Illness and Deception? Asexuality on House, MD
A recent episode of the TV series House, M.D. created quite a stir in the asexual blogosphere. The show, for those of you who don’t know, chronicles the adventures of the irascible diagnostician Dr. House as he solves medical mysteries.
[Spoiler alert] The episode of interest (“Better Half” which aired on 1/23/2012) features a husband and wife who both identify as asexual at the start of the show. The wife consults House’s friend and colleague, Wilson, for a minor medical complaint. Upon learning about the couple, House sets out to prove that the wife’s asexuality is caused by a medical condition. He lures her husband into the hospital and performs a number of tests on him, eventually discovering that he has a brain tumor which is affecting his libido. When Wilson tells the couple about House’s finding, the wife admits that she had been pretending to be asexual in order to remain with her spouse.
Not surprisingly, the episode upset a number of individuals who identify as asexual. Because asexuality is a stigmatized identity, and because there are so few mainstream representations of asexual individuals, the portrayal of asexuality on House is particularly problematic. Some members of the asexual community launched a petition to encourage Fox to consider presenting alternative portrayals of asexuality. The petition reads, in part, “The House episode…represented asexuality very poorly by attributing it to both medical illness and deception. The episode encourages viewers to meet asexuality with skepticism rather than acceptance, to probe asexual people for causes of our ‘condition’ rather than to accept us as a part of the natural spectrum of human sexual diversity.”
Granted, in many cases, a lack of sexual desire or attraction may indicate an underlying biological condition or it may be the result of past trauma or current psychological issues. In these cases, it may be appropriate for doctors to recommend medical and/or psychological treatments. However, the episode suggests that all cases of asexuality are the result of either illness or deception. House summarizes this view when he states, “Lots of people don’t have sex. The only people who don’t want it are either sick, dead, or lying.”
In its portrayal of the husband, the episode presents a theme familiar to many asexual individuals: asexual individuals are often denied “epistemic authority” in regards to their own (a)sexuality. In other words, asexual individuals may be met with the reaction that they can’t really know that they are asexual – they are told that they could be “late bloomers,” that maybe they haven’t met the right person yet, that maybe they are unconsciously repressing their sexual desires, or that maybe there is a specific physical cause of their asexuality that simply hasn’t been found yet. In its portrayal of the wife, the episode goes one step further, suggesting that some asexual individuals are practicing conscious deception when they claim to be asexual.
In addition, the show suggests that asexuality can never be a fulfilling way of being in the world. Wilson’s character feels conflicted about upsetting the couples’ happiness (after all, they have been married for ten years). However, at the end of the episode, House assures him that he has “corrected two people’s wildly screwed up world views” and that it is “better to have schtupped and lost then never to have schtupped at all.” In other words, even if the couple is miserable as a result of their new knowledge, they are still better off than before, a view to which Wilson, the moral heart of the show, ultimately acquiesces.
Yet, the growth of vibrant online asexual communities, including the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), demonstrates that asexuality can be a fulfilling way of living in the world. Many asexual individuals are building lives that are rich, interesting, and complete and are finding new ways of developing relationships with others. In addition, asexual activism may help to take the pressure off of everyone to engage in unwanted sex simply because it’s expected.
Of course, I want Fox to take the petition seriously and consider offering other representations of asexuality on its many programs. Hopefully, we can turn this into a “teachable moment,” using it to foster dialogue about asexuality. Even if that doesn’t happen, I think there may still be a silver lining to this whole incident. Hopefully, isolated viewers who are struggling with their own (a)sexuality may learn from the episode that asexuality can be considered a sexual identity category.
According to sex and gender theorist Gayle Rubin, in the past, isolated gay and lesbian individuals gleaned information about how to find sexual minority communities from“fragments of rumor, distorted gossip, and bad publicity.” Hopefully, the “bad publicity” offered by the House episode will lead some people to find AVEN or another supportive asexual group, and, eventually, self-acceptance and community. If either of these things happens, then House, M.D. will have done the asexual community an inadvertent favor.