Sex and Gen­der Is­sue

How asex­u­al­ity can dis­rupt sex-nor­ma­tiv­ity

The McGill Daily - - Front Page - by Eléa

There re­mains, to this day, fre­quent con­fu­sion around the let­ter ‘A’ in the LGBTQIA2+ acro­nym. The A is not for ally. It stands for asex­ual, which, ac­cord­ing to the Asex­ual Vis­i­bil­ity and Ed­u­ca­tion Net­work (AVEN, the largest on­line asex­ual com­mu­nity), de­scribes a per­son who does not ex­pe­ri­ence sex­ual at­trac­tion. This def­i­ni­tion is pur­pose­fully vague, so as to leave a lot of space for self­i­den­ti­fi­ca­tion and for the dif­fer­ent lived ex­pe­ri­ences of asex­u­al­ity. This def­i­ni­tion rec­og­nizes that there is no one way to be asex­ual. The ‘Overview’ page on the AVEN web­site adds that “each asex­ual per­son ex­pe­ri­ences things like re­la­tion­ships, at­trac­tion, and arousal some­what dif­fer­ently.” In­deed, asex­u­al­ity is a spec­trum. Mem­bers of the com­mu­nity can also choose to iden­tify as gray­sex­ual (or graya­sex­ual) if they oc­ca­sion­ally ex­pe­ri­ence sex­ual at­trac­tion, or as demi­sex­ual if they some­times ex­pe­ri­ence sex­ual at­trac­tion but only af­ter a strong emo­tional bond has been formed be­tween them and an­other per­son.

An im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion must also be made be­tween sex­ual and ro­man­tic ori­en­ta­tions. Ac­knowl­edg­ing the ex­is­tence of asex­u­al­ity as a spec­trum means rec­og­niz­ing that not all peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence sex­ual at­trac­tion, and that not all peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence a lack of sex­ual at­trac­tion in the same way. This ac­knowl­edg­ment opens the door to un­der­stand­ing that at­trac­tion can mean dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. For ex­am­ple, some in­di­vid­u­als ex­pe­ri­ence ro­man­tic at­trac­tion to­ward oth­ers, and can choose to iden­tify with a ro­man­tic ori­en­ta­tion which may or may not co­in­cide with their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. Folks who do not ex­pe­ri­ence ro­man­tic at­trac­tion can choose to iden­tify as aro­man­tic. Although aro­man­ti­cism is not specif­i­cally the sub­ject of this piece, I en­cour­age read­ers to in­form them­selves on the sub­ject and in­clude aro­man­ti­cism in con­ver­sa­tions. For ex­am­ple, the Aro­man­tic FAQ on the AVEN wiki pro­vides use­ful def­i­ni­tions, vo­cab­u­lary, re­sources, and re­lated blogs. Aro­man­tics are im­por­tant mem­bers of our com­mu­nity and are very of­ten in­val­i­dated and si­lenced.

Today, on­line com­mu­ni­ties such as AVEN are at the core of asex­ual ac­tivism and spread­ing pub­lic aware­ness. It was only af­ter David Jay founded AVEN in 2001 that asex­u­al­ity be­gan to gain grow­ing acceptance and vis­i­bil­ity, and that asex­u­als could meet and con­nect on a larger scale. Be­cause there are very few queer re­sources, events, and spa­ces that are in­clu­sive of asex­u­al­ity, asex­u­als will of­ten start iden­ti­fy­ing as such only af­ter be­ing in con­tact with other mem­bers of the asex­ual com­mu­nity. In my case, I started us­ing that word to de­scribe my­self only af­ter dis­cov­er­ing AVEN and re­lat­ing to other peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ences on the site’s fo­rums and on other on­line com­mu­ni­ties. These asex­ual com­mu­ni­ties gave me the vo­cab­u­lary, in­for­ma­tion, and sup­port that queer com­mu­ni­ties and sex­ual ed­u­ca­tion plat­forms had not of­fered.

