Saturday, December 27, 2008

All people are sexual beings: summary

Having just finished a two month, 16 part series on the claim that all people are sexual beings, I thought it would be a good time for a recap.

The series began with two introductory posts. The first provided motivation for the topic by giving some examples of assertions that all people are sexual and some quotes about how asexuality raises questions about this. The second post summarized the three major options for addressing the question of whether everyone is sexual in light of asexual experience. No, Yes, and Huh?
Are all people sexual? Introduction
Are all people sexual? Three options

The next two posts addressed the answer No. The biggest problems for this option is the fact that many asexuals feel/do things often considered to be inseparable from sexuality. I discussed two of these and how they can be seen as not necessarily sexual.
How can someone who masturbates not be sexual?
How can someone who falls in love not be sexual?

After this, I moved to the next major option for answering the question: Yes. I had wanted to argue for this option and then present criticisms of that argument. However, I was not able to defend this option because of a lack of source material to work with. I am not aware of any strong attempts to argue for this while taking seriously the experience of asexuals. (The only attempt I know of was written by myself a while ago; I think it was overly simplistic and not worth repeating. I did provide a link for those who would like to read it.) I would definitely be interested in anything someone writes to defend this option. In absence of something to work with to argue for yes, I addressed the major challenges any serious attempt to advocate this position must face. I then examined what I suspect to be a large motivation for the claim that all people are sexual beings--the insistence that certain groups aren't asexual. To the extend that these are a motivation for the claim that all people are sexual beings, I argued that we should reject the claim.
Asexuals are sexual people too
Women aren't asexual
Children aren't asexual.

The next post briefly considered similar claims that the elderly aren't asexual and that people with disabilities aren't asexual. It formed a bridge between the sections on Yes and Huh? In Huh?, I argued that the claim that all people are sexual, rather than being true or false, doesn't make sense.
Huh? I don't even know what that means.
Once upon a time there were three asexuals
I don't think that means anything at all

Having concluded that the claim is neither true nor false, I began to examine how it functions. This, combined with the argument I had developed in previous sections, led me to conclude that asexuals should challenge this claim, and that these debates over definitions are really debates of competing ideologies.
Planned Parenthood says all people are sexual beings
A textbook for sex educators says all people are sexual beings
Is sexuality a natural part of being human?
Debates over definitions are debates of ideologies

This last post is the climax of the argument that I had been developing in this series. In some sense, it concludes the series. The next two posts (and an interim post) were more afterthoughts than anything else. First, satire. With a little modification of sexuality education claims about all people being sexual and some creative reappropriation of analyses typically indented to show how heterosexuality functions as a hegemonic power structure, it turns out to be possible to give a pretty fair "defense" of the claim that all humans are heterosexual. Then I had another post on defining sexuality to conclude the series.

All people are heterosexual
Standing in relation to the Behemoth

I think that this should finish up my blogging for the year. I hope to start the new year off with finally writing about something else.

Standing in Relation to the Behemoth

I had initially wanted to end this series with proposing the only way of understanding “sexuality” that I could think of for which it might be appropriate to call all people sexual. Roughly the idea goes like this. While claiming that all people are sexual at all ages makes absolutely no logical sense and is almost completely indefensible, there is a way to reinterpret it that does make sense. All people stand in relationship to this complex of feelings, desires, activities, social structures, power systems, beliefs, practices, and taboos called sexuality. Regardless of what we know or don’t know, regardless of what we feel or don’t feel, no matter what we do or don’t do, we all stand in relationship to the behemoth "sexuality."

From this perspective, I think it makes sense to consider children sexual. The social structures organizing sexuality relate to children. They sometimes possess sexual knowledge. Even if they don’t, messages given to them by adults assume certain behaviors appropriate or inappropriate with regard to sexuality. They sometimes engage in various forms of “sexual” play with other children. Any kind of education given to them to protect them from sexual abuse assumes that they stand in some kind of relationship to ‘sexuality.’

When I had planned on writing this post, this is what I wanted to write about. I had planned to give it a fair defense, and then raise some criticisms. However, as I tried to write about it, I found myself unable to even give it a reasonable defense. First, there is the problem that even if it is appropriate to say that all people are sexual beings in this sense, almost no one will interpret it this way. However, there is bigger problem. Being an outsider is one way of standing in relationship to something. Consequently, even this reanalysis of the claim that everyone is sexual fails miserably. (Everyone in the culture where I live stands in relation to heterosexuality, but this does not, despite Mr. Walter T. Foster's best attempts to argue otherwise, mean that everyone is heterosexual.)

Towards the beginning of this post, I called the assertion that all people are sexual "almost completely indefensible." I wrote "almost" for a reason. Having spent considerable time thinking about, reading about and writing about the claim that all humans are sexual at all stages of life, I have come to the conclusion that in the end there is one, and only one, argument to be made in its defense.

If enough people say it enough times, it must be true.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Comment about that last post

In my last post, I had an “interview” with a heterosex-positive educator who attempted to defend the claim that all people are heterosexual. It was a joke. There is no heterosex-positive movement. From some of the comments I have gotten (and rejected to save commenter from embarasment), it seems that some readers didn't pick up on this.

Evidently, my satirical skills need some work.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

All people are heterosexual

On today’s agenda is definitely something new for Asexual Explorations readers—my very first interview.

In exploring the question of whether all people are sexual beings, I happened upon a group I hadn’t known about before—the heterosex-positive movement. They are involved in sex education, and one of their core values is the belief that all human beings are heterosexual. Intrigued and more than a little skeptical, I decided to contact them, and I have been fortunate enough to even get an interview with Walter T. Foster, the Center for Healthy Heterosexuality regional coordinator for the state of Illinois.

AE: Mr. Foster, I'd like to start by thanking you for being available to do this interview today.

WF: It’s my pleasure. And please call me Walter.

AE: Ok, Walter. The organization that you work for, the Center for Healthy Heterosexuality, has as one of its core values the belief that all people are heterosexual from the time they are born until the time they die. Since many of the readers of Asexual Explorations don’t consider themselves heterosexual, I’m sure that many of them will find this claim more than a little shocking. Could you explain what you mean when you say that all people are heterosexual?

WF: Certainly. This is an objection we get pretty frequently. The problem is that most people think of heterosexuality in very narrow, traditional terms. They think it's about males and females having sex—and usually ‘sex’ is defined in terms of coitus to the exclusion of other forms of sexual contact. But if you really understood heterosexuality, it is so much more than that. It involves our feelings, our values, our behavior, our bodies, our families and so many other things. Heterosexuality is so broad that to say someone isn’t heterosexual is like saying they aren’t a human being.

AE: Could you explain how all of these things are part of heterosexuality?

WF: Even though sexual attraction generally starts around the age of ten, heterosexuality begins long before then. Think of all of the images of heterosexuality that people receive from a very young age—images of heterosexual couples, families with a mother and a father, stories about a boy and a girl falling in love. When I was in Elementary School, sometimes kids would tease each other about liking someone of the opposite sex. There was this one chant about “So and so and so and so sittin’ in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage.” Heterosexual narratives about love-marriage-baby are taught beginning at young ages, along with the development of gender roles, which are also a core part of heterosexuality. Also, heterosexuality is core to our intergender relationships—not just sexual ones, which form a minority of intergender relationships—but in other ones as well. There are constantly things that are understood to be appropriate or inappropriate for such relationships that wouldn’t be for intragender relationships. Heterosexuality is a core part of how people go about their daily lives and interactions, regardless of who, if anyone, they are having sex with. All of this interacts with our beliefs and values and so on.

AE: I see what you mean about heterosexuality being a large part of our culture, our learning and so on, but I’m still a bit skeptical about saying this means that everyone is heterosexual. Some people say that they’re gay or lesbian or asexual and say that they don’t experience sexual attraction to members of the opposite sex. Are you saying that they’re wrong?

WF: No, no, that's not what I mean at all. Definitely, some people aren’t attracted to members of the opposite sex, but the problem with saying that they’re not heterosexual is that that’s based on a traditional, narrow understanding that equates heterosexuality with sexual attraction and behavior. In addition to nonsexual aspects of heterosexuality in our everyday lives, often even heterosexual sex can be separated from sexual attraction and desire. Take for example, the story a teenage girl I know. Let’s call her Mary, though that’s not her real name. She goes to a party one Friday planning on hooking up with some guy. It’s not because she’s horny. In fact, in order to get herself to even go through with it, she gets completely drunk because she knows that if she were sober, there’s no way she could go through with the process. So why does she do it? Because she thinks everybody else is, at least all the cool people. If she doesn’t have sex, she’s afraid the other girls will make fun of her for being a virgin. They’ll look down on her and treat her as a child for not having gone through with what they see as a rite of passage. This is all part of ‘heterosexuality.’ I don’t know what Mary’s sexual orientation is, but that doesn’t mean she’s not heterosexual.

