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"?