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.

1 comment:

Mr. PC said...

I tend to have a relatively high tolerance for things, but writing about Male-female sexual interactions definitely pushes the line.

Off-topic, I'd like to imagine that in the 21st century, any broad statement labeling a group like that is inappropriate. How about women being considered as a plural form for woman, and a woman can be many different things.

Actually what irked me most here was the term 'natural state'; I hear this used often in modern lingo, if not referring to female asexuality. Why do people have 'natural' and 'unnatural' states; we are animals and as such anything we do should be considered 'natural'.