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."


Inhuman said...

In my opinion, someone is sexual for an individual if that person is lusting over someone or something else during the act of doing whatever it is they're doing. If physical attraction (or fantasy of another person/fantasy of a sexually pleasing scenario) is in the mix and using that physical is intended, then it's sexual.

For example: my gay friend jumps up form behind and gives his other male friends a big hug, strictly for booty purposes (aka, they're hot I wanna give them a hug), it's sexual at least to some degree. If he did the same thing for the sole purpose that he missed them (or whatever reason it is that people give hugs usually) then it's not sexual.

So I agree with you: nothing's inherently sexual

Meg said...

I like how you bring up the point that just because something is perhaps culturally accepted as sexual, it doesn't mean that it holds the same meaning or produces the same feeling for everyone.

natural said...

exactly...sexualy attractive to me, may be actually ugly to someone else.

and that's not because i have poor taste jajaja :D