AE: Is that healthy heterosexuality?

WF: It is what it is.

AE: Well, it's hard to disagree with that, and this way of understanding heterosexuality is definitely an interesting take on things, but I'll confess I'm still a bit skeptical. In one of the blogs that I read, the author said, and I quote “I identify as lesbian, and I can basically guarantee for you that no matter how broad, inclusive, and accepting ‘heterosexuality’ grows, I will never feel quite comfortable or truthful or right identifying as straight.” I’m guessing that you would disagree.

WF: Yes. That would be correct. As I said before, I think this stems largely from a very traditional view of heterosexuality. On the one hand, I fully understand her hesitancy to consider herself straight. In some ways, it’s like the word ‘queer.’ Some people find it to be a useful identifier for themselves. However, others, because of its history and their own personal histories don’t feel that they could ever.

AE: They use the word queer to unite around oppressive heteronormativity.

WF: Yes. Unfortunately, heterosex-positive sounds somewhat similar heteronormative, but they’re definitely very different.

AE: I’m sure that they are. Anyway, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. It’s
definitely an interesting perspective on things.

Next time, I will conclude this series with a reanalysis of the claim that all people are sexual beings.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Debates over definitions are debates over ideologies

In Through the looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty tells Alice why unbirthdays should be celebrated:
There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents -- '

`Certainly,' said Alice.

`And only ONE for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'

`I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.

`When _I_ use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master - - that's all.'
In a chapter titled "Queering' Semantics: Definitional struggles," Sally McConnel-Ginet opens by quoting this scene. She then reflects on it stating that they are both partly right:
Alice understands that we can’t make words mean whatever we want them to: there are substantial constraints that arise from past history and from what is involved in trying to mean something. At the same time, there is room for shaping and reshaping word meanings. Humpty dumpty understand that tugs over meaning can be struggles for power. But the stakes go far beyond who wins. Different meaning promote the pursuit of different kinds of social action, cultural values, intellectual inquiry. Meanings, I argue can indeed facilitate mastery in a variety of arenas.” (p. 137-8.)
When asexuals and our allies become well-enough organized for our voices to be taken seriously—not merely to be briefly mentioned as an item on a list, though that would be improvement—but for hegemonic sexualnormativity to be brought under scrutiny, it will be an ideological struggle, and one issue that will need to be addressed head on is the claim that all people are sexual beings.

If someone claims that all people are sexual, it is appropriate to ask why. On what basis do they make this claim? What are their reasons? Why should I accept their authority? If someone wants to maintain this claim even in light of the experience of asexuals, they would need an understanding of sexuality broad enough to include asexuals. But even if they define sexuality broadly enough to include asexuality, on what basis should I accept such a definition? It is a question of power, and it is a question of competing ideologies.

Before exploring how debates over defining sexuality are ideological struggles, I want to use a couple of examples to illustrate how questions of definitions are inseparably connected to ideological questions. The first comes from a recent conversation I had with some friends who, for some reason, became very interested in the question of whether coffee was a fruit or a nut. The problem was that we all had an intuitive sense for what these words mean, but we didn’t have enough technical knowledge to know what they really mean and didn’t know the correct answer. To settle the question one guy decided find out the answer by going to the authoritative source of all knowledge: Wikipedia. (I don’t remember what the answer they found was.) In order for this to be a reliable means of answering the question, there were some basic assumptions that had to be held by everyone involved. The first is that there are "real" definitions for terms like 'fruit' and 'nut.' Moreover, the "real meanings" of these words were not the general, intuitive understandings that we had, but scientific understandings, based on extensive knowledge of plants that none of us possessed but some other people do. This requires that we adhere to a scientific ideology at least enough to recognize scientific authority to speak on certain botanical issues, accepting that the definitions used by the most knowledgeable people are the correct ones. The second assumption was the belief that Wikipeida is (likely) a reliable source for finding these correct meanings. The first assumption is uncontroversial and so people probably don’t even think about it. The second assumption was less of a given, and I imagine that we all knew this (as Professor Wikipedia reminds us.)

My second example is one that I've written a fair amount on: defining asexuality. Suppose one person says that asexuality is not experiencing sexual attraction, and a second person disagrees, saying that people who masturbate can’t possibly be asexual—they should be called autoerotic or autosexual. How is this disagreement to be resolved? They can’t simply go to a dictionary.

One person might cite AVEN’s main page as an authority, but this is only useful if the other person accepts as a valid authority to relay the “real” meaning. (In fact, the definition there isn’t intended to be the authoritative definition but only to act as something of a guidepost, as I have written about in Asexuality: the history of a definition part I and part II.) In this case, going to Wikipedia wouldn’t be any better than going to AVEN—Wikipedia gives the same definition as AVEN (though in a more convoluted way), citing an article that cited

Then the second person responds. To support their claim, they cite a quote from a therapist in an article about asexuality. There, a sex-therapist is paraphrased as saying, "some people who call themselves asexual still masturbate regularly – 'which isn't asexual to me.' Sex therapists would call that auto-erotic - that is, enjoying their sexuality themselves - rather than asexual." Here, there are really two arguments. The first is that since masturbation is clearly a sexual act, people who do it aren't asexual. Secondly, the therapist says that not only her but sex-therapists in general say that such people aren't asexual. Rather they are autoerotic. To accept this we must accept that a.) she is correctly giving the opinion of sex-therapists in general and b.) we should accept the authority of sex therapists to define who is and who isn't asexual.

Person A responds by rejecting these arguments, insisting that what people do or do not do with their genitalia in private has little effect on the social effects of lack of sexual attraction, so it makes a lot of sense to include both people who do and who do not masturbate in the category 'asexual.' Moreover, A argues, people should be allowed to identify how they want, and neither B nor the quoted therapist nor anyone else has the right to say otherwise.

'Asexual,' in its current usage, is a word that was coined by various people at various times for various reasons. Different people are free to use it however they want, though are constrained by how they expect the listeners/readers to understand the term. This constraint is lessened if the person defines what they mean by it in the context of using it. There is no "real meaning" dictated from on high. Whether B’s arguments persuade A or A’s arguments persuade B depends on each person’s belief system. There is no “right” answer, and it is clear that this debate over definitions is an ideological struggle. Accepting the other person’s definition is a matter of accepting a part of their ideological framework.

Keeping this in mind, let’s return to the claim that all people are sexual. The ideological nature of this statement can be seen by considering the enormous difference between the following two statements.

1.) For me personally, it makes sense to think of all people as being sexual beings.
2.) Fact: All humans are sexual beings from the time they are born to the time they die.

While both claimants believe the same thing, the first person is communicating how they think about sexuality, they might be suggesting that others should think that way as well, and they're probably at least hoping that others will be able to respect their view even if they disagree. They are not making any demands on the part of the audience to adhere to the claim. In the second, the writer/speaker is claiming not merely that they believe that all people are sexual beings; they claim to know it. By declaring it to be a fact, they are making a demand upon the audience to adhere to their ideology, and this is often reinforced by the audience's perceived authority of the writer/speaker.

Because this claim is made in educational contexts by people perceived as authorities on the subject of sexuality, it is most likely intended to be understood as being more like the question over the definition of 'fruit' than the definition of 'asexual.' If it is perceived as simply an uncontroversial fact made on the basis of expert knowledge rather than an ideology that often functions to make invisible all people who feel that they aren't sexual, it is more likely to be accepted uncritically. Ideologies are most effective when they are perceived as simply fact rather than as ideology.

The issue I want to consider is whether we should accept this ideology. Saying that all people are sexual beings clearly is not an empirically knowable claim—it is unfalsifiable because pretty much any way of operationally defining sexuality to see if all people are sexual would yield the result that not all people are sexual--unless 'sexual' were defined in such a vague way as to be entirely divorced from what people mean by the term--much like the way Humpty Dumpty used the word 'glory.' The claim does not demand my adherence as someone with a deep respect for science. But scientific ideologies are not the only ones I accept. What about as an ethical claim? As an ethical claim, I find it highly suspect for reasons given in previous posts, and I think that for ethical reasons, it should be rejected. The primary ideological drive for the claim is that thinking of all people as sexual beings is the best way for people to understand their own sexuality and to respect that of others.

