Friday, June 4, 2010

Representation (Now with Extra Flibanserin!)

I recently finished the book No Logo by Naomi Klein. I highly recommend it-- not only is it about an important topic, but Klein has an absorbing, conversational style of writing that actually made me laugh out loud a few times. In one chapter, Klein talks about her days of involvement in the "identity politics" movement of the 1990s. As I read that part, I couldn't help but think that there were potential lessons in her story, somewhere, for the asexual community.

Basically, at some point in the late '80s, people in Klein's social and academic circles, and folks in similar ones, all started to become preoccupied with the idea of "representation" in the media and advertising. Rightfully, people were sick of looking at advertising, which was increasingly dominating their landscape, and seeing no one that looked like them. So they pushed for the inclusion of women, queer people, and people of color. Not just onto college reading lists, but into the commercials and billboards of the time. And they got exactly what they wanted. This ad for Diesel jeans, featuring two male sailors kissing, was shown in No Logo as an example of their "victory":

In the end, corporations and their billion-dollar marketing budgets didn't see identity politics as a movement that threatened their supremacy as cultural arbiters. Rather, they saw these activists as one more source of "cool" to be mined, like the hip-hop or grunge scene. Suddenly, even the most staid brands were being told that "diversity" is what sells, so "diversity" is what they started to deliver, en masse. Looking back at her past efforts, Klein wondered what had really been accomplished. Seeing legitimate social movements re-packaged and sold back to the people (ie, feminism --> "Girl Power!") didn't seem like such a big victory after all.

Klein went further, describing later examples of corporate co-option of the very figures that fight against them. In one ill-fated plan for an ad campaign, Nike approached Ralph Nader, asking him to be in one of their sneaker commercials; Nader would hold up a shoe and say "Another shameless attempt by Nike to sell shoes" (302). (He declined.) I couldn't help but think that a weirdly visionary adperson could easily use asexuals to sell products to a populace that is sick of sex being used to sell everything. Obviously, that's a very far-fetched scenario, but then again, I never would have thought that Nike would approach Nader to sell their shoes.

Asexuals talk a lot about representation, although not usually in those exact words. But let's not reinvent the wheel here. I think there are pros and cons to a lack of asexual representation. I'm pretty sure we all know the cons by now. But as to the pros, at least our identity remains uncommercialized, for now. It isn't being used to sell anyone anything. Without representation, we're more free to create our own identities, which I think is an amazing opportunity. And it's all the more so, if it may not last.

If you'll bear with me a little longer, I'll try to relate this to the proposed drug Flibanserin, covered here and here. I don't have anything new to say about the drug itself, but maybe I can speak to the multi-million dollar marketing campaign that would no doubt follow it, focusing on telling women in emotionally fraught situations how bad their lack of sexual desire is*. My first impression of this possibility wasn't a good one, but it could actually have a bright side. Maybe opposing these advertisements could give asexuals the visibility that being asexual alone has not yet gained us.

In the identity politics chapter of No Logo, there is this quote: "...Daniel Mendelsohn has written that gay identity has dwindled into 'basically, a set of product choices...At least culturally speaking, oppression may have been the best thing that could have happened to gay culture. Without it, we're nothing" (114). While Klein says that "The nostalgia, of course, is absurd" I think that Mendelsohn brings up an interesting point. While I don't want asexuals to be oppressed more-- that would indeed be ridiculous-- if we are oppressed in the future, by no fault of our own, it may not be all bad. Yes, it will be bad, but there might be ways to draw something positive from it. As you probably know, I'm not often quite this optimistic, so again, best to enjoy it while it lasts. *wink*

[*Do any other Americans find our constant advertising for hospitals, drugs, and medical procedures a little odd, at best? Especially considering a great number of people don't have enough money to make those choices?]


K said...

What about representation for women who really *do* have low libido & are distressed by it?

