Friday, September 26, 2008

"Asexual: A person who does not experience sexual attraction." Using a narrow definition

In addition to the drive to broaden the definition of asexuality, there is a simultaneous drive to narrow it. One place that this is seen is in the attempt to distance asexuality from celibacy. People who experience sexual attraction but don’t have sex—whether by choice, preference or lack of opportunity—are not asexual. In defining asexuality as not experiencing sexual attraction, there is, at least in theory, a removal from the category people who do experience sexual attraction.

In reality, this isn’t always what actually happens. According to Scherrer’s recent paper on asexual identity—her data came from answers to open ended questions by people identifying as asexual recruited from AVEN—a large portion of the people explained their asexuality in terms of AVEN’s definition about not experiencing sexual attraction. But not all of them did. At least one person explicitly said that she does experience sexual attraction but has no desire either to have sex or even to do things like cuddling or hand-holding with people. She considers herself asexual and evidently has participated in AVEN enough to volunteer to participate in the study. To me, it makes perfect sense why such a person would want to identify as asexual even though she doesn’t fit the standard (AVEN) definition. She does, however, fit an alternative definition—people who prefer not to have sex—this definition makes sense but isn’t used as much. Another intended function of the self-identification definition of asexuality is that people like this woman feel free to identify as asexual because it makes sense for them to do so even though they don’t actually fit the AVEN definition.

Another place where the definitional narrowing can be seen is in defining an asexual person as “someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction” rather than as “someone who experiences little or no sexual attraction.” My proposal for defining it as the latter really isn’t anything new. In fact, the impact of this definition can be seen throughout the AVEN general FAQ, which uses the terms “little or no sexual attraction” and “low or no sexual attraction” multiple times, and similar language can be found on various other places around the internet. (Kinsey Confidential, for example, has an article on asexuality in their Q&A in which they say, “[Asexuals] may either experience no sexual attraction, or else very low levels of sexual attraction when compared to most other people).

Around the time I was working on my post on defining asexuality, I had thought about proposing on the AVEN forums the idea of changing the definition on the main page to the one I prefer, but then I went to the main page, imagined the change, and decided I didn’t like it. That page needs to have a very clear-cut feel to it—more like a soundbite than a vague, nuanced approach. I recently heard someone talking the US presidential race say, “Nuance loses elections.” The same is likely true for identity politics. Clear cut descriptions of asexuality in the media lack nuance for the same reason that candidates’ presentation of their policies in the media lack nuance: the general public doesn’t like nuance. They like things to be clear cut, unambiguous, black and white. The official definition is intentionally narrowed to make things fit a neat asexual-sexual binary, purposefully ignoring the large gray area that exists between sexual and asexual even though within asexual discourse, people tend to be quite comfortable with fuzziness around the edges.

What strikes me about both of these narrowings of the definition of asexuality is that the main intent of each has to do with presentation of asexuality to those outside the asexual community rather than to those inside—more to do with initial presentation than to do with discussions among those who already have a general understanding. Limiting asexuality to people who don’t experience sexual attraction (or who experience very little) is important for the claim that asexuality is a sexual orientation—it makes the definition of asexuality parallel to definitions of hetero/homo/bisexual orientations—and it attempts to tap into beliefs about acceptance of non-heterosexual people. Making asexuality clear-cut and unambiguous makes for better media presentation.

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently got a chance to talk to David Jay about defining asexuality and he said that choosing to define asexuality as not experiencing sexual attraction rather than experiencing little or no sexual attraction is quite intentional. First, he thought that the sort of dialogue generated by the less vague definition would be more helpful for people—he was afraid that the sort of discussion based on the definition I preferred would focus too much on the vagueness inherent in the definition and less on people trying to better understand themselves. The second reason is that the clear-cut definition functions as strategic essentialism.

This is similar to a point made by Scherrer, in her recently published paper on asexuality. She argues that asexuality has a complex relationship to dominant beliefs about sexual essentialism—it both challenges the view that sexual desire is an innate property of being human and the belief that certain acts are innately sexual, blurring the line between what is sexual and what is not. However, many asexuals define their asexuality in essentialist terms, and even though asexuality challenges essentialist views of sexuality, essentialist presentation is likely to be a useful strategy in legitimating asexuality as it has been for legitimating gay and lesbian identities.

In election politics—and especially presidential elections—rhetoric lacks nuance. We don’t hear candidates saying a lot of things like, “This is a complex issue and there’s quite a lot to be said for some of the alternatives to my stance, and there some genuine concerns about possible unforeseen consequences of it as well.” However, when the election is over and people take office, in order to govern effectively, it is utterly essential for decision makers to have a deep grasp of the complexities and ambiguities of the issues. Politicians need soundbites to win elections, and, once in office, they need them to gain popular support for their decisions and their policies—but I hope that the true rationale for these decisions and policies is a lot more well-thought out than anything that can be summed up in a sentence or two.

