Asexuality on House, M.D.

Asexuality on House, M.D.

**WARNING: The following post contains spoilers for the January 23, 2012 episode of House, M.D.

Are you a fan of the television show House, M.D.? I certainly am. I often enjoy the unabashed skeptical and atheist perspectives, as well as the interesting medical stuff that goes on.

The main character, Greg House (played by Hugh Laurie), is known for being a complete and total asshole. He often says ridiculous and offensive things, leaving no person or group out of his misanthropy. His best friend, Dr. James Wilson (played by Robert Sean Leonard), is the voice of reason. He is the one who always points out how twisted and screwed up House’s perspective is. He’s the one that, despite his best efforts, often gets dragged into House’s shenanigans. House’s diagnostic team (played by various people, it’s changed over the seasons), also often speak up against his assholery.

But not on last night’s episdoe.

One of the subplots on the January 23 episode of House involved an asexual couple. Wilson was “doing time” in the clinic. (I say “doing time” because the specialists House (a diagnostician) and Wilson (an oncologist) are required by the hospital to do a certain amount of hours in the clinic per week–and it is often used as a punishment for House.) He encountered a woman who had a bladder infection. When he said he wanted to run a pregnancy test, she said it wasn’t necessary because she knew she wasn’t pregnant. He assumed she was celibate, and she said celibacy is a choice, but that she was asexual, which was her orientation. Wilson’s response was pretty funny–after a short pause, looking down uncomfortably at her chart, he said, “I don’t know what box to check.”

Dr. Wilson

To Wilson’s credit, he sought out to educate himself. Reading from a psychology journal while he was sitting at lunch with House, he told House that 1% of the population is asexual; it is “a real orientation,” he said. House scoffed, and bet Wilson $100 that he could prove that Wilson’s patient was not asexual because there is a medical reason that could explain why she was not having sex. After some trepidation, and a caveat that House not contact the woman, Wilson agreed to the bet, confident that it truly was an orientation and that House would find nothing.

Normally, House’s team would grumble something to him about his lack of empathy towards patients and even argue that people can live in ways that House may find odd without having a medical problem. But not this time! Two of his team members (both women, one of whom he sexually harasses on a regular basis and the other he harasses and makes fun of her nerdy appearance) assist him, running hormone tests and finding nothing. But, as usual, House has an “A-ha!” moment and rushes out of the room.

House brings the husband in under the guise of a free flu shot (ethical, right? Not surprising, though, for this particular show, with a diagnostic team who regularly breaks into people’s homes to snoop through their belongings for clues to their illness). He runs a series of tests and–lo’ and behold!–the man has a tumor on his pituitary gland. A tumor that, upon removal, will make him a sex-crazed man, “just like the rest of us,” House tells Wilson. Of course, Wilson has to break the news to the couple.

At first, when Wilson tells them, the man is hesitant and says he may not seek treatment because it would radically change his life. He doesn’t want to lose his wife or put her in the position of living with a sexual person when she is asexual. What does the wife say? No, honey, don’t worry! Sex is ACTUALLY KIND OF AMAZINGLY FUN! Yes, folks, just as House had predicted, the woman was only pretending to be asexual to be with the man she loves. “A woman has needs,” she tells him, hinting that she would enjoy the sex and that she probably has been self-pleasuring all along.

And so, the episode ends with House winning $100 from Wilson (which, by the way, he lights on fire and uses to light up a cigar with Wilson, who is more concerned about smoking inside than the flaming $100 bill–priorities!) because asexuality is, House tells us, “a screwed up worldview.”

The Asexual Pride Flag

Right after the episode aired, members of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) took to Twitter, lodging complaints with the episode’s writer, Kath Lingenfelter. The writer seemed genuinely shocked by the response. She noted that the story was meant to only be about that particular couple, and that she established the validity of asexuality as an orientation early in the episode (the lunch scene I described above where House and Wilson made the bet). Now, do those two things seem a bit at odds to anyone else? If it was a particular story about a particular couple, why establish the validity of an entire orientation? Or, why establish the validity of an entire orientation only to show how people who identify as that orientation are lying and sick?

To her credit, I think she recognizes that she messed up. She appears to welcome the criticism, though it is, of course, accompanied with a large heaping dose of Explain-Away™. For example, an AVEN member that goes by the handle cleuchtturm had a discussion with her over twitter, where she said:

I am trying to communicate with several of the people of the asexual community who were displeased, so forgive me if I repeat myself. I did a lot of research on asexuality for the episode. My original intent was to introduce it and legitimize it, because I was struck by the response most of you experience, which is similar to the prejudice the homosexual community has received. People hear you’re asexual and they immediately think, “What’s wrong with you, how do I fix you?” I wanted to write against that. Unfortunately, we are a medical mystery show. Time & again, my notes came back that House needed to solve a mystery and not be wrong. So in THIS CASE, with THESE patients, it was a tumor near the pituitary. But I hoped I could (now it seems unsuccessfully) introduce asexuality to the general public and get them asking questions. All they need to do is one google search and they can see for themselves it’s a real community of great people. Originally, part of my dialog included thoughts about whether as a species we’ve grown past sex. Any time we tackle a subject, we risk the possibility of not doing it justice. I apologize that you feel I did you a disservice. It was not my intent.