I am deeply suspicious of this. My impression from much of the sexological literature that I’ve read is that by insisting that sexuality a fundamental part of being human, it privileges high sexual desire at the expense of low sexual desire. The ultimate question for asexuals is this: for people who claim that all people are sexual being, should asexuals accept their authority to declare what sexuality is and who is sexual. I don't think we should. Asexuality has been ignored by people studying sexuality for a long time. Asexuals consistently appear in the data, and asexuals have been consistently ignored despite this fact. Several years ago, when I spent a fair amount of time reading a (highly respected) human sexuality textbook to try to make sense of my own experience, the message I was given is that people like me do not exist. This did not improve my trust of their authority.

Ultimately, whether asexuals accept the claim that all people are sexual beings comes down to some very practical questions. The people in sexuality education seem to use a "broad" definition of sexuality because that makes sense in their lives. But for asexuals sitting in on their classes, does such a definition make sense of their experiences or does it render them invisible? Does this "broad" definition empower them or does it declare them disordered? Does it validate their experiences? Does it help them think about decisions they have to make regarding relationships, regarding sexulaity, and about their lives more generally?

What happens if some asexual understands perfectly well the "broad" definition of sexuality offered by some sexuality educators, but still feels that they are not sexual? In such a situation, insisting that all humans are sexual beings becomes unavoidably anti-phenomenological. Rather than saying that we should understand the asexual person's experiences on their own terms, it insists on viewing them through a foreign lens--even one they knowingly reject, feeling it doesn't make sense of their own experiences.


McConnell-Ginet, Sally (2002) "'Queering' semantics: Definitional struggles." Language and Sexuality: Contesting Meaning in Theory and Practice ed. by Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, Robert Podesva, Sarah Roberts, and Andrew Wong 136-60, pp. 137-60. Standor, CA: SCLI Publications.

In addition to this, my thoughts have been strongly influenced by another chapter by the same author. (This paper's references is why I found the above chapter.)

McConnell-Ginet, Sally (2008) "Words in the world: How and why meanings can matter" Language vol. 84 no. 3 pp.497-527

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Is sexuality a natural part of being human?

When it is claimed that all people are sexual beings, I have a strong suspicion that one of the functions is to communicate to readers that having sexual desires is a natural part of being human so they are nothing to be ashamed of. The issue is not one of having sexual desires or not, but whether to accept them and what sorts of decisions are made concerning them and concerning sexuality more broadly.

Consider an example I used in the introduction to this series. On MSNBC A doctor advises a mother on talking to her daughter about sexuality.
Accurate and relevant information about all aspects of human sexuality — including her own sexual nature and feelings — will empower a young woman to learn how to accept her natural sexuality and eventually express it in healthy, appropriate, and responsible ways that do not harm her or anyone else.
As a part of accomplishing this, the author gives her top three rules for talking to teenagers about sexuality. The first begins,
“Become comfortable with your own sexuality. All humans are sexual beings who have sexual feelings. Sex is a normal part of life.
In order to help the daughter accept her own sexual feelings, she is to be told that all people have sexual feelings. However, insisting that sexual feelings are natural raises a question. If sexual desires are natural, does this mean that not feeling them is "unnatural"? In asking this question, I feel like I'm attacking a straw man. I wish this were true. Unfortunately, if you look at some of the things people quoted as experts have to say about asexuality, it becomes painfully clear that this is exactly the implication some people take--even people who speak with the voice of authority.

In 2004, there was an article in the New York Times about asexuality called For Them, Just Saying No Is Easy. After giving a positive quote from John Bancroft, former director of the Kinsey Institute, they provide a less positive perspective.
Not all clinicians agree that lack of interest in sex can be considered normal. "It's a bit like people saying they never have an appetite for food," said Dr. Leonard R. Derogatis, a psychologist and the director of the Center for Sexual Health and Medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "Sex is a natural drive, as natural as the drive for sustenance and water to survive. It's a little difficult to judge these folks as normal."
In the article Asexual and Proud! on, we find another less-than-affirming quote from a therapist.
"To me, to say that someone is 'asexual' is tantamount to saying that they're not a human being," says Barnaby Barratt, a sex therapist in Detroit and president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. "I would be profoundly critical of the idea that 'asexuality' is an 'orientation' or that it's somehow the inevitable way that some people are born. The basic building blocks of sexual patterning are there in everyone. The real question about what you're describing as 'asexual' is: What sort of history could make someone wind up being that closed down?"
Given the way they are introduced, I assume that these people know quite a lot about sexuality and sexuality education and that their understandings of what it means for sexuality to be "natural" or what is meant by the claim that all people are sexual beings to be representative of many (though not all) people who make such claims.

If this is what is meant by saying that all people are sexual beings and if we take asexuality seriously as a normal part of the sexual variation that exists among people, then I think that asexuals should insist that such claims be dropped from sex education and other contexts in which they are made. Someone could claim that all people are sexual beings in a way that affirms asexual experiences; they could claim that the above quotes are misunderstandings of what what is meant by saying that all people are sexual beings.

However, if you want to insist that everyone is sexual, it is important to understand not only what you mean by it, but what others will interpret it to mean. Given the status of the above quoted people, I think it is clear that many who say that everyone is sexual and many who hear this claim understand it to deny the reality/legitimacy of asexuality. As such, I think the claim should be done away with.

Next time: Debates over definitions are debates over ideologies.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A textbook for sex educators says all people are sexual beings

Perhaps the longest explanation that I’ve found of what is “meant” by claiming that all people are sexual beings comes from a textbook for sex educators. The title of the book is Sexuality Education: Theory and Practice. (The link is for the fifth edition. However, I will be citing the second edition (1989) because that’s the copy I was able to check out from the library.) In the first chapter, one of the main points that they emphasize is that all people are sexual beings at all stages of life.
Traditionally, human sexuality, if thought about at all, has been thought to have to do with participating in intercourse or some other sexual act, and references to sexuality have been cloaked in negative terminology. Traditional concepts imply that people participate in sexual behavior only on occasion (sometimes only when apparently forced), but at other times are fundamentally asexual beings. This amounts to the view that although individuals participate in sexual acts, sexuality does not otherwise exist as part of individuals’ personalities (p. 3-4)
I have absolutely no idea who these people are who hold these “traditional” views of sexuality. I’ve never of heard anyone who asserted this, and I doubt any serious historian would make such an unfounded claim about some amorphous unidentifiable “traditional” belief, as though beliefs about sexuality used to be homogeneous. But they aren’t historians. Their purpose isn't to inform people about the past. It's to push their own ideological agenda.

This argument is a strawman designed as a foil to their own views in order to establish them. Like many strawman arguments, it depends on another logical fallacy: the false dichotomy. The assumption is that either we take this (totally untenable) “traditional” position, or we take the “total view of human sexuality” that they hold. Since clearly we should reject the former, we MUST accept the latter. Also, “narrow views” of sexuality are condemned by association with “negative views” of sexuality even though it is perfectly possible to think of sexuality in narrow terms without thinking it sinful, dirty, or bad. (And the term “apparently forced” is just plain scary. Fortunately, it is no longer found in the most recent edition.
In this book we take a broad view of human sexuality and define it as part of the total personality and thus basic to human health and well-being. This type of comprehensive view of sexuality assumes that many factors in the human makeup interact to create and individual’s sexuality. (p. 5.)

A recognition that we are all sexual beings also contributes to positive interpersonal relationships. As we grow up, we do not realize that our parents, teachers, relatives, and everyone else around us are sexual beings. This of course does not mean they are performing sexual acts at every opportunity, but it does mean they all have sexual feelings and characteristics (p.7)
By taking such a broad view of human sexuality, it is unclear if the statement all people are sexual being is asserting anything at all. Nevertheless, they go on to claim that it does mean that all people have sexual feelings. Unless “sexual” is understood so broadly that “sexual feelings” is coextensive with feelings (in which case “sexual” means nothing and it totally divorced from how actual people understand the term,) the claim is simply false. Here, the claim that all people are sexual beings does function to deny the existence of many of the people now being called asexual. In asserting that all people are sexual beings, the authors make a conscious effort to render asexuals invisible. Also, I am skeptical that adopting their view of sexuality has the causal relationship that they claim it does.

