Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Are all people sexual? Three options

If we take asexuality seriously and accept it as legitimate, there the three general ways to answer the question, “Are all people sexual beings?” No, Yes and Huh? In this post, I’m going to give a general outline of each of these three options. In later posts, I will try to explore each one in more depth.

No. Many asexuals have a strong sense that they are not sexual. They take a look at sexuality as they see it around themselves and say “This is not me.” Taking this in combination with the fact that ‘sexuals’ and ‘sexual people’ are terms for the out-group, statements like “all humans are sexual beings,” are often understood to limit humanity to the out-group, functionally telling asexuals that they are non-human or sub-human. Or such statements are interpreted as meaning, “I know you’re deepest, inmost thoughts and feelings better than you do. If you understood your own feelings, you would realize that you really are just like everyone else (i.e. 'normal' people.)"

However, if we answer the question based on the intuition of asexuals who strongly feel that they are not sexual, this is not without its difficulties. One of the biggest is that it has some very counterintuitive implications. Things like attraction, falling in love, masturbation, sexual fantasies, etc. are seen as inseparably connected with sexuality. Given that some asexuals experience/do one or more of the above, calling such people “asexual” makes little sense to some. In order to maintain the view that people who feel/do these can be asexual, it is necessary to explain how such activities/feelings can be “not sexual.”

Yes. Rather than saying that asexuals are not sexual, “sexual” is understood in a way broad enough to include people who don’t experience sexual attraction, people who prefer not to have sex, etc. There are some asexuals who are comfortable with this option. It would require divorcing asexuality from its etymological meaning of ‘not sexual,’ but the term would still be used because no one can think of a better one. Having a term is empowering and very useful for creating asexual discourse.

This option faces two major challenges. The first is figuring out how to (re)define sexuality in a broad enough way so that it includes asexuals without denying, ignoring or marginalizing their experiences. Second, this option has to justify why exactly we would want to do so and what the point of insisting that all people are sexual beings is.

Huh? This option doubts that the claim "All people are sexual beings" is even a meaningful one. If such a broad view of sexuality is taken that it includes the full range of the experiences of people, including asexual people, is anything even worth saying? Especially considering how such statements are supposed to be bold and daring ones that are fundamental to how we think about sexuality, not vague, weak ones that say virtually nothing at all? Moreover, if the enormous variation in how sexuality is thought about from culture to cultural and even person to person within a culture is taken seriously, can the claim that all people are sexual beings be maintained? Or does such a claim commit gross anachronism (and whatever the synchronic equivalent is)? Do such claims privilege the experiences of the claimants and those like them at the expense of experiences of people that don’t fit the hegemonic ideology of sexual-normativity?

Next time, I will start with exploring “No” and how to deal with its major problems.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Are all people sexual? Introduction

One claim often made in discourses about sexuality is that all people are sexual beings. It seems especially common in the context of sex education. There slight variations in wording, and sometimes phrases are added like “at all ages” or “from birth until death” to emphasize the point. A few quick google searches will find you plenty of examples.

Planned Parenthood says, “All people are sexual beings from birth to death.” They say that their organization “works to ensure that sexuality is understood as an essential, lifelong aspect of being human.”

A doctor writing on MSNBC gives advice to a mother about how to talk to her daughter about sexuality: “All humans are sexual beings who have sexual feelings. Sex is a normal part of life.”

This past summer, I took my university’s class on human sexuality. Our textbook opens, “Being sexual is an essential part of being human.”

The fact that there are some people going around calling themselves asexual raises serious questions concerning this.

In Erwin J. Haeberle’s Critical Dictionary of Sexology, we find the following definition:

asexual. (adj.) Non-sexual; without sex. Generally speaking, the term should not be applied to a person, since every man and woman is a sexual being. However, there are some individuals who, in their entire lives, never show any interest in sexual activity. In these very few cases, the term could be a suitable characterization of their personalities…

[Note: Since writing this post in 2008, Haeberle has updated the entries for "asexual" and "asexuality."]

In one article on asexuality,* Eli Coleman, director of the program in human sexuality at University of Minnesota, said that he thinks more effort should be put into looking at the question of whether asexuality is a sexual orientation. "In a sense, asexuality defies one of the basic tenets of sexuality: That we are all sexual beings. Some people may not have much of a sexual drive. But does that make it an orientation? It’s a very interesting question worthy of investigation."

If asexuality is taken seriously in discourses on sexuality—especially ones in which sexuality is stressed as being an essential, fundamental part of being human—there is a question that needs to be addressed. “Are all humans sexual beings?” If asexuality is accepted as legitimate, there are three main ways to answer the question. 1.) No. 2.) Yes. 3.) Huh?

In this series of posts, I hope to try to think through some of these issues. I personally lean in favor of number 3. Next time I’ll take a brief look at these three options.

*Melby, Todd “Asexuality gets more attention, but is it a sexual orientation?” Contemporary Sexuality. November 2005. vol 39, No. 11.

Edit: Since writing this, an entry for asexuality" has been added to the Critical Dictionary of Sexology.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Research on asexuality

An expanded list can be found on the page Exising Research on Asexual Explorations the website.

I am sometimes interested in seeing what searches people use to find my blog, and I’ve noticed that one of the most common is from people looking for the article “Asexual and Autoerotic Women: Two Invisible Groups” by Myra T. Johnson published in 1977. (I hadn't expected this to a common search for finding my site.) Because of this, I thought that I would post something to people some time in trying to find it. And while I’m at it, I figured that I would post a list of published materials on asexuality along with some thoughts on them and information on how to get a hold of them. (I had already been working on this list.) Hopefully this will be useful to anyone doing research on asexuality, whether to publish something, or to do something for a class, or simply out of curiosity--It was largely my own curiosity that caused to me find most of it. I realize that there are places (like the AVEN wiki) that have pages for this, but I don’t feel comfortable opining on wikis, whereas I have absolutely no qualms about doing so on my blog.

