Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Debates over definitions are debates over ideologies

In Through the looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty tells Alice why unbirthdays should be celebrated:
There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents -- '

`Certainly,' said Alice.

`And only ONE for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'

`I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.

`When _I_ use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master - - that's all.'
In a chapter titled "Queering' Semantics: Definitional struggles," Sally McConnel-Ginet opens by quoting this scene. She then reflects on it stating that they are both partly right:
Alice understands that we can’t make words mean whatever we want them to: there are substantial constraints that arise from past history and from what is involved in trying to mean something. At the same time, there is room for shaping and reshaping word meanings. Humpty dumpty understand that tugs over meaning can be struggles for power. But the stakes go far beyond who wins. Different meaning promote the pursuit of different kinds of social action, cultural values, intellectual inquiry. Meanings, I argue can indeed facilitate mastery in a variety of arenas.” (p. 137-8.)
When asexuals and our allies become well-enough organized for our voices to be taken seriously—not merely to be briefly mentioned as an item on a list, though that would be improvement—but for hegemonic sexualnormativity to be brought under scrutiny, it will be an ideological struggle, and one issue that will need to be addressed head on is the claim that all people are sexual beings.

If someone claims that all people are sexual, it is appropriate to ask why. On what basis do they make this claim? What are their reasons? Why should I accept their authority? If someone wants to maintain this claim even in light of the experience of asexuals, they would need an understanding of sexuality broad enough to include asexuals. But even if they define sexuality broadly enough to include asexuality, on what basis should I accept such a definition? It is a question of power, and it is a question of competing ideologies.

Before exploring how debates over defining sexuality are ideological struggles, I want to use a couple of examples to illustrate how questions of definitions are inseparably connected to ideological questions. The first comes from a recent conversation I had with some friends who, for some reason, became very interested in the question of whether coffee was a fruit or a nut. The problem was that we all had an intuitive sense for what these words mean, but we didn’t have enough technical knowledge to know what they really mean and didn’t know the correct answer. To settle the question one guy decided find out the answer by going to the authoritative source of all knowledge: Wikipedia. (I don’t remember what the answer they found was.) In order for this to be a reliable means of answering the question, there were some basic assumptions that had to be held by everyone involved. The first is that there are "real" definitions for terms like 'fruit' and 'nut.' Moreover, the "real meanings" of these words were not the general, intuitive understandings that we had, but scientific understandings, based on extensive knowledge of plants that none of us possessed but some other people do. This requires that we adhere to a scientific ideology at least enough to recognize scientific authority to speak on certain botanical issues, accepting that the definitions used by the most knowledgeable people are the correct ones. The second assumption was the belief that Wikipeida is (likely) a reliable source for finding these correct meanings. The first assumption is uncontroversial and so people probably don’t even think about it. The second assumption was less of a given, and I imagine that we all knew this (as Professor Wikipedia reminds us.)

My second example is one that I've written a fair amount on: defining asexuality. Suppose one person says that asexuality is not experiencing sexual attraction, and a second person disagrees, saying that people who masturbate can’t possibly be asexual—they should be called autoerotic or autosexual. How is this disagreement to be resolved? They can’t simply go to a dictionary.

One person might cite AVEN’s main page as an authority, but this is only useful if the other person accepts as a valid authority to relay the “real” meaning. (In fact, the definition there isn’t intended to be the authoritative definition but only to act as something of a guidepost, as I have written about in Asexuality: the history of a definition part I and part II.) In this case, going to Wikipedia wouldn’t be any better than going to AVEN—Wikipedia gives the same definition as AVEN (though in a more convoluted way), citing an article that cited

Then the second person responds. To support their claim, they cite a quote from a therapist in an article about asexuality. There, a sex-therapist is paraphrased as saying, "some people who call themselves asexual still masturbate regularly – 'which isn't asexual to me.' Sex therapists would call that auto-erotic - that is, enjoying their sexuality themselves - rather than asexual." Here, there are really two arguments. The first is that since masturbation is clearly a sexual act, people who do it aren't asexual. Secondly, the therapist says that not only her but sex-therapists in general say that such people aren't asexual. Rather they are autoerotic. To accept this we must accept that a.) she is correctly giving the opinion of sex-therapists in general and b.) we should accept the authority of sex therapists to define who is and who isn't asexual.

Person A responds by rejecting these arguments, insisting that what people do or do not do with their genitalia in private has little effect on the social effects of lack of sexual attraction, so it makes a lot of sense to include both people who do and who do not masturbate in the category 'asexual.' Moreover, A argues, people should be allowed to identify how they want, and neither B nor the quoted therapist nor anyone else has the right to say otherwise.

'Asexual,' in its current usage, is a word that was coined by various people at various times for various reasons. Different people are free to use it however they want, though are constrained by how they expect the listeners/readers to understand the term. This constraint is lessened if the person defines what they mean by it in the context of using it. There is no "real meaning" dictated from on high. Whether B’s arguments persuade A or A’s arguments persuade B depends on each person’s belief system. There is no “right” answer, and it is clear that this debate over definitions is an ideological struggle. Accepting the other person’s definition is a matter of accepting a part of their ideological framework.

Keeping this in mind, let’s return to the claim that all people are sexual. The ideological nature of this statement can be seen by considering the enormous difference between the following two statements.

1.) For me personally, it makes sense to think of all people as being sexual beings.
2.) Fact: All humans are sexual beings from the time they are born to the time they die.