A similar point holds for asexual identity politics: even if it is expedient to present things to the public in black and white terms because this will help us gain widespread acceptance, legitimation, and visibility fastest, it is not helpful to do so within the asexual community. Soundbite presentations of asexuality in the public sphere are no more incompatible with nuanced discussions within asexual discourse than political soundbites in press-conferences are incompatible with detailed and complex arguments in conversations between policy makers themselves.

Still, this unnuanced, narrowly defined asexuality presented in the media is not without its dangers. In many media presentations of asexuality, there are “alternative views” presented—generally by sex therapists, sometimes by university professors, who have some rather condescending things to say about asexuality. These are not well received in the asexual community. Asexuals often mock these views as utterly unfounded and blatantly contradicted by the experiences of those in the asexual community. But these critics of asexuality don’t have an insider’s understanding of asexuality; they don’t have the nuanced knowledge of it that people who’ve spent a lot of time reading and participating in asexual discourse have. I’m going to guess that their understanding largely comes from the black and white asexual presentation given in the media—people who know a lot about sexuality are likely to be less easily swayed by soundbites, so I’m not sure how much we can blame them for their skepticism of asexuality. (Granted, I also think that people who don’t know much about the subject shouldn’t be making authoritative pronouncements about it either.)

One criticism of asexuality is that there are some people who feel very little interest in sex but in the right sort of situation find that they can enjoy it or they can learn to enjoy it. Such individuals, some fear, may label themselves asexual when such a labeling may be premature and could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many asexuals scornfully respond to such criticisms, pointing to many asexuals who feel that they have come to understand themselves much better through learning about asexuality—many asexuals who have learned far more about sexuality after identifying as asexual then they ever did before. Moreover, some people who identify as asexual find that they can enjoy some aspects of sexuality, but still consider themselves asexual because they enjoy them in very different ways than their partners do or than what their friends describe (For example, this thread ). These sorts of discussion about asexuality may could potentially go a long way in reassuring some critics of asexuality that there is nothing to fear from us (except, of course, for those who have a vested financial interest in making perfectly healthy people convinced that they’re sick.) However, these sorts of asexual experiences are intentionally removed from standard asexual presentation. Clear cut, unnuanced presentations of asexuality may be the most effective means of convincing the general public of asexual legitimacy, but for some people, it may be precisely the nuance and acceptance of fuzzy boundaries in asexual discourse that would persuade them to accept asexuality as a healthy identity and a part of the normal variation in human sexuality.


Ily said...

Again, really interesting...a topic that needs to be discussed. In some way, narrowing the definition of asexuality is a way to assuage the public's fears, in much the same way as "we DID NOT choose to be gay!" is. If people who experienced little attraction could be included as asexuals, that is a much larger group of people, and maybe that is threatening? I don't know, just throwing around random ideas...
Most people aren't used to seeing any nuance in sexuality. But if asexuality could help to get that concept out there-- even if understanding of asexuality in particular was not as solid-- maybe that would be a good thing?

The Impossible K said...

You bring up an interesting point- one that I found especially puzzling when I first discovered AVEN. I wanted a solid definition to affirm what I felt, but instead I found nuanced discourse and exceptions to every rule. When I found the thread on Apositive about asexuals who enjoyed sex, I became even more confused.
So, yes- while it may be helpful to provide a clear definition for the media, I think it's helpful for young/questioning asexual individuals as well.
Diving straight into the nuances of asexuality is like trying to understand phonemes before you learn to spell- difficult at best!

pretzelboy said...

You both bring up good points. Impossible K, one big issue that you bring up is that what is going to be most useful to one person isn't going to be what's most useful to another. Everybody's different (I suppose that's one of the driving forces behind emphasis on nuance.) I think that probably, it would be good to have more static content on AVEN for newcomers, especially adding different asexual people's stories (I think that there is already some talk to doing this.) I'm not sure how much, though, this would help deal with this problem. What do you think? It definitely seems that an issue that needs to be addressed more.

Ily, you raise a good point. I'm not entirely sure if it is as important for asexuals to emphasize how different we are to be accepted as it is for some other groups. My suspicion is that people in some (sexual) minorities want to emphasize, "We're so different than you, that there's no way we could conform to you're (the majority's) standard and still be ourselves" because, maybe, if people in the majority found out that things weren't so clear cut, they would say, "Hey, you're not that different from us, so why can't you just conform?" Anyway, that's just my guess. I'm sure that this too is a great oversimplification of things.