Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What does it mean to be “not sexual”?

As I mentioned in my last post, one possible meaning of “an sexual” is “someone who is not sexual.” This raises the question of what it is for someone (or something) to not be sexual, which raises the question of what it is to be sexual.

Rather than addressing the question of how a person can be “not sexual,” I want to address the question of what makes an activity/feeling/behavior/etc. sexual. To answer the question, I’m going to start with an option that I feel cannot work: certain things are inherently “sexual” or “not sexual.”

In certain philosophical camps, there is discussion of “natural kind” categories. The idea is that certain categorizations of things reflect how things really are, that our categorization of things in that way reflects how things really are, and things would be that way regardless of whether anyone recognized these categories. Thus, such categories are “discovered” rather than “invented.” Whether any such categories are of this type is a matter of considerable controversy. (For instance, there is the question of whether math is invented or discovered, with lots of very smart people on each side.) However, it is clear that if any such categories exist, some are much more viable candidates than others.

(As an aside, this deals with a very old debate regarding realism and what is variously called nominalism/anti-realism/etc. (I  sometimes use not-so-realism). Classical and medieval versions of realism held things to be “real” by participation in “the forms” (think Plato.) More modern forms seem to use vague notions of things being “written into the fabric of the universe.” Modern versions of not-so-realist positions—holding that the only reality to the categories and conceptualizations we use is that we use them—can have one (or both) of two different flavors. You can focus on the social construction of our categories, focusing on the history involved in creating those categories and how other cultures think about stuff differently, or you can focus on how our categories are a product of how human brains work and how our perceptual systems work. The social aspect seems to be more popular among many involved in the politics of ideology—if some conceptualization (that you don’t like) is “socially constructed,” then it is malleable and changeable. If it is a result, fundamentally, of how our mind/brains structure reality, then there’s not much you can do about it other than attempt damage control.)

Whether prime numbers are “written into the fabric of the universe” and would exist even if no one recognized them as such is a controversial matter. With regard to humans, we have some categorizations such as “blood type” where it is a viable position that it existed before anyone created this conceptualization, and this categorization is something that was discovered: It is perfectly sensible to talk about someone in a society that knows nothing about blood type has having O positive or AB negative.

However, it makes no sense to ask whether someone in a society without lawyers is a lawyer. This is clearly not a “natural kind.” To be a natural kind (if there are such things) it is necessary for the categorization to exist apart from anyone recognizing it as such, it has to somehow fundamentally reflect how things are. I simply do not think it is even defensible to regard “sexuality” as being such a category.

How would you even start going about empirically testing whether some behavior was “inherently sexual”? It doesn’t even make sense to me. You could ask people, I suppose, but for a lot of things, you’re likely to get divergence of opinions. How would you resolve this? Just say that the majority of the (highly unrepresentative) sample that you’re using is correct? But if different surveys gave different results, that would be very problematic for seeing some things as “inherently sexual.”

Likewise, things that attempt to use necessary and sufficient conditions to establish if something is sexual or not leads to failure (or to requiring such a broad understanding of “sexuality” as to make it meaningless.) Let’s take masturbation as an example, as this is a popular topic of discussion in the asexual community.

What makes it sexual? That it involves touching the genitals? It can’t be that, because that would mean that a man touching his penis to urinate would be sexual, but I think most people would say that that isn’t sexual. Is it that physical sexual arousal is involved? But that also seems wrong: it is common for males to have erections periodically throughout the night or to wake up with an erection. But that doesn’t seem sexual either. You can’t say that masturbation is sexual because it causes orgasm: sometimes orgasm is not involved, and we don’t want to say that that kind of masturbation isn’t sexual. Likewise, we don’t want to say that it is sexual because it involves sexual pleasure, because then it is circular (what makes that pleasure sexual? and is masturbation thus not sexual if it doesn’t feel good?) My point is this: any attempt to come up with some objective reason for what makes masturbation sexual leads to failure.

So rather than attempting this route, let’s take a different one: why do people think of masturbation as sexual? Do they, whenever it is that they are learning about these things, think to themselves, “Well, this involves physiological arousal and an increase in blood flow to my external genitalia, therefore it must be sexual.”??? I’m going to guess that, at least for the vast majority of people, the answer is “NO!” People think that masturbation is sexual principally for two reasons: they receive messages that it is sexual, and (for them, if they do it) it feels sexual.

For asexuals who report feeling that masturbation isn’t sexual, they have, obviously, learned that masturbation is sexual, but, it seems, this fails to connect to their experiences. To them, masturbation simply does not feel sexual. They learn some concept of “sexual” in the context of their lives, and the things that they experience during masturbation have little or nothing to do with that.

