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.