Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Asexual people of the past: should we care?

Recently emma-rainbow made a post on her blog about a play from antiquity in which a character seemed to be asexual. It seems exciting to find a historical reference to asexuality. Before that post, I had known of only one. In the book Forms of Desire , there is a chapter by John Boswell containing the following quote:
The sister-in law of Louis XIV describes the sexual interests of men at the French court in terms almost exactly like modern sexual taxonomies: some prefer women, some like both men and women, some prefer men, some prefer children, and some have little interest in sex at all.” (p. 169.)
(In context, the point he is trying to make is that although at different times and places, in different cultures, people have very different beliefs about sexuality and different ways of thinking about sexuality, it is possible to find at least some people in times past who think of things in terms more or less analogous to our concept “sexual orientation.”) When I read this, the last phrase caught my attention.

The simplest way of trying to find a history of asexuality is the “who is and who isn’t” approach. This, more or less, consists of making lists of people we think may have been asexual. From what I know about similar attempts with gay history, these have produced low quality biographies that tend to be deeply anachronistic. Serious historians avoid such approaches. I imagine that if similar endeavors are made with asexuals in the future, it would result in equally bad history. At present, our numbers aren’t even strong enough for this, and we merely try to tack on ‘asexual’ to people of the past here and there. (Rainbow Amoeba had a recent blog about this and why she disagrees with the practice.) These lists tend to ignore the serious problems faced by such approaches. For one thing, it is hard enough for people in the early 21st century who are reading about asexuality to figure out if they themselves are asexual. Figuring out the asexuality of people long dead, whose thoughts we have no direct access to, and who have not clearly expressed them for us (and definitely not in the “doesn't experience sexual attraction” framework we use), is probably an impossible task.

And then there is the fact that we commonly use ‘asexual’ in two different ways. One is a sexual orientation, and one is an identity based on that sexual orientation. In the past, there probably were people of the former sort, but in talking about asexuals of the past, there is a danger to read in the identity aspect in as well. Asexuality as an identity is about how lack of sexual attraction affects people in particular cultural contexts, people gathering (mostly online) to discuss it, and a sense of connectedness to others with similar experiences. In different social contexts, lack of sexual attraction would affect people differently, and people would probably think about it differently. (Of course, among people who identify as asexual now, there is also variation in how they think about asexuality.)

Trying to talk about asexuals of the past is a highly problematic thing to do. Still, when I read the above quoted passage, I was excited. I was perfectly aware of problems with identifying who in the past was and or was not asexual, and I knew full well the danger of anachronistic thinking. The question is “Why does it matter?” One reason people might care is to justify our own asexuality. If this is the case, then the attempt to find asexuality/asexuals in history is misguided. The legitimacy of our sexual identity should be based on our own experiences. This is how we can most effectively persuade others of the reality of asexuality—not so much by giving amazing arguments but by giving voice to our own stories.

A similar reason people might care about asexuals in the past is for apologetical reasons. Someone might find some historical figure they believe to be asexual and add this to a mental list of reasons why people are very wrong if they think that asexuality doesn’t exist or must be a serious disorder. My own impression is that often the arguments people use are arguments to bolster a position that they already held for entirely different reasons. Then, after having a position, for whatever reason, they find arguments to support it and use those arguments to remind themselves of how incredibly right they are and how very wrong everyone who disagrees is. These seem to be very popular in politics and religion—people are often primarily interested in how to defend positions already held rather than trying to have a more informed view of the issues. It is easy to spend lots of time arguing against positions that everyone in the audience already disagrees with—it reinforces group solidarity by attacking a foreign, hostile “them,” the asexophobes—and I can easily imagine some asexual somewhere, thinking “So and so was asexual, and they were totally awesome. That just shows how dumb/ignorant/evil/misguided people who think that there must be something wrong with asexuals are.” I don’t recall having seen references to historical figures used in this way, but it doesn’t require too much imagination to envision it happening somewhere.

Another reason for trying to find asexuality in history is to create a sense of “our history.” People often are most interested in history that they feel is personally relevant to them (if they are interested in history at all.) Schools spend a lot more time teaching their own nation’s (or civilization's) history than they do others’. This can create a sense of “this is where we came from, this is who we are (and this is why we’re so totally awesome.)” One reason that an asexual identity is important to people is that it makes us feel connected to other asexuals in a meaningful way. There is a sense of something held in common. This shared sense of commonality can be read back into the past giving people a feeling of connectedness with historical figures, a sense of pride at certain people being among our numbers, a transtemporal sense of “us.”

In my own opinion, the most valuable reason for the study of history is that it can give us a sense of perspective. We understand our own situation better if we understand how things got to be the way they are. We understand our own times better by understanding those gone by. The societal effects of asexuality (orientation), in modern times are not the same as those in times past. By gaining an appreciation for the past, we can view the present in a larger context and have deeper insight.

But this isn’t why I was excited when I read the quote. We see asexuality in history. But it’s just an item in a list, and I understood nothing more about asexuality after reading it than I did beforehand. What made me so glad to see it is simply that I saw it. As an asexual, one enormous frustration is that even in contexts that are all supposedly about sexual diversity, people usually don’t even acknowledge that we exist. This is frustrating, and before I found AVEN, it was isolating. Seeing us included in history is an acknowledgment that we exist. Boswell was mostly interested in the fact that the quote showed recognition of things similar to our concepts of heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality. The other two were mentioned simply because they were in the source, but the inclusion of asexuality was simply unimportant to him. But it is very important to me.

So there we are in history. At Versailles. Mentioned right after pedophilia. I don't feel that this legitimates asexuality in any way, but it's nice to see that the existence of people uninterested in sex was acknowledged long before AVEN was around.

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