Lo­cat­ing asex­u­al­ity in western history

Although asex­u­al­ity as a queer sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion re­ceived very lit­tle vis­i­bil­ity un­til the be­gin­ning of the 21st cen­tury, there are many dif­fer­ent western un­der­stand­ings of asex­u­al­ity in history that still shape the way we ap­proach the iden­tity today. The mean­ing of asex­u­al­ity has been po­lit­i­cally and cul­tur­ally con­tin­gent; per­cep­tions have shifted over time, while be­ing em­bed­ded in con­cep­tions of race, class, and gen­der. In her es­say “Asex­u­al­ity and the Fem­i­nist Pol­i­tics of ‘Not Do­ing It,’” Ela Przy­bylo ar­gues that around the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, the gen­eral un­der­stand­ing of women’s sex­u­al­ity grad­u­ally shifted from the idea of pas­sion­less­ness (where fe­male sex­u­al­ity was seen as a threat to the sta­tus quo, and was con­sid­ered pas­sive as op­posed to ac­tive male de­sires), to a fo­cus on fe­male de­sire and plea­sure as nat­u­ral and nec­es­sary. Though in con­trast to the fe­male pas­siv­ity posited by psy­cho­anal­y­sis, these new ideas con­cern­ing the in­nate na­ture of sex­ual de­sires sim­i­larly ex­cluded the ex­pe­ri­ences of work­ing class and im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tions, women of colour, as well as queer, trans, and non-bi­nary in­di­vid­u­als. Many of these marginal­ized groups were de­picted as hy­per­sex­ual in dom­i­nant nar­ra­tives; their sex­u­al­i­ties were per­ceived as al­ready im­moral and de­viant. This left many com­mu­ni­ties with­out a space to voice their own unique ex­pe­ri­ences of (a)sex­u­al­ity. These con­ver­sa­tions equally elim­i­nated the pos­si­bil­ity for in­di­vid­u­als as­signed male at birth to ex­press their asex­u­al­ity, as they were largely seen as the ‘ac­tive,’ sex­u­ally de­mand­ing el­e­ments in a bi­nary and pa­tri­ar­chal con­cep­tion of het­eronor­ma­tive part­nered re­la­tion­ships.

Un­til re­cently, his­tor­i­cal dis­cus­sions of fe­male (a)sex­u­al­ity were there­fore lim­ited to the ex­pe­ri­ences of cis­gen­der, het­ero­sex­ual white women, of­ten from mid­dle and up­per classes. In her es­say, Przy­bylo ex­plains that the 1920s and 1930s in North Amer­ica and Europe were char­ac­ter­ized by grow­ing so­cio­cul­tural anx­i­eties about the vis­i­bil­ity of women in the pub­lic realm and their pres­ence in the work­force. Ef­forts were made to en­sure women’s sub­or­di­na­tion to male au­thor­ity and re­turn them to the pri­vate realm of the house­hold, where suc­cess­ful mar­riage and moth­er­hood be­came im­per­a­tives. These im­per­a­tives were de­pen­dent on women en­gag­ing fre­quently and will­fully in het­ero­sex­ual in­ter­course. Fe­male sex­u­al­ity was seen as in­nate and nat­u­ral, and any di­ver­gence from this norm was per­ceived as threat­en­ing and patho­log­i­cal.

Around this time, Freud and other psy­chi­a­trists were the­o­riz­ing the con­cept of ‘frigid­ity,’ a word used to med­i­cal­ize fe­male asex­u­al­ity as an in­abil­ity to achieve vagi­nal or­gasm. Frigid­ity was seen not as a com­plete lack of sex­ual de­sire, but as an in­ca­pac­ity to con­form to male-de­fined no­tions of sex­ual plea­sure. It was nec­es­sary to en­gage in het­ero­sex­ual in­ter­course for one’s sex­u­al­ity to be con­sid­ered non- patho­log­i­cal. Asex­u­al­ity was seen as de­viant: an in­com­plete and re­pressed way of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing sex­u­al­ity, not un­like other queer iden­ti­ties per­ceived as sites of nec­es­sary medi- cal in­ter­ven­tion by psy­cho­an­a­lysts and sex­ol­o­gists alike.

