Is Asexuality a Psychological Disorder?

Ask the ace community for bad medical experiences, and you’ll get a lot of stories about patients being prescribed anti-depressants, sent to therapy, or other such results because the doctors thought something was wrong with them for not experiencing sexual attraction like “normal.”  There’s a medical diagnosis called Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD), where “you’re not interested in sex (have no sex drive or a low sex drive), and it bothers you” (Planned Parenthood).  It’s still listed in DSM-5 today, although there is an exception that if the individual identifies as asexual then they should not be diagnosed with HSDD.

I, and others, take issue with this because so many people haven’t been taught about LGBTQIA+ stuff in sex ed. They may feel distress because they don’t realize they’re ace and society has told them they’re broken, rather than because their feelings really distress them personally.  It’s not reasonable to expect every ace out there to know they are and confidently declare their asexuality to the psychologist, who quite possibly doesn’t know much about asexuality themselves to tell clients.

But the real question I want to look at today is whether asexuality, or a lack of interest in sex (asexuality and low sex drive are two different things) are medical concerns in the first place.

What if Asexuality is a Medical Disorder?

The obvious answer to us aces is “no,” but I started doubting myself for a moment recently though.  Someone’s argument in a debate, where I had used maladaptiveness as the criterion for “disorder,” was that if you don’t want kids, then that is maladaptive because we have to reproduce to keep the species alive.  And I have to confess, it actually tripped me up.  Is asexuality a psychological disorder for people like me, actually, if it’s part of the reason we don’t want kids?  By “for me,” I mean specifically being a sex-repulsed ace, as asexuality only refers to how one experiences sexual attraction to others; not whether a person likes or dislikes sexual acts in themselves.  (Sex-averse aces – meaning not repulsed but just don’t want to do it personally – are also relevant here.)

According to Gazzaniga in Psychological Science, a psychological disorder must meet several criteria, including:

Is the behavior maladaptive?  That is, does the behavior interfere with the person’s ability to respond appropriately in different situations?  For example, a person who is afraid to leave the house may avoid feeling anxious by staying inside, and that behavior might prevent the person from working, having a social life, or both.  (3) Is the behavior self-destructive, does it cause the individual personal distress, or does it threaten other people in the community?  (4) Does the behavior cause discomfort and concern to others, thus impairing a person’s social relationships? (page 602).

(Criterion #1 was deviating from social norms, but that’s not taken very seriously compared to the other criteria according to Gazzaniga. And given our track record of human rights and discrimination issues, I should hope it’s self-explanatory why it shouldn’t be anyway.  Not to mention, certain issues like anxiety kind of are the cultural norm at this point.)  So now let’s look at asexuality in that context.  

 Does my asexuality interfere with my ability to respond appropriately in different situations?  No.  Refusing sex is always okay no matter your orientation. If anyone complains that it’s inappropriate to turn people down, the proper description of that interaction would be “sexual harrassment,” not “need to fix asexuality.”

Is my asexuality self-destructive, personally distressing, or a threat to those around me?  It certainly isn’t distressing to me, or self-destructive.  The only thing that would be self-destructive would be forcing myself to engage in sexual behavior against my natural inclination, and creating traumatic memories.  It’s not a direct threat to others, although if you leave cake unattended in a public area, I may be a threat to that… (That’s an ace joke.)  The only connection we might get here is if you include failing to reproduce as an indirect threat to the human community as a whole.

Does my asexuality cause concern and/or discomfort to others, consequently impairing my relationships?  In my case, no, but aphobia is real, and it can cause social issues for people as much as any other LGBTQIA+ identity.  We have to remember, though, that discomfort or impaired relationships don’t inherently mean a person is in the wrong. Having an abusive parent will impair your relationship.  I’m white, and I have a family member who would definitely not be comfortable if I had a non-white partner.  My grandparents on one side stopped talking to my parents for the most part because my immediate family are Atheists and our conversations are too think-y. Also, you know what else causes discomfort and impairs your relationships? Being prejudiced towards people because of their sexual orientation :).

Asexuality is looking fairly safe, wouldn’t you say?  It fails 2 ⅔ of the criteria for a disorder.  The only hang-up is that bit about a lack of reproduction perhaps being considered a threat to the community.  One can argue of course that more people on the planet is exactly what we don’t need right now with climate change, but while factually true, that’s situationally dependent as an argument for our purposes. It still leaves open the door for sex-averse or -repulsed asexuality to be a disorder anyway, that just happened to work out for now.

After having a brief identity crisis following my initial “what if,” and chewing on thoughts for a bit, I realized that I was thinking too narrowly.  Yes, we gotta pop out babies to keep going, but humans are so much more complex than that.  We communicate with words; we build societies; we contemplate our own existence; we use our big brains to make all kinds of arguably-unnatural things to improve our lives.  Our society is so big and complex, we need a diversity of ways of thinking to keep it strong.  No one brain can think of all the ideas; having people who think or experience life differently on a more fundamental level, not just have different life experiences, enhances our ability to create, innovate, and solve the problems life throws at us.

Yes, we need to reproduce, but that’s far and away not the only thing society needs.  We need to improve societal problems, and we need people devoted to solving crises like climate change that threaten our existence.  We need to support the kids in the system who need adoptive parents.  People have a finite amount of energy, and if I have kids, that’s a lot of energy I’m not spending on the other things that contribute to society.

We aces make up about 1% of the population according to most results Google will give you.  That’s a whole lot of people when talking about who discriminatory policies will effect, but not that much when it comes to how many people need to have kids to maintain populations (which need to drop as it is, anyway…).  I for one am pretty focused on school, writing, and other such things, and because I don’t want a partner (I’m also aromantic) or fuckbuddy, I can put all my energy into work-type stuff.  I may not have a kid of my own, but what if my writing gives someone else’s parents a new perspective and that stops their LGBTQIA+ kid from committing suicide?  Humanity is a giant team, and like any team, different people fill different roles and perform different tasks according to their strengths and the team’s needs.  

We aces (& aros) may be able to do the stuff that not everyone else has time or energy for.  It’s not a problem, and it’s not maladaptive; it’s the necessary variety of perspectives and social roles that allows us to cover all our bases, and makes us strong as a species.

So, what are your thoughts on the matter?  Do you agree, disagree, think I left out something important?

2 thoughts on “Is Asexuality a Psychological Disorder?”

  1. Fabulous post! Ace/aro is definitely a non-normal – and perfectly legit – perspective that most of us need to learn more about, and the thoughts and data you include here help me, at least, a great deal. I especially like the idea that we all have different roles to play and different strengths to contribute. I shudder to think of everyone having ten kids and nothing else getting done except minimum survival. The amount of difference we can make in the world varies so much that one person just can’t judge another based on one standard. I may have impacted three people deeply, but you can have a much broader, if perhaps shallower, impact over thousands. We’re all needed!
    Keep up the excellent work!

    1. Thanks! I’m glad it was useful.
      Though to give proper credit, you’ll still be indirectly responsible if/when I impact thousands, since you helped me get to this point ;).

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