Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Shaming the mentally ill, and why we shouldn't do it

Ok, so just to clarify, I don’t think that this is something we, the asexual community, actually do. However, I’ve not seen anyone saying how we can stop it happening. I thought it might be worth a quick mention, though I don’t know how many people actually read this blog.

I’m sure all of the asexuals who may be reading this know that we’re trying to get the new version of the DSM, the psychiatrist’s handbook, to be more asexual-friendly, especially in the wording of Hyposexual Desire Disorder. This is a really good project, and I wish those involved the best of luck. It is very important that a normal, healthy asexual can’t be diagnosed and stigmatised with a mental illness just for being who they are. However, it’s worth considering our motives and the language we use while doing this. You might want to read through this post, and those it links to, about autism distancing itself from mental illness. The context for asexuality is very different, since asexuality doesn’t imply any lack or difference in functioning, an asexual can be completely mentally healthy, and if the DSM decides that something is wrong with that state of being, then the DSM is incorrect.

However, consider for just a few seconds the situation we appear to be in. Mental illnesses are stigmatised, those who have mental illnesses, whom society should be protecting, encouraging, are instead minimised and excluded. The solution, to those on the outskirts of mental illness, are to protest that they’re not part of the category. If these people win their fights, it just encourages the view that mental illness is shameful and dehumanising, and there is no way you could possibly live with it.

So asexuality isn’t a mental illness. But as we point that out, we can try to avoid perpetuating the cycles of prejudice against the genuinely mentally ill*.
We don’t say “We’re not mentally ill because we’re not like THEM.”
We talk about the original reasons for HSDD (as far as I’m aware, many of the best ones are American health-insurance-system related), and why these are questionable, and need to be reconsidered, given the rise of the asexual community. We ask why exactly it is that lack of sexual attraction can’t be considered normal.
We talk about the use of the stigma of mental illness to control undesirable groups. We talk about the way homosexuality used to be considered a mental illness, we look outside our community to issues like how the DSM stigmatises fetishes (and, yes, this is exactly what ACH has been doing brilliantly). And, most importantly, we discuss how it’s wrong that classing a socially undesirable group as mentally ill can be an effective weapon against them, can completely invalidate their existence.

*Important note: Throughout this post, I’m thinking in terms of what we say in wider society, the conversations we have with each other, what we may say to the media, that sort of sphere. If you’re sitting in a boardroom with the people who decide DSM policy, then you don’t start with “The entire current system is fundamentally flawed.” You play the game, which may involve not challenging professional prejudices, and I’m completely behind that.

Important note II: This entire post was written before all the stuff about Flibanserin hit the blogs. It is absolutely nothing to do with all of that, which is a very different interaction between asexuality and mental health, and one on which I'm still organising my thoughts.


  1. The issues that you write about are one's that I've thought about from time to time (and am currently thinking about quite a bit) but haven't written about too much yet. There are some academics working on issues pertaining to this, and once some of this is published, I figure I'll use it as a springboard for further discussion.

    I look forward to hearing what you have to say about Flibanserin.

    p.s. It's hypoactive sexual desire disorder, not hypersexual desire disorder. (Although, the Paraphilias Subworkgroup is proposing a Hypersexual Disorder for DSM-5).

  2. Damn! I always accidentally write 'hyper'. Must stop doing that.

    I'd like to hear your views on this topic. With the DSM and Flibanserin, it seems likely that medicalisation could be the battlefield of asexuality, one way or the other.

    My thoughts on Flibanserin, apart from generally that the drug companies are trying to create a need where there isn't one already (hence the 43% thing), are pretty scrambled. The way I see it, the medical community calls low-desire people hyposexual, and we call them asexual. The issue for them is whether we're valid, the issue for us is whether hyposexuality is equally valid. Maybe hyposexuality is a genuine problem, and we should support those who need cures. On the other hand, maybe one day inducing feelings you don't have will seem as extreme as the ex-gay programme does now. I really can't make that call.

  3. I agree. It might benefit asexuals to actively consider the mentally ill, rather than distancing from them as there tends to be an impetus to do. Because asexuals and the mentally ill share one major thing: They are invisible groups. Most people in both groups can pass for "normal" most of the time, I find, which can be helpful to the individual, but furthers the stigma of asexuality and mental illness being really "out there"-- not something affecting the real people of your daily life. There is also the common misconception that asexuality or mental illness is "our fault", and that we could rejoin the masses of "normal" folks by doing some simple thing that had no doubt already occurred to us-- therapy, taking hormones, letting go of our "repression", etc. And yeah, I speak from experience. :-/