Another point that bothers me is the claim that since sexuality is fundamental part of being human, sexual health is a fundamental part of being healthy. This is another kind of claim that I find deeply troubling, largely because for the life of me, I have no idea what it means, but I know that it functions to make high sexual desire normative. Are they saying that being sexually active is necessary to being healthy? Or that wanting to have sex is necessary to sexual health, and thus fundamental to overall health? They will probably deny this, but if they do, then it is difficult to see how "sexual dysfunction" can be seen as being detrimental to sexual health and thus a public health issue. I know that I am stepping on toes here, but I also think that these are issues that need to be addressed. Such claims allow addressing sexual issues from a medical standpoint possible and more "normal," allowing doctors to help people have the kinds of sexual experiences that they want. On the other hand, such claims are also fundamental for the medicilization of sexuality and the pathologization of "abnormally" low levels of sexual desire (which includes about 39% of American women who participated in a recent study, making it a rather atypical understanding of atypical.)
Perhaps you already knowthat all people are sexual beings at all ages…Actually, if you were paying attention earlier in this chapter, you realized that human sexuality is so broad that it is impossible for anyone to be an asexual being at any point unless he or she stops breathing. The idea of an absence of sexuality is similar to the idea that a person has an absence of personality. You may feel that a given person has a poor personality, but that individual still has a personality of some kind. Just as people have personalities from the time of birth, they are sexual beings at all ages and states of development (p.8 empahsis mine.).
People who don’t experience sexual attraction aren’t “asexual.” They’re just boring!!!

A few things stand out. First, note the italics. These claims are not merely their views. They are facts. Also, the analogy between not having a personality and not having sexuality is interesting. They make it to defend the claim against the fact that it is both unfalsifiable and meaningless. However, it’s not a very good analogy. A person can’t be without personality because personality is about being a person and the way a particular person acts, behaves, feels as a person. You can’t be a person and not be a person. That’s simply a tautology. However, claiming that all people are sexual is something quite different that claiming that all people are people and is far less tautological. If sexuality is understood as broadly as they want it to be, the claim no one could be asexual unless they stopped breathing would be vacuous and wouldn’t be worth saying and wouldn't permit the implication that all people have sexual feelings. And when they made the analogy between people not interested in sex and people with “poor personalities”, I'll bet they didn’t consult anyone thus characterized to see what they thought about that sentence.

In my next post, I will examine another function of the claim that all people are sexual beings: communicating the message that sexual desires are a natural part of being human.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Planned Parenthood says all people are sexual beings: Supplement

In my last post, I wrote about how Planned Parentood's claim on their website that all people are sexual beings functions to make asexuals invisible. One way that the claim could be maintained while not functioning to makes asexuals invisible would be to talk about asexuals in the context of the quote. I was curious if anyone actually does this.

The answer, as it turns out, is yes.

Planned Parenthood of Indiana has a article in their newsletter from summer '05 designed to help parents talk to their children about sexual orientation. They write:
All people are sexual beings. Engaging in sexual activity is a normal and natural way for humans to express their feelings, feel comforted and learn something about themselves.
On the same page, they write,
A third component, our sexual orientation, is how we label ourselves, whether we consider ourselves heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual.

Heterosexuality is the sexual attraction to members of the other gender, while homosexuality refers to sexual attraction to the same gender. A homosexual man may be called gay, while a homosexual woman may be called lesbian. Bisexuality is defined as attraction to both genders. Those who are not attracted to either gender are referred to as asexual. All of these orientations are normal and have no known cause.
For anyone interested, another example--this one coming from Planned Parenthood of New York City--can be found here. This file is a bit large. I suggest using CTRL + F. The second use of the word is the more interesting of the two.

Next time: A return to my regular scheduled blogging.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Planned Parenthood says all people are sexual beings

Having given up on attempting to figure out what the claim that all people are sexual beings means, I've decided to try to examine how it functions. The first example that I will look at is the quote from Planned Parenthood that I used in the introduction to this series, quoted here at greater length. I've chosen this example because they give more supporting text than most places I've found claiming that all people are sexual beings.
All people are sexual beings from birth to death. Our sexuality includes
• our bodies
• our biological sex
• our gender — our biological, social, and legal status as girls and boys, women and men
• our gender identities — how we feel about our gender
• our sexual orientations — straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual
• our values about life, love, and the people in our lives
Our sexuality also includes feelings, attitudes, relationships, self-image, ideals, and behaviors, and it influences how we experience the world.
The point is to encourage people to think of sexuality in broad terms rather than narrow ones. Sexuality encompasses sexual orientation, gender identity, bodies, values, life, love, feelings, attitudes, etc, rather than merely being about sex (narrowly defined) and sexual desires. In encouraging people to make safe, healthy choices about sexuality, they want them to do so thinking about those choices in the context of their entire lives rather than as just this one thing over here that is unconnected to the rest of life.

On other levels, however, this quote is deeply problematic. Try to figure out what it means by saying that all people are sexual beings. It doesn’t seem to assert anything about people. Think of it another way. In claiming that all humans are sexual beings, what are they denying? Obviously they are denying that there are people who aren't sexual beings. But what would it mean for someone to not be a sexual being? If our sexuality includes our bodies, feelings, values, attitudes etc. does that mean that anyone who has a body, values, or feelings is sexual being, regardless of whether they have any sexual desires or engage in any sexual behaviors? If this is the case, then claiming "All people are sexual beings" is so empty of any content that it isn't even worth saying. Moreover, the meaning under such a reading is far removed from how I expect the vast majority of readers to understand it (and likely the authors as well.)

Seeing this from an asexual perspective, one thing that stands out is the definition of sexual orientation--straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual. The context explaining the claim that all people are sexual beings reinforces the message that asexuals don’t exist and functions to make them invisible.

Another problem with this, from an asexual perspective, is that it assumes that all of the things listed are inseparably connected to sexuality--an assumption that asexuality directly challenges (I wrote about this in the third and fourth posts of this series.) Moreover, by using sexuality as the lens through which to view all of these things privileges sexuality as being of fundamental importance for understanding these things, marginalizing the experiences of people who don't experience these as connected to "sexuality" or for whom sexuality is not an important part of how they think about life.

Next time, I will examine how the claim that all people are sexual beings functions in a textbook for sexuality educators.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I don't think that means anything at all

A lot of sex educators tell us that all people are sexual beings at all stages of their lives. I don't disagree with this. To disagree with it would require that it actually asserted something about people that I could disagree with. I doubt that it does.

Enormous variation can exist within a small region at roughly the same time in people's understanding of what it is to be sexual and, as consequence, what it would be to be asexual. If we take seriously the huge diversity in beliefs about sexuality that exists across time and space, we risk gross anachronism in claiming that all people are sexual beings.

If we talk about people of the past, it makes perfect sense to talk about their blood type. Even if we don't know what Isaac Newton's blood type was, it's pretty safe to assume that it was one of the handful that exists today. So "Isaac Newton had type A blood" seems to be a meaningful thing to say. (It's either true or false, even if it is impossible to know which.) On the other hand, a good number of historians of science object to the statement "Isaac Newton was a scientist." The problem is that the idea of a "scientist" comes from the professionalization of science in the 19th century and to talk of people before that time as scientists is anachronistic; it assumes that they thought about science and the people who did it in roughly the same way we do, and this isn't remotely true. Generally, what the terms "natural philosophy" (for what they did) and "natural philosopher" (for who did it) are preferred. (Making a strict separation of what is and is not science also comes from the professionalization of science in the 19th century. People like Newton, Kepler, and Boyle felt perfectly free to intermingle what we would consider science and what we would consider metaphysical speculation in the same works. To them, both were a part of natural philosophy.)

Is calling someone of the past or someone from a different society "sexual" more like saying they have type A blood or more like saying they are a scientist? A physical property like blood type or hair color or such can reasonably applied to people of other cultures as long as we don't assume that they think about those the same way we do. (For example, in South Korea, it is common for people, especially young people, to ask others, even new acquaintances, their blood type because there is a belief that there is a connection between blood type and personality. Where I live, there is no such belief and asking a new acquaintance their blood type would be seen as simply bizarre. Still, the differences in beliefs associated with blood types don’t delegitimate the categories themselves or their cross cultural usefulness in medical contexts.) On the other hand, a culturally bound category like "scientist" or "Democrat" would make little sense when applied to people outside of certain times and places.

However, it does not make any sense to say that all people are sexual beings in any physiological, psychological or behavioral sense. Some people engage in no sexual behavior; some people have no sexual desire; some people have no sexual organs. So what is even being claimed when it is said that all people are sexual beings?