Przy­bylo adds that the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury saw an­other shift in the un­der­stand­ing of (a)sex­u­al­ity. Once again, this shift was largely fo­cused on the ex­pe­ri­ences of cis­gen­der, het­ero­sex­ual, mid­dle class white women. The so-called ‘sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion’ of the 50s and 60s sought to lib­er­ate women in their sex­ual de­sires and plea­sures. Many fem­i­nists saw the cli­toris as a site of fe­male agency in sex­ual plea­sure, as op­posed to the vagina, which had been con­sid­ered the place of male- de­fined, het­e­ro­coitus. The cli­toris be­came the sym­bol of sex­ual au­ton­omy in con­texts where sex­ual free­dom was of­ten equated with gen­eral free­dom. Frigid­ity was per­ceived by many as a pa­tri­ar­chal tool for gen­dered op­pres­sion, orig­i­nat­ing in false as­sump­tions about fe­male anatomy. These con­cerns are clearly prob­lem­atic in the way that they de­fine fem­i­nin­ity in phys­i­cal, bi­o­log­i­cal terms. The move­ment for sex­ual lib­er­a­tion largely ex­cluded the ex­pe­ri­ences of non-bi­nary and trans femmes, and failed to ac­count for the plu­ral­ity of lived ex­pe­ri­ences of fem­i­nin­ity. Asex­u­al­ity was rel­e­gated to the sphere of con­ser­vatism and gen­dered op­pres­sion.

Dur­ing this pe­riod, fem­i­nists like Dana Dens­more and Valerie Solanas re­jected the idea of sex al­to­gether and pro­posed rad­i­cal celibacy as a way to undo pa­tri­ar­chal in­sti­tu­tions, such as the fam­ily, which were seen as vi­o­lent and op­pres­sive. How­ever, these dis­cus­sions po­si­tioned a lack of sex­u­al­ity as a po­lit­i­cal choice and not as a le­git­i­mate queer sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. This con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of asex­u­al­ity as a po­lit­i­cal stance con­trib­uted to the con­tin­ued per­cep­tion of sex­u­al­ity and sex­ual at­trac­tion as nat­u­ral to hu­mans. In­deed, some kind of sex­ual feel­ing would be nec­es­sary to pre­cede the choice to chal­lenge or re­ject it. En­cour­ag­ing rad­i­cal celibacy did of­fer an in­ter­est­ing coun­ter­point to dis­courses of sex- ual lib­er­a­tion and opened up con­ver­sa­tions about the em­pow­er­ing po­ten­tial of not en­gag­ing in sex­ual acts. How­ever, it did not chal­lenge gen­der bi­nary and het­eronor­ma­tive con­cep­tions of sex, re­mained lim­ited to the priv­i­leged de­ci­sions of largely white mid­dle and up­per class women, and did not ac­count for the plu­ral­ity of lived ex­pe­ri­ences of fem­i­nin­ity and asex­u­al­ity.

To sum­ma­rize the past cen­turies, asex­u­al­ity has mostly been ex­cluded from his­tor­i­cal un­der­stand­ings of sex­u­al­ity, ex­cept where it was seen as a dis­or­der or a po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion. Asex­u­al­ity as a non­patho­log­i­cal, mostly life­long char­ac­ter­is­tic was re­served to the study of plants and an­i­mals, and only started to ap­pear in stud­ies on hu­mans in the 1980s, al­beit min­i­mally. Ac­cord­ing to Przy­bylo, dis­courses on sex­u­al­ity re­main sat­u­rated by the sex­ual im­per­a­tive and the het­e­ro­coital clus­ter. The sex­ual im­per­a­tive refers to the ways in which “sex is priv­i­leged above other ways of re­lat­ing,” and the ways in which sex­u­al­ity and the self are un­der­stood to be fused. In other words, the sex­ual im­per­a­tive en­cour­ages us to un­der­stand sex­u­al­ity as in­her­ent to be­ing hu­man, so that sex­ual in­ti­macy is per­ceived to be su­pe­rior to other forms of close­ness. Przy­bylo adds that “sex is con­fig­ured as ‘healthy’ (in par­tic­u­lar, cul­tur­ally des­ig­nated con­texts).” See the many stud­ies and ar­ti­cles de­tail­ing the ben­e­fits of sex, from sup­pos­edly clearer skin and hap­pier moods to re­duced risks of cancer and lower blood pres­sure. Fi­nally, she writes that “sex re­mains gen­i­tal, or­gas­mic, ejac­u­la­tory, and in the case of het­ero­sex, coital.” Here she is re­fer­ring to the het­e­ro­coital clus­ter, which de­fines what types of sex are ‘ap­pro­pri­ate’ and ‘ac­cept­able.’ More specif­i­cally, het­ero­sex­ual coital sex in which the or­gasm is an im­per­a­tive. Sex is seen as the ev­i­dence and en­act­ment of plea­sure and health, in spe­cific con­texts which fit into dom­i­nant dis­courses around ac­cept­able sex­u­al­i­ties.

