Sunday, August 24, 2008

Asexuality and Celibacy: Part 2

In my last post, I argued that the insistence on sharply differentiating asexuality and celibacy has, so far, been an important part in asexual identity politics. Asexuals have insisted that asexuality is different from celibacy because unlike asexuality, celibacy is a choice. In that post, I called into question the prudence of making such a strong distinction.

In this striving for legitimacy, asexuality is in a rather odd position of simultaneously needing to expand and contract its definition. There are those who find it strange that people who form romantic relationships/like cuddling/masturbate etc. could be asexual. In insisting that asexuals are people who do not experience sexual attraction, there is a conscious attempt to include people whose experience includes other things generally associated with sexuality—asexuality is about lack sexual attraction, not lack of sexual (or “sexual”) behavior. To maximize this inclusivity, the collective identity model of asexuality defines an asexual as someone who calls themself asexual. This functions as the basis for the advice often given to newcomers asking “Am I asexual?” They are told, “Only you can decide if you’re asexual. No one can decide it for you.” This is also the basis of the taboo against telling people that they aren’t asexual.

However, this taboo is not intended to be universally applied, and the insistence on separating asexuality from celibacy makes this clear. Suppose a person who does experience sexual attraction but has decided to become celibate describes this decision by saying, “I’ve decided to become asexual,” I expect many asexuals—including those who follow the taboo against telling people that they’re not asexual—would let that person know (or at least want to) that they’re not asexual; they’re celibate. Asexuality, they will inform the celibate person, is a sexual orientation, unlike celibacy, which is a choice.

Because of the insistence that asexuality is a sexual orientation—and thus not a matter of choice—there is a felt need to separate asexuality from celibacy. In one direction, the definition of asexuality is expanded to include people who don’t experience sexual attraction but who do experience/do things generally associated with sexuality. In the other direction, there is an attempt to narrow the definition of asexuality to exclude people who don’t have sex, but do feel sexual attraction. A broad definition is wanted for the sake of inclusivity and avoiding asexual elitism. A narrow definition is wanted in order to maintain the insistence that asexuality is unchosen and thus a sexual orientation.

While this distinction with celibacy makes sense, one problem with it is the fact that asexuality, in some sense, is chosen. As a sexual orientation, it isn't, but as a social identity, it is. This is reflected in the AVEN general FAQ. In response to the first question, “Am I asexual,” it states “The definition of asexuality is ‘someone who does not experience sexual attraction.’ However, only you can decide which label best suits you. Reading this FAQ and the rest of the material on this site may help you decide whether or not you are asexual. If you find that the asexual label best describes you, you may choose to identify as asexual” (emphasis mine). Decision and choice are involved—not a decision not to experience sexual attraction, but decisions about what to do in response to not feeling sexual attraction and how to socially identify.

Over the summer I have had some very good discussions about some of these issues in correspondences I’ve had with Eunjung Kim, who is engaged in research on asexuality. One of the issues we discussed is the relationship between asexuality and celibacy. One point she made really stood out to me: she recognizes that asexuality and celibacy are conceptually distinct--they deal with different dimensions, one with desire and the other with behavior--but she is wary of the distancing strategy that asexuals often employ as part of asexual identity politics. One of the main reasons for this is that while the categories are conceptually distinct, there is a lot of overlap between asexuals and celibates. Also, this distancing strategy potentially buys into celibacy devaluing assumptions, and it attempts to distance asexuals from celibates under the assumption that celibacy (not practicing any sexual activities) only applies to sexual people.

This makes a lot of sense to me, especially the idea of a distancing strategy and problems with such approaches. It helped me to make sense of the wary attitude I had already had towards this sharp distinction and find categories to think about this issue with. It also forced me to think about the relationship between asexuality and celibacy, and the this post and the last are of part of my attempt to think through this issue. It seems that three main questions are raised: What is celibacy? What is the relationship between asexuality and celibacy? What can be done to further dialogue between asexuals and celibates? These are questions that probably will be discussed for a long time to come, and I feel that all I have are a few initial thoughts.

What can be done to further dialogue between asexuals and celibates? At this point I have to confess that I know very little about celibacy. Based on my own life story, I feel like I should know more about it than I do. Most of my reading on the subject when I was younger consisted of biblical commentaries, and after finding that these didn’t help me make sense of my own experience, I stopped reading about the passages that seemed to be about celibacy. However, these texts did help me feel that I didn’t need to be pressured to go get married because not getting married was a perfectly legitimate option (I do hope to get married, but I felt that this took a lot of the pressure off because it wasn’t something I had to do.) Since identifying as asexual A History of Celibacy has been somewhere in my room on my to-read list, but I haven’t gotten very far yet. Of course, another source of information would be the internet.

