November 20, 2017 mcgilldaily.com | The McGill Daily
here remains, to this day, frequent confusion around the letter ‘A’ in the LGBTQIA2+ acronym. The A is not for ally. It stands for asexual, which, according to the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN, the largest online asexual community), describes a person who does not experience sexual attraction. This definition is purposefully vague, so as to leave a lot of space for selfidentification and for the different lived experiences of asexuality. This definition recognizes that there is no one way to be asexual. The ‘Overview’ page on the AVEN website adds that “each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently.” Indeed, asexuality is a spectrum. Members of the community can also choose to identify as graysexual (or grayasexual) if they occasionally experience sexual attraction, or as demisexual if they sometimes experience sexual attraction but only after a strong emotional bond has been formed between them and another person.
The meaning of asexuality has been politically and culturally contingent; its perception has shifted over time, while being embedded in conceptions of race, class, and gender. An important distinction must also be made between sexual and romantic orientations. Acknowledging the existence of asexuality as a spectrum means recognizing that not all people experience sexual attraction, and that not all people experience a lack of sexual attraction in the same way. This acknowledgment opens the door to understanding that attraction can mean different things to different people. For example, some individuals experience romantic attraction toward others, and can choose to identify with a romantic orientation which may or may not coincide with their sexual orientation. Folks who do not experience romantic attraction can choose to identify as aromantic. Although aromanticism is not specifically the subject of this piece, I encourage readers to inform themselves on
the subject and include aromanticism in conversations. For example, the Aromantic FAQ on the AVEN wiki provides useful definitions, vocabulary, resources, and related blogs. Aromantics are important members of our community and are very often invalidated and silenced. Today, online communities such as AVEN are at the core of asexual activism and spreading public awareness. It was only after David Jay founded AVEN in 2001 that asexuality began to gain growing acceptance and visibility, and that asexuals could meet and connect on a larger scale. Because there are very few queer resources, events, and spaces that are inclusive of asexuality, asexuals will often start identifying as such only after being in contact with other members of the asexual community. In my case, I started using that word to describe myself only after discovering AVEN and relating to other people’s experiences on the site’s forums and on other online communities. These asexual communities gave me the vocabulary, information, and support that queer communities and sexual education platforms had not offered.
Locating asexuality in western history Although asexuality as a queer sexual orientation received very little visibility until the beginning of the 21st century, there are many different western understandings of asexuality in history that still shape the way we approach the identity today. The meaning of asexuality has been politically and culturally contingent; perceptions have shifted over time, while being embedded in conceptions of race, class, and gender. In her essay “Asexuality and the Feminist Politics of ‘Not Doing It,’” Ela Przybylo argues that around the beginning of the 20th century, the general understanding of women’s sexuality gradually shifted from the idea of passionlessness (where female sexuality was seen as a threat to the status quo, and was considered passive as opposed to active male desires), to a focus on female desire and pleasure as natural and necessary. Though in contrast to the female passivity posited by psychoanalysis, these new ideas concerning the innate nature of sexual desires similarly excluded the experiences of working class and immigrant populations, women of colour, as well as queer, trans, and non-binary individuals. Many of these marginalized groups were depicted as hypersexual in dominant narratives; their sexualities were perceived as already immoral and deviant. This left many communities without a space to voice their own unique experiences of (a)sexuality. These conversations equally eliminated the possibility for individuals assigned male at birth to express their asexuality, as
they were largely seen as the ‘active,’ sexually demanding elements in a binary and patriarchal conception of heteronormative partnered relationships.