From nar­ra­tives of fe­male pas­sion­less­ness and pas­siv­ity to a re­claim­ing of sex­ual de­sires and plea­sure as nat­u­ral and em­pow­er­ing, asex­u­al­ity has been largely over­looked in western history and mostly con­sid­ered patho­log­i­cal or po­lit­i­cal. The ab­sence of asex­u­al­ity as a sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion in dom­i­nant dis­courses of the last cen­turies shapes the ways in which we ac­cept the sex­ual im­per­a­tive today and still fail to chal­lenge its im­pli­ca­tions.

Asex­u­al­ity in queer and fem­i­nist spa­ces

Today, we must pre­vent the con­tin­ued ex­clu­sion of asex­u­al­ity in nar­ra­tives about hu­man sex­u­al­ity if we want to ef­fec­tively ques­tion the sex­ual im­per­a­tive and its harm­ful ef­fects. This means con-

The mean­ing of asex­u­al­ity has been po­lit­i­cally and cul­tur­ally con­tin­gent; its per­cep­tion has shifted over time, while be­ing em­bed­ded in con­cep­tions of race, class, and gen­der.

The move­ment for sex­ual lib­er­a­tion largely ex­cluded the ex­pe­ri­ences of non-bi­nary and trans femmes, and failed to ac­count for the plu­ral­ity of lived ex­pe­ri­ences of fem­i­nin­ity. Asex­u­al­ity was rel­e­gated to the sphere of con­ser­vatism and gen­dered op­pres­sion.

When com­ing out to friends as asex­ual and pan­ro­man­tic, I have of­ten been met with dis­be­lief and sug­ges­tions on how to live my queer­ness in a ‘more ful­fill­ing way.’

sciously in­clud­ing asex­u­al­ity in con­ver­sa­tions about queer­ness, fem­i­nism, and dis­abil­ity, so that asex­u­al­ity may be ac­cepted as a le­git­i­mate queer sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion — non-patho­log­i­cal and not equal to celibacy.

Fem­i­nists and mem­bers of the queer com­mu­nity seek to chal­lenge the het­eronor­ma­tive and gen­der bi­nary im­pli­ca­tions of the sex­ual im­per­a­tive and het­e­ro­coital clus­ter. I ar­gue that in or­der to ef­fec­tively dis­man­tle these dom­i­nant nar­ra­tives, asex­u­al­ity must be in­cluded in dis­cus­sions about queer­ness, sex-pos­i­tiv­ity, and con­sent, if said dis­cus­sions want to be in­clu­sive of all ex­pe­ri­ences re­lated to sex­u­al­ity, and not fos­ter harm­ful sex-nor­ma­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tions of hu­man re­la­tion­ships and in­ti­macy.

When com­ing out to friends as asex­ual and pan­ro­man­tic, I have of­ten been met with dis­be­lief and sug­ges­tions on how to live my queer­ness in a ‘more ful­fill­ing way.’ Well-in­ten­tioned folks have sug­gested that I ‘ex­per­i­ment’ more be­fore re­strict­ing my­self to iden­ti­fy­ing as asex­ual. In­ti­mate and sex­ual part­ners have asked me what they could do so that I would en­joy sex­ual con­tact with them, as though I was await­ing their skilled hands to ‘cure me’ of my lack of sex drive and ab­sence of sex­ual plea­sure. These re­ac­tions in­val­i­date asex­u­al­ity as a sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and present it as a phase de­fined by un­ful­filled or im­ma­ture sex­u­al­ity. While some peo­ple who iden­tify as asex­ual for some time may later change this la­bel, the queer com­mu­nity must ac­cept any­one who finds the word asex­ual use­ful to de­scribe them­selves for any pe­riod of time. Asex­u­al­ity is not a con­di­tion to be cured nor a phase to be got­ten over. It is a le­git­i­mate sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. Queer and fem­i­nist spa­ces claim to re­spect and val­i­date var­ied sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences and not shame any­one for their sex­ual be­hav­iour. Ac­cept­ing asex­ual peo­ple who do not en­gage in sex­ual acts should be rec­og­nized as a vi­tal part of this sex-pos­i­tive man­date.

