The cultural significance of asexuality

Until people started calling themselves homosexual, it didn’t make much sense for anyone to refer to themselves as heterosexual. Up until that point, it had simply been taken for granted and, as such, escaped scrutiny either by individuals or by society more widely. As adjectives both homosexual and heterosexual were coined in 1892, in an English translation of work by the early sexologist Kraftt-Ebing. However, as a noun heterosexual didn’t enter common usage until the 1960s. The Google Ngram viewer illustrates the relative occurrence of each term within their (enormous) corpus:

To put it bluntly: people write more about homosexuality. The argument I’m making certainly doesn’t entail the view that there weren’t heterosexual people until homosexual people but rather that the visibility of sexual difference (slowly) made heterosexuality an object of deliberate reflection. I included asexuality as well as bisexuality below but the former is pretty meaningless given its prevalence as a biological term. Nonetheless, it seems interesting and arguably inverts a common way of understanding the relationship between sexualities i.e. homosexuality –> heterosexuality –> bisexuality rather than heterosexuality –> homosexuality –> bisexuality. In a sense heterosexuality, as a concept in itself rather than the characteristics of person referred to by that concept, should be understood as derivative from homosexuality, again understood as a concept rather than set of imputed characteristics.

So what effect would a much increased visibility of asexuality have? Following through the line of thought above, it would make being sexual an object of deliberate reflection. This is certainly my own experience in three years of studying asexuality and it’s been a pretty interesting one. It seems likely that a widespread acquaintance with asexuality, even if it is entirely mediated, would bring being sexual into discursive awareness in a way that hasn’t previously been the case. Quite simply: you’re more likely to reflect upon a personal characteristic if you’re aware that there are people who don’t share it. Furthermore, although I think internal conversation is important to this process, there’s also a vast dialogical element to it. Or to put it simply: you’re more likely to talk to others about a personal characteristic you share with them if you are aware that there are other people who don’t share it. 

Within the asexual community, once technology enabled people to conduct dialogues about their shared experience of being asexual in a sexual world, a rich and differentiated language quickly emerged. In spite of this commonality, there were also differences within the asexual community and, as people continued to discuss them, language began to ‘catch up’ to experience. Conversely I wonder whether, once sexual people begin to reflect upon being sexual as something more than a biological characteristic construed in terms of the entirely vacuous notion of a ‘sex drive’, will a rich panoply of sexual difference similarly begin to emerge? So sexual difference might come to be construed not in terms of object choice (i.e. hetero/bi/homo) but in all manner of complex idiosyncrasy which, at present, only very tangentially finds any sort of discursive expression.

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