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.


Cerberus said...

Hmm, yeah, it's problematic. On the one hand, I can understand the reason for the language. A lot of the discrimination PP face is because of right-wing language that tries to deny the sexuality of all young people as if everyone is asexual until the magic age of 18 and thus don't need sexual education or protection.

But on the other, it openly denies the reality of asexuals who may come to approach PP for resources on their problems because PP is a well-recognized sexuality resource center. That can have distinct problems especially for asexual women who may be under pressure to engage in painful sexual assault or reluctant sex without resources confirming and validating what they feel. And since I know PP is very much opposed to such, I know that they'd be appalled to learn they were contributing.

But yeah, it's also hard because of the definition and the awkward phrasing. Does it mean that asexuals lack bodies and values? Is it stating the universality that anyone no matter how asexual can still be seen as a sexual body and can be attacked as such (meaning that asexuals still need to be fully educated on all of the sexual ins and outs in order to escape bad situations or recover after them)?

The first is a flat-out no, but the second however is something we asexuals should remember. We're not exempt and ignorance can get us in bad situations. It was certainly the case for my own minor sexual assault.

But yeah, I can appreciate the difficulty. Hopefully PP can come up with a solution that emphasizes the right to say no more clearly which is something important to all people sexual and aseuxal alike.

pretzelboy said...

Hi, Cerberus! Thanks for the comment. You raise some important points I hadn't thought of.

I agree that is important for asexuals to be educated on sexuality enough to know how to protect themselves. Also, including information on asexuality would help asexuals to say no to pressure to engage in activities they don't want to engage in--and this is important for a lot more people than just asexuals.

On the other hand, saying that all people are sexual bodies and saying that all people have the potential as being viewed as sexual bodies are very different. Lesbians have as much reason to know how to protect themselves as straight women because it is possible for them to be viewed as heterosexual bodies. This doesn't mean that they are heterosexual.

Also, I definitely agree that PP is in a difficult situation here, but I'm not sure that they really need to fight against the belief that adolescents are asexual. My own background is Evangelical I can say quite confidently that I was told many times to save sex for marriage, but there was no message that teenagers are asexual. In one of my stranger posts, I wrote about how the messages that I received about sexuality were very alienating. This characterization of conservatives is a strawman, and like most strawmen is something of a double edged sword. On the one hand, it solidifies the opinions those that already agree, often further emboldening them to action (though discouraging them from actually understanding people they disagree with.) On the other hand, it alienates moderates that disagree but could be persuaded with certain arguments. Strawmen communicate to moderates that the reason people disagree with them is that they haven't even attempted to understand their position. I don't mean to disagree to strongly--it's just that srawman arguments happen to be a pet peeve of mine.

Cerberus said...

Sorry I spoke poorly. Conservatives don't really believe children are asexual, but definitely act like they believe that they are. They do this in the assumptions that teenage sexuality is something easily set aside for sexuals and can be successfully "resisted" against to such a degree that protection or education about what you are resisting are not needed.

I could probably go on about the oddness of the Evangelical two-step as you could because it is an interesting phenomenon. It's reality is likely a complex attempt to enforce specific gender roles and deny the sexuality of women, while enforcing the sexuality of men. It's a fascinating species, especially in it's claims.

But, yeah, back to your point, I definitely agree that they shouldn't deny reality for political expedience. What makes and keeps PP as the good guys in the fight is that they always come from the side of the medical and psychological reality of what is rather than what we imagine. This means that they must recognize asexuals and reinforce how we are all "seen as sexual", but only most sexual.

I don't envy PP in addressing this problem, because I can definitely see Abstinence Only types using it as proof that they've "defeated" PP's "sex-pushing", but still they try and lump them in with the evil gays, blah, blah, blah.

But then, that would happen no matter what. So, yeah, PP needs to change their pamphlets.

Oh and condolences in escaping that background. I have a number of friends recovering from it and it really does a number on your ability to assess your sexuality and live a life true to who you are. *HUG*

Cerberus said...

Actually reading the post you reference, I've found the word to describe it. It's the assumption that children are sexually blank until such a time as they realize sex exists or perform it.

In other words, what you were referencing, that asexual repression of assuming that once you were married and had sex, sexual attraction would follow.

Basically that sexual attraction and appetite are built-up, rather than in-born. That sexuality happens to you through education (see anti-gay panic about "gayness" being taught to children as a recruitment tool) rather than a natural consequence of being born in a sexually-reproducing sexually-dysmorphic species.

But again, this viewpoint seems impossible to believe on its face considering that any sexual felt the stirrings long before they knew what it meant in all but the most liberal of households (even my incredibly supportive liberal parents didn't do the birds and bees talk until post-puberty (for all that it mattered)).

By the way, I like your word asexual repression. It really gets to crux of the problem that for meaningful self-understanding of sexuality, you need to understand both what you are genuinely attracted to as well as that which you are genuinely not.