There is a wide­spread idea that to be rad­i­cal and queer, one must be ‘sex­u­ally lib­er­ated,’ i.e. that bod­ily agency and sex­ual em­pow­er­ment go hand in hand with en­gag­ing in sex­ual acts con­fi­dently and fre­quently. This idea of­ten cen­tres con­ver­sa­tions on con­sent around what giv­ing con­sent looks like, and how im­por­tant it is to re­ceive and for­mu­late con­sent. Although these dis­cus­sions are ex­tremely im­por­tant, I ar­gue that we should also fo­cus on what not giv­ing con­sent looks like, and how em­pow­er­ing it can be to ( be able to) say ‘no.’

Folks who iden­tify as asex­ual are of­ten pres­sured into giv­ing con­sent be­cause they are made to feel like con­sent­ing to sex­ual acts is the only way to be seen as ‘valu­able’ and ‘nor­mal.’ So­ci­etal ex­pec­ta­tions of sex­u­al­ity dele­git­imize the ex­pe­ri­ences and needs of asex­ual peo­ple, mak­ing us es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to sit­u­a­tions in which we may ver­bally give con­sent, but sex re­mains un­wanted, and is there­fore non- con­sen­sual. Con­sent re­quires that both par­ties ne­go­ti­at­ing the con­sent have equal power; in a so­ci­ety de­fined by the sex­ual im­per­a­tive, in which not want­ing sex is seen as de­viant by many, asex­ual folks are of­ten made to feel pow­er­less when of­fered sex. I have in the past given con­sent reluc­tantly be­cause it was eas­ier than hav­ing to come out to my sex­ual part­ner; than hav­ing a po­ten­tially drain­ing and alien­at­ing con­ver­sa­tion; than pos­si­bly of­fend­ing them and mak­ing them feel guilty about my lack of at­trac­tion to­wards them.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing asex­u­al­ity in con­ver­sa­tions on con­sent means not ex­pect­ing to hear ‘yes’ ev­ery time when ask­ing for con­sent. It must not be a rou­tine for­mal­ity. It must be a con­scious, mind­ful con­ver­sa­tion where part­ners feel com­fort­able say­ing ‘ no’ and are val­i­dated in their need to set bound­aries, with­out be­ing made to feel guilt or shame. Not feel­ing sex­ual at­trac­tion does not mean be­ing re­pressed or con­ser­va­tive. It is not linked to po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions, re­li­gious feel­ings, or a de­nial of nat­u­ral de­sires. Asex­u­als do not need to be cor­rected or lib­er­ated in or­der to be ac­cepted within the queer com­mu­nity. In our fight against the harm­ful ef­fects of het­eronor­ma­tiv­ity, pa­tri­archy and im­posed gen­der bi­na­ries, we must not for­get that sex-pos­i­tiv­ity does not mean sex-nor­ma­tiv­ity. While sex-pos­i­tiv­ity can be ben­e­fi­cial and em­pow­er­ing, sex-nor­ma­tiv­ity (and the sex­ual im­per­a­tive) are harm­ful in the ways they ex­clude and si­lence the asex­ual com­mu­nity. Dis­courses on asex­u­al­ity and dis­abil­ity

It is also es­sen­tial to in­clude asex­u­al­ity in con­ver­sa­tions about dis­abil­ity. In an episode of the tele­vi­sion news­magazine 20/20, a sex­ol­o­gist tells a group of in­ter­viewed asex­u­als, “And your say­ing you don’t miss [sex] is like some­one in a sense who’s colour-blind is say­ing, ‘I don’t miss colour’—of course you don’t miss what you’ve never had.” Speak­ing from an able-bod­ied per­spec­tive, the ther­a­pist uses an anal­ogy with dis­abil­ity to in­val­i­date peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ences of asex­u­al­ity, as­sum­ing both to be ab­nor­mal con­di­tions linked to a lack of an im­por­tant com­po­nent of life, which must be med­i­cally cured.

