Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A textbook for sex educators says all people are sexual beings

Perhaps the longest explanation that I’ve found of what is “meant” by claiming that all people are sexual beings comes from a textbook for sex educators. The title of the book is Sexuality Education: Theory and Practice. (The link is for the fifth edition. However, I will be citing the second edition (1989) because that’s the copy I was able to check out from the library.) In the first chapter, one of the main points that they emphasize is that all people are sexual beings at all stages of life.
Traditionally, human sexuality, if thought about at all, has been thought to have to do with participating in intercourse or some other sexual act, and references to sexuality have been cloaked in negative terminology. Traditional concepts imply that people participate in sexual behavior only on occasion (sometimes only when apparently forced), but at other times are fundamentally asexual beings. This amounts to the view that although individuals participate in sexual acts, sexuality does not otherwise exist as part of individuals’ personalities (p. 3-4)
I have absolutely no idea who these people are who hold these “traditional” views of sexuality. I’ve never of heard anyone who asserted this, and I doubt any serious historian would make such an unfounded claim about some amorphous unidentifiable “traditional” belief, as though beliefs about sexuality used to be homogeneous. But they aren’t historians. Their purpose isn't to inform people about the past. It's to push their own ideological agenda.

This argument is a strawman designed as a foil to their own views in order to establish them. Like many strawman arguments, it depends on another logical fallacy: the false dichotomy. The assumption is that either we take this (totally untenable) “traditional” position, or we take the “total view of human sexuality” that they hold. Since clearly we should reject the former, we MUST accept the latter. Also, “narrow views” of sexuality are condemned by association with “negative views” of sexuality even though it is perfectly possible to think of sexuality in narrow terms without thinking it sinful, dirty, or bad. (And the term “apparently forced” is just plain scary. Fortunately, it is no longer found in the most recent edition.
In this book we take a broad view of human sexuality and define it as part of the total personality and thus basic to human health and well-being. This type of comprehensive view of sexuality assumes that many factors in the human makeup interact to create and individual’s sexuality. (p. 5.)

A recognition that we are all sexual beings also contributes to positive interpersonal relationships. As we grow up, we do not realize that our parents, teachers, relatives, and everyone else around us are sexual beings. This of course does not mean they are performing sexual acts at every opportunity, but it does mean they all have sexual feelings and characteristics (p.7)
By taking such a broad view of human sexuality, it is unclear if the statement all people are sexual being is asserting anything at all. Nevertheless, they go on to claim that it does mean that all people have sexual feelings. Unless “sexual” is understood so broadly that “sexual feelings” is coextensive with feelings (in which case “sexual” means nothing and it totally divorced from how actual people understand the term,) the claim is simply false. Here, the claim that all people are sexual beings does function to deny the existence of many of the people now being called asexual. In asserting that all people are sexual beings, the authors make a conscious effort to render asexuals invisible. Also, I am skeptical that adopting their view of sexuality has the causal relationship that they claim it does.

Another point that bothers me is the claim that since sexuality is fundamental part of being human, sexual health is a fundamental part of being healthy. This is another kind of claim that I find deeply troubling, largely because for the life of me, I have no idea what it means, but I know that it functions to make high sexual desire normative. Are they saying that being sexually active is necessary to being healthy? Or that wanting to have sex is necessary to sexual health, and thus fundamental to overall health? They will probably deny this, but if they do, then it is difficult to see how "sexual dysfunction" can be seen as being detrimental to sexual health and thus a public health issue. I know that I am stepping on toes here, but I also think that these are issues that need to be addressed. Such claims allow addressing sexual issues from a medical standpoint possible and more "normal," allowing doctors to help people have the kinds of sexual experiences that they want. On the other hand, such claims are also fundamental for the medicilization of sexuality and the pathologization of "abnormally" low levels of sexual desire (which includes about 39% of American women who participated in a recent study, making it a rather atypical understanding of atypical.)
Perhaps you already knowthat all people are sexual beings at all ages…Actually, if you were paying attention earlier in this chapter, you realized that human sexuality is so broad that it is impossible for anyone to be an asexual being at any point unless he or she stops breathing. The idea of an absence of sexuality is similar to the idea that a person has an absence of personality. You may feel that a given person has a poor personality, but that individual still has a personality of some kind. Just as people have personalities from the time of birth, they are sexual beings at all ages and states of development (p.8 empahsis mine.).
People who don’t experience sexual attraction aren’t “asexual.” They’re just boring!!!

A few things stand out. First, note the italics. These claims are not merely their views. They are facts. Also, the analogy between not having a personality and not having sexuality is interesting. They make it to defend the claim against the fact that it is both unfalsifiable and meaningless. However, it’s not a very good analogy. A person can’t be without personality because personality is about being a person and the way a particular person acts, behaves, feels as a person. You can’t be a person and not be a person. That’s simply a tautology. However, claiming that all people are sexual is something quite different that claiming that all people are people and is far less tautological. If sexuality is understood as broadly as they want it to be, the claim no one could be asexual unless they stopped breathing would be vacuous and wouldn’t be worth saying and wouldn't permit the implication that all people have sexual feelings. And when they made the analogy between people not interested in sex and people with “poor personalities”, I'll bet they didn’t consult anyone thus characterized to see what they thought about that sentence.

In my next post, I will examine another function of the claim that all people are sexual beings: communicating the message that sexual desires are a natural part of being human.


Anonymous said...

Wow, that paragraph about asexuality is a doozie. On top of inexplicably feeling the need to assert that people can't possibly be asexual at any given time as long as they are breathing, they had to go and compare us to people with poor personalities (I guess that means we're just poor sexuals?). Ouch.

Great job on this series so far, by the way. I've really enjoyed reading it.

pretzelboy said...

That's how I read it. I think that a big part of the problem is that a lot of people involved in (politically left-leaning) sexuality education seem to be functioning in an echo chamber of sorts. They have plenty of critics, but most of those critics are their political opponents. The insistence that all people are sexual seems to be something of a dogmatic creed asserted in spite of all evidence to the contrary, and no one that (left-leaning) sex educations are listening to is seriously challenging it. Slowly I think this is changing as asexuality is being taken more seriously by at least some people.