Filbanserin won't do me much good since my desire is fine (for now... honestly I think Viagra would be a better bet for what I have going on.) But I am absolutely terrified by the campaigns that strive to block treatments that address sexual dysfunction. This isn't new - I've seen activists like the New View Campaign protest against Viagra prescribed for women, even though it works much differently from filbanserin. (I think one of the worst quotes I saw was something about, stop using the Viagra your doctor prescribed you, it's not FDA approved for such off label use! Yeah, well, neither are tricyclic antidepressants for sexual pain, so should people with vulvar pain stop using those because the FDA didn't approve it? Or because tricyclics/antiseizure meds doesn't work for everyone, that means no one should use it?)

How do you critique the social construction of low desire without critiquing the women who actually *have* it as being gullible fools? How do you critique Big Pharma without erasing the people who need, use, and benefit from the drugs produced by it? Right now a lot of the media articles about Filbanserin have quotes by people in the industry and academia, but much less from women who have low desire themselves. Check out this Washington Post article. It's so heavily dominated by people without low desire, the very thing the drug is supposed to address. I think that's so messed up.

I know if the FDA approves filbanserin there's going to be a lot of obnoxious advertisements for it, especially when it first comes out & generics aren't available. I think the idea goes something like, the marketing is going to create insecurity in women who have low libido but were otherwise okay with that state. And that's going to push women to go to the doctor to get this pill. And it's going to get real ugly real fast and there's going to be a lot of back-and-forth about if this is ethical in mainstream media magazines and what's the real reason for low libido and it's just going to go on and on...
(But in practice, even if you can afford to go see the doctor, the doctors may not even prescribe such a pill because everyone knows it's "All in your head." Or it's all your partner's fault. Or because you don't need another pill. Based on what I went through, I am very pessimistic that this drug and marketing will make doctors take sexual difficulties any more seriously than they already do. Which a lot of them do not do.)

I already have FSD to begin with, I don't need to be told it's "Supposed" to be emotionally distressing. It is.

Plus my other fear is that, campaigns like that add stigma to FSD itself. Like there is something wrong with being distressed by a low libido, or problems lubricating, or orgasming, or pain. Like there is something wrong with grieving a loss of something you had, or wanted. I am not so sure that women will be willing to embrace FSD and think of themselves as dysfunctional, because of all that stigma.

Like, I really wish, that there were some kind of organized grassroots movement, for women who actually have low libido, or any other FSD, that doesn't have the potential taint of big pharma. Why is there not such a thing? I'm not exactly feeling not-oppressed over here.

Ily said...

Well, I appreciate your perspective, since, as I said, I know very little about Flibanserin. (And most of the post had no intended relation to it; hopefully that was clear.) Are there many such similar campaigns? I don't think the New View Campaign can actually affect the release of the drug, they can just try to get their views heard. I could be wrong, though.

For what it's worth, I don't think any asexuals are trying to say that NO ONE should be distressed by their lack of sexual desire or any other sexual issue. All we're trying to say (although I can't speak for everyone, obviously) is that it IS possible to have no sexual desire and yet be fine with it. It's the diversity that needs to be seen-- ALL of us, not just one group or another. Like women with FSD, asexuals are a very little-known group as well...maybe sometime in the future when we're more organized, our groups could work together towards common goals.

I agree that it's really a shame how the mainstream media relies so much on the same experts over and over, rather than taking the time to seek out people who are really affected by the issue. Ah, budget cuts! I guess since I don't buy newspapers, I have little right to complain, but still, it's aggravating.

K said...

I don't have much of a community. There's like me and some guest bloggers but organized movement? I'd like to ask the asexual community if anyone from it had reached out to women with FSD before endorsing that anti-filbanserin petiton, but who are you going to reach out too?

Right now the New View Campaign is influntial. I think it's the best known of the FSD-critical groups. A lot of feminist critique of FSD is derived from their materials.
But who all is involved with it? You already know, it's Dr. Tiefer. You read her book.
The New View Campaign is supposed to be looking out for women, but which women? I have some concerns about who it really represents - how many of it's members have FSD? I think some of their positions come from a lot of privilege, particularly able-bodied privelege. I'm not signing that petition. How many women with FSD have? I don't know, because you're not supposed to talk about it. I think I'm supposed to let the New View talk for me & about me but they sure don't speak for me.