Even at it's most basic, we've all been steered by cultural assumptions (how many asexuals attempted to date opposite sex before same sex regardless of emotional attraction to "test" their sexual attraction).

Ok, i'll stop derailing your thread. Sorry.

pretzelboy said...

I don't regret my Evangelical upbringing. There are some psycho conservatives out there, but the ones I grew up with by-and-large weren't them. They were conservative and, contrary to many stereotypes, perfectly capable of rational thought. (At least, many of them were and are, but you can find dumb people of all religious and political affiliations.) We knew about the psycho-conservatives, but wanted to distance ourselves from them. There are quite a lot of people I knew from my childhood that I continue to have a lot of respect for.

One rather curious thing is that a lot of conservatives, from what I've experienced, try hard to emphasize what a positive view of sexuality they have. (Here's an interesting example from a recent NYTimes article.) They seem to have incorporated a good deal of the sexualnormativity that sex-positivism has created (though with a very different flavor), and taking asexuality seriously will require some serious reconsideration of things across the political spectrum.

I do expect, however, the more left-leaning side of things to be quicker to incorporate asexuality into their educational materials. At the individual level, however, political leaning doesn't seem to be very useful for prediction how accepting of asexuality someone will be.

snoutsparkle said...

Personally, I've come to frame a lot of my activist goals not in terms of equality per se (for example) but in terms of promoting a world in which the worth, beauty, and sacredness of *all* individuals is recognized and affirmed, regardless of sex/gender identity, a/sexual orientation, race, class, nation, etc., and in which people within and across the boundaries of those categories have agency and autonomy in living out the life they choose for themselves. Broad and idealistic, I know. :) But I think that if that type of an idea were more commonly expressed in progressive activism, some conceptual and political pitfalls might be avoided.

PP could frame their claims about people's "sexual orientation, gender identity, bodies, values, life, love, feelings, attitudes, etc." as crucial areas to consider, but as interconnected not by some essential sexuality to all human beings -- whatever that might mean -- but by some intrinsic worth to the person who has/experiences them and by the push towards respecting each person's autonomy in those areas and just generally respecting them.

What do you think?

pretzelboy said...

Hi snoutsparkle! You raise an important point that I've avoided so far. It's easy enough to criticize the way PP or similar organizations explain sexuality. I think it is important to do so in order to affirm the worth of every person. What is a lot harder is finding a good alternative. I think that they want to say all people are sexual being to affirm each person's unique sexuality. The problem is that precisely in doing so, they do the opposite for many asexuals. I'm not really sure how I would want them to explain things though. I certainly don't like replacing 'all' with 'most' because of problems inherent in saying who is and who isn't sexual raised in my last two posts.

On the other hand, if sexuality educators decide to abandon the claim that all people are sexual, I figure that they know a lot more about the subject and would be a lot better than me at figuring out a replacement. I like the idea of saying that various things are crucial areas to consider. Maybe something like, "Sexuality is an area that we all have to make decisions about" or something vaguely in that direction might work. If asexuality is taken seriously, the whole page I quoted would have to be scrapped because it assumes the essential connection of all of these things to sexuality.

Cerberus said...

What about:

Sexuality is something that effects everyone.

Universal language while acknowledging the existence of the sexuality of lacking sexuality. Also, they should include us with a quick paragraph on the sexuality pamphlets and include us in the possible sexualities.

On a personal note, I'd love to see more literature on informed consent and the right to say no. I've been creating and distributing my own pamphlets after a project a year or so ago, but I'd like to see more formal organizations putting out more on the subject.

pretzelboy said...

Sexuality is something that effects everyone. That raises another interesting (and related) question. When we're talking about sexuality in this context, are we thinking of sexuality primarily as being something internal to an individual (as the PP quote I've given treats it) or do we think of it primarily as a social structure and thus largely external to any particular individual?

Cerberus said...

Hmm, maybe:

Everyone has a sexuality.

And just including us in the list of sexualities.

Ily said...

Have you thought about sending this (or something like it) to Planned Parenthood? Maybe if they knew about asexuality, they'd include it somewhere?

pretzelboy said...

That's a question I've thought about but am not really sure what to do at this point. I'm developing a complex and extended argument (in 17 parts) that challenges a fundamental part of a lot of sex education today. In order to be taken seriously, a major issue is how to get these arguments to be read by the right people. (And even then, I have no idea how people would react to them.) If I were a Planned Parenthood and some random blogger told me that they should change this fundamental part of how they've done things, I would ignore them. Another issue is timing. This was part 11, and there are 6 more, though the climax is number 14.)

Also, I think I recall DJ mentioned (maybe on a podcast somewhere?) that a while back he emailed them trying to get them to change that part an account of asexuality. They didn't.