Papers on asexuality
1.) Johnson, Myra. (1977) "Asexual and Autoerotic Women: Two invisible groups." in ed. Gorchros H.L. and Gochros J.S. The Sexually Oppressed. New York: Associated Press.

This is the first known publication on asexuality. Asexuality is defined a little differently than in modern usage. She distinguishes autoerotic women (women who masturbate but don’t desire sex) from asexual women (women with desire from neither.) In current usage, both of these groups are contained under the term “asexual.” Also, she defines asexuality in terms of sexual preference rather than sexual attraction or asexual self-identification. Her data come from letters to the editor in women’s magazines in the 1970’s. Even though this chapter is almost 30 years old, it remains one of the best discussions of the topic that exists. The book may be a little hard to get a hold of, but should be available via interlibrary loan or something. At my university, it is kept in off-site storage. There is a (low-quality) PDF version available if you know who to email, but you can’t find it via a search engine. (Joining Apositive or PMing someone on AVEN would be a good idea.)

2.) Bogaert A.F. (2004) Asexuality: Its Prevalence and Associated Factors in a National Probability Sample. The Journal of Sex Research, 41, 279-287

After the Johnson chapter, the next academic publication on asexuality did not appear for another quarter of a century. (Rather ironic if we consider the title of Johnson’s piece.) Data came from a 1994 probability sample done in the UK that gave several options for sexual orientation, including “I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all.” This study does a series of regressions using the respondents who chose this answer. There are significant methodological shortcomings, but the author does a good job discussing them. This paper is available online by clicking the above link.

3.) Bogaert A.F. (2006) Toward a Conceptual Understanding of Asexuality. Review of General Psychology, Vol. 10, No. 3. pp.241-250

After publishing the above quantitative paper, Bogaert published another discussing how to conceptualize asexuality. He has some important things to say, and my only real criticism of it is the section on defining asexuality—this section is primarily based on his own speculation of what he thinks asexuals would be like rather than actual knowledge of people who report not experiencing sexual attraction. I was able to download this with my university library account.

4.) Prause, Nicole & Cynthia Graham (2007) Asexuality: Classification and Clarification. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 36 p.341-35

This paper was designed to be an exploratory study on people who identify as asexual. They did two studies—one was a qualitative study and the other was a quantitative one. The only thing that worries me is that some readers will use the qualitative study (n=4) to construct an image of “the asexual," taking these four as prototypical of asexuals more generally. The quant. section leaves much to be desired, though it was simply designed merely to be an exploratory study.

5.) Scherrer, Kristin (2008). "Asexual Identity: Negotiating Identity, Negotiating Desire" Sexualities 2008; 11; p. 621

Participants were recruited from AVEN and asked to fill out an open ended questionnaire. The focus is on asexual identity, and this qualitative study was based on a much larger sample size than the one used in Prause and Graham (2007). (n=102 people rather than n=4.)

Some other published literature dealing with asexuality
5.) Storms, M. D. (1978) "Sexual Orientation and Self-Perception" in P. Pliner K. R. Blankenstein and I.M. Spigel (Eds), Advances in the Study of Communication and Affect vol. 5 Perception of Emotion in Self and Others. New York. Plenum

6.) Storms M. D. (1980) "Theories of Sexual Orientation." Journal or Personality and Social Psychology 1980, 38, 783-792

7.) Stein, Edward "The Mismeasure of Desire: the Science, Theory, and Ethics of Sexual Orientation." Oxford University Press. 1999

Storms argued for a model of sexual orientation that includes asexuality in two papers published a while ago. Both papers are fairly similar and are based on the same study. Stein gives a slightly expanded argument for that model in chapter two of his book. The 1979 paper may be a little difficult to get a hold of (I had to go to a dark and scary part of the library to get a book that hadn’t been checked out in over a decade), but the main parts are repeated in the 1980 paper as well as in Stein. (I was able to download Storms 80 with my university account. Stein’s book shouldn’t be too hard to find in a library.) Also, Storms defined asexuality in terms of (low/lack of) sexual attraction and sexual fantasies towards/about males or females.

A couple conference papers

Poston, D. L. and Baumle, A. K. , 2006-08-11 "Patterns of Asexuality in the United States" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Montreal Convention Center, Montreal, Quebec, Canada Online
This is available online
Methodologically, the quantitative section was really lousy. The discussion before the quantitative section, however, may be of interest.

Other
There are a few other papers that mention asexuality, but will be of less interest.

Nurius, Paula S. "Mental Health Implications of Sexual Orientation." The Journal of Sex Research" Vol. 19, NO 2 pp. 119-136.

This is one of the few attempts to use a 2-dimensional model for sexual orientation. Asexuality is defined in terms of sexual preference (at the time of taking the survey.)

Lever, Janet et. al "Behavior Patterns and Sexual Identity in Bisexual Males" Journal of Sex Research Vol 29. #2 May 1992 p.141-167

In their data, there were some people who wrote asexual (as a write in?) as their sexual orientations. The author decided to remove them from the study.

Andres-Hyman, Raquel, et al. "Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation as PTSD Mitigators in Child Sexual Abuse Survivors" Journal of Family Violence, vol 19, no. 5 October 2004

They included asexual as a possible sexual orientation (They define asexual in terms of self-identification.)