For example: a few years ago, the group staged an anti-plastic vulvar surgery protest outside of a plastic surgery center. They dressed up in giant vulva & scissor costumes & held signs & stuff. Sounds laudable, right? Protest companies that capitalize on women's insecurity.

There's just one problem: I am someone who had vulvar surgery with a cosmetic change at a plastic surgery outpatient center. It was cheaper than staying in a hospital.
So I feel pretty terrified by the group's activity. Like, okay I guess I wasn't supposed to do that and now I'm genuinely scared that they will hunt me down, find me and dance around in vulva costumes on my front lawn. This is a real fear I have . I should not have to feel genuine fear from a feminist group that claims to have my best interests in mind.

I am totally cool with people who have low or absent libido being comfortable with that. It happens. There is no need to change anything about yourself when this happens. No distress.
But sometimes in trying to get that message across, activists steamroller people who really do have problems with their levels of desire. Like there's nothing wrong with being comfortable with low desire... But there is something wrong with not being okay with that, and tryig to change it.

Ily said...

As far as the petition goes, there's no overall asexual stance on it. Some asexuals support it, and some don't. Actually on AVEN, there seemed to be a lot of people who did not support it. There are no "official positions" from the asexual community, and I think it's probably better that way.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about getting involved in the medical realm, as an asexual. True, we have low sexual desire, but for a completely different reason. And some asexuals actually have high libidos, they are just not directed at anyone. I don't want to get away from the fact that we are a sexual orientation-- ie, I wouldn't want asexuals to be seen by the public as people who have a medical problem but are fine with it.

I guess that's a long way of saying that I can see both sides of the petition issue, and can't really articulate where I stand, at least for now, for a variety of reasons. Most asexual sites-- AVEN, Apositive, the Livejournal community-- have a recent thread on Flibanserin. Like I said, a lot of people seem to share your same concerns. You might want to check them out, or participate if you're interested.

If you have any ideas to build dialogue between our two groups (okay, I know you said you don't have much in the way of a group, but still), it would be great to hear them.

grasexuality said...

K - would you like to write a guest post for my blog? I know that's not much to offer, but I really would like to see women who actually have sexual dysfunction represented in the discussion. My intent was never to erase your experiences, and I think a lot can be gained from you sharing them with the asexual community. I don't like how the people in our community have been using your perspective as a theoretical poker chip, and I don't want to participate in that myself. Although comparing your response with that of other women with FSD I've heard from (only two), it seems there is no official position there either, so a single blog post may not really be representative... But it's certainly a start. It might be a good idea, to help you spread awareness and get more traffic to your blog. I'm pretty sure my blog gets traffic from people with FSD, and have encountered asexuals who also have a sexual dysfunction as well in the past, and I think that perhaps knowing that your blog exists would help some of them out.

Given what I have read, I don't honestly think that flibanserin would do much to help with sexual dysfunction, which is why I forwarded the petition. If another drug comes along that has a more clearly demonstrated benefit, or if there are more studies done on flibanserin that prove more conclusively that it works, then I would support it. I'm always supportive of evidence-based decision making, and all the evidence I had seen up until that point led me to agree with New View that it would be a bad idea to approve flibanserin. If they petitioned against a drug that had been very clearly demonstrated to help, I wouldn't support them. I have no particular allegiance to that group, even though I have observed that it might be politically helpful for asexuals to be allied with sex therapists/researchers/etc. at least on occasion.

