, that "distress" doesn't exist in a vacuum. It says:

Many on the [DSM] panel, which probably won’t, in the end, do much in the way of deleting conditions, maintain that the chapter on sexuality and gender identity doesn’t brand people too readily with disease. They note that, aside from exceptions like patients with pedophilia, only those who are distressed meet the threshold for diagnosis. In turn, the critics respond that such distress stems not from within the individual but from the infliction of societal standards, from the culture’s disapproval and aversion and therefore, in part, from the D.S.M. itself. This, they emphasize, was why the A.P.A. finally removed a last remnant of the homosexuality diagnosis — what was known as “ego-dystonic” homosexuality — in 1987. (emphasis mine)

There was also a voice that I was surprised to find sounded a lot like my own. This was another researcher, Leonore Tiefer, whose ideas on the topic you can read here at Asexual Explorations. I'm planning on reading her book some time this month. Here is the article's other passage that is critical of the DSM process:

Brotto, like all the specialists in all areas working on the new D.S.M., is allowed to receive no more than $10,000 per year from any source connected to the pharmaceutical industry. This is an A.P.A. rule. But Tiefer’s is hardly the only voice warning that, despite A.P.A. protections, drug-company influence can shape, indirectly as well as directly, the decisions of D.S.M. panelists.

Why $10,000? That's not exactly a small amount of money. And what the money is used for (more research? Exotic vacations?) is not explained. The APA may be many things, but it has never been a shining light of ethics. Understandably, some psychologists are getting sick of it.

But before I go off on a tangent about the seedy underbelly of professional organizations (RIAA, anyone?), I'll say that I'm not sure what we're supposed to take away from the article, besides the fact that sexuality can be confusing. I'm left with the frustration that in our culture, self-acceptance is squashed at every turn. It seems as though the pharmaceutical industry is becoming similar to the diet or beauty industries in that respect. I feel like at some point, people will have to start realizing that if the vast majority of us are wrong in some way, then "normal" is a fallacy. If the women profiled in the article could stop worrying about their lack of sexual desire for a bit, wouldn't that be liberating? And wouldn't that give them the space, time, and freedom to rediscover whatever desire they might have lost? How is anyone supposed to experience sexual desire while simultaneously beating themselves up for not having it?

When I discovered asexuality, it was the first time that I could have a sexuality that was on my own terms, not someone else's terms. And the "women who want to want" deserve the same, regardless of their orientation. They deserve to be told that there are others out there who share their experiences. But asexuals can't remain hidden forever. The information is out there now, and sooner or later, people will find it. Whether it's kept from them or not.


Anonymous said...

This article didn't make me rage out too hard, at least definitely not compared to other articles I have read about female sexual dysfunction, including low desire. In relation to some of the articles I saw on Alternet in the last few weeks about sexual dysfunction, this was less painful to me.

Unfortunately even in my own, I guess you could still call it some kind of, privilege, make too many oversights when I write about sexuality, because I do not always do a good job of acknowledging asexuality. But I'm writing mostly about sexual dysfunction & so on the other hand it's not my place to say that asexuality is the same as sexual dysfunction so I don't want to project dysfunction onto someone who is comfortable with their sexuality.

So like I can see how someone with low desire would benefit from learning about asexuality, but at the same time I don't think it's fair to project asexuality onto women who are not comfortable with that identity either. I don't have low or no- sexual desire myself, but some women who do have it, don't like the idea of not having desire ever again. If that desire does come back later on can you still identify as asexual? Does that exist on a continuum?

But then I'm not as familiar with asexuality as I am with pain problems. So it is something of a revelation to me, to hear that even asexuals want to want to have sex.

I'm not as familiar with Brotto as you, & I'm more familiar with Tiefer since she writes about FSD so much. A lot of what Tiefer says & does scares me. You let me know if you can handle her books because I think I'd probably crumble if I tried to read them - her work & the work she contributes to (like the harder for me to read articles about FSD she lends her name to,) that work distresses me more than medicine. I know I'm *supposed* to read her work, but I really truly do not want to. She's so adamant about the social aspect of sex that to me it looks like she is completely unwilling to acknowledge physical aspects.

Yeah hi I read here sometimes.

Espikai said...

This article bothers me a bit. I definitely agree that asexuality would have been relevant to the things discussed in it, and I'd love to hear someone talk about having "low sexual desire" and wanting it with regards to asexuality. Not to mention the issues aces have with HSDD.

The other thing that really bugged me was the "My body is alive and sexual." What does that mean, my body is not as alive just because I don't feel sexual? I dunno, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

pretzelboy said...

All the people on the various workgroups for DSM-V had to do finincial disclosures. For the SGID workgroup, they can be accessed here. According to Zucker's introduction to the workgroup's reports, the $10,000 limit made it very difficult to find suitable people for the Sexual Dsyfunctions subworkgroup.

The mantra that people were supposed to say to themselves--I felt kind of ambivalent about it. There probably are some people that it does help--there are some cases where thinking oneself to be something does help to actualize it. On the other hand, there are other cases where it simply doesn't work and desperate attempts to convince yourself that you're something that you're not can be harmful. (The article doesn't give enough info to indicate how such situations are actually dealt with in practice.)

Ily said...

Thanks for the comments! Responding to FeministsWithFSD first, it definitely wasn't my intention to project asexuality onto people who wouldn't call themselves asexual, so I'm sorry if it came across that way. All I'm saying is that people should simply know about the existence of asexuality. In a perfect world, everyone would know what asexuality was, just like any other orientation, however, we're far from that.

