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.


The Impossible K said...

Thanks for researching this! I've tried to explain this to a friend before, but I don't think it was nearly as well-thought out. The info on same-sex physical vs. emotional attraction was really interesting too... More proof that sexuality is too complex to codify in either/or statements.

Isaac said...

I've found a scanned copy of the paper What Does Sexual Orientation Orient? hosted in the webpage of the author.

pretzelboy said...

Thanks Isaac! I've edited the post to include the link. I guess I just hadn't searched hard enough.

pretzelboy said...

the impossible k, I've recently been reading Diamond's book "Sexual Fluidity" and one thing that has really surprised me is that even though it isn't about asexuality at all, a lot of what is says is surprisingly relevant. For example, she raises the question, "What is sexual attraction?" She asked people what they meant when they said they were physically attracted to someone what they meant, and she got a lot of different answers.