Berkey, B. R., Perelman-Hall, T., & Kurdek, L. A. (1990). The multidimensional scale of sexuality. Journal of Homosexuality, 19, 67-87.

They include asexuality in their list of orientations, but define it as not experiencing sexual attraction to males or females, not falling in love with males or females, and not having sex with males or females. No one in their study qualified as asexual, which they, bizarrely, attributed to asexuality being “rare” rather than the fact that they recruited people for their study based on their sexual orientations. (To back up their claim that asexuality is rare, they cite a human sexuality textbook by Masters, Johnson, and Kolodny, though I wasn't able to find in that book what they were referring to. I do hate it when journal articles cite books without using page numbers.)

Ingudomnukul, Erin, Simon Baron-Cohen, Sally Wheelwright and Rebecca Knickmeyer. Elevated rates of testosterone-related disorders in women with autism spectrum conditions. Hormones and Behavior. Vol 5. Issue 51 May 2007. pp.597-604.

Part of this study involved sexual orientation of women with austism spectrum conditions and asexual was an option. A rather large portion of the women chose "asexual" though how this should be interpreted is unclear.

I was able to download all of these though my university account except for the Multidimensional Scale of Sexuality, which also required a trip to a scary, dark part of the library. Also, you can take the multidimensional scale of sexuality as an online test, which seems to use the same questions (and hence, it is possible to see how they define asexuality. (Evidently, it can also be taken at OKCuipid as well.)

Also, there is one more source of information that I didn't mention--the stats on "X" in Kinsey's work.

I think that there are a few case histories that exist here and there, but I haven't personally run across many of these.

I'm not entirely sure who exactly this information will appeal to, but hopefully someone will find it useful.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

My blog so far

I’ve just finished a 7 part series on defining asexuality, which was preceded by a 3 part series on asexuality and celibacy, making a 10 part series (so far) on asexuality identity politics—so I wanted to do a recap. When I was first planning on writing the post on defining asexuality, I figured it would just be one post, but as I started writing, I got more ideas about things I wanted to write about, or arguments that made sense in my head just didn't work on paper (actually, my laptop's, but that doesn't carry the same idiomatic sense.) Somehow, one post managed to become seven.

Because of this, I’ve decided to give an outline of my blog so far, especially for new readers to have some idea of where to start, should they feel so-inclined.

I started this blog back in June and the first several posts were largely autobiographical.
Self-Introduction
Wanting to be a Groupie
Some reflections on coming to identify as asexual
Asexy Ambivalence

Then I had a two-part series on asexuality’s negative definition
Some reelections on a negatively defined identity
More reflections on a negatively defined identity

The next post was an attempt to experiment with different genres, and it ended up being something of an autobiography-satire hybrid, so it’s a little bit hard to categorize.
Repressed!

After that was a two part series on coming out as asexual. The first was mostly autobiographical and the second more theoretical.
Thoughts on coming out part I: early attempts
Thoughts on coming out part II: words

Since “Thoughts on coming out part II,” I haven’t spent much time writing about my own experience, and the majority of my blog has been about asexuality more generally. The next two posts were about words and grammar and the one after that was about doing asexual history.
Grammar
Grammar Part 2: More thoughts on words
Asexual people of the past: should we care?

After this, the direction of the blog took a turn towards asexual identity politics. I had thought that since the new semester was about to begin, I wouldn’t be able to blog as regularly as I had over the summer. But as I started writing and reading people’s comments, I kept thinking of more things to write about, and I felt that I had to keep writing. Now that I’m done with that, I really do plan to spend less time blogging. Anyway…I had three posts on asexuality and celibacy. (There were also a few short posts that I'm not listing here.)
Asexuality and Celibacy
Asexuality and Celibacy: Part 2
What is celibacy?

Then, I moved to the topic of defining asexuality.
Defining Asexuality
You’re not a real asexual! Resisting pressure for a narrow definition
“You’re asexual if you say you’re asexual.” The ultimate attempt at an inclusive definition
“Asexual: A person who does not experience sexual attraction” Using a narrow definition
Alternate ways of defining asexuality
Asexuality-the history of a definition, part I
Asexuality-the history of a definition, part II

Asexuality—the history of a definition, part II

The most widely accepted and most widely quoted definition of asexuality is that an asexual is “a person who does not experience sexual attraction.” Last time, I wrote about some of the history of how this came about. This time, I want to write about what I see as some of the consequences of the standardization of this definition—many of which were unforeseeable.

In the early asexual community, many people came with preconceived ideas of what asexuality was, but after they came to have a better understanding of the other people identifying as asexual, there came to be a general consensus that the term was undefinable. However, it was also recognized that having a definition would be important for explaining asexuality to people. The definition that came to dominate was the one presented on the main page of the asexual site that came to be the most important one in the asexual community. That site came to dominate primarily because of its superior design, and its definition persisted because most people didn’t object to it, and the few times that there was serious advocacy for an alternate definition, the proposed alternatives tended to have even more problems that the (now) standard definition.

In effect, it has come to be the definition primarily because it is the definition authoritatively presented to newcomers to asexuality and is quoted frequently on the forums, especially to questioning people, who can then be referred to static content on the site. Because parts of the static content (especially the parts that aren’t ascribed to anyone) are interpreted as being the official view of the asexual community, and they, in effect, become the official view—the understanding of asexuality that AVEN gives plays a fundamental part for many people’s decisions of whether or not to self-define as asexual. The AVEN definition has a strong influence on whether or not someone identifies as asexual. In a sense, the asexual community did not create the definition; the definition created the community.

