Friday, September 26, 2008

"Asexual: A person who does not experience sexual attraction." Using a narrow definition

In addition to the drive to broaden the definition of asexuality, there is a simultaneous drive to narrow it. One place that this is seen is in the attempt to distance asexuality from celibacy. People who experience sexual attraction but don’t have sex—whether by choice, preference or lack of opportunity—are not asexual. In defining asexuality as not experiencing sexual attraction, there is, at least in theory, a removal from the category people who do experience sexual attraction.

In reality, this isn’t always what actually happens. According to Scherrer’s recent paper on asexual identity—her data came from answers to open ended questions by people identifying as asexual recruited from AVEN—a large portion of the people explained their asexuality in terms of AVEN’s definition about not experiencing sexual attraction. But not all of them did. At least one person explicitly said that she does experience sexual attraction but has no desire either to have sex or even to do things like cuddling or hand-holding with people. She considers herself asexual and evidently has participated in AVEN enough to volunteer to participate in the study. To me, it makes perfect sense why such a person would want to identify as asexual even though she doesn’t fit the standard (AVEN) definition. She does, however, fit an alternative definition—people who prefer not to have sex—this definition makes sense but isn’t used as much. Another intended function of the self-identification definition of asexuality is that people like this woman feel free to identify as asexual because it makes sense for them to do so even though they don’t actually fit the AVEN definition.

Another place where the definitional narrowing can be seen is in defining an asexual person as “someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction” rather than as “someone who experiences little or no sexual attraction.” My proposal for defining it as the latter really isn’t anything new. In fact, the impact of this definition can be seen throughout the AVEN general FAQ, which uses the terms “little or no sexual attraction” and “low or no sexual attraction” multiple times, and similar language can be found on various other places around the internet. (Kinsey Confidential, for example, has an article on asexuality in their Q&A in which they say, “[Asexuals] may either experience no sexual attraction, or else very low levels of sexual attraction when compared to most other people).

Around the time I was working on my post on defining asexuality, I had thought about proposing on the AVEN forums the idea of changing the definition on the main page to the one I prefer, but then I went to the main page, imagined the change, and decided I didn’t like it. That page needs to have a very clear-cut feel to it—more like a soundbite than a vague, nuanced approach. I recently heard someone talking the US presidential race say, “Nuance loses elections.” The same is likely true for identity politics. Clear cut descriptions of asexuality in the media lack nuance for the same reason that candidates’ presentation of their policies in the media lack nuance: the general public doesn’t like nuance. They like things to be clear cut, unambiguous, black and white. The official definition is intentionally narrowed to make things fit a neat asexual-sexual binary, purposefully ignoring the large gray area that exists between sexual and asexual even though within asexual discourse, people tend to be quite comfortable with fuzziness around the edges.

What strikes me about both of these narrowings of the definition of asexuality is that the main intent of each has to do with presentation of asexuality to those outside the asexual community rather than to those inside—more to do with initial presentation than to do with discussions among those who already have a general understanding. Limiting asexuality to people who don’t experience sexual attraction (or who experience very little) is important for the claim that asexuality is a sexual orientation—it makes the definition of asexuality parallel to definitions of hetero/homo/bisexual orientations—and it attempts to tap into beliefs about acceptance of non-heterosexual people. Making asexuality clear-cut and unambiguous makes for better media presentation.

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently got a chance to talk to David Jay about defining asexuality and he said that choosing to define asexuality as not experiencing sexual attraction rather than experiencing little or no sexual attraction is quite intentional. First, he thought that the sort of dialogue generated by the less vague definition would be more helpful for people—he was afraid that the sort of discussion based on the definition I preferred would focus too much on the vagueness inherent in the definition and less on people trying to better understand themselves. The second reason is that the clear-cut definition functions as strategic essentialism.

This is similar to a point made by Scherrer, in her recently published paper on asexuality. She argues that asexuality has a complex relationship to dominant beliefs about sexual essentialism—it both challenges the view that sexual desire is an innate property of being human and the belief that certain acts are innately sexual, blurring the line between what is sexual and what is not. However, many asexuals define their asexuality in essentialist terms, and even though asexuality challenges essentialist views of sexuality, essentialist presentation is likely to be a useful strategy in legitimating asexuality as it has been for legitimating gay and lesbian identities.

In election politics—and especially presidential elections—rhetoric lacks nuance. We don’t hear candidates saying a lot of things like, “This is a complex issue and there’s quite a lot to be said for some of the alternatives to my stance, and there some genuine concerns about possible unforeseen consequences of it as well.” However, when the election is over and people take office, in order to govern effectively, it is utterly essential for decision makers to have a deep grasp of the complexities and ambiguities of the issues. Politicians need soundbites to win elections, and, once in office, they need them to gain popular support for their decisions and their policies—but I hope that the true rationale for these decisions and policies is a lot more well-thought out than anything that can be summed up in a sentence or two.