Many people find the idea that masturbation could be non-sexual as bizarre. The reason seems to be that to them, it is simply obvious that masturbation is sexual. If you believe X, it is tempting to concluding that you believe X because that’s just how things are. This is especially the case if it seems that everyone else (or just about everyone else) believes X too. Moreover, we tend to assume that everyone else is just like us. Unless we have evidence to the contrary that we trust, we assume that everyone else feels the same way we do. People feel that masturbation is sexual, all the messages that they get about the matter confirm this, it makes sense because it involves organs and feelings that are also labeled as “sexual,” so people conclude that they think masturbation is sexual because that’s just how things are. Then some (subset of) asexuals come along claiming that it’s not, and this strikes them as bizarre. How can masturbation not be sexual?

But, I think, the best response is this: What makes masturbation sexual? (Some) people think of it as sexual and because for some people (probably most) it feels sexual. I think that this is ultimately the answer to what makes anything sexual. And there is clearly considerable variation in what different cultures and different individuals in the same culture think it sexual and in what they feel is sexual. As such, it makes no sense to think of anything as being "inherently sexual."

Friday, January 22, 2010

What does "asexual" mean?

"Asexual" has two plausible derivations, which I will label as (1) and (2)

1: Asexual means "not sexual."
2: Asexual, by way of analogy with homo/hetero/bisexual, roughly means "sexually attracted to neither males nor females.

I will set aside issues of gender binaries involved in (2) (as the matter is not relevant here), and I will assume that (2) is understood in relative rather than absolute sense. ("Little or no sexual attraction" rather than "no sexual attraction ever.") I've thought about this matter a fair amount this week, and I've become dissatisfied with my last post. So I'm going to try and start over in attempting to understand these issues.

First, there is the historical question. While I don't have any strong evidence for the following account, I think it generally points in the right direction. So here's the first question: of (1) and (2), which came first? It seems obvious that "not sexual" is, in some sense, prior to the other. A number of people have independently coined the term "asexual" either to describe themselves (or others), and my impression is that they almost always mean it in the sense of "not sexual." They have some sense of seeing sexuality around them, feeling that they don't fit that, and having a sense of being "not sexual." The most obvious term for this seems to be "asexual."

However, there is something of a political problem with this: it's vague, different people are going to have different ideas of what "not sexual" would mean (or not be sure what it means), and so on. As a consequence, another definition seems to be necessary to communicate about asexuality. The definition that has come to prominence is "Asexual: A person who does not experience sexual attraction."

This definition was never intended to be a definition contrary to (1), and a number of people have held both at the same time. The fact that someone can hold both at the same time seems to be demonstrated by the number of people who come to AVEN, see the definition "Asexual: A person who does not experience sexual attraction," but in deciding if they are asexual or not, are still wondering about the "not sexual" issue. For instance, they see AVEN's definition, but wonder, "If I masturbate/get crushes on people/find people aesthetically attractive/watch porn etc., can I still be asexual?" Now, AVENites will tell them that none of those things necessarily make someone sexual. This will be defended in one (or both) of two ways: by appealing to AVEN's definition (none of those things is sexual attraction) or by appealing to an identity model of asexuality (only you can decide if you're asexual or not.)

Note that these questions only make sense if they are thinking of "asexual" as meaning "not sexual." The fact that they have seen AVEN's definition has not changed the fact that they are thinking in terms of "not sexual."

Now, when we talk about people being "not sexual," the question arises, "Not sexual in what sense?" If you try to come up with necessary and sufficient conditions for what it is to be sexual (and thus, to be not sexual), you'll run into disaster and the whole matter tends to not make a lot of sense. However, I don't think that is really what "asexual" is supposed to cover. The sense in which people are "not sexual" is intuitive: some people see sexuality around them, they see it performed and enacted in culture, in relationships, in the media, etc. and they have this sense of not being that. There is this intuitive sense of being "asexual." I think that it is fundamentally this meaning of "not sexual" that is intended in (1).

However, the prominence that AVEN's definition of asexual has come to play in the asexual community has created a situation where the are people who feel unable to relate to some aspects of sexuality, they feel strange because they do not feel certain things that it seems almost everyone else feels, and they feel that "a person who does not experience sexual attraction" makes sense of this experience; they feel that the definition fits, but they don't have an intuitive sense of being "not sexual."