Today, folks with dis­abil­i­ties are of­ten de­nied sex­ual feel­ing and per­ceived as lack­ing sex­ual po­tency. In her es­say, “Asex­u­al­ity in Dis­abil­ity Nar­ra­tives,” Eun­jung Kim ex­plains that in some con­texts “asex­u­al­ity is not only an as­sump­tion, but also a moral im­per­a­tive: dis­abled peo­ple ought be asex­ual.” This can be seen in vi­o­lent ef­forts to de­sex­u­al­ize folks with dis­abil­i­ties. De­sex­u­al­iza­tion is a process which seeks to sep­a­rate sex­u­al­ity from bod­ies with dis­abil­i­ties, and it can af­fect peo­ple at any stage of life through ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion and de­hu­man­iza­tion. For ex­am­ple, Kim ex­plains that chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties are of­ten ex­cused from sex­ual ed­u­ca­tion classes, as they are deemed “un­nec­es­sary.” It is clear that the peo­ple mak­ing this de­ci­sion are as­sum­ing that dis­abled chil­dren will not (or can­not) en­gage in sex­ual ac­tiv­i­ties. Ado­les­cents may see their so­cial en­coun­ters closely mon­i­tored by pro­fes­sion­als and fam­ily mem­bers, and may be de­nied ac­cess to health care ser­vices such as fam­ily plan­ning. Adults with dis­abil­i­ties are of­ten in­fan­tilized and seen as de­viant or shame­ful if they en­gage in sex­ual acts.

In some cases, de­sex­u­al­iza­tion can take the form of re­pro­duc­tive con­trol and forced ster­il­iza­tion, as was the case in the highly con­tro­ver­sial op­er­a­tions im­posed on Ash­ley X. Born with static en­cephalopa­thy (a brain im­pair­ment which means she is as­sumed to re­main at in­fant level men­tally and phys­i­cally), she un­der­went growth at­ten­u­a­tion op­er­a­tions in­clud­ing hys­terec­tomy and breast bud re­moval to pre­vent men­stru­a­tion and de­vel­op­ment of sec­ondary sex­ual char­ac­ter­is­tics, even though she was un­able to con­sent to these med­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions. This forced de­sex­u­al­iza­tion was un­der­stood to make her dis­abil­ity less dis­tress­ing to her fam­ily and care­tak­ers. The case of Ash­ley X demon­strates the very ma­te­rial ways in which dis­abil­ity and sex­u­al­ity are made to be in­com­pat­i­ble.

In re­sponse to the en­forced asex­u­al­ity of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, dis­abil­ity ac­tivists have done im­por­tant work to re­claim the sex­ual feel­ings and ex­pe­ri­ences of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. Ac­cord­ing to Kim, “dis­abil­ity ac­tivists in sex-pos­i­tive move­ments of­ten at­tack the stereo­type of dis­abled peo­ple as asex­ual.” Although this seeks to en­able sys­tem­at­i­cally de­sex­u­al­ized peo­ple to en­joy the cur­rent sex­ual cul­ture, and to chal­lenge the myth that all peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are asex­ual, it some­times dis­misses all asex­ual ori­en­ta­tions them­selves as myth. This leads asex­ual peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties to be un­der­stood as the “prod­ucts of an op­pres­sive so­ci­ety,” who have in­ter­nal­ized these myths and have ac­cepted sex­ual op­pres­sion. In con­ver­sa­tions about dis­abil­ity, we must chal­lenge the dom­i­nant idea that all peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are asex­ual, and fight against de­sex­u­al­iz­ing prac­tices. How­ever, we must also re­spond pos­i­tively to peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties com­ing out as asex­ual, and val­i­date their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, if asex­u­al­ity is to stop be­ing per­ceived as patho­log­i­cal and cur­able, or as the re­sult of in­ter­nal­ized op­pres­sion. To­ward new def­i­ni­tions of asex­u­al­ity

Be­yond in­clud­ing asex­u­al­ity in con­ver­sa­tions around fem­i­nism, queer­ness, and dis­abil­ity, I be­lieve that we must re­flect crit­i­cally upon the widely ac­cepted def­i­ni­tion of asex­u­al­ity it­self, and the ways in which the asex­ual com­mu­nity presents it­self today. Of course, these opin­ions are my own and do not re­flect those of the whole asex- ual com­mu­nity. I also draw largely on the work of CJ Deluzio Chasin in their es­say “Re­con­sid­er­ing Asex­u­al­ity and its Rad­i­cal Po­ten­tial,” to ar­gue that we should chal­lenge the con­cept of asex­u­al­ity as an ‘ab­sence,’ and the cur­rent im­age of the ‘real asex­ual.’

