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.

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