Because there are a number of people in the asexual community like this (myself included), something of a wedge between (1) and (2) can be created, even though it was never intended. This is, I think, a matter worth exploring further.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Policing definitions?

In a recent post on shades of gray, the author wrote about "Policing the definition: Is there a gold standard?"

She says that one of the reasons for making the post was a debate between us conducted privately. The disagreement between us on the matter is somewhat difficult to precisely characterize, as can be seen by how she describes the matter:
He [me] raised the idea that some asexuals actually define themselves as “not sexual” which, not to put too fine a point on it, to me seems just as much a so-vague-it-becomes-nonsensical definition as it would be to claim a definition of sexuality so broad as to make it possible to claim that all humans are sexual (in a non-scientific context).
My point is a factual one--some people who identify as asexual think of themselves as being "not sexual." As such, the disagreement seems to largely be a matter of responding to this fact. (She see's it as a problem. I don't.)

Now, one thing I find interesting about this is that in private discussions with people in the asexual community, I have now corresponded with someone who expressed utter shock at the possibility that some asexuals think of themselves as "not sexual," and I have also corresponded with someone who was genuinely surprised to discover that not everyone who identifies as asexual thinks of themselves as being "not sexual." This suggests to me that this is a matter worth trying to better understand; I think it is a matter of better understanding the diversity that exists within the asexual community--diversity that does not fit nicely along the better known classificatory schemes used in the asexual community (i.e. romantic orientation, gray-a, demisexual, etc.)

In discussing the matter, I have no intention of trying to address the question of whether asexuals are "not sexual." I've utterly beaten that topic to death in a 16-part series (summarized here) in which I conclude that the question of whether asexuals are "not sexual" is basically incoherent and unanswerable because different people have different ideas of what it is to be sexual, and there is no real way of figuring out who is "right." My intention, instead, is to try to better understand the matter, address the Gray Lady's concerns, and hopefully to foster critical reflection on these issues.

The arguments that she makes are essentially, that a) "asexual" means "lacking sexual attraction" and does not mean "not sexual," b) that saying someone is "not sexual" makes no sense whatsoever and is so incredibly vague that it's not worth asserting, and c) we should therefore police each other on our usage of "asexual" and insist that we only use it in the sense of "lacking sexual attraction."

Regarding the third point, I confess that I take a fuzzy approach to the meaning of "asexual." It does not have one single precise meaning. Many people who use the term (perhaps most) regularly use it in different senses. This certainly includes myself, and I see no problem with this. I think that one major problem with the Gray Lady's argument is that she fails to take into account (or views as a problem we should try to fix) the massive polysemy that exists in natural human language. (For an idea of just how massive it is, see section 3.2 of Unnatural kind terms and a theory of the lexicon by GM Green.)

Polysemy has to do with how the same word can mean many different but closely related things. (It is contrasted with homophony which is two word that mean different things and happen to sound the same.) This can be illustrated by the word "bank." This can be a place by the side of a river or it can refer to a financial institution. Thus, to interpret the sentence "I'm going to the bank" we have to figure out which meaning of "bank" is meant. (This is homophony.) However, the word "bank" can refer to an actual building or it can refer to the more abstract notion of a financial institution. In some contexts, it is possible to distinguish between these. But in others, it is impossible and it doesn't really matter. All that matters is that in a given context, people are generally able to figure out what you mean.

When I talk about asexuality, I could be talking about it as a sexual orientation (but I've previous written about how this has multiple senses here and in following posts), as a social movement of sorts, as an identity, or a number of related things. When I talk about "asexuals" I myself do not know the precise limits of the terms meaning. It clearly means "people who are asexual in some sense of that term." But there are multiple perfectly sensible ways of defining asexuality (Discussed Reflections of defining asexuality). And if we define "asexuals" as "people who experience little or no sexual attraction" you still have the problem of "What is sexual attraction?" To be completely honest, I have no idea. As such, I'm not entirely sure who all is referred to by the term "asexuals." But both I and readers have a general, intuitive enough sense of the meaning of that term that coherent, intelligible discourse is perfectly possible. (I hope!)

The same issue applies to the term "sexual." In saying that someone is "not sexual," there is no reason to think that this has to mean "not sexual in any conceivable sense of the term." That's not how anyone uses it. They are relying on a (somewhat vague but intuitive) idea of sexuality involving attraction, desire, or something--and they're saying that someone who is asexual is not sexual in that sense. The point here is similar to the one with the term "asexual." "Sexual" can have a number of possible meanings in different contexts.

I don't think that this settles the matter, but hopefully it can clear things up a little and provide some food for thought.