There was a segment on asexuality on Radio 4’s programme Woman’s Hour (starts about 13.30 in). Below is a transcript for those that can’t listen to it. It was presented by Jenni Murray, with guests Mark Carrigan and Michael.
Jenni: Now as you can assume from our last conversation, sex has, for a long time been central to discussions about the way our civilisation is going. We’ve become more open about being homosexual or living in what used to be called ‘sin’. But we’ve also become increasingly concerned at the way sex is used to sell, particularly to children. So how does a person who has no interest in sex at all exist in an atmosphere where everybody seems to be at it? Mark Carrigan is a sociologist at the University of Warwick and has edited a book called ‘Asexuality Studies’. Michael is 29 and describes himself as asexual. Michael, at what point did you realise that you had absolutely no interest in sex?
Michael: I think for me it started when I was at school, so I was actually fairly young, 13 or so, and I noticed that everybody in my class (I was at an all male school) suddenly became very interested in girls, and this was something I simply couldn’t understand at all. I mean, of course, I’d appreciate girls as friends, in the platonic sense, but it seemed as if I was missing a sixth sense, if you like. I just couldn’t understand what sexual attraction was, and it wasn’t that I was particularly against sex it’s just that it was something that was very unfamiliar to me.
Jenni: So Mark, from a professional perspective, how would you define asexual?
Mark: I think that’s a very interesting question, because on the one hand most asexuals would assent to a shared definition as ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’, but behind that term, which is often referred to as the umbrella definition, there’s a great deal of diversity and people feel and experience different things about sex and romance.
Jenni: What do you mean?
Mark: For instance, some people within the asexual community, they experience romantic attraction, they want to pursue romantic relationships, but without a sexual component, whereas for others they don’t experience romantic or sexual attraction.
Jenni: Michel, where do you sit on this spectrum? Do you want a romantic partnership or are you fine on your own?
Michael: For the most part I’m towards what’s called the aromantic side of the spectrum, so romantic partnerships are not a big priority for me. I can certainly appreciate the benefits of growing old with a companion, especially as you see all your friends pair up, it’s the sort of thing I’m fairly ambivalent about for the most part.
Jenni: How widespread do you think this is, Mark?
Mark: The data we have on that is thus far very tentative, but one study suggested that up to one percent of the British population could be asexual. This is not suggesting that they identify as asexual, but on a large survey that was administered in the ‘90s almost 1% of respondents said they’d never experienced sexual attraction. And there’s a more recent piece research being done on the same survey data, 10 years later, suggesting the figure could be more like half a percent, so we’re starting to get some idea but research in the area is still very tentative.
Jenni: And how, Michael, did you cope with it when you were at school, when you were a teenager, and everyone else was talking about who they fancied, where were you in all those conversations?
Michael: For the most part I kept fairly quiet about it. I mean, of course like most asexual people, asexuality is not some sort of obsession of mine, like a gigantic part of my identity; I’m just a person who happens to be asexual. I don’t have a particular need to tell everybody about it. On the other hand it can be very difficult when you’re in a highly sexualised environment, because sex comes up in conversations all the time, you’re asked ‘whom do you fancy?’ I will usually just try and shrug it off, or just say “I’m not into so-and-so”. It’s quite difficult because at school you tend to, there tends to be a pervasive assumption that everybody has got to be into sex, has got to experience sexual attraction of some sort, so if you say you’re not interested in a particular woman who looks very attractive, people will automatically assume that you’re gay. Now of course, nothing at all wrong with being gay, but it’s not who I am, and it can be quite difficult to have to deal with on the one hand getting flak for, you know, homophobia which isn’t related to me, but on the other hand you have to try and fit in somehow.
Jenni: A lot of people, Mark, would say ‘oh it’s just a phase, you’ll grow out of it’ but you’re 29 now, it’s not just a phase is it?
Michael: I think that was addressed to me. Yes, you’re right, and when I was young I was very conscious about not labelling myself, precisely because you know when you’re 15, 16 you can just be an early bloomer*, you know. A lot of my age group knew that they were into women much earlier than that, and, as you say, you get to 18, 19, it’s sort of obvious that something else is going on, and like you say, when you’re 29 it’s a fairly done deal.
*Note: I think he meant late bloomer
Jenni: Mark, and this time I have got the name right, it is directed at Mark, do we know why it happens?