As men­tioned al­ready, the wide­spread def­i­ni­tion of asex­u­al­ity is a ‘lack of sex­ual at­trac­tion to­ward oth­ers.’ This def­i­ni­tion is of­ten com­pleted by the idea that this ‘lack’ does not cause asex­u­als any dis­tress. This pre­ci­sion is added to cre­ate a clear dis­tinc­tion be­tween asex­u­al­ity and Hy­poac­tive Sex­ual De­sire Dis­or­der (HSDD), which is con­sid­ered a sex­ual dys­func­tion char­ac­ter­ized by a lack of sex­ual de­sire caus­ing dis­tress or in­ter­per­sonal dif­fi­cul­ties, as de­fined by the Di­ag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­ual of Men­tal Dis­or­ders (DSM). The fact that the def­i­ni­tion of asex­u­al­ity still leaves room for HSDD di­ag­no­sis cre­ates a “bi­nary op­po­si­tion be­tween peo­ple who should be ac­cepted as asex­ual and peo­ple who are ‘le­git­i­mate sub­jects’ of psy­chi­atric in­ter­ven­tion,” ac­cord­ing to Chasin. The def­i­ni­tion does not chal­lenge ei­ther the di­ag­no­sis or the psy­chi­atric in­sti­tu­tion gov­ern­ing it. Chasin adds, “If a per­son is up­set about be­ing asex­ual be­cause [they] live in a world in­hos­pitable to asex­ual peo­ple, we need to change the world, not the per­son.” How­ever, HSDD di­ag­no­sis im­plies that we should ‘ change the per-

Folks who iden­tify as asex­ual are of­ten pres­sured into giv­ing con­sent, be­cause they are made to feel like con­sent­ing to sex­ual acts is the only way to be seen as ‘valu­able’ and ‘nor­mal.’

In con­ver­sa­tions about dis­abil­ity, we must chal­lenge the dom­i­nant idea that all peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are asex­ual, and fight against de­sex­u­al­iz­ing prac­tices. How­ever, we must also re­spond pos­i­tively to peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties com­ing out as asex­ual.

We should not have to choose be­tween voic­ing our sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion as we truly ex­pe­ri­ence it, and pub­lic vis­i­bil­ity and acceptance. If we want asex­u­al­ity to stop be­ing un­der­stood as a ‘lack,’ ‘less than,’ patho­log­i­cal, or cur­able, all ex­pe­ri­ences of asex­u­al­ity must be heard and le­git­imized.

through med­i­cal means, and the cur­rent def­i­ni­tion of asex­u­al­ity leaves room for this. When com­ing to terms with a lack of sex­ual at­trac­tion, asex­u­als will of­ten be met with neg­a­tive re­sponses from oth­ers, lead­ing them to seek some kind of di­ag­no­sis or med­i­cal so­lu­tion to ‘change them­selves’ be­fore com­ing out and ac­cept­ing them­selves as asex­ual. Pathol­o­giz­ing non- con­form­ity to sex­ual norms and med­i­cal­iz­ing the dis­tress caused by apho­bia are harm­ful and op­pres­sive prac­tices. They per­pet­u­ate the idea that one should be made sex­ual if they can, and should be ac­cepted as a life­long asex­ual only if this at­tempt fails. This cre­ates a hi­er­ar­chy in which be­ing sex­ual is su­pe­rior and more de­sir­able than be­ing asex­ual.

In­deed, defin­ing asex­u­al­ity as a ‘lack’ im­plies that asex­ual peo­ple are ‘miss­ing out’ on an as­pect of life, and that our sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion is over­whelm­ingly de­fined by the ab­sence of some­thing es­sen­tial to oth­ers. I am not say­ing we should nec­es­sar­ily mod­ify this def­i­ni­tion, and I ac­knowl­edge that it is use­ful for many to ac­count for the va­ri­ety of ex­pe­ri­ences of asex­u­al­ity, as well as to ex­plain to non-asex­ual peo­ple how we feel, but I do want to en­cour­age peo­ple to re­flect crit­i­cally on its im­pli­ca­tions. As Chasin ex­plains, con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of asex­u­al­ity as a lack per­pet­u­ates the idea that asex­ual peo­ple do not have some of the ex­pe­ri­ences that sex­ual peo­ple do. In ac­tu­al­ity, asex­ual peo­ple also have ex­pe­ri­ences that non-asex­ual peo­ple have never lived. Per­haps other def­i­ni­tions are not yet avail­able to us be­cause we are so­cial­ized to value sex­u­al­ity and sex­ual in­ti­macy above other forms of in­ti­macy and other types of re­la­tion­ships, and be­cause the lan­guage to de­fine asex­u­al­ity as any­thing but a lack does not yet ex­ist. Mov­ing to­ward con­ver­sa­tions where asex­u­al­ity is not per­ceived as an ab­sence can help cre­ate the lan­guage needed to bet­ter un­der­stand asex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences.