A similar point holds for asexual identity politics: even if it is expedient to present things to the public in black and white terms because this will help us gain widespread acceptance, legitimation, and visibility fastest, it is not helpful to do so within the asexual community. Soundbite presentations of asexuality in the public sphere are no more incompatible with nuanced discussions within asexual discourse than political soundbites in press-conferences are incompatible with detailed and complex arguments in conversations between policy makers themselves.

Still, this unnuanced, narrowly defined asexuality presented in the media is not without its dangers. In many media presentations of asexuality, there are “alternative views” presented—generally by sex therapists, sometimes by university professors, who have some rather condescending things to say about asexuality. These are not well received in the asexual community. Asexuals often mock these views as utterly unfounded and blatantly contradicted by the experiences of those in the asexual community. But these critics of asexuality don’t have an insider’s understanding of asexuality; they don’t have the nuanced knowledge of it that people who’ve spent a lot of time reading and participating in asexual discourse have. I’m going to guess that their understanding largely comes from the black and white asexual presentation given in the media—people who know a lot about sexuality are likely to be less easily swayed by soundbites, so I’m not sure how much we can blame them for their skepticism of asexuality. (Granted, I also think that people who don’t know much about the subject shouldn’t be making authoritative pronouncements about it either.)

One criticism of asexuality is that there are some people who feel very little interest in sex but in the right sort of situation find that they can enjoy it or they can learn to enjoy it. Such individuals, some fear, may label themselves asexual when such a labeling may be premature and could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many asexuals scornfully respond to such criticisms, pointing to many asexuals who feel that they have come to understand themselves much better through learning about asexuality—many asexuals who have learned far more about sexuality after identifying as asexual then they ever did before. Moreover, some people who identify as asexual find that they can enjoy some aspects of sexuality, but still consider themselves asexual because they enjoy them in very different ways than their partners do or than what their friends describe (For example, this thread ). These sorts of discussion about asexuality may could potentially go a long way in reassuring some critics of asexuality that there is nothing to fear from us (except, of course, for those who have a vested financial interest in making perfectly healthy people convinced that they’re sick.) However, these sorts of asexual experiences are intentionally removed from standard asexual presentation. Clear cut, unnuanced presentations of asexuality may be the most effective means of convincing the general public of asexual legitimacy, but for some people, it may be precisely the nuance and acceptance of fuzzy boundaries in asexual discourse that would persuade them to accept asexuality as a healthy identity and a part of the normal variation in human sexuality.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

“You’re asexual if you say you’re asexual.” The ultimate attempt at an inclusive definition

Telling someone that they aren't asexual is generally interpreted in one of two ways. It could be understood as a clarification of the definition, in which case it will be perceived as being fairly benign, or it could be interpreted as an attack on part of someone's identity, attempting to delegitimate it, in which case it will be seen as less-than-benign. The fundamental issue is who has the right to define asexuality. Does each person define it for themself? Does the asexual community decide as a whole? Does each person decide for themself based on the general framework set early in the asexual community's history? Does some person—either inside or outside—take it upon themself to define it for everyone and then feel it is their right to enforce that definition?

Perhaps the broadest and most inclusive definition of asexuality is that an asexual is someone who calls themself asexual. This definition prohibits people from enforcing their own personal definition of asexuality on everyone else, and it seems to be a necessary consequence of granting everyone the right to self-identify as they choose. However, this definition has a serious problem: it makes no sense by itself and is mutually incompatible with any other definition.

Suppose I were to invent a new word (and identity) called K'liida: "A K'liida is a person who calls themselves a K'liida." Am I a K'liida? I have no idea, but no one can tell me if I am or not; I have to decide for myself. But I have no clue what it is or why I might want to consider myself one. "An asexual is someone who calls themself asexual" makes more sense than "A K'liida is a person who calls themself a K'liida" precisely because we have another definition of asexual at work that people have to decide if it fits themselves or not. But "An asexual is someone who calls themself asexual" is fundamentally incompatible with any other definition of the term because it gives each person the right to consider themself asexual or not based on whatever definition they want to use. The asexual community has constructed our own definition and hope that others adopt it, but we can't force them to. Moreover, in saying that anyone who calls themself asexual is asexual, (if it is interpreted as absolute) we are giving up the right to tell anyone who rejects our definition but still identifies as asexual that they are wrong.

Asexuals have created their own definition of asexuality. Since language is not static, we can create new words whenever we want, or we can apply new meanings to old words. There is no authority on what the correct meaning is (the dictionary tends to be recognized as an authority, but dictionaries don't limit the words in a language and they can't prevent meanings from changing. The standard dictionaries definitely don't include our definition of asexual.) Meaning is determined by usage, and words are valid if there is a common understanding of the meaning between both speaker and listener (or reader and writer.) If I make up a new word, the only way it becomes a "real word" in the language is if a whole bunch of other people adopt it as well. Asexuals have created a word and are trying to get their definition to stick. So far, quite a bit of progress has been made, but at any time, anyone is free to use the word in a quite different way from how I use it or how I, or anyone else, thinks it should be used.

