Writing From Factor X

June 2, 2011

How Ableism and Sexualnormativity Reinforce Each Other

Filed under: Intersections — Sciatrix @ 9:17 am

This post was originally written for the second edition of the zine Asexual Feminism. Since that edition came out six months ago and has never been available online, I’m posting this now for archival purposes. The rest of the zine can be purchased for a few dollars here

The last time I wrote for Asexual Feminism, I wrote about intersectionality. As it happens, since I think that one of the most pertinent intersections asexuality has is ableism, I plan to examine that particular intersection more fully here. In short, ableist memes intersect unfortunately with sexualnormative ones to create a system in which persons with disabilities are desexualized while asexual people are assumed to be disabled in some way and medicalized.

Firstly and most obviously, there is a long tradition of desexualizing and sterilizing disabled people, particularly people with mental disabilities. I do not plan to discuss in depth that here, as better minds than I have already done so. It is enough to know that this tradition exists, and that a long-running method used to oppress persons with disabilities by erasing many PWDs’ sexualities has created an oppressive association between disability and celibacy/presumed asexuality.

Furthermore, many of the most common attempts to discredit asexuality are rooted in the presumption that asexuality is or derives from some kind of mental or physical disorder. In fact, a glance at the Asexuality Troll Bingo Card1 shows that a full third2 of the spaces include comments asserting or implying that asexuality is some sort of disorder, mental or physical. This includes the free space (“Get your hormones checked”) which is traditionally given to the most common response encountered. There is a perception that any difference from the culture at large must be the result of a disorder somewhere along the line.

Even within asexual spaces, attempts are often made to argue that asexuality stems from this or that neuro-atypicality. The autism spectrum and depression are common candidates, as is schizoid personality disorder and occasionally sociopathy. It is interesting that people with ASDs are often stereotyped as being devoid of empathy in much the same way that asexuality, particularly aromantic asexuality, is. In much the same way, schizoid personality disorder is actually characterized by this lack of empathy. It is possible that some of the attempts to draw a connection between these things may reflect internalized stereotypes about autistic and asexual people both.

Asexuality is also often compared to disability by nonasexuals people in an attempt to express how horrifying the nonasexual person thinks the concept of not experiencing sexual attraction is. This reaction melds ableist assumptions that persons with disabilities ought to be objects of pity with, well, assumptions that asexuality is a disability. Ignoring the fact that no one really wants to be treated as pitiable for existing, this sort of response is problematic in that it conflates two very different experiences and assumes that one must be at all like the other. It also imposes a very sexualnormative view on sexuality, framing any deviation from this norm as a disability rather than a difference in its own right.

The existence of so-called psychiatric disorders such as Hyposexual Desire Disorder and Sexual Aversion disorder act to further build upon these conceptualizations of asexuality as a disability, but they do not create them. Rather, they simply reflect this assumption that not experiencing sexual attraction—or primary sexual desire—is necessarily indicative of some disease or disorder. Psychologists are not immune to being influenced by assumptions, after all.

The end result of all of this is that tension is created and exacerbated between anti-ableism and asexual communities, while those unfortunate enough to occupy an intersection between the two are left with unpleasant worries about “letting the side down.”

1 For the unaware, the Asexual Bingo Card is part of an Internet social justice tradition of listing common troll responses to particular axes of oppression in the style of a bingo card, thereby allowing commenters to call “bingo!” to especially offensive comments or posts. For screen readers, an image description of the card can be found here

2 “You’re just depressed,” “You must be damaged in some way,” “Get your hormones checked,” “You were probably abused,” and “You’re crazy not to use your genitals.”

2 Comments »

  1. Is the zine available in a format that isn’t standard print? I’d love to buy a copy to support your efforts, but I’m blind and can’t read standard print.

    Comment by teafeather — June 2, 2011 @ 3:37 pm | Reply

    • To my knowledge, the second one is not. The first one, however, is available in PDF form. The zine wasn’t my project–I just wrote pieces for it–but the person who made them can be contacted through their blog here. It’s possible that they have a PDF of the second edition, but I don’t know for sure. I’ve emailed that person with your question and passed it on, too, so hopefully I should have an answer for you fairly soon.

      Comment by Sciatrix — June 2, 2011 @ 4:54 pm | Reply


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