Mark: No we don’t, and I think the diversity you can see in the asexual community suggests that if there are underlying causes there a lot of different causes because the pathways that lead people to come to identify as asexual are, as far as we can tell from the available evidence, very different. I’m not sure personally whether it makes sense to think of research into this subject as being about what causes asexuality, in the same way that I would find it politically problematic to research what causes homosexuality. What I’m interested in is the extent to which sexualisation in contemporary society, the way in which it makes asexuality problematic for asexuals, and the way in which contemporary society marginalises asexuals, and renders their experience invisible.
Jenni: So Michael, what future do you envisage? A partner? Children?
Michael: For me, a partnership is definitely an option, if the right option came along I’d definitely take it, though I’m quite happy with friends, I have lots of friends. The other thing is that there’s now a very friendly asexual community of people you can actually empathise with, and a lot of asexuals find that they get the same benefit from a community as people who are not asexual get from partnerships, though it varies a lot from person to person.
Jenni: Mark, why do you think we seem to find it a difficult concept to deal with?
Mark: Well this has come to fascinate me, and I came to it in a similar way, I happened to meet an asexual person socially, and I just didn’t understand it, you know I just didn’t get it, I didn’t understand it, and as I’ve gone on with the research I’ve found that this is a universal experience that asexual individuals have; they tell people and they don’t understand it, and I think it’s because somewhere in recent history we’ve come to change how we see sexuality and the value we place on it and we see it in terms of human nature. There’s the pervasiveness of what I term ‘the sexual assumption’: the idea that everyone has sexual attraction and that it’s the same thing in all cases, and I think historically this hasn’t always been the case and raises the question of ‘what’s happened? What’s changed?’
Jenni: Well Mark Carrigan and Michael, thank you very much indeed.
I thought the host was very respectful which is wonderful, and well done to Mark and Michael for covering quite a lot in a short segment.
So, the House episode ‘Better Half’ just aired in the UK, so I finally got to see how badly they screwed up their portrayal of asexuality.
Basic plot: A woman walks into the clinic. During the course of the exam she says she is asexual. Bets are made, tests are run, brain tumours are found and liars exposed. Time for cigars!
Before we begin, I would just like to point out that in the entire episode ‘doesn’t experience sexual attraction’ (the very definition of asexuality) wasn’t even mentioned. It was all about the libido and the characters were asexual because they didn’t have one. Given that this is the first time a lot of people will have heard the word ‘asexual’ applied to people, it would have been awesome if they weren’t given the wrong definition. Off to a good start!
The Coming Out Scene
A woman (from now on known as P) goes to the clinic for what is probably a bladder infection, and Wilson suggests a pregnancy test. That’s when patient reveals -gasp- she and her husband don’t do sex because they‘re asexual, so she can’t be pregnant!
Now, Wilson’s reaction in this scene isn’t that awful. He’s mostly bemused, which, as reactions go, isn’t that bad. The only thing that would be better is ‘oh ok’ and moving on. My problem is the ease with which the woman revealed this about herself, because there is a very good chance that the reaction you get will not be a good one. After reading 33 of the (at the time of writing) 60 pages of the ‘worst responses’ thread Aydan said:
“One of the things that concerns me most is the frequency with which people report having their doctor (whether that’s a physician, psychologist, or psychiatrist) tell them there is something wrong with them, they need treatment, or their sexual orientation doesn’t exist.”
I have to see a neurologist in a month, and I know that if it comes up, I will not say that I am asexual. I am afraid that it will be treated as a symptom, that they will run tests without my permission, that I will not receive the correct diagnosis because they got hung up on the fact that there isn’t anyone I want to fuck.
House and Wilson Make A Bet
Wilson has decided to do some research on asexuality, and tells House that 1% of the population is asexual ‘according to this, anyway’. Is it just me, or does that sound awfully dismissive? It would be really nice if there was one character that took it seriously and continued to do so despite House’s oh so witty one liners. In the conversation that follows House:
• Makes a joke about P being algae
• Implies that only ugly people would ID as asexual
• Says that her husband must be gay, along with a nice dose of cissexim – “[he] loves penis enough for the both of them”.
The two then make a bet that House can’t find a medical reason for her asexuality, with the condition that he doesn’t interact with her. The writerconfirmed that Wilson mentioning it to House was a way of making someone else do the dirty work.