Another issue is that asexual identity and asexual orientation do not completely coincide. Many asexuals feel that they have always been asexual (orientation), but that the asexual identity didn't develop until later. Some have coined the term on their own, others haven't—and even those who did make it up on their own have probably come to have a much expanded idea of asexuality once they learned about other asexual people. Moreover, some people identify as asexual but then later change their minds, deciding that they weren't asexual after all—rather they simply hadn't understood their own feelings well enough, or hadn't been willing to acknowledge them. So even though they had identified as asexual, retrospectively, they feel that they had been mistaken in this—they called themselves asexual, but they were wrong. This is similar to how some asexual people used to think that they were gay ('cause if you're not straight, that's what most people think you must be), but later decided that they weren't because they were equally unattached to the same sex as they are to the opposite one. (Of course, it is possible to be gay and asexual, or lesbian and asexual because of non-sexual attraction.) Not everyone who is asexual (orientation) calls themself asexual (identity), and not everyone who calls themself asexual (identity) is asexual (orientation.)

Despite all of these theoretical problems with the definition "an asexual is someone who calls themself asexual," these problems don't appear to be particularly important on a practical level. When people come to some asexual site wondering if they are asexual, they are almost certain to come across the "does not experience sexual attraction" definition, which has a good chance of significantly impacting how they think about asexuality and how they choose to identify. Since this has a strong influence on who does and who doesn't choose to call themself asexual, it effects who is in the asexual community, who is active on the forums, and who is involved in other places where asexuality is discussed. For a lot of people, the "does not experience sexual attraction" is part of the reason they identify as asexual, but an even bigger part is that as they read about the experiences of people identifying as asexual, they find something that fits close to their experiences, something they can identify with after such a long time of being bombarded with messages about sexuality that didn't fit with their own feelings and no messages even recognizing that there are people like themselves. Reading about the lives of others identifying as asexual provides a sense of validation for such people, and this has a strong effect on whether some particular person, after finding AVEN or some other asexual site, chooses to identify as asexual or not. Thus, the definition puts selection pressures on who identifies as asexual, who identifies as asexual puts selection pressures on who is active in the generation of asexual discourse, and this puts selection pressures on who subsequently identifies as asexual. Within this context, there will be a strong connection between people who call themselves asexual and people who experience little or no sexual attraction, while at the same time giving each person the right to self-identify as they choose, hopefully without feeling pressured to go one way or the other.

A practical consequence of the definition "an asexual is someone who calls themself asexual" is that it helps shape the direction of asexual discourse. The intent is to push discussion on the forums in certain directions and away from others. People spending time trying to explore their own thoughts and feelings, thinking about their own experiences, trying to better understand themselves—these are the sorts of things that people think about when trying to decide if they are asexual or trying to figure out what being asexual might mean for their lives. People spending time telling others that they can't be asexual, forcing others into narrowly defined asexual molds, arguing about what real asexuality is—these directions aren't as helpful for real people. They seem more about people trying to use a narrowly defined asexuality to inflate their egos than helping people think about their lives.

I recently got a chance to talk to David Jay about definitions of asexuality and his comments were very helpful. He said that in the asexual community, there are two ways of defining an asexual person. "A person who does not experience sexual attraction" is the definition that is primarily intended for people outside the asexual community as a way to introduce asexuality to people. "A person who calls themself asexual" is the definition used inside the asexual community, and these two definitions are framed the way that they are to steer discussions in certain directions and away from others. As I think about these definitions in this way, they make a lot of sense. From a theoretical perspective, I think I've argued effectively that the definition "an asexual is someone who calls themself asexual" has a lot of problems with it. But if we think about it not in terms of theoretical accuracy but practical utility, it makes a lot more sense.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

You're not a real asexual! Resisting pressure for a narrow definition


"No one can tell you if you're asexual or not. You have to decide for yourself." If you've spent much time reading posts on AVEN, the asexuality community on livejournal, or pretty much any other place where people new to asexuality ask others the question "Am I asexual?", you've probably come across various forms of this quote many times. However, if it is taken as absolute, there is no way to say that people who do experience sexual attraction aren't asexual.

In recent posts, I've said that 'asexual' really has two separate meanings--one is a sexual orientation and the other an identity based on that sexual orientation. I've defined the sexual orientation as "a person who experiences little or no sexual attraction," and I've defined the identity as "A person who experiences little or no sexual attraction and calls themself asexual." One implication of this is that it is possible to tell people who do experience non-negligible amounts of sexual attraction that they aren't asexual.

To some extent, this is what is already done. Consider the following Q and A from the AVEN general FAQ: Q: "I find people attractive and I get horny, but I dislike sex and would never do it. Am I asexual?" A: "If you're turned on by other people then you don't fit the definition. Asexuality is about lack of attraction to other people, not about lack of activity." It then goes on to discuss the difference between asexuality and celibacy and suggests the person may find more support from a community designed for celibate people than for asexual people. The next question deals with medical celibacy which it also distinguishes from asexuality (though in a rather peculiar way.)