My impression from the early dialogue that I’ve read is that, by and large, the AVEN definition was notadopted by people who first came to the asexual community before AVEN’s forums came to dominate asexual discourse. But they generally didn’t object to it either. Each person came up with their own definition, if they bothered with one at all. However, once AVEN became the place that the majority of people new to asexuality went, AVEN’s definition come to be the first introduction to asexuality people had—especially because of its prominent display on the main page—and it came to be more influential in asexual discourse. Sometimes there are people who don’t like AVEN’s definition, or who want to change it for some reason or other, but none of these has ever been strong enough to pose any serious challenge to the standard definition. The longer the definition has been around, a larger and larger part of the people in the asexual community has been strongly influenced by that definition in how they think about asexuality, and it continually increases in definitional inertia. Another reason the definition has persisted is that a lot of people find that it makes sense to them—it is sexual attraction that they don’t feel.

One consequence of the standard definition is the creation of the category “Gray A’s” and the like. Since the official definition of on asexual is a person who does not experience sexual attraction (categorically), this creates a group of people who identify with asexuality and who come close to the definition but don’t quite fit it, but they still want to be part of the asexual community even though the definition technically excludes them. The standard definition was never intended to exclude these people (recall that the AVEN triangle was equipped, from the beginning, with a gradient between asexual and sexual.) Combined with an inclusive approach that discourages strict readings of the definition and prohibits attempts to enforce it, there became a need to understand how to categorize these people. As a result, all sorts of typologies have been created. My suspicion is that if a definition like the one used by the founder of asexuality on LJ had come to dominate (asexuals are people with little or no sexual attraction or people who experience sexual attraction but have low or no sex drive and thus are unmotivated to act on that sexual attraction), there would be no reason to create such schemas.

I also think that the standard definition has made the understanding of asexuality underlying the collective identity model obsolete. That model, much more than the standard definition, represented a consensus view in the early asexual community—each person had their own reason for considering themself asexual (that is, not sexual,) and no single definition could cover everyone. The main thing that united people was a sense of being “not sexual” or a disidentification with sexuality. Several people thought of asexuality in terms of sexual preference rather than sexual attraction. The people involved in Haven for the Human Amoeba (HHA) were almost entirely people who had somehow managed to find the group on their own—possibly by just wandering in or by searching yahoo groups for the term “asexual” or something along these lines. There was not a lot of information for newcomers, (I think one of the early asexual sites had an FAQ, but I don’t know what it said,) and there were not a lot of stories that were posted (a few, but they were pretty brief.) As a result, the sorts of people who would have managed to find the site and decide to call themselves asexual probably differ (in the aggregate) a fair bit from people who now manage to find one of the main asexual sites and decide to call themselves asexual now that there is a lot more asexual visibility. I would expect that the people in the gray areas—now they often take a long time to decide if they are asexual or not—would have been much less likely to find HHA and if they did, less likely to identify as asexual than similar sorts of people today.

In the present asexual community, there are a lot of people who did not think of coming up with the term asexual on their own and when first hearing/reading it, didn’t think it really fits because they don’t think of themselves as being “not sexual.” However, later they go to some asexual site, read about it and decide that they are asexual. When these people decide this, it is not from having a strong sense of not being sexual but because they feel they fit the definition or they feel they can relate to the stories of other people calling themselves asexual. In my case, I had a strong sense of being different in a way I couldn’t put my finger on, but I didn’t think of myself as being “not sexual.” I identity as asexual because I feel that “experiencing little or no sexual attraction” fits and helps me to make sense of that difference that I hadn’t been able to figure out what it was.

Likely the biggest unforeseen consequence of defining asexuality as not experiencing sexual attraction is that there are people who feel this definition fits them but don’t “disidentify with sexuality” or who are not clearly asexual with respect to sexual preference. There are people who identify as asexual who find that they can enjoy some aspects of partnered sexuality, even though it’s not experienced as a felt need and it is a fairly limited range of things they find they can enjoy. There are also people who don’t experience sexual attraction who are at least curious about what sex would be like. They may feel no motivation to do anything about this curiosity, but consider themselves open to the possibility in the right circumstances, should such a situation present itself. For such a person, their sexual preference is difficult to characterize, but they may have perfectly good reasons to identify as asexual. I think it is these consequences of the standard definition of asexuality that make the collective identity model (in its present formulation) obsolete. Redefining asexual identity would be an interesting (though difficult) thing to do, especially since what creates asexual identity is a common matrix of effects of little or no sexual attraction within present day social contexts—no asexual person experiences all of these effects, but most members experience several of them in overlapping ways, and thus in the creation of the identity “asexual,” centered around not experiencing sexual attraction, people are able to find others among the group “asexuals” who report things that sound very much like their own experience—especially in a context where the person had previously never heard of anyone else sharing that experience.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Asexuality-the history of a definition, part I

To finish off my series on defining asexuality, I decided to take a look at how and why the definition is what it currently is. To a large extent, this is a historical question and so I decided to do some research on the history of the asexual community in an attempt to understand it.

There are only a few (three that I know of) places where the history of the asexual community has been outlined. On the AVENwiki, the page about AVEN itself has a short history of the site. An early (and very brief outline) is given by AVENguy in an early post on AVEN. The longest description I know of is the podcast titled history lesson on the podcast/blog “Love from the Asexual Underground.” These are very interesting and I found them helpful, but there is a lot that I wanted to know about that they don’t say. (Also, (Also from Love from the Asexual Underground, Asex 101 isn’t primarily about asexual history, but it does have some information relevant to this topic.)

