In contemporary society it stands starkly obvious that ‘sex sells’: it has become a cultural resource incorporated into and deliberately deployed as part of the machinations of consumer capitalism. As Elliott and Lemert (2009: 114) observes, “sexuality increasingly becomes a terrain on which the impact of global capital, ideas and ideologies are brought to bear’ and that this can be seen most strikingly in the ‘ways in which sexuality is farmed and regulated today through advertising, mass media and information culture’. Weeks (2007) refers to this as the ‘commercialization of the erotic’, arguing that sex has indirectly, in the form of advertising, as well as directly, in the form of online pornography and the global sex trade, become an increasingly central aspect of the political economy of late capitalism. While he does not take this to mean that “every act of sex or love or intimacy is inevitably tainted by commercialization”, he does argue that the sexual and the intimate “ are never free from the threats as well as the opportunities provided by its giant presence” (Week 2007: 13).
The increasing public visibility of sexuality has developed hand-in-hand with a new found acceptance and openness towards sexual desire, creating a space for goods and services which, either directly or indirectly, service those desires and provide personal and social outlets for them. It would be deeply misleading to conceive of this process as a zero-sum affair, brought into being ex nihilo by the sexual radicalism of the new left, particularly given the use of sex in advertising and commerce prior to this time (Stearns 2006: 54).Nonetheless two processes from the 1960s onwards led to a radical increase in the intensity and extension of the linkage between sex and commerce.
Firstly, the increase in public visibility and openness about sexual desire, extending, albeit unevenly, throughout the world. Secondly, a restructuring of western economies which moved the locus of accumulation away from production and towards consumption. Under such conditions the technologies of stimulating consumption take on a newfound importance, generating a vested interest in the manipulation of libidinal energies through commerce and advertising. My contention is that the reciprocal interaction between these two trends, with each in turn intensifying as a result of various extrinsic factors since the 1980s, has brought about a heretofore unparalleled sexualisation of society.
This has profound implications for asexuals in terms of the social environment which they confront, with markers of sexuality seemingly omnipresent throughout society, entailing the frequent necessity of reflexive negotiation to make sense of their own identities in light of a commercialised culture which implicitly repudiates their asexuality. In fact it could be speculated that this is an important factor, alongside others such as the spread of internet access, in explaining the specificity of the asexual identity’s historical emergence. It seems plausible that there have always been people who are asexual (albeit without applying a socially recognised label to their experiences) so why did the asexual community only emerge in the first decade of the twenty-first century? The sexualisation of society undoubtedly played a role in this, as individuals who later come to identify as asexual have more encounters with sexual and sexualising material from an earlier age.
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.