If this understanding of asexuality requires us to relax somewhat the ban on telling others that they aren't asexual, it makes sense to take a look at the motivation for this prohibition. I've mentioned before that in asexual discourse, there is a simultaneous drive to expand and narrow the definition of asexuality—expand it to include people who don't experience sexual attraction, but feel/do other things generally associated with sexuality; narrow it to exclude people who do experience sexual attraction but, for whatever reason, have chosen not to, prefer not to, or can't have sex. This drive to expand the definition is done in conscious resistance to attempts to narrow the definition of asexuality to people who don't experience sexual attraction and don't (fill in the blank.)

Pressures to narrow the definition of asexuality come from two sources: from those within asexuality and those without. Let's start with pressure from within. One definition of asexuality given on the AVENwiki is nonlibidoism. "A nonlibidoist is a person who does not have a sex drive and has never had one, and hence does not experience sexual urges or desires (and in particular, does not masturbate.) Nonlibidoism is a much more stringent definition than AVEN's standard description of asexuality. A large percentage of asexuals do have sex drives, but still lack any sexual attraction…Some nonlibidoists, such as those at the (now defunct) Official Nonlibidoist Societ, consider that nonlibidoism is the only valid form of asexuality. Due to the popularity of a more inclusive definition of asexuality, the Official Nonlibidoist Society has ceased to use the term 'asexual' for its members, believing that it has 'by now become almost synonymous for solo-sexual [or] masturbator.' " The AVENwiki has a link to an archived version of it. It has one page devoted to What Nonlibidoism is NOT! They exclude people who masturbate and another page insists on excluding people who used to have a sex drive but no longer do, stating that nonlibidoists "were born that way." (A claim that is not found, as far as I know, in the main AVEN static content.) Nonlibidoism functions on the AVENwiki as a foil for AVEN's more inclusive approach. However, I don't know what the motivations were for the founder of the the Official Asexual/Nonlibidoist Society to prefer her more stringent definition to AVEN's.

Within asexual discourse (at least those who have been around a while), there is generally a desire to avoid asexual elitism, not make claims that "I'm a real asexual; you're not." I think the main motivation for avoiding talk of who are 'true' asexuals and who are not is that such claims do not foster a safe space for people to talk about things and try to understand themselves. People who insist that they (unlike others using the term) are real asexuals tend to do so from negative views of sexuality—people who are too close to sexuality are still tainted by it and thus not as "pure" or "true" asexuals as those untainted by nasty sexuality. The intent is to create a "purer" more narrowly defined asexuality, and the means to do it is delegitimizing the asexual identity of those that just aren't asexual enough. This fosters an us vs. them mentality which helps reinforce people's anger and sense of moral superiority, but it doesn't help trying to understand other people's perspectives, encourage critical thinking or self-reflection. However, many asexuals do not possess these sorts of negative views of sexuality and do not want others to either. Additionally, presenting ourselves as having a positive attitude towards sexuality is an important part of legitimating ourselves to nonasexuals. (For example, Apositive's FAQ says that one reason for that website's name is that it reflects, "our feelings towards sex. Orientation notwithstanding, we are sex-positive, or at least sex-double-negative." One blog post on Apositive was titled Why I'm a sex positive asexual.)

There are also pressures to narrow the definition of asexuality from outside the asexual community. Again, the goal is to delegitimize the asexual identities of people who apparently aren't asexual enough, but the motivation is the reverse. Rather than being driven by negative views of sexuality, negative views of asexuality are the primary motivation. Because sexuality is assumed to be a fundamental part of being human—at least for the vast majority of people—asexuality can be ignored if the experiences and identities of a large portion of self-professed asexuals are delegitimated, making 'true' asexuals a small minority in the already small group of people calling themselves asexual. As an example, in an article about asexuality in the New Zealand Herald from a few years back, they included an opposing view (inevitably coming from a sex therapist). They paraphrased her 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." She rejects the identities of asexuals and insists on giving them alternate categorization created by a subsection of the medical establishment. (This isn't the last I'll have to say on that topic.) By rejecting the identities of a large part of asexuals, she feels free to be dismissive of all of them (at least, this is the way it is presented in the article.)

The main goal of telling people who consider themselves asexual that they aren't really asexual is generally an attempt to delegitimize their asexual identities on the grounds that they aren't asexual enough—this can come from anti-sexual perspectives within the asexual community, or it can come from sexualnormative perspectives from without. As a whole, asexuality wants to avoid both of these and allow people to freely identify as asexual if they want to.

Friday, September 12, 2008

new paper on asexuality

Kristin S. Scherrer has recently had an paper on asexuality published that I thought people might be interested in.

Scherrer, Kristin. "Asexual Identity: Negotiating Identity, Negotiating Desire" Sexualities 2008; 11; p. 621 (that's the October issue.)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Defining Asexuality

The most commonly cited definition of asexuality is that an asexual is a person who does not experience sexual attraction. This is the definition given on AVEN’s front page. This is the definition on Wikipedia. Another influential definition is given on the AVENwiki. According to the Collective Identity Model an asexual person is someone who calls themself asexual.