In trying to understand this, a quote that I used in the first post of this series is enlightening.
asexual (adj.) Non-sexual; without sex. Generally speaking, the term should not be applied to a person, since every man and woman is a sexual being. However, there are some individuals who, in their entire lives, never show any interest in sexual activity. In these very few cases, the term could be a suitable characterization of their personalities…
One thing to be noticed is that the claim that all people are sexual beings is made in spite of reality, not because of it. The author acknowledges the fact that there are some people that it would be appropriate to consider asexual (suggesting that what it means to be a sexual being is to have sexual feelings/desires), but he feels free to ignore this and still maintain the claim that all humans are sexual beings (in which case I have absolutely no idea what he means.) This quote also raises another important point. It doesn't seem to be too uncommon when discussing sexuality to claim that asexuality (or something like it) is rare. He defines asexuality so narrowly as to make the number of people who fit his definition as small as possible to make him feel that it is okay to marginalize them and assume that their experiences are not worth taking very seriously.

My own sense is that if we try to understand the claim that all people are sexual beings propositionally (i.e. that it is actually claiming that there is this property "sexual" that is true of all people), either the claim is false or it simply does not make any sense. I suggest that rather than attempting to understand it propositionally, we should try to examine it functionally--what are people trying to do when they claim that all people are sexual beings?

In my next couple of posts, I will examine a few such claims to see how they function.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Once upon a time there were three asexuals

Today we're having story time, so let's all sit down on our metaphorical carpets and use our imaginations. Not so long ago and not so far away there were three people growing up in the Midwest of the United States (That's where the story's author is from and that's where he currently lives.) Their names were Adam, Brad, and Cynthia, and none of them experiences sexual attraction.

Adam grew up in a home with fairly liberal views, including their views of human sexuality, and his friends had backgrounds similar to his own. Beginning in middle school, Adam’s friends began to take an interest in girls and would talk about them—who they liked, who they thought was hot, who they wanted to go out with, etc. Beginning in high school, some of these friends started to become sexually active and talked with friends about their sexual exploits. Adam did not develop these interests. For a little while he suspected he might be gay because he was not interested in girls the way his friends were. However, he eventually decided that he wasn’t because he was not attracted to guys either.

His friends talked about masturbation enough that Adam was able to pick up from them that for them masturbation was strongly connected with their sexual desires—they seemed to think about sexual things they would like to do or about girls they liked or girls on TV or movies, or some of them would watch porn, which Adam had no interest in at all. However, Adam was an asexual with a sex-drive, and he did masturbate. However, his masturbatory experiences had nothing to do with the concept of sexuality that he learned from his friends, TV, movies, etc. Consequently, he felt that for him, masturbation was not a sexual activity because it had nothing to do with anyone he liked or any sexual activity he would like to do with anyone. Adam decided that since he had gone through puberty several years earlier but he never developed sexual attraction to anyone, he must not be a sexual person. So he made up the term asexual to describe himself. When he told this to people, sometimes they asked him if that meant celibate. He said no because celibacy assumes you have sexual desires that you aren’t acting on, but he is asexual because he doesn’t have those desires.

Brad, by contrast, grew up as an Evangelical Protestant. The primary things he learned about human sexuality at home were basic biological facts about male and female anatomy and physiology and how fertilization occurs. Most of his values and beliefs about sexuality were learned at church and youth group—the point that was emphasized the most is that God created sexuality to be enjoyed but only in the context of marriage. Warnings against premarital sex were numerous; other than that, sex-education was not given. Masturbation was rarely mentioned, but when it was, it was said to be wrong.

His main friends were those from school, but most of them, like Brad, were much less interested in dating than many of the other students. Sexual jokes were made, but they had little or nothing to do with any activities Brad or his friends actually did. Brad is an asexual without a sex drive and has never masturbated or desired to do so. Because his friends never talk about it, he is unaware of the fact that it is something the majority of males his age do, so he does not think it strange that it is something he does not do. Furthermore, Brad finds the very idea of having sex unappealing—it’s something that he really would rather not do. He is heteroromantic and occasionally gets crushes on girls, unaware of the fact that there is no sexual attraction in these. He assumes that he will get married some day, at which point he will start having sex, which everyone tells him is really great, so he assumes he will learn to like it. But he is glad that that will not be for a long time. Brad has accepted the model of sexuality that is given to him at school and at church, and although he is aware that his sexuality is different from others, he does not disidentify with sexuality and does not think of himself as asexual. He is, however, confused by the differences between his sexuality and that of his peers.

Cynthia came from a conservative Catholic family. She is an aromantic asexual but she did masturbate sometimes. The messages about sexuality that she learned from her family and her church were that the primary purpose of sex is procreation within the context of marriage. Her friends at school generally did not date very much—this is largely because she felt excluded by the girls who spent a large amount of their time talking about what boys they liked and who was dating whom. Because she was taught that masturbation is sinful, Cynthia felt very guilty about it, and because none of her friends ever talked about it, she did not learn to attach any connection between it and a means forming relationships intimately tied to this thing called sexuality. Rather, it was sexual because it involved sex-organs and pleasure, and it was sinful because it was a non-procreative sexual act.

Cynthia was aware of the fact that her never getting crushes on people was atypical, but rather than viewing it as strange, she thought of it as being the gift of celibacy and decided to become a nun. As a nun, she occasionally explained her vow of celibacy by saying, “I’ve decided to become asexual.”

All three of these individuals are asexual in the way the term is now defined—they do not experience sexual attraction. However, only two of them think of themselves as asexual because they have disidentified with the constructs of sexuality that they have learned—but these are different constructs of sexuality so that in one case asexuality is contrasted with celibacy, but in the other, it is indistinguishable from it. The other individual, who has no desire for either partnered or solitary sexual activity does not think of himself as asexual because not only has he not disidentified with sexuality, to some extent, he better conforms to the understanding of sexuality that he has learned than do his sexually active peers—unlike them, he is not engaging in any sexual acts outside of the context of marriage. We can easily imagine all three of these individuals as coming from the same city—possibly even the same neighborhood—at around the same time. Yet they have all learned very different ideas of what sexuality is, and have different ideas of what it means to be sexual, and, thus, what it would mean not to be sexual.

Given how this variation in understandings of sexuality is possible in a small area, we must ask the question if it is even meaningful to apply ideas of what it is to be sexual (or not-sexual) with any precision to other cultures at other times. Undoubtedly they have beliefs associated with reproduction, acts involving sexual arousal, genital contact, the sorts of relationships in which these should or should not be involved, etc. that can be compared and contrasted, but the question arises, “If all people in all cultures are sexual, in what sense do we mean this and does it many any sense?” Does it simply ignore or treat as invalid their beliefs and values about sexuality and hegemonically impose ours?

Next time, I want to further develop the ideas that are raised by the story of the three asexuals.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Huh? I don't even know what that means

In my last two posts, I examined two groups that are claimed to be viewed/to have been viewed as asexual: women and children. There are other groups that could be examined. Two in particular come to mind: the elderly and people with disabilities. For the sake of time I will treat them more briefly than the other two. These discussions, however, display a similar pattern. When a group is claimed to be viewed as "asexual," a different meaning of "asexual" is used for each. Generally, the only thing that all of the uses of "asexual" have in common is that people in that group are/were viewed as lacking one of more elements of what people think of as belonging to "sexuality." Also, there are differences in the purpose for making the claim that group X is/was viewed as asexual even though aren't really asexual. For 19th century white middle class women, the purpose was to construct a view of the past to function as a foil of the authors' own "enlightened" view of sexuality and to condemn, by association, certain beliefs that some students in the class probably will hold. In the case of children, the main purpose of the claim is to challenge how people think about sexuality, how they think about children, and to remind people that sometimes they engage in sex-play.

Claims that people with disabilities are viewed as asexual or that the elderly are viewed as asexual function somewhat differently from claims that children and women aren't asexual, though they seem to have similar purposes as each other. One is to challenge how people think about such groups--including people in these groups themselves--and another is either to provide sex education for people in these groups or to advocate for such education. Also, these claims are made to challenge how institutions are run (i.e. nursing homes), since often they do not make for opportunities for sexual encounters for people living there for extended periods of time.

(Note: For those who are interested, the second earliest article on asexuality referenced on's library is about asexuality and disability. It affirms asexuality as a valid lifestyle choice for people. "Asexuality is an option and you have every right to choose it. Plenty of people -- with or without disabilities -- make that decision, and would tell you they have very fulfilling lives.")

