In the past several posts, I've been looking at various criticisms of asexuality. My responses to them don't really fit with standard line identity politics, but none of those criticisms really bother me. In the case of sexual repression, I think it's a term we need to abandon. In the other cases, my responses have been that often the criticism isn't true, and even when it might be, it's probably not helpful. But there is one criticism of asexuality that has long troubled me though I have rarely seen it expressed--once in a thread I started on Apositive and a handful of other places.
Roughly speaking, criticisms of asexuality come in two varieties: "criticisms from above" and "criticism from below." The criticisms from above have three main varieties.
1) "You really are super interested in sex, but you just don't know it/won't admit it." (e.g. You're not asexual, you're gay/a lesbian but won't admit it. You just aren't willing to accept your "true sexuality." You're just immature and afraid of sex. etc.)
2) "You aren't interested in sex now, but you will be, just you wait." (You're a late bloomer. You just haven't met the right person yet. etc.)
3) "You should be super interested in sex, but there must be something wrong with you prevening it." (You're sexually repressed. You must have been abused as a child. Or some other item from a long list of supposed-causes of low sexual desire may be given, even though the vast majority of these have no empirical support or scientific evidence.)
The only potential criticism of asexuality that actually bothers me is the "criticism from below" although I rarely see it expressed. I suppose that's because people actually have to understand asexuality and be generally accepting of it to be aware of this problem.
Roughly, here's the idea: let's suppose that people's (lifetime) interest in sex ranges from 1-99 with the median being 50. I realize this is a gross oversimplification, but I think it works to illustrate my point. Let's arbitraily say that "real asexuals" are people around 1-2 and "gray-A's" being maybe 3-5.
Most of us have absolutely no idea what other people are actually like sexually. We have no idea what 50 is like and no idea what 10-20 is like. Rather, we are bombarded with images and messages about sexuality in movies, on TV, in magazines, and on the radio that give us wildely over-inflated ideas of what "sexually normal" is. People get ideas about "normal sexuality" from their peers. But not just from any peers--they get these ideas from their peers who talk the most about sex. And it's probably the people most interested in sex who talk the most about sex. Not only that, but sexuality--especially heterosexuality--is a major part of preformance of gender roles. Consequently, to fit in, a lot of people probably exagerate their own sexual interest to where they feel it should be, or to where they can brag.
The result is wildly unrealistic ideas about just how interested in sex most people are. Problems are compounded by so-called "comprehensive sex education." In my experirience, these materials are written by and for people with higher interest in sex with minimal concern for being sensitive to those who aren't all that interested in sex, with minimal sensitivity to the feelings of wierdness caused by people not being as interested in sex as they feel they should be, with no attempt to explain the lower range of sexual interest in order to normalize it. I'm sure this impression is not fully representative, but it is the experience I've had with "comprehensive sex education" so I imagine it at least isn't that uncommon. This is the experience I've had both with a well-respected textbook I read parts of when confused about my sexuality (and found out the expert opinion is that I don't exist) and from a university Human Sexuality course I took. (I realize I'm stepping on toes here, and I'll just say that I used to support comprehensive sex education until I actually saw it in practice. I still believe that it is very important to have quality sex-education. Part of the problem seems to be that comprehensive sex education is so embattled just to exist that it doesn't have the necessary internal criticism necessary for an educational enterprise to thrive.)
Here's an example: I was long confused about not understanding what it's like to think someone is "hot." I didn't even have much of a sense for "pretty" until I was in my 20's, so I was really confused about conversations about the matter, and I was even more confused about how there was no recognition that people like me even exist. I read through a section of a textbook (Our Sexuality) about the role of different senses in sexual arousal, and they said it is important, and failed to mention that visual stimuli are not an important part of sexual excitement for everyone. I tried a number of searches on google, and all confirmed my fear: I don't exist. Since identifying as asexual, I've found that a number of other people (who aren't asexual) don't get hotness either, and they often expericne a good bit of confusion over the matter. Had I known about this when I was younger, I might not have felt nearly as much of the sense of wierdness that led me to identify as asexual.
When people try to decide if they're asexual or not, they rely on a negatively defined concept. Asexuals are people who don't experience sexual attraction. What "sexual attraction" is believed to be, is going to be based on what they think "sexual people" are feeling. But "sexual people" is often going to be based on these unrealistic images of "sexually normal" that treats "sexual people" as 50-80, rather than including the lots of people in the bottom quarter or bottom third.
When people become confused about their sexual feelings, about why they aren't feeling certain things, why they aren't as obcessed about sex as their peers, and they identify as asexual, they feel a sense of acceptance, a sense of belonging, a sense that there are others like themselves. My fear is that there is often a temptation to use this identity normatively--having decided they are asexual, someone feels a need to "be asexual." Recognizing feelings that suggest that perhaps they aren't may be frightening because that sense of belonging may be lost, and if there isn't something to replace it with, if there isn't some other source of validation of their relatively low interest in sex, it can lead to futher feelings of isolation or fears of future feelings alienation.
The "criticism from below" is that perhaps many people in the 5-15 range who aren't "really asexual", who experience a little sexual attraction--at least in some contexts--who would like sex, some of these people may identify as asexual, may use that identity prescrptively and decie that they'll never want to have sex and that they won't like sex. I wonder if this may in some sense limit what they permit themselves to experience and what they permit themselves to feel.
As long as asexuality is used as an identity for people to figure themselves out and communicate themselves to others, and as long as people are willing to reconsider that identity should they find reason to, I don't think this "criticism from below" applies. But still, I think the temptation is there to use the identity prescriptively.