Checking out your blog, it seems like women with FSD really do have some similar experiences to asexual women. Of course, that doesn't mean we're the same. For example, on both our blogs, we seem to share the same concern about how we're going to be portrayed: Will people reporting on us totally miss the point? Will it be offensive? Will our existence be ignored? People from two different groups going, "Hey, we share some common experiences" is, in my opinion, something that doesn't happen nearly often enough. It might sound dramatic, but I think it's true: Hegemony depends on the isolation of various marginalized groups from one another.

The asexual community, in general, seems to be very against pushing labels on people, probably because people have done it to us for most of our lives. Asexuality isn't really about desire per se, but sexual attraction-- the lack of it. Asexuals are people who are not sexually attracted to any gender, which I'm assuming (correct me if I'm wrong) could probably not be said for most people with FSD.

Yeah, this article was the first time I'd heard of Tiefer. I agreed with the one statement that was attributed to her there, but I can't say if I'd agree with other statements she's made. If I do read her book, I'll write about it here for sure.

Espikai, yeah, I think all asexuals have heard sex conflated with life! vigor! animation! a few times too many.

Pretzel- that's interesting. Now I'm wondering, was the threshold higher for other groups?

Anonymous said...

It's different for everyone, so I'm sure there are some women with sexual dysfunction that don't feel sexual attraction to anyone (and I'm sure that once in awhile there comes a woman who is both asexual AND has a dysfunction, like with pain. Or would that be a chronic pain condition exclusive of sexual dysfunction then?) But there's a lot of people with sexual problems who are actually very warm & sexual & find other people sexually attractive. Most of the women I have spoken to are attracted to one gender or another. Which can make dating hard if you're single... "How do I break the news to this person that I'd very much like to be with sexually."

But like one problem I run into is, I've been seeing some comments on FSD articles. Commenters are saying things like "Well maybe if her partner was more attractive she'd be into sex with him!" (There's a lot of heteronormativity in these kinds of comments and often in the articles themselves. It's also partner-blaming.) So these commenters mix up a lack of sexual desire in and of itself, with a lack of attraction to a partner. You can love your partner very much, find them beautiful beyond compare, and but still be low or sans the urge to jump your partner's bones. Or even sans the urge to so much as touch your partner or be touched.

Or like other times. I've seen this happen too where someone is talking about having low desire, and they'll either say themselves, "Maybe I should just be asexual," when that's probably not what they really want or would be most comfortable with, consciously changing their sexual orientation. Or someone else will say that to them, "Maybe you're just asexual." Which is possibly right once in awhile! But most of the time whoever says that, and the listener, doesn't actually know what asexuality even means in real life.


This bothers me a bit. Why cant they be told about asexuality and everything else thats out there and choose from profiles of each one which one they think they are the closest in relation to? Ugh and do we always have to compare ourselves to what the rest of society does? that puts unnecessary pressure on them.

Ily said...

Ah yes, comments on internet articles...asexuals tend to hate those, too ;-) They seem to always be inane, no matter what the subject.
On AVEN, I've seen a few posts from women who are asexual (they're not sexually attracted to anyone), but they've had sex anyway, and found that they had vulvodynia or a similar problem. So I think it makes sense that you could have both of those things going on and have them both be valid. I've also seen a few posts on AVEN from people saying that they wanted to become asexual. The replies mostly seem to be attempts to let the person down gently. Because you can't "become" asexual any more than you can become gay or straight by force of will (or pharmacology).

Ily said...

Also-- if by "warm" you mean loving, or liking to touch others, then yeah, a lot of asexuals are like that, as well. (It's just all nonsexual for us.)

Anonymous said...


You have some good material here for a Letter to the Editor. The NY Times and its readers could benefit by hearing your point of view.


Southpaw (AVEN) said...

Hi! Long time reader, first time commenter haha...

I'm really glad you wrote a post about this article! I read it recently and had many similar thoughts concerning it.

My dad originally showed it to me, saying, "Here, an article about asexuality." Well...no. Like you said, asexuality was conspicuously absent. And though I also lack sexual desire, after reading this article I only felt more alienated from society in general. I'm not a woman who wants to want...so what does that make me? I don't have a "space" in the article as a woman who is content to be as she is.

alexandra said...

Sex is everywhere. And just because it is, people treat a person there's something wrong with her if she doesn't accept it in the way that they do- like somehow she's less, or a completely different species or something.
A woman's body doesn't exist just to please someone else-we're all here to serve some purpose- and why should sex be the main purpose that this world really considers for a woman? If someone happens too look appealing to you, that's nice, but that's not necessarily why they're here.
Also, when I think that often (when people do studies like this) they forget the "human" factor- and often make a lot of generalizations. (and I hope that I didn't make too any generalizations just now)

gatto said...

I already posted an opinion on this article; it is here: http://www.asexuality.org/en/index.php?showtopic=46337&st=30&gopid=1441012&#entry1441012

If you want to paste any of it, feel free.

Ily said...

Gatto, well said as usual. I agree that the writing took on a sexist tone. I guess it's sort of a bio piece on Brotto, and the author wants you to visualize her, but the same sorts of detailed physical descriptions are rarely given of men in similar professions. The same thing happens in political reporting all the time. It doesn't matter how politicians dress, unless you're a female politician and then it's a huge deal.

Ily said...

Thanks Carson...I usually tend to be a writer of letter to the editor, but this time, I'm trying to encourage some other AVENites with more relevant personal experiences to the article to send letters in...hopefully, people will.

Yay for first comments! It's cool you can talk to your dad about asexuality...

True Alexandra, same with childbearing.

Anonymous said...

While reading I suddenly realized the extreme irony of having "Somebody to Love" by Jefferson Airplane playing in the background.

"Don't you want somebody to love, don't you need somebody to love? Wouldn't you love somebody to love? You better find somebody to love."