House’s Lackeys Run Some Tests
After an obligatory hormone test, Lackey 1 (Dr. Jennifer Adams) asks why it matters ‘if [P] says she’s asexual’. Note the wording. Not if she is asexual, if she says that she is asexual. In House-land there are no people who are asexual, only people who say they are.
Other assertions include: Sex is a basic drive, orgasms are healthy (House), it’s really spinal cord damage that’s blocking nerve signals from the genitals, and it might be abuse (the Lackeys). Let’s go through these one by one, shall we? The existence of people who are perfectly happy not having sex suggests it isn’t, not to mention asexuality =/= not having sex. Or not having orgasms. Or your parts not working. Or down to abuse. Lackey 1 then decides to put P on a pedestal for not being interested in sex, because “it eliminates most of her insecurities, she is immune to most advertising and can have honest relationships with men”. No. Asexual people are not automatically happier or more confident simply because they are asexual. An asexual person doesn’t have an easier life because they are asexual. Not understanding what everyone else seems to know without trying is not better. Feeling broken because you don’t know there is anyone else like you is not better. Wanting relationships that do not fit into traditional family/friend/romance (that is expected to include sex) is not better. Being asexual does not magically make your life full of rainbows and joy. And we are not better than you. Please do not put us on a pedestal.
House Dupes The Husband
House had a realisation that it is really the husband (who I imaginatively dud H) who “has the medical issue”, and the wife was obviously lying “to compensate”. Because people lying to be with asexual people happens all the time! You never see anyone saying that they could never date an asexual person, or that asexual people dating non asexual people are horrible people. House also says to Wilson that the wife ‘deserves to know’ why her husband doesn’t want to have sex with her. Never mind that she clearly knew he was asexual when she got into a relationship and decided to marry him. Also, why are you acting like she is a victim Dr House? No one owes anyone sex. No, not even if they are married to them.
House Does Some Gloating
Oh look, House found a tumour in the guy’s head that “lower[ed] his libido, causing erectile dysfunction”. Say it with me, kids: asexuality is not a low libido. Luckily, it’s a slow growing tumour so H will “probably die of boredom long before [the tumour kills him].” House is not the first person to say that asexual people are boring.
House thinks the guy will thank them, because obviously sex is so goddamn awesome, while Wilson is concerned about the effect this will have on H; “it’s like a gay person being told they’re really straight.” It’s funny how this didn’t occur to the writers when they were writing the episode. Ask yourself what the response would be if someone had ‘find a medical reason for someone being gay’ as a subplot, while throughout the episode were assertions that they were sick or lying.
Wilson Delivers The News
H is upset by the news he has a brain tumour, and says “I’m not one of them”. Wait, what? So now you’re implying asexual people hate or at least think badly of non asexual people. Could it get any worse? You bet. P was lying about being asexual so she could be with H, so she pressures him into having treatment because she “has needs”. This is said an awful lot to asexual people. So much so we talk
endlessly about compromise within mixed relationships. The wife lying was an interesting inversion to the ‘asexual people lie to trick normal folks into horrible sexless relationships’ trope, but as Skeptic’s Play points out, it doesn’t make any sense. The whole point that is pushed throughout the episode is that everybody wants sex, but she was willing and able to just go without for ten years? It isn’t like it couldn’t have worked if the wife was still asexual, as some asexual people do enjoy and have sex, even if they aren’t sexually attracted to their partner, and gets around the anger that one would expect after finding out your spouse has been lying to you since you met.
The really frustrating thing about this was how it was portrayed as a happy ending for everyone. House comments they “corrected two peoples’ wildly screwed up world views. Not bad for a day’s work!” It doesn’t matter that their relationship was based on lies. Nope, the couple gets to have all the sex they want, so that means they will live happily ever after.
The writer said that she did research on asexuality before the episode and that she wanted to raise awareness, but given all the problems with the episode and some of her* responses I find it really hard to believe that she fully understood it. Criticism was met with excuses and not-pologies.
Did I expect House to be accepting and understanding? Of course not, that would be completely out of character. I was hoping that the millions of people hearing about my orientation for the first time wouldn’t see it dismissed or told it was a disorder. Apparently that was too much to ask.
*relevant tweets are from 25th January 2012
For more people saying what they didn’t like about the asexuality sub-plot as well as the response from the writer, take a gander at Sciatrix’s roundup post over at Writing From Factor X. There is also a petition to Fox.