Even though the most commonly cited definition is the “does not experience sexual attraction” model, the collective-identity model is highly influential in asexual discourse. It is the basis of the taboo against telling others that they aren’t asexual, the dictum that “only you can decide if you’re asexual.” It is also the basis of the idea that asexual is just a word people use to understand themselves.

When I first came to identify as asexual and tried to find out as much about asexuality as I could, one thing that bothered me was the fact that there were these two definitions, both highly influential but mutually incompatible, and it seemed that either no one noticed, no one cared, or simply no one bothered to point it out. I think that both definitions have their strengths and their weaknesses. After spending some time looking at each, I want to propose my own model for asexuality that tries to capture what is best with each while avoiding the problem of mutual incompatibility.

An asexual is a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction. This fits well with the idea that asexuality is a sexual orientation. The three more commonly recognized sexual orientations are all defined based on the objects of sexual attraction. Since many asexuals feel that asexuality is their sexual orientation, it makes sense to define asexuality in this way. Another benefit of it is the fact that many asexuals, before learning about asexuality, have a sense that there is definitely something different about them than most of their peers, but they can’t quite put their finger on it. The idea that it’s sexual attraction that they don’t feel fits many people’s experiences and helps them to make sense of what that difficult-to-express difference is. There are two main problems with this definition. The first is that it’s often more useful in theory than in practice. Many asexuals feel/experience/do things associated with sexuality, so figuring out if they don’t experience sexual attraction is difficult and often ambiguous especially since if you’ve never felt sexual attraction, you don’t know what it feels like. The second main problem with it is the fact that there is no clear-cut boundary between sexual and asexual. Asexual discourse readily admits this fact and is generally comfortable with this fuzziness. But this definition is not compatible with it.

Some people report having experienced sexual attraction, but only a handful of times in their lives. Sometimes these people are called “grey A’s” or something like that. I’m not really a fan of this term because it seems to create an asexual elitism and a sense of who’s more asexual than who. According to the main definition of asexuality, these people are not asexual. Thankfully, this implication is generally ignored. In the AVEN general FAQ, one of the questions is, “I've only really been attracted to about three people my entire life, but when I was I wanted to have sex with them. Would I be sexual or asexual?” The answer given is “Sexuality can be fluid, and for some people, sexual inclination may change over a period of time or from person to person. Whether you identify as sexual or asexual is ultimately your choice.” However, I don’t think that this question completely covers the so-called gray As, since, as I understand it, there are people who report experiencing attraction which usually doesn’t involve sexual attraction, but have, on very rare occasion, felt sexual attraction.

The collective identity model takes a different approach. This model is based on self-identification. Rather than focusing on what asexuals lack (sexual attraction), it focuses on what asexuals have in common. “Rather than trying to define a common sexual classification for all asexual people, this model frames asexuality in terms of collective identity. Asexual people have something in common because they have all chosen to actively disidentify with sexuality, a socially dominant framework for thinking about everything from pleasure to attractiveness to intimacy.” We are then asked to consider someone who does not feel sexual attraction but is not made to feel strange on account of this. This person will not feel any need to identify as asexual, and, according to this definition, would not be asexual.

It seems that this model, rather than the “a person who does not experience sexual attraction” definition, forms the basis of the taboo against telling people that they’re not asexual. This model makes some important points. Asexuality is an identity that people form not just on account of lack of sexual attraction, but because of the effects of such a lack within certain cultural contexts. Also it frames asexuality not as something that asexuals all lack but as something that they all have in common—a disidentification with sexuality. By saying that no one can tell anyone else that they aren’t really asexual, it helps to avoid asexual elitism.

However, this model also has some problems. First, I’m not sure that all asexuals do disidentify with sexuality, at least not in the same way. Some asexuals form relationships that fit standard models for such. These people may have sex, and though they tend to attach very different meanings to sex than their partners, I’m not sure how accurate it is to say that they’ve disidentified with sexuality. Another problem with making asexuality a matter of disidentifying with sexuality as a means of thinking about relationships, intimacy etc. is that it makes asexuality indistinguishable from celibacy. Celibate people, in a very real way, have disidentified with sexuality in how they form relationships. Also, if a celibate person who experiences sexual attraction says, “I’ve decided to become asexual” to mean “I’ve decided to become celibate,” this model makes it impossible to say that this person is not asexual. (Nevertheless, the attempt to distinguish asexuality from celibacy is alive and well within asexual discourse.)

Another problem is that if asexual people are people who call themselves asexual, then I became asexual after I found out about it online and decided to identify as such. However, I, like many asexuals, feel that I have always been asexual. The “person who does not feel asexual” definition fits with this feeling. The “person who calls themself asexual” definition does not. I think that this points to the biggest problem with this definition of asexuality—it has no clear way of connecting to the other definition. Consequently, if an asexual is a person who calls themself asexual, the primarily foundation for calling asexuality as a sexual orientation is lost. If an asexual person is someone who calls themself asexual and no one can tell anyone else they aren’t asexual, there is no basis for saying that people who do experience sexual attraction aren’t asexual.

