The Ambiguity of (a)Sexual Categories

The situations one faces in negotiating intimate life without a desire for sexual activity foregrounds the centrality of the sexual assumption in the conceptual apparatus culturally available for making sense of human intimacy and human sexuality. Without the assumption of sexual desire, the salience of intimacy concepts begins to break down. While they may retain their place within the everyday vocabularies of individuals who do not experience sexual desire, their efficacy as conceptual tools to capture the emotional and moral texture of intimate relationally is profoundly undercut. They cease to adequately explain important aspects of what is at stake personally in intimate life, as well as impeding the possibility of successfully communicating that human caring to others who are still operating naively within that conceptual matrix. In effect the disjuncture between the sexual assumption (as encoded in prevalent relationship concepts) and a lack of sexual desire prises  open a conceptual and experiential space between human emotional experiences and the discursive resources we rely upon to articulate that experience to ourselves and others. With this space comes a need for creative redescription, personalizing and rearticulating these concepts before ultimately, perhaps, moving beyond them entirely. In the term of Archer (2010) these can be seen as rendering reflexivity imperative. The cultural resources afforded to asexuals within contemporary western societies are simply inadequate to make sense of large aspects of their personal experience. This throws them back on their own resources to deliberate about themselves and similar others. Chasin (2011) makes this point eloquently:

“In many cases, asexual people are simply not able to draw on the same cultural resources that other people use to construct their close personal relationships. Consequently, the asexual community is one place where people are actively involved in creative discussion (Jay, 2007), figuring out how to make sense of the experience of being asexual and relating to other people from asexual perspectives. Since “whatever we might say (and think) about ourselves and others as people will always be in terms of a language provided for us by history” (Edley, 2001, p. 210), we are limited by what is possible within the discourses we can access (Shotter, 1997). In practice, trying to make sense out of our asexual selves and relationships sometimes requires inventing new discursive “tools” (i.e., generating new words and ways of talking about relationships) or adapting pre-existing tools to new situations. These new discourses literally make the unique and often confusing relationships asexual people engage in make sense, that is, they render otherwise non-normative relationships intelligible.”

As earlier stated, many asexual individuals have experienced difficulty in getting those around them to take the notion of an ‘asexual relationship’ seriously because without the presence of sex,  it is difficult to differentiate it from a friendship. Often sex is seen as a precondition (indeed an explanation) of intimacy within a relationship between two people. So relationships which diverge from this particular conception (dyadic, exclusive, intimate, sexual) pose conceptual problems which are rarely addressed. In a very literal sense, their participants meet the limits of language, as a relatively limited range of relational concepts (friend, sexual partner, romantic partner, life partner – there’s a variety of descriptions for these concepts but obvious convergence upon the underlying ideas) fail to do justice to their emotional experience.

Being in a relationship leaves both individuals needing to articulate and present that relationship: to themselves, to each other and to the wider world. There is more to our experience and understanding of relationships than the terms in which we describe them. In fact it is the interaction between the former and the latter which leads to growth and change, as we try to put it words what we feel. Reciprocal understandings and expectations begin to flow from that dialogue, producing transformation in the form and content of the relationship which in turn poses new descriptive challenges.

I found an incomplete draft of a book chapter I had intended to write a couple of years ago. I’m unlikely to ever do anything substantive with it so I’ve posted it in sections on my blog. 

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