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"?