Photo of people marching with mylar balloons that spell out "ASEXY"; photo by Marilyn Roxie on Flickr (used under a Creative Commons license).

Reconnecting Disability and Asexuality

Note: This post contains a brief mention of rape.

On many standard demographic questions, you may be asked to select your sexual orientation from a drop-down menu or a checklist. Most questions allow you to choose among heterosexual/straight, homosexual/gay/lesbian, and bisexual. (Many mistakenly list “transgender” as a sexual orientation.) More inclusive options may also allow you to choose among pansexual, polysexual, androsexual, gynosexual, or skollosexual. 

But for many of us, none of these terms seem to fit.

Asexuality, which can be broadly defined as a lack of sexual attraction or desire toward other people regardless of gender, remains little discussed both in theoretical literature and in mainstream activist circles, perhaps largely due to its defining rejection of sexual contact or desire as a necessary, fundamental, or innate component of romance or human experience.

Foucault’s claims in “Friendship as a Way of Life” trouble conventional notions of sexual intimacy as predicative of “homosexuality” or even, perhaps, of “heterosexuality.” In questioning the conflation of homosexuality with conventionally explicit sexual acts, Foucault asserts that intimacy might occupy a multiplicity of experiences, interactions, exchanges, and gestures, perhaps opening the door for a more nuanced understanding of asexuality as queer embodiment. Asexuality itself as an orientation—or lack of oriented sexual desire, as the asexual does not desire any subject—troubles notions of sexuality that predicate the sexual with the romantic, yet simultaneously offers avenues for challenging a dichotomy of sexuality and romance.

In challenging recent trends and models of sexuality in the mainstream LGBT movement, Michael Warner’s caution against normativity simultaneously concerns both the insistence of many conventional LGBT activists that to be gay does not mean to be hypersexual and unabashedly promiscuous, and the “acceptability” of the non-sexually active gay as non-threatening (“a gay movement they can take home to Mom”). This including the homophobic anxiety of homosexual practice that seeks to normalize and civilize the homosexual through celibacy, an anxiety articulated by the revolutionary Gay Liberation Front as attempts to psychiatrize the homosexual into “an asexual vegetable.” Yet in so doing, Warner’s critique also presumes sexuality as normative for gays. While he positions his theoretical work in opposition to respectability politics and heteronormativity, he still operates from within a framework that requires and presumes sexuality as a necessary component for what he terms “the gay and lesbian movement.” Is this in itself limiting?

Certainly there are many ways to experience sexual desire and orientation beyond heterosexuality, gayness or lesbianness. Yet further complication of friendship and love suggests transcending the boundaries imposed by a framework of sexuality as normative embodiment for bodies and desires. Asexuality transgresses the conventions of sexuality as a necessary precondition for full human agency.  Asexuality demands a reconceptualization of the boundaries of queer—does conventional queer theory predicate itself on the presumption that all humans experience sexual desire or themselves as sexual beings, thus creating its own normative sexual existence? Given such contentions, laying claim to asexuality complicates the boundaries of queerness by suggesting new ways for bodies and desires to orient themselves through destabilizing sexual normativity. Asexuality creates more space for new modes of conceptualizing desire and love, by interrogating sexuality as a necessary condition for romance and complicating the boundaries of friendship. As both Western and non-Western LGBT activists resist the urge to pathologize queer sexuality, so asexual activists struggle against the normativity of sexuality, whether homonormative or heteronormative embodiment. Can asexuality, then, be construed as queerness?

But if gay or lesbian can exist as identities or names for experiences in sexual embodiment, then it must also be possible to position asexuality as a locus of intimate experience and way of doing relationships.

Few mainstream LGBT organizations recognize or acknowledge the existence of asexuality. (Some homonormative activists even insist that asexuals are actually repressed gays using asexuality as a more socially acceptable closet for homosexuality.) Elsewhere, asexuality is largely reduced to a pathological inhibition of normal human sexuality—and this even and only when asexuality is recognized as a separate experience from the (in)voluntary celibacy of an ordinarily sexual person. But if gay or lesbian can exist as identities or names for experiences in sexual embodiment, then it must also be possible to position asexuality as a locus of intimate experience and way of doing relationships.

The call for inclusion and affirmation of asexuality and all its varied lived experiences and practices has given rise both to communities like AVEN (The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network) and smaller, local collectives of asexual-identified activists. Yet so prominent within asexual communities is the process of disability disavowal—a practice so familiar to those of us who identify as disabled, neuroatypical, or chronically ill, but never any less painful or exclusionary, never any less removed from the hegemonic ableism that pervades mainstream society and supposedly radical, transformative spaces alike.