In trying to do my own research, there are some important sources that still exist. According to the above mentioned outlines of the history of the asexual community, throughout the 90’s people would occasionally describe something like asexuality on some sexuality message boards, but they weren’t able to connect with other asexuals. In 1997, there came out an article called “My Life as an Amoeba” that allowed people to post to it, and thus allowed asexuals to communicate with each other, creating the first online “asexual community.” This article still exists on asexualove.net, but the posts seem to be lost and the link to the original has gone dead. The most important early (preaven) asexual community was a yahoo group called Haven for the Human Amoeba (I’ll call it HHA.) This still exists and is the most important source of information on the early asexual community. However, there are a few problems. First, there are far too many posts for a mere amateur historian like myself to read all of them—I’ve read a few hundred, but after a while, I started skipping a lot and relied a fair bit on searches. Another problem is that a good number of the sites that are linked have gone dead (including the earliest version of AVEN.) Another important source of data comes from AVEN itself—many early posts still exist. For example, if you go to Q & A on the AVEN forums and go to the oldest posts, you can find some of them (I linked to one earlier.) (Using the search tool and going to the older posts is helpful here as well but you’ll need to use the advanced search features.) Another important source of data is Internet Archive, which has some old websites (for example the Official Nonlibidoist Society’s now defunct website.) I’ve also corresponded with David Jay, and he has helped fill in a few gaps here and there. As a caveat, because of the way I’ve gone about this, my claims are largely a matter of impression. I’ve tried to find as many posts about defining asexuality, but much of this was done by searching for the words “definition” and “define” on HHA and AVEN, and so I have likely overlooked other posts discussing this issue without using these words. So take my history for what it’s worth.

My narrative begins with the yahoo group “Haven for the Human Amoeba.” This group was formed in October 2000 but, other than the introductory post, there was no conversation until Feb 2001 when the founder was curious who the other people who had joined (but not said anything) were. In the following discussion, one person asked what an asexual was and the group founder said that being asexual means being not sexual—with reference to people, this means not being sexually attracted to men or women (or horses, cats, dogs or anything else someone might want to joke about.) What relationship, if any, this group had to the “community” formed around the 1997 article isn’t clear (in April 2001, a link to that article was posted by the group’s founder without indication of how long she had known about it.) HHA started out as a very small group.

At first, discussion was pretty sporadic. Sometimes, when a new person would join, they would give some kind of introductory post or two; this would create a bit of discussion, and then it would die out for a while—sometimes a month or two—until a new person came and gave an introductory post. Beginning in July 2007, posts had become pretty regular, probably because their numbers had grown enough to generate sustained discussion. In August 2008, things really took off, going from 17 posts from Oct 2000 to June 2001, to 18 posts in July 2001, and 130 posts in August 2001.

Meanwhile…in the 2000-2001 school year, there was a college freshman at Wesleyan University by the name of David Jay. David had considered himself asexual since high school, and after going to college, he had gone to the LGBT office trying to find out everything they knew about asexuality. They didn’t know anything about it. During this time, he found the above mentioned “My life as an Amoeba,” and this was the first time he had ever seen the word “asexual” used to refer to people outside of his own writings. This prompted him to create a page about asexuality on his Wesleyan account, calling it AVEN—the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. Before finding that article, he had already been thinking about doing this, but it provided the necessary impetus to get things started. There wasn’t much information on this page—mostly just a definition of the term asexual and his email, asking anyone who knew anything about the subject to contact him. The original definition was something like “a person who is attracted to neither gender.” He then emailed his page to the heads of LGBT groups on college campuses around the US in an attempt to find other asexuals. One of them wrote back to him about the “neither gender” part, informing him about trans issues. In response to this, David modified the definition so that it did not assume a gender binary. This was around March or April of 2001.

This initial definition—a person who is attracted to neither gender—fits well with the (now abandoned) meaning of the AVEN triangle, which I believe was also on the original AVEN page. The top line is based on the Kinsey scale: one end is other-sex attraction, and the other end is same-sex attraction, allowing for all sorts of combinations of these in the middle. The existence of another dimension was postulated —amount of attraction—which formed the vertical axis, bisecting the Kinsey scale. As attraction decreased, gender preference vanishes, making a triangle. After learning about the experiences of other asexuals, this theory didn’t last long, but the symbol has survived. In the theory that this symbol represents, the definition “a person who is attracted to neither gender” makes a lot of sense.

In August 2001, the summer after David’s freshman year, someone who had joined HHA in July 2001 (and had info about asexuality on her webpage, which is now dead so I have no idea what was on it) found David’s site and contacted him, telling him about HHA and asking if he wanted to join a webring she was putting together of asexual sites. It was early August when she contacted him, and a week later he joined HHA. This was shortly after the time that the group had started to get enough members to have sustained conversation. It was also around this time that people began to get an idea of the diversity that existed even within their small group. One person who considered herself asexual said that she masturbates, and another was very confused by this. She thought of asexuality as a lack of sexual attraction (likely reflecting the founder’s definition), and thought this was the same as sex drive (if you don’t experience sexual attraction, what’s the point?) At this time, the concept of undirected sex-drive was introduced into asexual discourse and several people found it to be useful and adopted it. A couple weeks after David joined, he suggested that the thing that unified people on HHA was not experiencing sexual attraction—this suggests that by this point, he had changed the phrase “attraction/attracted” to “sexually attracted/sexual attraction,” probably on the influence of the founder of HHA’s definition and the one or two others who had adopted it. The first instance of the present definition in HHA was in a discussion on defining asexualism (asexualism and asexuality were used interchangeably back then) in a post by David in late September 2001.

