Robert Niemira – The Validity of a Pathologized Absence

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For the purposes of this paper, I will use the acronym GRSM (gender, romantic, sexual minorities) rather than the more well-known acronym LGBT and its extensions. The problem that arises from an acronym that lists, like LGBT, rather than an acronym that describes, like GRSM, is that the items of the list seem less important the later in the acronym they are. This is further exacerbated by a “+” at the end of the well-known “LGBT+”. One of the so-called “invisible” identities included in that “+” is asexuality, the lack of sexual attraction towards anyone. While media portrayal of most GRSM identities has improved since being totally absent, attitudes towards asexuality and asexual representation remain less than stellar.

Asexuality is a little-known orientation. As heterosexuality is attraction to “other”
(hetero), homosexuality is attraction to “same” (homo), and pansexuality is attraction to “all” (pan), asexuality is attraction to none. On the wider spectrum of asexuality and what it means to be asexual, Jo Teut writes:

Beyond the initial lack of sexual attraction, the asexual community acknowledges a broad diversity of ways of being asexual. For instance, there are at least five different types of attraction (sexual, sensual, romantic, platonic, aesthetic), a spectrum of willingness to engage in sexual aactivities (sex-positive, -neutral, -negative, -adverse), and spectrums for intensity of attraction felt as well as conditions under which attraction is felt. (95)

Broadly, an asexual is one who experiences little or no sexual attraction to anybody, but may still feel sensual, romantic, platonic, or aesthetic attraction and may also be sex-positive, -neutral, -adverse, or -negative. Asexuality, like other forms of human identity, is a far-reaching spectrum that allows a myriad of possible ways to identify.

Asexual representation in popular media is scarce and what little there is is usually less than accurate. House, M.D. was a popular medical drama that ran from 2004 to 2012. The ninth episode of the eighth season, titled “Better Half,” contains an asexual couple that is later revealed to be comprised of two non-asexual individuals. In the episode, Doctor Wilson is with a patient when the patient reveals to Wilson that she and her husband are asexual (5:03–5:23). Their conversation makes an important and well-written distinction between celibacy, a choice, and asexuality, an orientation (5:15–5:23). However, it is later revealed that the husband has a tumor on his pituitary limiting his libido and the wife was faking her asexuality to be with him (36:30–37:50). This pathologization of asexuality “as a malaise ‘to be cured’” (Osterwald 43) hurts asexual individuals. A common counterargument to the specific case of House may be: “Dr. House solves all sorts of medical mysteries you’ve never even heard of before. The whole show is incredulous and incredibly unlikely, so of course the strange couple must have something unbelievable wrong with them.” This argument contains the fallacy of division: an assertion that something true for a whole must be true for all or some of its parts. However, just because House is a show about million-to-one medical miracles does not mean that 1) it cannot have helpful and realistic representation of GRSM individuals and 2) unhelpful and unrealistic representation of GRSM individuals within the show cannot do real harm.

However much representation asexuality and its associated spectra has in popular media, that representation frequently leaves much to be desired. Gwendolyn Osterwald at Hofstra University explains the current state of asexual representation in our media and stories:

Nowadays, while society is beginning to distinguish asexuality as distinct category, modern narratives attempt portrayals of “stereotypical” asexual characters that in no way reflect the complexity of asexuality. As we shall see, not only is the stereotyping of asexual characters detrimental to the understanding of asexuality, but also the treatment of these characters negatively affects society’s chances of accepting asexuals by unfairly pigeonholing them, and worse, by ultimately ‘fixing’ or ‘curing’ asexual characters as if they were suffering from an abnormality. (37)

Osterwald also discusses the case of Sherlock Holmes, another popular asexual figure. Sherlock Holmes as a representation of asexuality causes problems in understanding what asexuality is. For one, Sherlock Holmes is a man, and most asexual people identify as women (Teut 99). This is not to say that asexual individuals in media are not allowed to be men, but that Sherlock Holmes, in particular, is not a fantastic representation of asexuality. Sherlock Holmes is also nearly super-human in his intellect, which, far from being an accurate representation of asexuals, is a poor representation of a person. This may cause people to believe that asexual individuals are only asexual because they are “too busy thinking and have not had time to experience sexual fulfillment yet” or have transcended what are perceived as human “needs” entirely (Osterwald 41). This, however, is not the case. Asexual individuals are just people that experience little or no sexual attraction. They are not fascinating specimens that it would be fun and interesting to do science on and poke at with sticks. Sherlock is an example of asexuality that, whether intentionally or not, has been pathologized and mystified as something inherently incomprehensible. Asexual people are not incomprehensible, however, and the notion provided to the public through media that asexual people are subjects of wild intrigue and are to be studied harms real asexual people that probably already think that something is wrong with them for not liking what nearly everyone else seems to like.

Asexual representation matters just like all representation matters. An article by Nicole Magas likens asexuality to “being the weird kid sitting in the back of the queer bus who gives a little too much intense eye contact and has an odd obsession with collecting bugs.” Anti-asexual bias, even among non-asexual GRSM individuals and communities, is quite high (Thorpe et. al 312). Non-asexual GRSM individuals are already alienated from non-GRSM society and asexual individuals are alienated from GRSM society, making lots of asexual individuals feel truly alone. Asexuals make up approximately 1% of the population and are therefore really quite starved for accurate representation and acceptance as human beings (Thorpe et. al 307). Asexual representation, however, is often handled poorly and “representation that doesn’t border on the pathologic [is rare]” (Magas). One result of this is that asexual individuals often do not know what they are until much later in their lives; the average age of first recognition of asexuality is 18 years old (Teut 99). If we want asexuals (our fellow human beings) to be comfortable in their own skin and in our society, representation of asexuals in media must improve its accuracy and its frequency such that it is no longer treated as a “malaise ‘to be cured’” (Osterwald 43).

“Better Half.” House, M.D. Fox, January 23, 2012.

Magas, Nicole. “Making room for asexual folk is more important than awkward representation.” UWIRE Text, 9 Feb. 2020, p.1. Gale Academic OneFile, Accessed 9 Mar. 2021

Osterwald, Gwendolyn. “Contradictions in the Representation of Asexuality: Fiction and Reality.” IAFOR Journal of Arts & Humanities, vol. 4, no. 1, Apr. 2017, pp. 36–44. EBSCOhost, doi:10.22492/ijah.4.1.04.\

Teut, Jo. “Integrating Asexuality: A Is for Asexual in LGBTQIA+.” New Directions for Community Colleges, vol. 2019, no. 188, Winter 2019, pp. 95–108. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1002/cc.20381.

Thorpe, Cassandra, and Kelly Arbeau. “Judging an Absence: Factors Influencing Attitudes towards Asexuality.” Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, vol. 29, no. 3, Dec. 2020, pp. 307–313. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3138/cjhs.2020-0003.