Sexual normativity is intricately intertwined with the hegemony of disability, as well as the mainstream LGBTQ movement, which tends to privilege white, upper-class, cisgender, abled perspectives without acknowledging an intersectional queer politic. The typical body is presumed to be sexual, and sexuality conflated with health and wellbeing. While heteronormative standards uphold heterosexual encounters and experiences as ideal, noble, natural, and basic while exiling non-heteronormative experiences and encounters to the margins, sexual normativity upholds sexual experience itself as normative and fundamental to the human experience. (Simply consider how deeply embedded celebrations of sexuality as a core, innate component of womanhood and queerness have become to feminist and queer theory and culture.)

Asexuality has long been pathologized as evidence of disease or defect, or else reduced to psychiatric difficulties, much in the same vein as non-normative sexualities and gender expressions have also been de-legitimized and dismissed as mental health problems or other medical issues. Is it surprising at all, then, that much of the asexual community is riddled with disavowal of disability? For many asexuals, staking a claim in asexuality as a legitimate and valid identity and way of life requires the rejection of the idea that asexuality is evidence of weakness, debility, disease, deficit, or defect. The idea that there is nothing wrong with me so easily translates to there is nothing wrong with my body; there is nothing wrong with my brain, and these are profoundly ableist proclamations.

The equation of sexuality with wellbeing and the ideal body, combined with the rampant desexualization of disabled people, perpetuates a particularly vicious oppressive system that privileges those whose are abled in part by virtue of their presumed sexual competence and experience while contributing to the disablement of those whose selves diverge from ablenormativity, neuronormativity, or sexual normativity.

Where sexuality is upheld as an innate fact of human existence or a necessary precursor for complete wellbeing, people on the asexual spectrum are necessarily relegated to marginalized status by virtue of the assumption that a healthy, well person must be sexual. How does this apply to disability? When those whose bodies/minds are disabled are then presumed incompetent and nonsexual, this assumption serves both to disenfranchise the disabled by denying us agency and to further the oppression of sexual normativity against asexuals, both those otherwise considered non-disabled and in particular, those already considered disabled.

In the course of disabled oppression, disabled people have long been presumed incompetent and asexual as a product of prevailing notions of sexuality as the norm and as a requisite factor of humanity. Even in recent history, there have been many legally enforced and socially condoned practices for the purpose of controlling, surveilling, or eliminating disabled sexuality, from forced sterilizations to disability-selective abortions, from laws and policies prohibiting the marriage—and therefore, presumably, the sexual union—of the disabled to broad denials of sex education, particularly for the intellectually and developmentally disabled. Why? Service providers, caretakers, and other agents of the social structures that perpetuate ableism have long held that disabled people are either incapable of existing as sexual beings or do not possess the competence or agency required to make decisions about sexual experiences and encounters. Michel DesJardins, in an essay for Sex and Disability, notes that there are two prevailing trends in how disabled sexuality is conceptualized—we are presumed to be either entirely nonsexual, lacking desire toward others as well as desirability as sexual beings, or else, wildly, uncontrollably hypersexual, impulsive, reckless, and dangerous.

In centering disabled sexuality as normative, asexuality receives the short end of the stick.

In attempting to assert ownership and agency over disabled sexuality, many disabled activists and scholars have likewise come to the realization that the push against ableism must rely upon the disavowal of asexuality. If disabled people are fully sexual, autonomous human beings, as human as abled (sexual) people, then the notion that disabled people are asexual is ridiculous and wrong. The move from disabled people can exist as sexual beings, desiring others and being desired to disabled people are not asexual; we are sexual just like everyone else is also subtle, but incredibly different, and, in its final form, rather oppressive toward asexuals. In centering disabled sexuality as normative, asexuality receives the short end of the stick.

For those who are both disabled and asexual, the dual, parallel mechanisms of disavowal are particularly powerful and particularly painful. Of course it’s wrong to assume that all disabled people are somehow innately incapable of existing as sexual beings. Of course it’s wrong to assume that asexuality is a pathological condition that can be fixed with the right therapy—or, in the most egregious (yet not uncommon) cases, corrective rape. But it is perhaps just as damaging (both on individual terms and in how our communities function) to continue the disavowal of disability as necessarily bad, negative, or undesirable, or the disavowal of asexuality as necessarily inhuman. The oppression of asexuals has often used the constructs of disability and madness as the vehicles for maintaining sexual normativity. And disability oppression has often used the idea of asexuality and the presumption of sexual normativity as vehicles for maintaining ablenormativity and the pathology paradigm of disabled existence.

But if asexuality can lay claim to queerness, then we need to reimagine how disability and asexuality can constitute each other and question how ablenormativity and sexual normativity have been used to pit our communities against each other. We have such long histories of throwing each other under the bus in the rush to claim our stake in humanity. Intersectional social justice doesn’t work with single-identity politics. My humanity as a disabled person should not come at the expense of my humanity as an asexual.