I must admit I'm rather surprised to discover that you have encountered such resistance from doctors, although I suppose I might be able to understand their reluctance IF it's a result of a lack of scientific evidence that makes them so. Because after all, doctors do have to be very careful about what they prescribe, because doing something wrong might very well kill someone. BUT if it's not that, and they're just being opinionated while ignoring evidence to the contrary... well, that's just a shitty practice. In either case, I'm sorry you had to deal with it. :/ I'd like to hear more about what happened. If it's researchers not being willing to gather evidence on the subject, or not having the resources to do so, I'd like to help in whatever way I can to promote their interest in it. Nobody doing research at all is a way of gatekeeping, too.

grasexuality said...

(Split up the comment into parts b/c of character limit...)

Your comments about being told to stop using drugs for off-label use remind me of trans issues. I believe that Spironolactone is approved as a diuretic, but often used as part of Hormone Replacement Therapy as an anti-androgen. (It might have been approved for that too though, I'm not totally sure. I'm under the impression that it's off-label or was off-label for many years.) Spiro does pose health risks though, which is why my partner wants to get an orchiectomy ASAP, so she can stop taking it. But I certainly wouldn't like it if she just couldn't find anyone willing to prescribe it to her at all because it's an off-label use, so I can sympathize with your concerns. I think a doctor and patient should be able to confer together about off-label uses and come to an agreement together on what is an acceptable risk.

The anti-cosmetic vulvar surgery campaign also reminds me of trans stuff, for obvious reasons. I think sometimes what's branded as "cosmetic" surgery really isn't as frivolous as people assume it is. Besides, even if it is frivolous, it's still someone's choice, and attacking that just seems like a bad idea on an ideological level, for people who consider themselves feminists. I certainly hope nobody ever shows up at your door to shame you like that. I don't think it's something that really will happen, but I can understand your fear of it. I think attacking the doctors who perform cosmetic surgery or the patients who get it is horrifying--I mean, if there's a problem with the marketing for it, attack that! Don't attack people who choose to get it done! Seriously, it makes me very angry.

Anonymous said...

Off-topic...or rather, back to what you originally posted about, Ily. I'm not sure that advertisers *could* use asexuals effectively. After all, we're defined by what we don't want rather than by what we do. It's harder to depict someone not wanting something than it is to show someone really wanting something a lot.

I seem to remember a little video on You Tube with a man in a stuck elevator with a woman who was coming on to him. She thought he was about to have sex with her, but he just wanted to step on her back to get out of the elevator. He may well have been asexual, or gay or a straight guy who just wasn't into blonds and just wanted to get out of the elevator.

I guess David Jay is the most recognizable ace out there. I wonder if he's ever been approached by any advertisers? And if so, which ones?


K said...

I put a comment here before but I think it got eaten because I didn't the message that usually says "Your comment will be visible after moderator approval." so let's try this again:

@ Grasexuality, I sent you an e-mail about maybe guest posting. Please check your blog's email when you have a chance.

Bri said...

Along the same lines of what Anonymous wrote, I think it'd be hard to use asexuality in advertising because technically asexual advertising is... all the advertising that isn't sexual advertising. I feel like to make it work you'd need to add more sexuality so you could have the asexual part stand in contrast, and that seems a bit counter-intuitive. At the same time, considering how pervasive sex already is in advertising, I'd probably get a kick out of seeing an obviously asexual element inserted into an otherwise sexual ad.

Ily said...

Woot, networking! You'll be in excellent blog-hands, K :-)

For advertising, yeah, I agree, it would be hard. I can imagine an ad campaign like, "Our product is so great that we don't need sex to sell it! Even asexuals want to buy it!" but obviously this would have to occur in some future time when everyone knows what asexuals are. It also might not work because products aren't sold as products anymore, they're sold as brand identities. If they were just products, we wouldn't have 1,000 sodas, 1,000 kinds of sneakers, and so on.

RavenScholar said...

This Flibaserin thing reminds me of the post I did on "Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder". It irritates me both as a feminist and as an asexual, mostly because it implies to me that the idea is you should not feel as if you don't want to have sex.

And I am horribly tired of people try to imply that there is something wrong with anyone when there's really not.