In present asexual discourse, one reason the term “sexual attraction” is used in the definition is to contrast it with other kinds of attraction (i.e. emotional/romantic attraction.) When the above definition was proposed, this distinction had not become standard in asexual discourse. As far as I can tell, this issue came up in late December 2001 and was more-or less worked out in January 2002. Interestingly, this requires a change in the meaning of “a person who does not experience sexual attraction” without requiring any change in the language.

Late in 2001, there was a decent amount of discussion on issues involving defining asexuality. The consensus opinion (at least the one expressed the most) was that asexuality is undefinable—each person had their own reason for calling themself asexual, and there was too much diversity in their (still very small) asexual community for any one definition to cover everyone. However, people also agreed that it would be useful to have a definition that they could give to people—having a definition would be helpful for asexual visibility. This was discussed, and there was no consensus. David had proposed his definition, but there didn’t seem to be any strong support for it or disagreement with it. My impression is that the majority opinion was to think of asexuality not in terms of sexual attraction, but in terms of sexual preference. Seen in this light, the Collective Identity Model makes a lot of sense: No single definition encompasses all asexual people, so the common theme is that asexuals are people who call themselves asexual because they disidentify with sexuality—i.e. they prefer not to have sex, and this affects how they go about forming relationships. (The parts about identity and relationships were particular emphases found in David Jay’s writings more than in other members, but by and large, this definition fits pretty well with the early consensus.) In this context, I think the definition “a person who does not experience sexual attraction” was intended to fill the need of a definition to be used for the purpose of asexual visibility rather than as the one that the community was based on.

Reading the history this way, David’s comment that I mentioned in a recent post makes perfect sense: “A person who does not experience sexual attraction” is the definition used outside the asexual community. “A person who calls themself asexual” is the one used inside the asexual community.

Having seen how one person came up with the definition “A person who does not experience sexual attraction,” the question becomes how this definition became the standard one in asexual discourse. Once it came to be the definition (prominently displayed) on one asexual website, I think that there are two main questions to address. The first is why AVEN came to be the main asexual website. The second is why AVEN’s initial definition continues to be its definition today. I’ll start with the first part.

Early in the asexual community, there were some other asexual websites that are linked in HHA, but these have gone dead. In terms of asexual community—places where asexuals can gather and converse with each other—I am aware of three places online that existed early on. The first, HHA, isn’t very active anymore. The design isn’t particularly good for large groups and other sites do things much better. AVEN first started its forums in May 2002. However, there was one other important site which continues to be active—the asexual community on LiveJournal was formed in April 2002, about a month and a half before the AVEN forums began. If we look at the “about” section of its profile, it says, “This is a community for asexual people to discuss living without sexuality. We welcome anyone with no or very little sexual attraction to others, people with low or no libido, and their allies.” One thing you will find is that “a person who does not experience sexual attraction” does not appear. The community was created because the community “asexuals” was considered too judgmental and was generally celibate people (termed “lifestyle asexuals”) rather than people with little or no sexual attraction (“classic asexuals”) and they spent a lot of time criticizing the sexual behaviors of others. The language that is used on the asexuality community on LJ’s profile is the same sort of language that can be found on the AVEN forums by the founder of asexuality on LJ. (For example, on the introductory post of the founder of the Official Asexual Society. LJ’s founder is paranoidgynandroid on that post.)

The founder of this community on LJ was perfectly aware of AVEN’s definition—in fact, she was heavily involved in redesigning AVEN in March 2002, was the author of AVEN’s general FAQ and was also responsible for AVEN’s present color scheme (this explains why terms like “little or no sexual attraction” are used in the FAQ, and also why asexuality on LJ’s profile links people to AVEN’s FAQ for more information.) While she knew about AVEN’s definition, she felt no need to adopt it, but given her role in early AVEN, I imagine that she saw no important conflict between her definition and AVEN’s.

The reasons AVEN has risen to prominence are listed in the above linked “History Lesson.” The domain name, asexuality.org, was easier to remember than other asexual sites, the graphics were better, the software was better, David was a better webmaster, and the forums enabled there to be multiple conversations going on at the same time. He also mentions AVEN’s inclusive approach, though I’m not really convinced how important this is. The less inclusive sites seemed to me to be somewhat at the fringe of asexuality. (For example, the Official Asexual Society/The Official Nonlibidoist Society’s design made it largely a one-woman show and didn’t give people much of a chance to communicate with one another the way AVEN or LJ did, meaning that it could not be the basis of enabling large numbers of asexuals to connect with each other.) If you read the early LJ posts, you’ll find that in several key aspects, it actually has a more inclusive approach than AVEN (LJ’s definition includes people who experience very little sexual attraction, people who experience sexual attraction but have such a low sex-they feel no desire to act on it, and a sharp distinction between asexuality and celibacy is not made.) My suspicion is that AVEN’s inclusive approach was a necessary condition for its rise to prominence, but not a particularly strong factor since other sites also had inclusive approaches.

Another important factor is that once AVEN started to be an important site, this created positive feedback--whenever it was mentioned in an article about asexuality, it's the page that people would be referred to for more information. One big advantage of having the asexuality.org site rather than the HHA yahoo group, is that it was findable on google, so that people who typed in asexual came to be able to connect with other asexual people.