Some dialogue between asexuals and celibates already exists. In addition to whatever is done on a personal level, sometimes celibate people post on AVEN and this creates interesting discussion. In the November 2007 issue of AVENues, the bimonthly newsletter of AVEN, there was an article by Robyn Y. Demby, a celibate woman, in which she discussed similarities between asexuality and celibacy. One quote about watching TV spots on asexuality stands out: “I noticed that before each interview began, the difference between celibacy and asexuality was made clear. Even so, as a 40-year old woman who has been celibate for years, I find two important similarities between asexuality and celibacy: We realize that sex is not a need and we know that we can live happy, healthy lives without it. ” One important theme of the blog/podcast Love from the Asexual Underground is relationships, and particularly relationships in a context that disidentifies with sexuality and the understanding of relationships associated with that. Celibates must deal with similar issues.

Despite the distancing strategy used by asexuals, there is one place where asexuality and celibacy readily connected: internet dating sites. Celibate Passions is a "100% free online dating & social networking site specifically for celibate singles looking for platonic relationships. " If you choose "browse by group," you will find a variety of constituencies interested in such relationships. The first (alphabetically) is "asexual." Also included are a variety of types of celibacy, including involuntary, medical, religious, voluntary, life-long, as well as a variety of types of people wanting to not have sex before marriage and some other groups too.

A similar site is, "a website celebrating celibate, platonic, non-physical or partly physical relationships, where you can meet other like-minded people, explore a holistic, integrated lifestyle and get ideas of where to look for support," and along with celibacy, it includes asexuality. Both Celibate Passions and Platonic Partners contain information on asexuality, and they give the standard explanation about how asexuality and celibacy differ. However, it is in a context that recognizes that they do potentially have a lot in common--hence the inclusion of both in on internet personals for those not wanting sex.

The last of the three questions, "What is celibacy?" is a more complicated one. If celibacy is defined simply as not having sex, there is a large overlap between asexuals and celibates. If celibacy also carries with it the assumption of refraining from sex, it would make less sense to consider asexuals celibate. If celibacy is understood in this context, then we to accept the asuumption (which Eunjung Kim rejects) that celibacy only applies to sexual people. Another way of defining celibacy (which I accepted in my previous post) is that celibacy assumes both not having sex and not getting married. In attempting to solve this problem, I have eventually decided to give up, regarding it as a false dillema (or trilemma, as the case may be.) Based on how the word is actually used, it carries with it a ambiguity. Celibacy definitley involves not having sex. This much is clear, but it seems to be all that is clear. Whether or not it requires a decision to give up married and family life depends on context. Whether or not it requires sexual desire that be resisted in not clear and depends on context. There seems to be a good amount of idiosyncratic difference in the way the word is used by different people and in different contexts. So should we consider asexuals who don't have sex celibate? Maybe.


Anonymous said...

I tried to leave a comment here earlier, but my connection cut out just as I hit "publish" so I guess it didn't work. Sorry if this appears as a double post.

Anyway, what I said was, I have always considered asexuals who have made the decision not to have sex celibate as well, and I guess I never realized that other people didn't. I don't really give much thought to it I suppose, because I'm not celibate myself. For me personally, it makes sense to put as much distance between myself and celibacy as I can, but I've never really expanded that to such a conceptual distinction as you examine in this post. I can see why people would want to make it clear that they are, rather than actively refusing to have sex, simply passively uninterested, but that implies that they are open to the possibility of having sex, if an acceptable situation were ever to fall into their lap. If they are asexual and also completely refuse to ever try it, then to my way of thinking, they are celibate as well. I don't see it as a contradiction because I don't think celibacy implies anything whatsoever about a person's level of desire/attraction; it's purely about making a decision. I also don't think that, in the most common usage, celibacy implies a decision not to marry as well; I think that's a more old-fashioned use that, for clarity's sake, would be better abandoned and replaced with talk of bachelors and bachelorettes.

pretzelboy said...

When I looked up celibacy in the dictionary, one of the definitions given was being unmarried. My first reaction was that this was a rather old-fashioned since nowadays people don't assume unmarried people aren't having sex. On further reflection, however, I think it's more complicated than that. In the case of clerical celibacy, as I understand things, when people have to decide whether or not to take a vow of celibacy, for many people, it may be as much or more the decision not to get married and not to have children, as it is the decision not to have sex that is difficult. So, at least in this one type of celibacy, not marrying is a big part of it.