My suspicion is that if the claims that the elderly and people with disabilities are not asexual were examined more closely, as with women, according to the definitions used, some people are asexual. Moreover, the understanding of what it is to be sexual, and thus what it would be to be asexual, is different in each case. If the claim that all people are sexual beings is an extension of claims that groups X, Y, and Z are considered asexual, but they really aren't, then we should reject the claim that are people are sexual beings. The definition used to establish the sexuality of each group (excepting children because the claim that children aren't asexual might not mean anything at all) would imply that some people are asexual. But it would imply a different group of people being asexual in each case. I’m not sure if this is the motivation for claiming that all people are sexual (or, rather, one of the motivations), but I have found some evidence to suggest that it is. On the website for the Capital Area Center for Independent Living, they provide information about sexuality for people with disabilities.
Myth 1: People with disabilities and chronic illnesses are not sexual.

Fact: All humans are sexual, regardless of how we express our sexuality.
This suggests that at least in some cases, there is a strong relationship between saying members of a certain group aren't asexual and saying that all people are sexual. This brings us to the end of the section of this series on saying yes, all people are sexual, even asexuals. At the beginning of this section of this series, I said that there are two major challenges that such an option faces. 1.) What is meant by saying that all people are sexual? 2.) What is the motivation for saying it? I think that the past few posts have shown that the answer to (1) is not at all clear, and the answer to (2) should be highly suspect from an asexual perspective. This brings us to the third major option for answering the question of whether all people are sexual beings: Huh? I'm not sure that I understand the question. In this part of the series, I intend to raise even more serious doubts concerning these two questions. After concluding I have no idea what is being claimed, I will try to examine how such claims function rather than what they mean. This will move us to the final part of this series: challenging the assertion that all people are sexual beings.

But first, story time.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Children aren't asexual

Of the posts in this series, this is probably the one that I feel most uncomfortable about for reasons that I think will become clear. The subject is the claim that children aren't asexual.

I have seen several places that insist on viewing children as sexual beings, though I haven’t seen any that explicitly argued for it. Sometimes this is done without explicitly mentioning children—for example, in the Planned Parenthood quote at the start of this series: “All people are sexual beings from birth to death.” By emphasizing that people are sexual beings from birth, the implication is clearly that children are sexual beings. In other places, it is clearly stated that children are sexual beings or that they're aren't asexual (contrary to how many people, apparently, view them.)

From what I can tell, there seem to be about four main reasons for saying that children aren't asexual. The first is that when it is claimed that all people are sexual beings, one of the main purposes is often to encourage readers to think of sexuality in broad terms rather than in narrowly defined ones. Thus, rather than thinking of sexuality merely as a matter of a few behaviors and desires to engage in those behaviors (thus equating sexuality with sex and sexual desire) it is conceived of in broader terms. In these terms, sexuality includes things that do exist before puberty, and thus it makes sense to think of children as sexual beings before sexual desire begins. (Actually, evidence suggests that the average first experience of sexual attraction is a couple years before average onset of puberty.) Sexual attraction does not occur ex nihilo around the age of ten.

The second reason for insisting that children are not asexual is that many children engage in sex play. (Figures vary quite a bit. I've seen some but don't remember them. As I recall, it's around half, give or take a lot. However, many of these involve only one or two brief experiences.) Parents (it is claimed) view their children as asexual, often deluding themselves into thinking that their children would never do anything like that with other kids, when in fact they do. The third motivation is (at least sometimes) to call into question the prohibition in many modern cultures against any kind of child-adult sexual interaction . (For an example of how this fact is used to criticize the claim that all people are sexual, John Leo is a conservative columnist with a less-than-positive view of Kinsey.)

Take as an example an except from this article on childhood sex play.
As mentioned earlier, our Western civilization has not always believed that children should be protected from all sexual contact. In medieval Europe, children were still freely touched, caressed, and fondled by every member of the household. Particularly in rural areas, parents, nurses, or servants were accustomed to masturbating small children to please them or to keep them quiet. (This practice is also found in many non-European societies. In the United States today, it is still alive among the Hopi Indians.) However, in modern times there has been a growing tendency to view children as asexual beings. Only in this century, under the influence of Freud and his followers, has the sexuality of children regained at least partial acceptance. Nevertheless, most people continue to believe that there cannot possibly be any harmless sexual contact between children and adults.
(Note: In the following paragraph, they go on to talk about how damaging sexually abusing children is and in the end recommend that whatever sexual behaviors children do should probably only be done with peers. I'm not sure if this claim represents their actual views or rather is more of an attempt to protect themselves against the charge that they support pedophilia. A little bit of googling will find you similar examples.)

If we look at this quote, "asexual" has a considerably different meaning than it did in the claim that 19th century white, middle class Americans thought women were asexual. There, "asexual" meant a lack of sexual desire. By that definition of asexual, it would be appropriate to call children asexual, which would be a problem if you want to say that all people are sexual beings. Rather, in insisting that children aren't asexual, a different meaning of "asexual" is used. What that meaning is, I really don't know. The argument seems to be that since some children can enjoy some "sexual" activities, children aren't asexual, and since some children engage in sex play, children aren't asexual.

In trying to understand the claim that children are sexual beings propositionally, I can't really get anywhere. (It might mean the potential to enjoy sexual activities, but I don't think that's quite right. If this were the case, then the claim would be one of potentiality rather than actuality. And also some people don't enjoy sexual activities, so if that is what it meant to be sexual, then some poeple would be asexual.) There doesn't seem to be any particular attribute in mind such that having that attribute makes a person sexual; children have that, therefore children are sexual beings. It seems that in claiming that children are sexual beings rather than asexual ones, the main function of the claim is not to assert any fact about children. Rather, it seems to function to tell the reader how to think about sexuality as it relates to childhood--children, just as adults, stand in relationship to this thing called "sexuality." Their relationship to this complex of desires, behaviors, ways of relating to people, the organization of society, etc. does not begin with the onset of sexual attraction at around ten. Rather, people stand in relationship to this thing "sexuality" since the time they are born (or before.) Insisting that children are not asexual seems to be a matter of telling the reader to think of the relationship between children and sexuality. Thus, if people think of children as asexual (not standing in relationship to sexuality,) it is difficult to account for the facts that are used to argue that children aren't asexual. This fits well with what seems to be the fourth purpose of claiming that children aren't asexual. Sometimes people claim that others want to shield children from (all?) information about sexuality. This is then said to be because those who want to thus shield children are assuming them to be asexual. This way of insisting that children aren't asexual fits well with the idea that being sexual means standing in relationship with sexuality. If children do not stand is such a relationship, then there is no purpose of providing them information of the subject. If, on the other hand, they do stand in such a relationship, then it makes sense to provide them with (age appropriate) information.

This, however, is not without difficulties. Even the "sexual" things that some children do, are these really sexual? Is this the meaning ascribed to the acts by the actors themselves? Or are they only sexual because they are perceived as being so by adults? Or because they would be perceived as such if they knew about them?

Viewing children as sexual beings has some important consequences for defending the claim that asexual people are sexual people too. In particular, they form a group of people who do not experience sexual desire but are considered sexual beings. However, I have a nagging suspicion that this has something to do with a belief that children are teleologically oriented towards developing sexual desire later on, assuming that all of them will, given "normal" development.

In my next post, I will finish No and start exploring Huh?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Women aren't asexual

I’ve often seen it claimed that in the Victorian era, women were considered to be asexual. A similar claim is made for the US at around the same time. Consider the description given in the textbook for the human sexuality class I took this summer:
“In the nineteenth century, White middle-class Americans believed that women had little sexual desire. If they experienced desire at all, it was ‘reproductive desire,’ the wish to have children. Reproduction entailed the unfortunate ‘necessity’ of engaging in sexual intercourse. A leading reformer wrote that in her ‘natural state’ a woman never makes advances based on sexual desires, for the ‘very plain reason that she does not feel them’ (Alcott, 1868). Those women who did feel desire were ‘a few exceptions amounting in all probability to diseased cases.’ … Whereas women were viewed as asexual, men were believed to have raging sexual appetites” (p.15-16. Also, the book I linked is an earlier edition than the one I'm quoting.)
Personally, I don’t really believe this. For one thing, I find it difficult to believe that no middle class white people in 19th century America noticed that some women liked sex (Are they claiming that even women themselves believed that they had no sexual desires? Or are they using an andocentric understanding of 19th century White Americans that excludes any woman that happened to be aware of the fact that she liked sex or that she had sexual desires?) The way this text argues, a single example is taken and extended to being representative of the view of an entire population, which would be like citing one left-leaning American blogger in the early 21st century and saying that’s what early 21st century people believed. (I don’t care how many such bloggers you can find, it doesn’t mean that’s what everyone believes.) I find it entirely possible that many people believed this about women, even that it was accepted enough that those who disagreed felt they ought to keep quiet because they believed themselves to be in a small minority. It is hard to know what those who remained silent thought. However, I find it unbelievable that all white middle class 19th century Americans believed this. The second I reason I’m skeptical of these sorts of claims is that they are way too apologetical for my taste.

