The Ethical Dilemma: Asexual Alienation and Can Anyone Really Be Ethical?

Joan Reisman Bill answers your questions this week about the AHA’s stance on asexuality and whether a person can truly be ethical all the time.

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective?

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Asexual Alienation: The American Humanist Association recently gave an award to sex columnist Dan Savage who typically gives short shrift to sexual minorities beyond LGBT. Lately there have been huge advances for that community, but as an asexual, I am still treated as invisible or nonexistent. I feel the AHA does loads of good work, but it bothers me that in honoring someone like Savage, the AHA is ignoring people like me.

—Another Type of “None”

Dear None,

I must admit I had never until now given much thought to asexual people—what defines them, how many there are, what life is like for them, ways in which they may be discriminated against or marginalized, etc. Asexuality doesn’t seem to be a trending topic in the media. The Big Bang Theory’s Dr. Sheldon Cooper comes to mind as an example of an asexual character, although not necessarily an exemplary one (he has a lot of stuff going on that has nothing to do with asexuality). I’ve never heard of any instances of overt discrimination or crime against asexual people, but it may more typically take the form of chronically ignoring them, as you point out.

My impression is that asexual people escape attention because they aren’t likely to stand out, for instance by publicly displaying affection, or because they haven’t campaigned for any rights denied to them comparable with marriage vows or military service. I can’t remember ever encountering any individuals who identified themselves as asexual. But I have known un-partnered people who were assumed to be either closeted gay or asexual. And I’ve never heard anything negative associated with asexuality, other than it being different from the norm (whatever that really is)—which, unfortunately, may be viewed negatively by some people.

Now, thanks to you, I realize how difficult it could be live in this world without any particular interest in sex. Everybody, starting with one’s mother, seems to expect everyone to mate. Weddings and many other social events encourage guests to bring dates, and many settings can be very uncomfortable when there is no significant other present (or absent).

The first thing I found on a Google search of asexuality was the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), which seems to be an excellent resource for asexual people and those who want to understand what asexuality means.

Like LGBTs and atheists who do not identify themselves as such, asexuals are undoubtedly far more numerous than anyone realizes. How often do you see an “asexual” or “none of the above” sexual preference option on a survey? This is another area where coming out in numbers might lead to acceptance and recognition that this is simply another form of being human. Asexuals could provide public education by speaking up about their issues, whether they include loneliness or lack of community, being passed over for promotions that go to family guys, being shoved into raucous boys’ nights or intimate girl-talk, or struggling with alienation.

While Dan Savage is under no obligation to include every kind of sexuality, including asexuality, in the excellent work he does—and no recipient of any AHA award is above reproach in every respect—it’s certainly appropriate to take a critical look at what the AHA is doing—or not doing—in this area. You took the first step by expressing that you feel ignored, and you have been heard. Why not take another step and work with the AHA and other organizations to include asexuality in the mix of human rights and conditions they acknowledge and support? The AHA is currently working on a sexuality statement and will be sure that asexuality is recognized in it. Your input is more than welcome; always feel free to contact AHA leaders with suggestions.


Acting Ethical: Is it unethical to pretend to be ethical when you are not?

—Just Asking

Dear Asking,

Hmmm. At first glance, I wondered if you were suggesting that I, personally, may be pretending to be ethical when I’m not. But since I don’t believe you and I know each other beyond this column—and since the same question recently appeared in the New York Times “The Ethicist” column, I think you just want to see what I have to say. I will try not to be swayed by the Times’ answer (which, to be ethical, I must admit I glanced at).

I’m not sure what it really means to “be” ethical or not, as a more or less permanent attribute like being tall. As I see it, being ethical or unethical is situational, relying heavily on “it all depends.” One can be ethical in one activity one moment in one context while the same act may be viewed as unethical in a different context or moment. And the same person who acted ethically in one case might act unethically in another—so would we call that person ethical or unethical? Some people may be more conscientious than others about trying to behave ethically, but that doesn’t necessarily make them more successful at it. What I consider ethical you may consider unethical, and vice versa, and we might be equally on-target or off-base. Very often I find myself doing a 180 as I compose answers to Ethical Dilemma questions, starting off the first draft with my initial take and ending up with quite another after looking at things from several angles and outside the box. Some perspectives are surely sounder than others, but I doubt any is 100% bulletproof.

Maybe what you mean by “pretending to be ethical” would involve invoking ethicalness as a ruse or smoke-screen, perhaps to gain trust in order to pull off unethical behavior without raising suspicion. For instance, I could make a big show of returning money dropped by a stranger, so that you wouldn’t suspect me of pilfering bills out of your wallet when you’re not looking. In this case, my display of ethical behavior is a hypocritical tool for deceit. Most of us let down our guard and then feel extra-violated when we encounter dishonesty from someone we trusted. A politician who makes a name for himself prosecuting prostitution rings and then is caught enjoying their services (anyone in particular come to mind?) is more distressing than a gangster caught doing the same thing. We might have expected that of the gangster, but not of the politician; and the gangster might not have considered what he was doing to be wrong, while clearly the politician realized he was violating his own espoused ethics and those of the people who elected him to mind the henhouse.

The fact is, there are probably no entirely ethical or unethical people. Just because I write a column about ethics doesn’t mean I adhere to my own advice, or never condone unethical behavior in myself or others. Many of our heroes have feet of clay, and if we haven’t noticed, perhaps we just haven’t looked hard enough. And maybe we shouldn’t. We are all works in progress, and while we may have slipped up in the past and will probably slip up some more in the future, we get points for sincerely trying to lead our lives as ethically as we can, within our own contexts. Ethics is what humanists have in place of dogma, to help us make reasonable choices and behave as well as we can in our imperfect but all-we’ve-got universe.