The su­pe­ri­or­ity of sex­u­al­ity over asex­u­al­ity is un­ques­tioned, even as aware­ness around asex­u­al­ity spreads, and defin­ing asex­u­al­ity as a life­long ori­en­ta­tion that does not cause dis­tress has im­pli­ca­tions for the vis­i­bil­ity of cer­tain asex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences over oth­ers. From this def­i­ni­tion, Chasin dis­cusses the im­age of the ‘real asex­ual,’ who “gets to be be­lieved and ac­cepted as asex­ual.” This per­son has all the nor­ma­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics of the ‘ideal sex­ual per­son,’ but since they have al­ways been asex­ual, they must be ac­cepted as such. This per­son, for ex­am­ple, does not have a history of abuse or men­tal health is­sues, is not overly sex-re­pulsed and has tried to be sex­ual with­out suc­cess, is able-bod­ied, happy, and out­go­ing. This per­son is also usu­ally white, from the mid­dle or up­per class, cis­gen­der, and het­ero­sex­ual or oc­ca­sion­ally aro­man­tic. As asex­u­al­ity oc­cu­pies more space in pub­lic spheres, peo­ple out­side of our com­mu­nity build a nor­ma­tive idea of what it means to be asex­ual, and not con­form­ing to this im­age may mean be­ing in­val­i­dated, si­lenced, or forced to un­dergo a form of ‘treat­ment’ or cor­rec­tive vi­o­lence. The pres­sure to con­form to an idea of asex­u­al­ity that does not chal­lenge sex-nor­ma­tiv­ity leads to self­cen­sor­ship in or­der to avoid los­ing le­git­i­macy as an asex­ual.

How­ever, we should not have to choose be­tween voic­ing our sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion as we truly ex­pe­ri­ence it, and pub­lic vis­i­bil­ity and acceptance. If we want asex­u­al­ity to stop be­ing un­der­stood as a ‘lack,’ ‘less than,’ patho­log­i­cal, or cur­able, all ex­pe­ri­ences of asex­u­al­ity must be heard and le­git­imized. Con­ver­sa­tions must ac­count for the many lived ex­pe­ri­ences of asex­u­al­ity, which prove it should not be dis­missed as an ‘ab­sence,’ but in­stead un­der­stood as part of the com­plex ways in which we all nav­i­gate dif­fer­ent forms of at­trac­tion and feel­ings for oth­ers.

It is not un­til ev­ery asex­ual has a voice re­gard­less of their past ex­pe­ri­ences, gen­der iden­tity, ro­man­tic ori­en­ta­tion, class, race, age, or abil­ity, that we can ef­fec­tively chal­lenge sex-nor­ma­tiv­ity and the sex­ual im­per­a­tive. This starts by ques­tion­ing our def­i­ni­tions of asex­u­al­ity and think­ing crit­i­cally about the way we view asex­ual peo­ple, as well as the nor­ma­tive as­sump­tions be­hind these per­cep­tions. It means in­clud­ing asex­ual voices in con­ver­sa­tions around queer­ness, fem­i­nism, and dis­abil­ity, but also race and class. It means un­learn­ing the hi­er­ar­chies we have in­ter­nal­ized, which place sex­ual in­ti­macy and re­la­tion­ships above other equally ful­fill­ing and pow­er­ful forms of close­ness. Fi­nally, it means be­liev­ing and val­i­dat­ing any and all asex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences, as the be­gin­ning of a larger con­ver­sa­tion to re­de­fine our un­der­stand­ings of sex­ual and ro­man­tic ori­en­ta­tions.

This cre­ates a hi­er­ar­chy in which be­ing sex­ual is su­pe­rior and more de­sir­able than be­ing asex­ual.

[D]efin­ing asex­u­al­ity as a ‘lack’ im­plies that asex­ual peo­ple are ‘miss­ing out’ on an as­pect of life.

Mov­ing to­ward con­ver­sa­tions where asex­u­al­ity is not per­ceived as an ab­s­cence can help cre­ate the lan­guage needed to bet­ter un­der­stand asex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences.

cover by Laura Bren­nan

con­tent warn­ing: apho­bia, ableism

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