Inaccurate or ill-informed media representation of asexuality can cause frustration and societal severance among asexual individuals.
This disparity is more prevalent in healthcare, as some clinicians believe it’s a problem to be fixed or treated rather than a valid identity, according to a recent study.
Asexuality must be properly implemented in healthcare education to increase awareness and cultural sensitivity of psychiatrists and all physicians.
As a form of sexual orientation, asexuality tends to be misportrayed in popular culture as something alien and robotic.
Think notably emotionless characters such as Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation or the titular character from the BBC’s Sherlock.
But what does this mean in clinical terms?
This mentality often seen in film and TV could even be present in healthcare, where research shows that asexuality is often treated as a mental health issue.
What is asexuality?
The Asexual Visibility Network (AVN) defines this identity as “a person who does not experience sexual attraction.” Although they are not interested in sex, asexual people can still experience romantic, aesthetic, and other types of attraction, and are capable of engaging in loving relationships.
Although we’ve come a long way since 1973 (when the APA officially removed homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses), there is a fundamental gap in asexual healthcare education.
To recognize this identity, clinicians can be properly educated on asexuality. This may help asexual patients feel more comfortable and validated when disclosing their identity to physicians. Unsavory media portrayal
A 2012 episode of the medical TV drama House epitomized how asexuality is pathologized in mass media and healthcare. In the episode “Better Half,” protagonist Dr. Gregory House dismissed an asexual couple under the assumption that anyone who doesn’t like sex is either “sick, dead, or lying.”
It was later revealed the husband had a pituitary tumor that was diminishing his sex drive—evidence House uses to further invalidate the man’s sexuality. This is one of many instances of asexual misrepresentation in popular culture.
The skewed perception of asexuality has made many asexuals feel discredited and misunderstood, according to AVN.
Model and asexual activist Yazmin Beniot has been open about how the pathologization of asexuality made her doubt her own identity growing up. “People think I must be unlovable, fussy, or mentally ill,” she said in an interview with Glamour UK.
"When everybody keeps telling you there must be something wrong with you, after a while, you start to wonder if they're right."
— Yazmin Benoit
Inaccuracies in healthcare
Research shows that many asexual patients feel similarly to Benoit when opening up to physicians. In a 2020 study by The National Library of Medicine, 136 asexuals were queried about their interactions with mental health and health practitioners to explore how the pathologization of their identity affected their relationships with physicians.
Results showed the majority of participants did not disclose or felt uncomfortable discussing their sexuality with providers. Twenty-five to 50% of participants said practitioners attributed their asexuality to a medical condition condition rather than accepting it as a valid identity.
Participants had increased likelihood of disclosing their asexual identity to mental health providers over medical practitioners.
There is an entire sub-forum on AVN where asexuals discuss their encounters with doctors, whereby many of their comments and stories align with The National Library of Medicine’s study results.
Patching this disparity
Asexuals’ hesitancy to open up to doctors is a challenge. Not only does it perpetuate the pathologization of their identity, but it prevents physicians from speaking to asexual patients about their experiences. Additionally, lacking education on asexual identity may contribute to difficulties in establishing connections between physicians and their patients.
For example, the Institute for Sexual and Gender Help does offer an LGBT training course for physicians titled “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Health," though there is no direct mention of asexuality within this course description. At this time, while asexual training courses do exist, there is no national standard for training on this topic.
However, a possible patch for this disparity is currently in the works.
Mandi L. Pratt-Chapman, PhD, and her colleagues designed a tentative national panel for expanded education on LGBT+ identities. This course incorporates various methods of interactive learning (narratives, case studies, multimedia, and self-reflection) to help physicians understand non-heterosexual patients.
Although not every physician will be educated on asexuality, courses like Pratt-Chapman’s offer hope for a more-well rounded education.
Although the inclusion of LGBT+ training courses for physicians is a progressive step, healthcare education regarding asexuality is still extremely limited. Doctors should learn about this orientation through both education and practice to better connect with/understand these patients.