My intuition tells me that the main reason for AVEN’s success is its superior design, especially with the forums, which enables it to do a lot more than LJ can. (Which LJ has no problem with because it’s close connection with AVEN predates its founding. Also, in July 2002, the founder of asexuality on LJ directed people over to AVEN, highly recommending it, especially because they were having more discussion than on the LJ community.) Because of AVEN’s forum design, people are able to participate in the discussions and feel like they have a place in the asexual community—this is important for keeping them involved. More than this, as the site grew, there came to be more work to be done than any single person could do. By including additional people in having key roles—key roles in maintaining the site, moderating the forums, doing visibility and education work, talking to people in the media, etc.—this makes those people more involved and have a greater sense of investment in the asexual community. In order for the asexual community to grow, this is necessary. It cannot be just a one-person show (like the Official Asexual Society had been.)

Now that we’ve seen how the present definition came to be the one on AVEN’s mainpage and how AVEN came to be the main asexual site, the question is why the definition hasn’t changed during AVEN’s rise to prominence. I think the first major reason is definitional inertia—once a definition is there on the main page, it’s going to be harder to change than if there was no “standard” definition and people were trying to hammer one out in a discussion somewhere. Not just that, but the way it is portrayed is significant. LJ more or less has a definition, but it isn’t clearly stated in an easily quotable form and you have to read through the page a bit to get to it. But on asexuality.org, “Asexual: A person who does not experience sexual attraction” is in big letters right in the middle of the screen so that it stands out and is one of the very first things people see when coming to the site.

The issue of defining asexuality didn’t come up much in early AVEN discussions. There was one thread, several months after the forums were created where David opened up the question of whether anyone wanted to change the definition of asexuality. (The context, as it turns out, was making T-shirts. If people are going to buy asexual T-shirts, is there a different definition they would rather exhibit via their clothing?) One person suggested saying that asexuals are people who have little or no sex-drive, but this was rejected because of the fact that some asexuals have an “undirected sex-drive.” Other than this, no one else proposed any alternatives. In response to the “little or no” part of the rejected alternative, David mentioned a couple possible modifications: “experiences little or no sexual attraction” or “experiences negligible sexual attraction.” He acknowledged these to be more accurate but was afraid that they would be confusing. No one else commented on this, and no other definitions were proposed.

There was one thread I’ve found in 2002 in which one person tries to attack AVEN’s definition, but the arguments don’t make a lot of sense. The majority opinion on that thread indicates that most people were perfectly aware of problems with the AVEN definition—it has difficulties dealing with the gray areas—but people didn’t seem to want to change the definition because they recognized that any definition is going to run into similar problems. There is no perfect definition of asexuality.

From time to time, there have been some people proposing alternative definitions, but these tend to have even bigger problems than the standard definition, and none of these proposals has managed to gain widespread support. The longer the standard definition is on AVEN’s frontpage, the more inertia it gains. As AVEN became larger and was managed not by a single person, but by a group of admods, this makes changing the definition even harder. Also, people have become used to the definition “a person who does not experience sexual attraction,” and for many it is an important part of their decision to identify as asexual, so this adds to the definitional inertia.

In my next post, I want to take a look at what I see as the effects of the standardization of this definition of asexuality.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Alternate ways of defining asexuality

There are generally three main ways to define asexuality: in terms of sexual attraction, sexual desire, or sexual preference. Then, for each of these, we can frame the definition as being absolute (e.g. no sexual attraction) or gradient (e.g. little or no sexual attraction.) All of these three options make sense, but all have their problems as well.

“Asexual: a person who has (little or) no desire to have sex.”
The biggest problem with this definition is that “sexual desire” difficult to characterize because there are lots and lots of reasons people have sex. Would desire to have sex out curiosity or social pressure disqualify someone from being asexual? Also, I’ve read somewhere that there are some women who report that when they’re not in a romantic relationship, they have no interest in sex, but when they form a new romantic relationship, they become very interested. (I don’t know about men because the author was writing about differences between male and female sexuality, and, like many discussions of gender difference, treated “men” as a fairly homogeneous group sexually, though intra-gender variation for women was acknowledged.) These don’t seem to be the sort of people we call asexual either. Another problem with defining asexuality in terms of sexual desire is that it’s not really clear what sexual desire is, especially since many people who don’t experience sexual attraction do experience some sort of “sex-drive,” but feel that it isn’t directed towards anyone. They may be completely satisfied (or even prefer) to deal with these desires by themselves, and so this desire is some sort of sexualish desire, and yet not desire to have sex. But for people who aren’t asexual, the experience of sex-drive that are often the motivation to masturbate are frequently closely connected with their desire for sex.

“Asexual: A person who prefers not to have sex.”
For this definition, I’m not sure how well a gradient definition works. (“A person who prefers to have little or no sex” is ambiguous because it could mean somebody who isn’t really into sex and wants little at most, but it could also mean someone who would prefer to have some sex, just not that much. The former seems to fit with what we want to mean by “asexual” but the latter doesn’t.) One problem with this definition is that there a quite a lot of reasons to prefer not to have sex. Some people choose to be celibate because, even though they do have sexual desires, after a long string of bad relationships, they feel that sex isn’t really worth it. Others choose to be celibate because it grants a level of autonomy not possible to those in a long-term sexual/romantic relationship (and they’re not interested in short-term sexual relationships.) People in both of these groups may feel sexual desire and may enjoy sex, but they prefer not to because they don’t think that it’s worth the cost. But this doesn’t seem to be who we want to call asexual.

“Asexual: A person who experiences (little or) no sexual attraction.”
This also has its problems: many people who identify as asexual do experience some kinds of attraction, and if they’ve never felt sexual attraction, they don’t know what sexual attraction feels like, so it’s hard to know whether they don’t experience sexual attraction or not. In fact, one of the ways that some asexuals express their lack of sexual attraction is by noting that even when they are attracted to someone, they a.) still have no desire to have sex with that person or b.) would still rather not have sex with that person. In these cases, lack of sexual attraction is frequently expressed in terms of sexual desire or sexual preference.

