The Pseudo-Psychology of Asexuality

In the last three years, I’ve encountered a wide range of writing on asexuality. Some of it I like very much. Much simply doesn’t interest me, either as a result of its methodological approach or lack of theoretical ambition. A few articles have irritated me, albeit for different reasons in each case. However Saberi Roy’s article is the first time I’ve been genuinely appalled by  a piece of purportedly academic writing on the subject. In another area of my academic life, I’m a huge advocate of academics using social media to communicate with wider audiences and I don’t for a second expect online articles to match the rigour and elaboration of journal articles. Nonetheless I do expect them to meet basic standards of rational argument and exhibit at least a cursory awareness of the literature surrounding the topic, all the more so if the author chooses to express themselves in the sort of declarative voice which implicitly styles itself as presenting the unarguable facts relating to a particular issue. Roy’s article falls pathetically short of these standards and, given their profile observes that “psychology is based on empirical knowledge and scientific study”, it’s mystifying how they came to write it.

The article rests on a rather odd distinction between the ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ of asexuality. The former is taken to be a lack of ‘sexual feelings and desires’ towards others while the latter is taken to be ‘refraining’ from sexual activity. Leaving aside Roy’s obvious conflation of sexual feeling/desire/attraction, it’s obvious from the outset how theoretically confused her understanding of asexuality is. The word ‘refrain’ implies a holding back of oneself – are we to assume that the author believes the ‘practice’ of asexuality involves restraining one’s sexual desire? If so, they immediately contradict themselves by declaring that a ‘proper’ asexual* is an asexual in both theory and practice i.e. one whom, to use the author’s own definition, lacks sexual feelings and desires towards others. The two components of ‘proper asexuality’ are, in the author’sown terms, in tension.

Roy then declares that those who have sex ‘mechanically’ and do not derive ‘sexual pleasure’ from it are, by virtue of the fact they engage in sexual activity, thereby sexual. Having already conflated sexual feeling, desire and attraction a few sentences earlier, the author now throws ‘deriving sexual pleasure’ into the mix, without even bothering to consider how that relates to the earlier concepts. Indeed, one suspects it hasn’t even occurred to her that these terms aren’t synonyms. Likewise, having claimed that ‘proper’ asexuals must be asexuals in both ’theory’ and ‘practice’ – i.e. one must have an absence of sexual attraction at an experiential level and refrain from sexual activity at a behavioural level – they then define being sexual entirely in terms of ‘practice’. For an asexual to be ‘proper’ there must be both experience and behaviour but, in order to be a ‘proper’ sexual, all you have to do is engage in sexual behaviour. Why are there dual criteria for asexuality and single criteria for being sexual? Then, having defined the ‘theory’ of asexuality in terms of sexual attraction, Roy declares that having ‘sexual feelings’ towards ‘no one in particular’ means that the person in question is not asexual. How many times can an author contradict themselves in the space of one paragraph? This impressive foray into writing at a standard that would be unacceptable at undergraduate level – I write while being in the process of marking a batch of first year undergraduate essays – is topped off with an example of cod psychoanalysis as bizzare as it is vacuous: ”This may have something to do with homosexuality or narcissism and narcissists could be autosexuals or repressed homosexuals”. The next few paragraphs continue in this vein, making a whole host of unsubstantiated assertions about asexuality which have no obvious connection to the self-contradictory rambling of the first paragraph – the distinction between the ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ of asexuality vanishes and we are instead treated to a series of paragraph long chains of baseless assertion about the biological, psychological, social and intellectual basis of asexuality.

Then it gets really weird. Having already defined asexuality in the first paragraph, the author seemingly changes their mind, declaring that “according to me a true asexual must have at least one biological and one psychological reason for not engaging in sex”. Er, why? In its own terms this is completely arbitrary but the sheer ambiguity as to how this definition of a ‘true asexual’ relates to the earlier definition of a ‘proper asexual’ can’t help but leave anyone who’s bothered reading this far with the impression that Roy isn’t just profoundly ignorant about the subject she’s writing about, she’s also profoundly ignorant about her own argument. For good measure they then throw in some confused methodological remarks:

Psychological studies are mainly based on asexuals who are asexual in practice and thus such studies could be severely flawed as in these cases, people who are considered asexuals may still have latent or repressed sexual desire so they are theoretically not asexual and may have no difference with non asexuals in their level of sex drive. However asexuality could be successfully studied by psychologists with tests that would measure ‘both’ the desire to not have sex – the complete lack of sex drive as also the practice of actually refraining from sex. As of now, psychological tests have focused on measuring asexuality as the condition of ‘not being sexually attracted to anyone’.

I’ve seen no evidence that Roy has either read or understood any of the rapidly expanding literature on asexuality. Likewise they yet again demonstrate  their inability to draw basic conceptual distinctions i.e. ‘the desire to not have sex’ is not the same thing as a lack of desire for sex. It’s perfectly reasonable for Roy to argue that studies should proceed on the basis of both the ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ of asexuality. Or at least it would be if they’d managed to finish the paragraph where they introduced the distinction without contradicting themselves (or indeed finish the article without introducing an entirely new definition of asexuality). Then, having made a whole sequence of uninformed declarations about ‘proper’ and ‘true’ asexuality, the author ends with this wonderful finishing touch:

Ultimately the human mind is complex and denial or repression of desire is the easiest route when the need to repress or deny is greater than the need to express so even responses obtained in psychological tests may not completely reflect an individual’s actual sexual drive. Finally the condition of asexuality remains as great a mystery as sex drive and the human mind and unless we have a deeper understanding of the process of thinking and desire, understanding sexuality or asexuality completely will remain elusive.

Er, right… so is asexuality a result of a psychological mechanism (first sentence) or a mystery which will remain elusive (second sentence)? Leaving aside the fact that Roy yet again contradicts herself from sentence to sentence, neither of these conclusions fit with the body of what she’s arguing. If the first is true then this (impressively!) manages to contradict both her definitions of ‘true’/’proper’ asexuality i.e. if it’s a psychological mechanism about the repression of desire then where does either biology or behaviour enter into it? If the second is true then what on earth was she going on about for the rest of the article? It’s difficult to do justice to quite how awful this article is and, although I can’t know for certain, it’s difficult not to view the author’s academic credentials as profoundly suspect. My earlier comment about undergraduate marking was not hyperbolic. If this were a first year undergraduate essay, I would fail it. Leaving aside her remarkable ability to contradict herself from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph, what really grates is that the author both feels impelled to offer declarations about what ‘true’ and ‘proper’ asexuality while also demonstrating such a profound ignorance of the subject matter. At no point does it seem to occur to her that these are real people with real lives. This article, as well as its ignorant and incompetent author, made me very angry. I might come back to tone down this post later once I’ve calmed down.

*I find this term hugely offensive, particularly when its invoked on the basis of such obvious and profound ignorance of the subject at hand.

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