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.


Ily said...

"All humans are sexual beings" drives me crazy. Especially when it's randomly inserted into a piece that has nothing to do with the statement, so that it will look weird if you argue with it.
But apparently, people love to make "All humans ____" statements. Which I don't get, but then again I'm not a sociologist.

pretzelboy said...

I thinks it because all humans make overgeneralizations.

pretzelboy said...

Also, all computer-using humans make typos. I meant "it's"

edgeofeverywhere said...

Great topic! I look forward to reading your thoughts.

birdnerd said...

Indeed. I seem to have warned my students off of papers that begin "Throughout history and even today, [insert platitude]," but I still have to clean up after their naive generalizations thereafter.

Seriously, I think the "All humans are sexual beings" claim is often a perfunctory nod to political correctness, meant to validate the experiences of non-heterosexuals.

Haeberle's definition is actually kind of funny, in a dreadful sort of way: "Well, everybody's sexual, so you should really call anyone asexual--oh, wait, except for these freaks."

I've said it before and I'll say it again: we're up against a lot of lousy scholarship.

birdnerd said...

Oh... shoot. I meant "shouldn't really call...." Stupid computer.

pretzelboy said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again: we're up against a lot of lousy scholarship. Amen to that. What I find most interesting about the Haeberle quotation is that the claim that all people are sexual beings is made in spite of reality. Then he tries to define asexuality narrowly enough to make the number of genuinely asexual people as small as possible. Because, evidently, if the number of asexuals is small enough, then it's okay to marginalize them.

Chlirissa said...

When I first came out, I railed against this mentality almost non-stop. I actually started a single person letter writing campaign to Palanned Parenthood and other organizations I generally support as a sex-positive asexual. The term baffals people and I understand.

It bothers me because I feel like the kind of people who often start out thier comments by makign these seemingly harmless and uncontroversial statements, are people whose values I respect. It's hard to find a space where you can say, Yes sex is a natural part of most people's lives; we shouldn't be ashamed of it; the negative association our culture assigns sexuality is infuriating; but that means we should each get to make the decisions for ourselves what role we want for it to play in our lives. This will be different for everyone, and for some it will be no role at all.

Once upon a time there was a podcast called the asexual underground byt he guy who started AVEN. It's not continuous at this point, but you should check out the archive.


pretzelboy said...

I think that the fact that there are so many sex-positive asexuals out there will prove to be helpful in getting sex-positive groups to take asexuality more seriously. From what I've seen of Love from the Asexual Underground (which has been revived--largely as a blog--after being dormant for a long time), real progress is already being made on that front.

Sesshy said...

Saying "all humans are born sexual beings" is like saying "all humans are born with sight". Sight is a fundamental part of experiencing life as a human, but not all humans are born with it. The same could be said of hearing. What is life without music? Yet some are born deaf and live nonetheless. Similarly, sex is a fundamental part of the human experience, especially considering how unique and highly developed human sexuality is compared to any other species. But nonetheless, some people are born asexual.