Even though the sexual attraction definition is the most commonly cited one in asexual discourse, it’s not the only one that’s used by people in the asexual community. In my last post, I wrote about a woman who identifies as asexual who said she does experience sexual attraction, but feels no desire to have sex with anyone. According to the sexual desire and (probably) sexual preference definitions, she would be asexual, but based on the sexual attraction one, she is not. This highlights one of the key problems in deciding among the various definitions: each deals with the grey area between sexual and asexual differently—each excludes some people who would be included by another definition.

Some people who don’t experience sexual attraction feel more or less indifferent about sex. They don’t necessarily prefer not to have sex, but they don’t really prefer to have sex either. Also, some people who don’t experience sexual attraction find that they can enjoy some partnered sexual behaviors—sometimes they find that they enjoy giving their partner pleasure even though they aren’t experiencing sexual desire themselves, and maybe even prefer not to be sexually stimulated. For such people, they may be asexual in terms of sexual attraction and sexual desire, but it’s really unclear how to characterize their sexual preference. Still, identifying as asexual makes a lot of sense because their sexual experience and feelings completely fail to conform to societal expectations or models of sexuality they find around them.

One advantage of making the definition about sexual attraction rather than sexual preference is that people are given more freedom to explore themselves and try different behaviors while still being allowed to identify as asexual. I think that this makes asexual identity more helpful for real people's lives (especially those in the gray areas.) In making asexuality about attraction rather than preference, it enables asexuality to be more descriptive in how we think about ourselves rather than prescriptive, to borrow an idea from the avenite Shockwave that he borrowed from linguistics' identity politics as it tries to justify its status as science and seeks to separate itself from the things we learned about grammar in school.

The right to identify as asexual is important for many people. They sense that their own feelings completely fail to conform to images of sexuality presented in TV and movies, talked about by their friends and peers, even what is acknowledged to exist in sex education. In identifying as asexual, there is a sense that people are not alone, that they are not broken. Their experiences are valid, and they are no longer an inexplicable anomaly among the human population whose very existence is unacknowledged. For many people, a sense of belonging, a feeling of fitting in is important. A sense of being normal. Identifying as asexual grants this to many people.

Still, as much as we want asexual identity to be a tool for thinking about our lives, an identity to insist that we are not broken, a means for communicating our selves to others, I doubt that it could be used entirely descriptively. My suspicion is that there will always be a temptation to use it prescriptively, in order to help us feel a part of a group rather than an isolated anomaly with no one like ourselves telling us that it is okay for me to be me. In Shockwave's post, he wants to use an asexual identity descriptively precisely because he had been succumbing to the temptation to use it prescriptively and wanted a way to think about not using it that way. I doubt that there is a way to avoid this temptation and the only way to deal with it is simply to be aware of it and always be willing to reflect on our lives and reevaluate our ideas—something of value regardless of how you identify. Still, if asexuality were defined in terms of sexual preference—what kind of behavior we prefer (not) to do—I suspect that the temptation to use it prescriptively to retain that sense of validation would be stronger than it is now. I don’t think it would allow people as much freedom to experiment with sexuality (for those interested) while still retaining an asexual identity.

Still, whichever way we define asexuality—in terms of preference, desire or attraction—the definition will always exclude some who don’t fit the definition we’ve chosen but does fit one or two of the others. It is possible to define asexuals as people who fit any one (or more) of these three, and something in me likes this and something else recoils at it. The scientist in me doesn’t like disjunctive definitions, but, on the other hand, if we think of asexuality primarily as an identity, the science becomes irrelevant. On the other, other hand, the study of asexuality will be an important part of our future visibility and acceptance, and any researcher using self-identification as asexual as an operational definition must be aware of this problem—especially if they want to do a quantitative study. (If they’re studying asexual identity, this isn’t really a problem.) Another part of me has an entirely different reason for recoiling at the definition “an asexual is someone who experiences little or no sexual attraction, little or no sexual desire, and/or prefers not to have sex.” It’s just long, complicated, and annoying.

Still, if we look at what actual asexual people say, we can find people defining their asexuality in terms of any of these three things. The standard AVEN definition uses sexual attraction, but other people conceptualize it different. For example, even on the AVEN static content, we can find some variation. In the top ten responses to asexuality the author says her asexuality can be summed up in one sentence. “I don’t want to have sex. Plain and Simple.” She then expands on this: “It is not a case of avoiding sex out of fear, or as a result of a perceived moral obligation, or out of disinterest in starting a family. I just seem to have been spared the development of sexual inclination--maybe I have a biologically nonexistent libido, or maybe I have a psychological disinterest in physical intimacy, or maybe some of both . . . but the end result is simply that I have no interest in sex, and I like it that way.” She does not define her asexuality in terms of sexual attraction. She defines it in terms of sexual preference, and then explains this in terms of sexual desire. This isn’t at all uncommon. Lots of asexuals explain their asexuality in terms these. (Try googling either one of the following phrases, in quotes, along with the word asexual. “I’m not interested in sex.” “I have no desire to have sex.” You get a decent number of hits.)

Each asexual person is different and has a somewhat different idea of what being asexual means to them. There is no need to stick stringently to the standard AVEN definition or to any other. That really isn’t what the definition is designed for. It’s supposed to me more of a guidepost for people, something to help people think about their lives and something to be useful in presenting asexuality to audiences unfamiliar with it.