These problems are caused by the fact that the word ‘asexual’ has two distinct meanings: one is a sexual orientation (a person who does not experience sexual attraction) and one is an identity (a person who calls themself asexual.) Asexuality, as an identity, is culturally bound, based not only on a lack of sexual attraction, but on the effects of that lack of sexual attraction in particular cultural contexts. People identify as asexual not because they disidentify with sexuality but because the definition “a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction” and the voices of people who identify as asexual based on that definition speak to their own experience. When I came to identify as asexual, the definition itself didn’t really answer my questions, and the idea of disidentifying with sexuality made me think I wasn’t asexual. I still don’t feel that I disidentify with sexuality. (I have multiple friends from high school who have dated about little as I have, or less, and I’ve never felt that there’s anything odd about not having sex.) Rather, I identify as asexual because it’s the only thing that I find even comes close to fitting my own experience. I feel that if I considered myself hetero/homo/bisexual, it would be sheer self-delusion.

On Apositive, I once wrote a blog post in which I made a framework for dealing with the problem of reconciling these two definitions. I adopted a model for sexual orientation developed by Michael Storms in the late 70’s. Rather than putting heterosexual and homosexual as two ends on a continuum with people being at either end or anywhere in between—a model that could not account for asexual, who were labeled X, as though they were some inexplicable anomaly—Storms put them on two different axes. This made for four categories—hetero/homo/bi/asexual, with asexuals being those low on both heterosexual attraction and homosexual attraction. One prediction of this model is that asexual isn’t simply a single point at the origin, but there is a spectrum between asexual and the other three sexual orientations, with no clear line between them.

We then use this to solve to some of the difficulties in whether or not to identify as asexual mentioned above. The border between sexual and asexual is blurry in two main ways. Some asexuals have felt sexual attraction, but only extraordinarily rarely. There is no clear line to indicate how infrequent it has to be for the person to be asexual. Also, many asexuals feel very different from their peers with regard to sexuality—there are certain things that they don’t feel that it feels like everybody else does, and they are a lot less interested in sex than it seems everybody else is, but they do feel some sexualish things, and it is often unclear what these feelings are. Is it sexual attraction or is it not? Sometimes it’s hard to answer one way or the other. Such people may want to identify as asexual because it is the only term they have found that enables them to make sense of their own feelings and experiences, but they are unsure if they don’t experience sexual attraction, though they do sense strongly that if they do experience sexual attraction, they feel a lot less of it than most. Self-identification solves the problem of where to draw the line between sexual and asexual. Each person who thinks they might be asexual has to decide for themself which side of some arbitrary line to place themself on (or they can choose not to decide if they prefer.) If this model is adopted, the definition of ‘asexual’ needs to be changed from ‘a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction’ to ‘a person who experiences little or no sexual attraction.’ (I’ve heard that this definition used to be used on AVEN and it pops up at a few points in the general FAQ.)

So here is my definition of ‘asexual’: The word ‘asexual’ has two distinct but related meanings. The first is a sexual orientation: Asexuals are people who experience little or no sexual attraction. The second is an identity based on this: Asexuals are people who experience little or no sexual attraction who choose to call themselves asexual.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

What is celibacy?

In order to examine more closely the insistence often made that asexuality is different from celibacy, I want to take a look at some ideas about what asexuality and celibacy are. Whatever the term celibacy assumes, connotes or suggests, it is clear that it definitely involves not having sex. When it is insisted that asexuality is different than celibacy, this much is assumed, and one additional point is made: celibacy (unlike asexuality) is a choice. In my last post, I mentioned a point raised by Eunjung Kim, who is doing research on asexuality: One problem with this attempt to distance asexuality from celibacy is that it seems to assume that only sexual people can be celibate and thus denies the existence of overlap. In trying to think about this, I'm not sure whether to agree, to disagree, or to not quite do either. I realized that I'm not really sure what the word 'celibacy' means. This post is part of my own attempt to sort out my thoughts on this subject.

The most obvious place to start would be the dictionary. According to dictionary.com, celibacy is

1. abstention from sexual relations.
2. abstention by vow from marriage: the celibacy of priests
3. the state of being unmarried.

When I first read the third one, it seemed rather archaic because these days we don't tend to assume unmarried people aren't having sex. After further reflection, it does make some sense. The largest institutionalization of celibacy in the western world is clerical celibacy, and in that case, I think it is just as much a decision not to get married (definition 2) as it is a decision not to have sex (definition 1.) Of course, in practice it sometimes amounts to more not getting married and less not having sex, and some have done better than others at following their vow of celibacy.