Look! See how sexually backwards, repressed, and ignorant those people were—unlike us modern, enlightened, sexually liberated people! (Gosh, we sure are awesome!) This portrayal of dead people (who can't respond) is used as a foil to establish the text-book authors' own views, and those of other like-minded people, as enlightened, and I tend to be highly skeptical of any such self-legitimating reading of history.

Setting aside the fact that I don’t really believe this account of 19th century, I will accept it as a construct of asexuality. According to it, to be asexual is to lack sexual desire. While the text doesn’t clearly say so, the obvious interpretation is for us to see how clearly wrong it is to think that women are asexual. This portrayal of 19th century, middle class, white Americans is also used to condemn certain beliefs that some students in the class will have by using a sort of guilt by association. (Namely, "the belief that men are ‘naturally’ sexually aggressive and women sexually passive, the sexual double standard, and the value placed on women being sexually ‘inexperienced.’" p.16. My suspicion is that this functions to condemn not only these beliefs, but anything generally resembling them.)

The implied interpretation is clear: “They thought women were asexual, but now we know better. Women aren’t asexual.” However, according the definition of asexual that they use—having little sexual desire—some women are asexual. And by that definition, some men are asexual as well. They didn't bother to mention this fact. (To their credit, asexuality does at least get a couple sentence in the most recent version of this text book, but it is little more than a mention with none of the implications of what that might mean thought out.)

In the next post, I will consider the claim that children aren't asexual.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Asexuals are sexual people too

If we take asexual experience as legitimate, there are three ways to answer the question whether all people sexual beings. No, Yes, and Huh? Having examined No, I want to spend some time looking at the second possible answer: Yes. There are some asexual people who are comfortable thinking about themselves this way, and the topic is sometimes discussed in the asexosphere. I’m only aware of one attempt to argue for this position, which was written by me at a much early stage in my thinking through this issue. (It was the start of a thread on Apositive called sexual asexuals? Looking at the responses, you can see that at least one person strongly feels that she is not a sexual person; some of the others are comfortable thinking of themselves as sexual people while identifying as asexual.)

I’m not going to repeat that argument because I think it relies too heavily on an oversimplification of “sexuality,” and I’m not sure how salvageable it is. I’m aware of one other prolonged discussion of this issue, given by the blogger Venus of Willendork in the post At least let me call it by name. She looks at some of the pros and cons of using an expanded definition of sexuality to include asexuals.

In order for Yes to be a serious option, it has to overcome two major obstacles. The first is how sexuality is defined—“sexual” must be defined broadly enough to include the full range of experiences of people, including asexuals. Simply calling asexuality "rare" and then ignoring it doesn't count. Secondly, a serious defense of the motivation for insisting that all people are sexual beings would have to be given. What's the point of making the claim?

In materials on sexuality (especially where education or advocacy of education is concerned), certain groups are often claimed to be seen/to have been seen as asexual. This is said either with the implicit assumption that these groups aren't really asexual or with an explicit claim that they aren't asexual. I will examine a few of these in the coming posts. My suspicion is that part of the motivation for the claim that all people are sexual beings is at attempt at ultimate inclusivity. Rather than merely insisting that certain groups—children, women, the elderly, people with disabilities, etc.—aren’t asexual, the claim is further expanded to stating that no one is asexual. What is ironic about this is that in an attempt inclusivity, the experiences of people who feel that they are asexual are necessarily excluded. Sometimes they are ignored entirely. Sometimes they are acknowledged to exist but then said to be rare (and subsequently ignored.) Sometimes they are dismissed by pointing that if they do X-thing related to sexuality (especially masturbation) they can’t possibly be asexual. Instead they just need to learn to “accept their sexuality.” It is easier for some people to tell asexuals to “accept their sexuality” than to accept asexuals’ asexuality.

Next time, I will examine the claim that in 19th America, women were believed to be asexual.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

How can someone who falls in love not be sexual?

I don’t hear this objection being raised as often as the one about masturbation, but it still is an important issue. Many people seem to think of romantic love and sexual desire as inseparably connected, even if distinct. In many studies, sexual orientation has been defined in terms of the gender(s) someone is sexually/romantically attracted to, collapsing the two forms of attraction into one. However, there are good reasons to doubt the inseparability of the two.

The most obvious is that there is quite a lot of sex that happens in the word with no romantic attachment and no emotional intimacy. People don’t seem to have much difficult recognizing this, but sometimes it can be harder for them to accept that it works the other way too. There can be romantic relationships with strong emotional bonds without sex or sexual desire.

For asexuals in a romantic relationship, separating the two can be important for explaining their experience. Sometimes they have difficulty getting others to accept this. However, in psychology, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the two should be separated. Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah has done a good amount of work on this subject. (This article, titled "Emerging Perspectives on Distinctions Between Romantic Love and Sexual Desire" is a good summary. For a longer argument, a paper titled What Does Sexual Orientation Orient? , is available on her website. It's a scanned copy, so it is a bit big.) In “What Does Sexual Orientation Orient?” she argues that sexual desire and romantic love should be seen as separate for several reasons. First, causation works both ways. Sexual attraction often leads to romantic attraction, but it can also go the other way as well. Many people who become emotionally distant with their partner lose sexual interest, but if they again become much closer emotionally, sexual interest increases. Second, many prepubescent children report feelings of infatuation with people, despite not yet having sexual desires. Third, there are people report feelings of infatuation and/or falling in love with people counter to their sexual orientation (i.e. a straight man falling in love with another man, but still not being sexually interested. This isn’t reported often in present day discourse but can be found often enough in writings from previous centuries.)

Often asexuals will distinguish affection orientation from sexual orientation. As it turns out, asexual people aren’t the only ones whose sexual attractions don’t match their affectional attractions. Diamond did a longitudinal study with about 80 women who had reported feeling at least some amount of same sex attraction, interviewing them once initially and then once every two years for ten years. She asked them to rate the percent of physical attraction they felt to men vs. women (i.e. 60% towards women and 40% towards men) and asked the same question about emotional attraction. In her book Sexual Fluidity, largely based on this study, Diamond writes,

“The percentage of physical same-sex attractions they experienced differed from their emotional same-sex attractions [on average] by 15 percentage points in either direction (in other words, some women were more emotionally than physically drawn to women, whereas others were more physically than emotionally drawn.) A small number of women reported discrepancies of up to 40 percentage points” (p. 77.)
She quotes one woman who was very uncertain how to identify because of this.
“Sometimes I worry that I will never settle down with anyone, because the way I feel about guys is mainly sexual, and the way I way about women is mainly emotional. So I’m always going between the two, and I don’t know what to call that, you know?” (also on p. 77.)
The experience of romantically inclined asexuals fits well with this line of evidence and, in fact, provides even further support for the claim that emotional attraction and sexual attraction aren't the same thing and don't always go together.

While there are other activities/feelings that some asexuals do/have that are sometimes considered inseparable from sexuality, I will not go into these. Hopefully, the two arguments that I have given are representative enough to give an idea of how to maintain the idea that asexuals are not sexual people despite the surprising implications this has.

In my next post, I will begin to explore the option Yes: All people are sexual beings, even asexuals.

p.s. For the duration of this series, I've decided to post every Wednesday and Saturday.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

How can someone who masturbates not be sexual?

If we say that asexuals aren’t sexual, there are some fairly counter-intuitive implications to this. Some asexuals do/feel things that most people think of as being sexual or inseparably connected to sexuality. In order to justify claiming that asexuals aren’t sexual, we have to explain how these things aren’t necessarily sexual. In this post, I will deal with masturbation. In the next, I will deal with romance.

A large portion of asexuals masturbate, raising the question of how people can be ‘asexual’ if they engage in something so widely regarded as clearly a sexual behavior. Some asexuals feel that for themselves, masturbation is not a sexual act. If we argue that asexuals are not sexual, we have to find a way to explain how such people can be seen as not sexual. In The Masturbation Paradox David Jay explains how this can be seen as a nonsexual act for asexuals. The following is my own argument, largely inspired by that article and the first chapter in Sexual Conduct by Gagnon and Simon.

Sexuality is not merely a matter of genitals, friction, orgasms and how babies are made. It also involves meanings, values and judgments people assign to certain organs, acts and relationships. During foreplay, a man touching a woman’s genitalia is very much a sexual act, but in the context of a gynecological exam a doctor touching that same woman’s genitalia is not (hopefully). To a large extent, the difference between these is the meaning assigned to the act and the expectations of the people involved--expectation, in fact, is significant in how the person responds physiologically. (This example comes from Sexual Conduct, p.16.)