While both claimants believe the same thing, the first person is communicating how they think about sexuality, they might be suggesting that others should think that way as well, and they're probably at least hoping that others will be able to respect their view even if they disagree. They are not making any demands on the part of the audience to adhere to the claim. In the second, the writer/speaker is claiming not merely that they believe that all people are sexual beings; they claim to know it. By declaring it to be a fact, they are making a demand upon the audience to adhere to their ideology, and this is often reinforced by the audience's perceived authority of the writer/speaker.

Because this claim is made in educational contexts by people perceived as authorities on the subject of sexuality, it is most likely intended to be understood as being more like the question over the definition of 'fruit' than the definition of 'asexual.' If it is perceived as simply an uncontroversial fact made on the basis of expert knowledge rather than an ideology that often functions to make invisible all people who feel that they aren't sexual, it is more likely to be accepted uncritically. Ideologies are most effective when they are perceived as simply fact rather than as ideology.

The issue I want to consider is whether we should accept this ideology. Saying that all people are sexual beings clearly is not an empirically knowable claim—it is unfalsifiable because pretty much any way of operationally defining sexuality to see if all people are sexual would yield the result that not all people are sexual--unless 'sexual' were defined in such a vague way as to be entirely divorced from what people mean by the term--much like the way Humpty Dumpty used the word 'glory.' The claim does not demand my adherence as someone with a deep respect for science. But scientific ideologies are not the only ones I accept. What about as an ethical claim? As an ethical claim, I find it highly suspect for reasons given in previous posts, and I think that for ethical reasons, it should be rejected. The primary ideological drive for the claim is that thinking of all people as sexual beings is the best way for people to understand their own sexuality and to respect that of others.

I am deeply suspicious of this. My impression from much of the sexological literature that I’ve read is that by insisting that sexuality a fundamental part of being human, it privileges high sexual desire at the expense of low sexual desire. The ultimate question for asexuals is this: for people who claim that all people are sexual being, should asexuals accept their authority to declare what sexuality is and who is sexual. I don't think we should. Asexuality has been ignored by people studying sexuality for a long time. Asexuals consistently appear in the data, and asexuals have been consistently ignored despite this fact. Several years ago, when I spent a fair amount of time reading a (highly respected) human sexuality textbook to try to make sense of my own experience, the message I was given is that people like me do not exist. This did not improve my trust of their authority.

Ultimately, whether asexuals accept the claim that all people are sexual beings comes down to some very practical questions. The people in sexuality education seem to use a "broad" definition of sexuality because that makes sense in their lives. But for asexuals sitting in on their classes, does such a definition make sense of their experiences or does it render them invisible? Does this "broad" definition empower them or does it declare them disordered? Does it validate their experiences? Does it help them think about decisions they have to make regarding relationships, regarding sexulaity, and about their lives more generally?

What happens if some asexual understands perfectly well the "broad" definition of sexuality offered by some sexuality educators, but still feels that they are not sexual? In such a situation, insisting that all humans are sexual beings becomes unavoidably anti-phenomenological. Rather than saying that we should understand the asexual person's experiences on their own terms, it insists on viewing them through a foreign lens--even one they knowingly reject, feeling it doesn't make sense of their own experiences.


McConnell-Ginet, Sally (2002) "'Queering' semantics: Definitional struggles." Language and Sexuality: Contesting Meaning in Theory and Practice ed. by Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, Robert Podesva, Sarah Roberts, and Andrew Wong 136-60, pp. 137-60. Standor, CA: SCLI Publications.

In addition to this, my thoughts have been strongly influenced by another chapter by the same author. (This paper's references is why I found the above chapter.)

McConnell-Ginet, Sally (2008) "Words in the world: How and why meanings can matter" Language vol. 84 no. 3 pp.497-527


Ily said...

This is awesome. I feel like you should put this series together and try to publish it somewhere...

pretzelboy said...

Having finished this series, I'm really not sure what to do with it. (I actually have three more posts, but they're kind of anticlimactic and function more as afterthoughts than anything else. I think I'll space them out a bit more.)

Having developed this argument, I definitely want it to be seen by people actually involved in sexuality education. The question is how to get it into a venue where it would be seen by the people I want to read it. I'm not really sure how to do that.

However, the effort to compile this series is already underway...

Queers United said...

I think it is interesting that you brought up the debate over whether someone who masturbates can be an asexual. I know people who say no and I argue with them on it. I think it goes to show that asexuality like sexuality lies on a continuum. Why is it so hard for people to grasp that nothing is black or white and that we are all shades along one giant line.

pretzelboy said...

The idea that someone who masturbates can be asexual is counterintuitive. To me it's more a practical issue than anything else. Masturbating or not doesn't seem to make a big difference on the social consequences of lack of sexual attraction. And on an even more practical level, I can imagine someone saying "I'm asexual. I'm not interested in sex." I have more difficulty imagining someone saying, "I'm autosexual. I'm not interested in sex. Just jacking off is good enough for me." I think it's largely a matter of trying to see things from other people perspectives--perhaps the most important means for gaining acceptance regardless of what group you're talking about.

Ily said...

Yeah, I'm not sure, either...I guess some research would be in order. I only know one such organization around me, and they're already accepting of asexuality. But having this read by people involved in sex ed does seem like a good and achievable goal.
Not to create more work for you :-)