With regard to these definitions of celibacy, a comment by Myra Johnson in her chapter "Asexual and Autoerotic Women: Two Invisible Groups" seems appropriate. After briefly looking at dictionary entries for the words celibacy, chastity and virgin, she notes, "These various definitions suggest that people are restrained from sexual relations with others either by physical or psychological damage or by devotion to certain religious tenants. The implication being, of course, that if it were not for these constraints, sexual interaction would occur.” The very concept of celibacy seems to assume some kind of universal sexual desire.

After looking at the dictionary, the next question is how people actually use to word celibacy--in principal, this is what dictionaries are designed to do (ironically, many people think that dictionaries tell us how we should use language--and to a degree they do--but the lexicographers who actually write dictionaries attempt to describe how words are actually used rather than how they feel words should be used.) So I did a google search and looked it up on Wikipedia (which was also the first page the search gave me.)

Google wasn't all that helpful. It mostly has links to pages dealing with clerical and other forms of religious celibacy, though it did have some links to sites dealing with involuntary celibacy as well. Wikipedia was revealing and fits well with my claim that the term is not clearly defined and usages varies rather idiosyncratically. According to Wikipedia:

"Celibacy refers to being unmarried. A vow of celibacy is a promise not to enter into marriage. The term involuntary celibacy has recently appeared to describe a chronic, unwilling state of celibacy. Celibacy is not the same as chastity which refers to an abstinence of sexual intercourse, although it is commonly misused this way. This comes from the idea that being celibate includes being chaste, but they are not at all synonyms."

One thing to note is the internal contradictions in the paragraph. If we link to involuntary celibacy, we find that this is not so much an inability to marry but an inability to acquire a sexual/romantic partner, which, for some people, means that the word 'celibacy' is used to mean precisely what this paragraph says it doesn't mean. Moreover, if you click on the link to "chastity" you will find that they don't use the word at all in the same way as this paragraph. That page notes this usage of the word chastity, but then goes on to use it's historical meaning which was the opposite of sexual immorality. (A few centuries ago, it made perfect sense to call someone who only had sex with their spouse chaste.) Also, the way that 'celibacy' is used in the rest of this article doesn't fit with the definition given. In the list "notable celibates," some of them specify that some individual never had sex--not that they were never married: "Isaac Newton, the mathematician and scientist was a virgin all his life." And in another case, it uses celibate in a way that directly contradicts the definition in the introduction: "Carol Channing, the Broadway musical star of Hello Dolly fame was celibate in her marriage to Charles Lowe for 41 years."

I'm not sure why the people are claiming this meaning for celibacy. The OED defines celibacy in this way, giving only a single definition, "The state of living unmarried," and makes no mention of sex. I'm not entirely sure for the reason of this. I don't know if the meaning has changed over time or if social mores at the time the OED was written caused those lexicographers to avoid mention of sex, or if there is some other reason.

According to answers.com celibacy is " Abstinence from sexual intercourse, especially by reason of religious vows." (They also have a second definition about not being married.) They go on to discuss celibacy in a variety of religious traditions.

One usage of celibacy, however, doesn't fit at all with the definition that includes not getting married. Sometimes people talk about being celibate before marriage. I googled this and similar terms and found that they are used. Also, on the site Celibate Passions, which I referred to in a previous post, one of the categories is "Celibacy until Marriage." I can understand people choosing not to have sex before marriage, but there's not much point in deciding not to get married before marriage.

There is also a use of 'celibacy' that directly challenges asexuality's claim that unlike asexuality, celibacy is a choice. There are people who consider themselves involuntarily celibate, or incel for short. Often these are people who are very shy or didn't really fit in in high school when their peers were figuring out sexuality, or they feel that they just don't have a lot of opportunities to meet potential partners. Denise Donnelley et al., in a study on involuntary celibacy, write, "Certainly, some persons are celibate because they have chosen this lifestyle for religious or personal reasons. Others, however, would like to have sex but lack a willing sexual partner. For them, celibacy is not a choice." In their study, they dived involuntary celibates, recruited online, into three groups: people who have a spouse/partner who doesn't have sex with them, people who have never had sex (and are distressed about this), and people who have had sex but are presently unable to find a partner.

In her book A History of Celibacy , Elizabeth Abbott also uses the word celibacy in a way broad enough to include people who don’t choose to be celibate. “Often celibacy is imposed on unwilling subjects, both male and female: prisoners; nineteenth-century schoolteachers in Russia and Canada; millions of Chinese herded into work camps in the most repressive days of Maoist China; unloved Arab wives doomed to crowded marriages with husbands who love and bed newer favorites; millions of Chinese bachelors condemned to celibate existences because the nation’s ‘one child per family’ policy provoked mass destruction of unvalued female fetuses and infants and created today’s massive gender imbalance” (p. 20.) Abbott also considers eunuchs—both those who willingly and unwillingly became so—celibate. Unlike the dictionary entries, in this use of celibacy, there is no assumption of universal sexual desire.