Cleuchtturm rightly points out that the biggest problem wasn’t the medical issue behind the man’s lack of sex drive, it was the woman lying about being asexual to be with him. This, the user notes, indicates that asexuality isn’t real, despite the writer’s best intentions of establishing it as such at the beginning of the episode. The writer’s response:

Asexuality is a new topic for me and definitely one I find fascinating. It is a subject I would like to continue to explore here or ..on future shows I write for. I think it speaks to where humans are now and where we are going. I will do my best in the future to do it justice. Thank you for feedback and please share any and all thoughts.

So, in the end, I think the writer recognizes the error of her ways, and she will hopefully be addressing it in a future episode. Though I am always cautious when people are “fascinated” by minorities.

I should say that I am impressed that the writer even engaged at all with people who were critical–this does not seem like a typical response to me. The fact that she’s open to coming back to this to make it right in the future is also impressive. What will be truly impressive is if she actually follows through.

By Will
Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at facebook.com/anthrowill.

9 Comments

  1. I’m impressed by Kath Lingenfelter’s response. She chose a very compassionate and productive means of resolving the problem.

    “Now, do those two things seem a bit at odds to anyone else?”

    Not necessarily. If she intended the couple to be interpreted as individuals then they would not represent asexual or anyone other than themselves. The problem these two people face is their own and probably should not be misconstrued as a moral on asexuality. It is certainly possible for someone to force their sexual behavior in order to match the feelings of someone they love. I did the same for my first boyfriend, trying to force myself into enjoying the same sexual activities that he enjoyed in the hopes that I could be a better match to him. If the woman in the story is anything like me she was only trying to conform to some model in order to retain a loved one. It is undeniably unhealthful and misguided, but also quite innocent.

    • Sure, but that’s not asexuality then. It’s someone who is lying about being asexual. Wilson could have easily pointed this out to House, but he didn’t. Instead of Wilson pretty much agreeing and giving in to House at the end, he could have noted that neither of the people were truly asexual.

      And that’s a failure of the writer in my view. But I agree with you that her response is impressive.

      • I’m not saying they are truly asexual. I’m only offering an explanation for their behavior and why they might then come to identify as asexual; and I’m certainly not excusing the creators of the program of responsibility for their work and the messages they intentionally and inadvertently make. :)

  2. Thanks for posting!

    When I saw on AVEN that asexuality had been featured on ‘House, M.D.’ I just thought, “Oh, that’s nice,” and didn’t bother to look into it. I suppose now there was no call for such optimism. I’ll be interested to see though whether they really do try to follow up on it in a better way.

  3. Arrgh! I’m waiting for the episode to come out on Hulu, so I’m still trying to block out spoilers.

    I did, however, spot these in Kath’s response:

    Originally, part of my dialog included thoughts about whether as a species we’ve grown past sex.

    I think it speaks to where humans are now and where we are going.

    I find it very foreboding that Kath thinks that asexual-positive means considering the question of whether humanity has “grown past sex”. This is the epitome of inadvertently terrible things people say when they’re trying to affirm asexuality. Besides representing multiple fundamental misunderstandings of evolution, it conceives of asexuality in terms of good and evil, purity and carnality, tradition and progress, when it’s really just this orientation that ordinary people have. It’s especially insulting to people who don’t quite fit on this pedestal put up for us (eg asexuals who have sex, gray-As, kinky asexuals).

    If this nonsense appeared on House, it would be such transparent BS, and then people would associate asexuality with BS.

  4. I haven’t seen the episode, and have only read summaries, but my response when deciding how to feel was to just to change the orientations and see how I’d feel about that. So imagine this story: The couple is two men, one of whom is gay and the other is bi. Then it turns out that the gay one is only gay because of a brain tumor (or some health problem), and the bi one was only pretending to be bi, and is actually straight but was just acting bi to get attention or as part of a rebellious phase or something like that.

    If I saw an episode that did that, I’d feel rightly uncomfortable with it, and I’d be shocked that anyone would air such an episode. With this episode I’m not surprised, since no one ever represents asexuality well, but it is still annoying.

  5. [...] Queereka: Asexuality on House, M.D.  The main character, Greg House (played by Hugh Laurie), is known for being a complete and total [...]

  6. To be fair, House has a history, as a show, of being transphobic and just as sexist towards intersexed people. It also sort of fetishized 13’s bisexuality.

    I still love the show, and don’t know why when I expect better from Hugh Laurie. He could have had Wilson win the bet.

  7. [...] Of course, that’s not quite, exactly what the show is saying. If you think of the events of the episode in a wider scale, it’s really just a specific case of two asexuals who weren’t really asexual. The writer responded to criticism from the asexual community promptly with a standard argument of particularity. Said the writer, “in THIS CASE, with THESE patients, it was a tumor near the pituitary. But I hoped I could (now it seems unsuccessfully) introduce asexuality to the general public and get them asking questions” (quoted in Queereka blog). [...]

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