The movement for sexual liberation largely excluded the experiences of non-binary and trans femmes, and failed to account for the plurality of lived experiences of femininity. Asexuality was relegated to the sphere of conservatism and gendered oppression. Until recently, historical discussions of female (a)sexuality were therefore limited to the experiences of cisgender, heterosexual white women, often from middle and upper classes. In her essay, Przybylo explains that the 1920s and 1930s in North America and Europe were characterized by growing sociocultural anxieties about the visibility of women in the public realm and their presence in the workforce. Efforts were made to ensure women’s subordination to male authority and return them to the private realm of the household, where successful marriage and motherhood became imperatives. These imperatives were dependent on women engaging frequently and willfully in heterosexual intercourse. Female sexuality was seen as innate and natural, and any divergence from this norm was perceived as threatening and pathological. Around this time, Freud and other psychiatrists were theorizing the concept of ‘frigidity,’ a word used to medicalize female asexuality as an inability to achieve vaginal orgasm. Frigidity was seen not as a complete lack of sexual desire, but as an incapacity to conform to male-defined notions of sexual pleasure. It was necessary to engage in heterosexual intercourse for one’s sexuality to be considered non- pathological. Asexuality was seen as deviant: an incomplete and repressed way of experiencing sexuality, not unlike other queer identities perceived as sites of necessary medi-
cal intervention by psychoanalysts and sexologists alike. Przybylo adds that the second half of the 20th century saw another shift in the understanding of (a)sexuality. Once again, this shift was largely focused on the experiences of cisgender, heterosexual, middle class white women. The so-called ‘sexual revolution’ of the 50s and 60s sought to liberate women in their sexual desires and pleasures. Many feminists saw the clitoris as a site of female agency in sexual pleasure, as opposed to the vagina, which had been considered the place of male-defined, heterocoitus. The clitoris became the symbol of sexual autonomy in contexts where sexual freedom was often equated with general freedom. Frigidity was perceived by many as a patriarchal tool for gendered oppression, originating in false assumptions about female anatomy. These concerns are clearly problematic in the way that they define femininity in physical, biological terms. The movement for sexual liberation largely excluded the experiences of non-binary and trans femmes, and failed to account for the plurality of lived experiences of femininity. Asexuality was relegated to the sphere of conservatism and gendered oppression.
When coming out to friends as asexual and panromantic, I have often been met with disbelief and suggestions on how to live my queerness in a ‘more fulfilling way.’ During this period, feminists like Dana Densmore and Valerie Solanas rejected the idea of sex altogether and proposed radical celibacy as a way to undo patriarchal institutions, such as the family, which were seen as violent and oppressive. However, these discussions positioned a lack of sexuality as a political choice and not as a legitimate queer sexual orientation. This conceptualization of asexuality as a political stance contributed to the continued perception of sexuality and sexual attraction as natural to humans. Indeed, some kind of sexual feeling would be necessary to precede the choice to challenge or reject it. Encouraging radical celibacy did offer an interesting counterpoint to discourses of sex-
ual liberation and opened up conversations about the empowering potential of not engaging in sexual acts. However, it did not challenge gender binary and heteronormative conceptions of sex, remained limited to the privileged decisions of largely white middle and upper class women, and did not account for the plurality of lived experiences of femininity and asexuality. To summarize the past centuries, asexuality has mostly been excluded from historical understandings of sexuality, except where it was seen as a disorder or a political decision. Asexuality as a nonpathological, mostly lifelong characteristic was reserved to the study of plants and animals, and only started to appear in studies on humans in the 1980s, albeit minimally. According to Przybylo, discourses on sexuality remain saturated by the sexual imperative and the heterocoital cluster. The sexual imperative refers to the ways in which “sex is privileged above other ways of relating,” and the ways in which sexuality and the self are understood to be fused. In other words, the sexual imperative encourages us to understand sexuality as inherent to being human, so that sexual intimacy is perceived to be superior to other forms of closeness. Przybylo adds that “sex is configured as ‘healthy’ (in particular, culturally designated contexts).” See the many studies and articles detailing the benefits of sex, from supposedly clearer skin and happier moods to reduced risks of cancer and lower blood pressure. Finally, she writes that “sex remains genital, orgasmic, ejaculatory, and in the case of heterosex, coital.” Here she is referring to the heterocoital cluster, which defines what types of sex are ‘appropriate’ and ‘acceptable.’ More specifically, heterosexual coital sex in which the orgasm is an imperative. Sex is seen as the evidence and enactment of pleasure and health, in specific contexts which fit into dominant discourses around acceptable sexualities. From narratives of female passionlessness and passivity to a reclaiming of sexual desires and pleasure as natural and empowering, asexuality has been largely overlooked in western history and mostly considered pathological or political. The absence of asexuality as a sexual orientation in dominant discourses of the last centuries shapes the ways in which we accept the sexual imperative today and still fail to challenge its implications.
Asexuality in queer and feminist spaces Today, we must prevent the continued exclusion of asexuality in narratives about human sexuality if we want to effectively question the sexual imperative and its harmful effects. This means con-
Published on Nov 20, 2017