There is one other use of the word celibacy that I want to mention. I’m not sure what to make of it, but I found it intriguing enough that I felt a need to include it. In the book Evolution’s Rainbow, Joan Roughgarden discusses gender variant people in non-Western societies. One of these are the mahu of Polynesia:

“Gender identity is more important to mahu status than is sexual orientation. In fact, the sexuality of mahu varies. One study reported that male-bodied mahu usually had sex with men, especially young men, yet several had also had long-term relationships with women and were fathers, and still other were celibate. Female-bodied mahu usually had woman as lovers, but many had had male lovers at some time, and others were celibate. This emphasis on gender rather than sexuality resembles that of contemporary American trans people, who express all types of sexual orientation, including celibacy” (p. 340.)

Here Roughgarden uses the term ‘celibacy’ as a sexual orientation. I doubt that it is because she has never heard the term ‘asexual’ to refer to some people’s sexual orientation. I suspect that she either doesn’t like the term or simply prefers the term ‘celibacy’ to ‘asexuality,’ likely favoring the term only in its context of asexual vs. sexual reproduction, which is a very important issue in the first section of her book.

Given the ambiguity that exists in how the word 'celibacy' is used, the next line of evidence I want to consider is the experience of asexual people--particularly ones who don't have sex--and how they feel about whether or not they are celibate.

On the one hand, some asexuals feel that celibacy and asexuality are mutually exclusive. On the blog Glad to be A, the author writes, "I wouldn't consider an asexual person to be celibate. Celibacy is a choice made by a sexual person not to have sex, whereas for an asexual, not having sex is the default position. Some asexuals choose to have sex, for various reasons, but I don't think we really have to choose NOT to have sex, because for us that's the baseline. So I would never describe myself as celibate (maybe some asexual people would, which I respect, but that's not how I personally would use the word)." In addition to this, I think that some of the comments that people have made on some of my recent posts do a good job of explaining the variety of perspectives people have. TheimpossibleK wrote, "I'd always considered myself celibate." Ily seemed more hesitant to consider herself celibate because of associations that she has come to associate with the term, "When I think of 'celibacy', it seems like something with a goal in mind. Every self-proclaimed celibate person I've met was doing it to achieve greater clarity, self-sufficiency, or something like that. I definitely have goals related to asexuality, but I can't decide whether that's the same thing or not." Grasexuality wrote, " I have always considered asexuals who have made the decision not to have sex celibate as well....I can see why people would want to make it clear that they are, rather than actively refusing to have sex, simply passively uninterested, but that implies that they are open to the possibility of having sex, if an acceptable situation were ever to fall into their lap. If they are asexual and also completely refuse to ever try it, then to my way of thinking, they are celibate as well. I don't see it as a contradiction because I don't think celibacy implies anything whatsoever about a person's level of desire/attraction; it's purely about making a decision." One of the main issues at stake is whether celibacy is about not having sex or a decision not to have sex.

Up to this point, I've been trying to look at different perspectives on the subject, but I feel that I shouldn't pretend that I am merely some sort of outside observer looking on. I am myself asexual and I feel that I should discuss my own feelings on the matter. The difficulty is that I'm not sure what to think. All of the positions that I've looked at so far seem perfectly reasonable to me. I'll start with my own conclusions about the matter and then move to my feelings.

I don't think the question of whether celibacy is about not having sex or a (lived out) decision not to have sex is answerable in that form. Framing the question this way assumes that the term is less ambiguous than it really is. Celibacy is about not having sex, but whatever else it may or may not involve is subject to a good deal of idiosyncratic variation and differences depending on context. In light of all of this, the definition that makes most sense to me that that celibacy is about not having sex, and, depending on context, may suggest other things as well (decision, restrain of desire, or even sexual preference, etc.) As such it makes sense to consider asexuals who don't have sex celibate, and issues of whether or not they have made a conscious decision not to have sex, while important to the person, and less important in whether it makes sense to call the person celibate.

On a personal level, this isn't where my own feelings are. I've have felt hesitant to call myself celibate, even in my own thoughts, because it suggests a sense of decision. But I don't think of myself as not having sex because of any decision. It is more of a lack of situations in which I a) could have sex b) would want to have sex. I have no opportunities, and I don't feel any real desire to change that. To me, it's similar to the fact that I've never gone sky diving. I don't feel any desire to do so, but I don't feel any strong aversion either. I have no opportunities and I feel no burning desire to try it that would make me seek out opportunities to go sky diving. So as long as no opportunities in which I would want to try out skydiving happen to arise without my intending it, I will continue to not go skydiving.

So my personal feelings are somewhat at odds with my beliefs. Since this belief is a fairly new development, I am becoming more comfortable with the idea. I have a feeling that over time I will come to feel more comfortable thinking of myself as celibate. Since many asexuals feel they aren't having sex simply by default rather than any conscious choice, it does not make sense to think of these asexuals as voluntarily celibate. Nor does it make sense to think of them as involuntarily celibate since that suggests their not having sex goes against what they want. So I propose two new terms, acknowledging their limitations, especially that it only fits unpartnered asexuals and some of them better than others: indifferently celibate, celibate by default.