Of fundamental importance for sexuality is the formation of relationships—these could be anything from one night stands to lifelong monogamous marriages. People spend a large amount of time learning behaviors and activities to be able to generate the kind of sexual relationship(s) that they want—this is true if sex is just one part of that relationship as in most long-term ones, or nearly the whole relationship as in the case of a one night stand. All of this is included in the concept of ‘sexuality.’

This forces the question: is masturbation sexual because it involves genitals and (often) orgasm? Or is it sexual because of its connection to sociosexuality—as a kind of training and rehearsing of sexual scripts, as learning about one’s body, in finding sexual satisfaction when a partner is unavailable, etc? In Sexual Conduct, Gagnon and Simon write:

"For the infant touching his penis, the activity cannot be sexual in the same sense as adult masturbation but is merely a diffusely pleasurable activity, like many other activities. Only through maturing and learning these adult labels for his experience and activity can the child come to masturbate in the adult sense of that word. The complexity of adult masturbation as an act is enormous, requiring the close coordination of physical, psychological, and social resources all of which change dynamically after puberty. It is though the developmental process of converting external labels into internal capacities for naming that activities become more precisely defined and linked to a structure of sociocultural expectations and needs that define what is sexual” (p. 10, emphasis mine.)

Someone may respond to my above question by saying that it is a false dichotomy—masturbation is sexual because it involves sexual organs and orgasms and because it is “linked to a structure of sociocultural expectations and needs that define what is sexual.” Gagnon and Simon’s position is that masturbation becomes more fully sexual through its connection to processes of naming and labeling though the development process.

Asexuality forces a question, however: What happens when masturbation is divorced from sociocultural expectations of sexuality? What if there is no connection between it and desire for partnered sexual contacts or relationships, even after going through puberty and even after coming to understand these expectations and labels?

What would if mean if many asexuals feel that for them masturbation fails to have any relationship to the category ‘sexuality’ as they understand it and see it performed around them—in the formation of significant-other relationships, in peer relationships where expectation of performances of masculinity or femininity are often central, in construction of identity, etc. Within such a context it should not be surprising that some asexuals feel that for them masturbation is not sexual.

The persuasiveness of the above argument is largely dependent on how the reader thinks about sexuality. To someone who thinks sexuality is mostly about sex-drive, rubbing of genitals and certain physical acts with cultural forces and attribution of meaning being ignored or regarded unimportant, it will not be persuasive at all. To someone who views construction of meaning, identity and function of “sexuality” within social and cultural contexts as being of paramount importance with underlying biology and psychology as relatively unimportant, it has the potential of being highly persuasive. For those that insist that the biological/physiological and the social/cultural are both important, the argument may be less persuasive than illuminating—it explains how people can think of masturbation as a non-sexual activity, and it challenges the assumption that there must be a connection between masturbation and desire for socio-sexual contacts, and challenges assumptions that exclude the possibility of asexuality.

In my next post I will examine the question of whether romance is necessarily connected to sexuality.


How someone can feel that masturbation is "not sexual" and the variation among asexual in whether or not they feel that they are "not sexual" is developed in a later post in this series: Once upon a time there were three asexuals

Regarding the above argument that masturbation is not necessarily sexual, I confess that I was among those who never quite found the argument to be persuasive (though I did find it plausible.) On further reflection, my position has changed, and I have come to think that regarding masturbation as inherently sexual is untenable. I argue for this in a much later post What does it mean to be "not sexual"?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Are all people sexual? Three options

If we take asexuality seriously and accept it as legitimate, there the three general ways to answer the question, “Are all people sexual beings?” No, Yes and Huh? In this post, I’m going to give a general outline of each of these three options. In later posts, I will try to explore each one in more depth.

No. Many asexuals have a strong sense that they are not sexual. They take a look at sexuality as they see it around themselves and say “This is not me.” Taking this in combination with the fact that ‘sexuals’ and ‘sexual people’ are terms for the out-group, statements like “all humans are sexual beings,” are often understood to limit humanity to the out-group, functionally telling asexuals that they are non-human or sub-human. Or such statements are interpreted as meaning, “I know you’re deepest, inmost thoughts and feelings better than you do. If you understood your own feelings, you would realize that you really are just like everyone else (i.e. 'normal' people.)"

However, if we answer the question based on the intuition of asexuals who strongly feel that they are not sexual, this is not without its difficulties. One of the biggest is that it has some very counterintuitive implications. Things like attraction, falling in love, masturbation, sexual fantasies, etc. are seen as inseparably connected with sexuality. Given that some asexuals experience/do one or more of the above, calling such people “asexual” makes little sense to some. In order to maintain the view that people who feel/do these can be asexual, it is necessary to explain how such activities/feelings can be “not sexual.”

Yes. Rather than saying that asexuals are not sexual, “sexual” is understood in a way broad enough to include people who don’t experience sexual attraction, people who prefer not to have sex, etc. There are some asexuals who are comfortable with this option. It would require divorcing asexuality from its etymological meaning of ‘not sexual,’ but the term would still be used because no one can think of a better one. Having a term is empowering and very useful for creating asexual discourse.

This option faces two major challenges. The first is figuring out how to (re)define sexuality in a broad enough way so that it includes asexuals without denying, ignoring or marginalizing their experiences. Second, this option has to justify why exactly we would want to do so and what the point of insisting that all people are sexual beings is.

Huh? This option doubts that the claim "All people are sexual beings" is even a meaningful one. If such a broad view of sexuality is taken that it includes the full range of the experiences of people, including asexual people, is anything even worth saying? Especially considering how such statements are supposed to be bold and daring ones that are fundamental to how we think about sexuality, not vague, weak ones that say virtually nothing at all? Moreover, if the enormous variation in how sexuality is thought about from culture to cultural and even person to person within a culture is taken seriously, can the claim that all people are sexual beings be maintained? Or does such a claim commit gross anachronism (and whatever the synchronic equivalent is)? Do such claims privilege the experiences of the claimants and those like them at the expense of experiences of people that don’t fit the hegemonic ideology of sexual-normativity?

Next time, I will start with exploring “No” and how to deal with its major problems.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Are all people sexual? Introduction

One claim often made in discourses about sexuality is that all people are sexual beings. It seems especially common in the context of sex education. There slight variations in wording, and sometimes phrases are added like “at all ages” or “from birth until death” to emphasize the point. A few quick google searches will find you plenty of examples.

Planned Parenthood says, “All people are sexual beings from birth to death.” They say that their organization “works to ensure that sexuality is understood as an essential, lifelong aspect of being human.”

A doctor writing on MSNBC gives advice to a mother about how to talk to her daughter about sexuality: “All humans are sexual beings who have sexual feelings. Sex is a normal part of life.”

This past summer, I took my university’s class on human sexuality. Our textbook opens, “Being sexual is an essential part of being human.”

The fact that there are some people going around calling themselves asexual raises serious questions concerning this.

In Erwin J. Haeberle’s Critical Dictionary of Sexology, we find the following definition:

asexual. (adj.) Non-sexual; without sex. Generally speaking, the term should not be applied to a person, since every man and woman is a sexual being. However, there are some individuals who, in their entire lives, never show any interest in sexual activity. In these very few cases, the term could be a suitable characterization of their personalities…

[Note: Since writing this post in 2008, Haeberle has updated the entries for "asexual" and "asexuality."]

In one article on asexuality,* Eli Coleman, director of the program in human sexuality at University of Minnesota, said that he thinks more effort should be put into looking at the question of whether asexuality is a sexual orientation. "In a sense, asexuality defies one of the basic tenets of sexuality: That we are all sexual beings. Some people may not have much of a sexual drive. But does that make it an orientation? It’s a very interesting question worthy of investigation."

If asexuality is taken seriously in discourses on sexuality—especially ones in which sexuality is stressed as being an essential, fundamental part of being human—there is a question that needs to be addressed. “Are all humans sexual beings?” If asexuality is accepted as legitimate, there are three main ways to answer the question. 1.) No. 2.) Yes. 3.) Huh?

In this series of posts, I hope to try to think through some of these issues. I personally lean in favor of number 3. Next time I’ll take a brief look at these three options.

*Melby, Todd “Asexuality gets more attention, but is it a sexual orientation?” Contemporary Sexuality. November 2005. vol 39, No. 11.

Edit: Since writing this, an entry for asexuality" has been added to the Critical Dictionary of Sexology.