If we accept this account then we can see the ‘sexual revolution’ as constituting a decoupling of sex from commitment. Can we read the emergence of asexuality as a parallel decoupling of commitment from sex?
“The really big change in sexual practices among young Americans occurred with the Baby Boomer generation, that is the move toward premarital sex,” says Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who studies sexuality. This change was followed by “the move in the Sixties and the Seventies to having sex before a relationship was really fully committed. That big move happened with the parents of the people who are now in college, basically.” And those college kids are now pushing the trend further to today’s standard in which commitment and emotional connection of any sort are both unnecessary precursors to sex.
I’ve intended to read Lisa Diamond’s Sexual Fluidity for a few years. I’ve finally got round to it and I’m kicking myself for not having read it earlier. I think I’ve been gradually losing interest in sexuality studies over the last year or two and this book has near instantly reawakened my enthusiasm for it. There needs to be a proper longitudinal study into asexuality and I’d rather like to be the person who did it. I’m writing a section of a chapter on ‘a-fluidity’ at the moment and it’s proving really thought provoking.
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.
What is it about this time in particular that has made asexuality so popular? Why now? Why is it visible now as opposed to 40 years ago?Is it because sex has become the focus of attention?
This is a fascinating question. Until the early 21st century, there was no sign of an organised asexuality community or an asexuality identity of the form we see now. It would be obviously silly to imagine that the people who now identify as asexual magically popped into existence at the turn of the millenium – so what explains the sudden growth of the asexual community? Clearly the internet played a large role in this, in that it allowed otherwise emotionally and geographically dispersed individuals to connect with each other and, through those connections, develop a shared understanding of what they had in common.
Once this shared understanding is out there (the idea that there are people called ‘asexual’ who share certain experiences) it becomes easy to see how, particularly with increasing media attention, the community would grow. New people search for others like themselves and because of the increased visibility, it becomes easy to find them. One of the striking findings of my research was the disjuncture in the experience of older and younger asexuals: for the former, the process of ‘searching’ could take decades, whereas for the latter, they will often just type ‘do not experience sexual attraction’ (or something similar) into google and soon find an asexual website.
But I think there must be more to it than this. What makes people go looking for others like themselves? What creates this desire to connect? In my research I found that what I termed ‘assumed pathology’ was a near universal experience – when people begin to realise that, unlike some peer group, they do not experience sexual attraction, it leads them to assume that something must be wrong with them: that they’re ‘broken’, ‘damaged’ or ‘fucked up’. This reaction is reinforced by those around them with depressing frequency – who tell them something must be wrong with their hormones, or they’re repressed or must have been abused as a child. So I’d argue that experience of pathology, the sense that something must be wrong with you for not experiencing sexual attraction in the ‘normal’ way, has driven the format of the asexual community. The internet was crucial to it but it was, ultimately, only the means. I think a more interesting question is whether this pathologisation of asexual experience is something recent. Or in other words: has sexual culture changed in recent years in such a way as to render the experience of asexuality more problematic? I strongly suspect that it has but, at this stage, I’ve yet to do the empirical research necessary to justify a stronger answer.
Is there a risk in labeling yourself as asexual too soon? A lot of people seem to think that there are underlying psychological problems to being asexual.
Indeed they do and that’s something which has come to fascinate me over the last few years. In a slight odd turn, my interest has shifted from asexual experience to the way in which people who aren’t asexual react to the existence of asexuality – I find the assumptions sexual people make about asexuality fascinating, given the sheer uniformity you begin to recognise when you encounter it a lot. They also tend to be remarkably flimsy, in the sense that if you question the basis of the reaction, it soon becomes apparent that it’s an assumption. I’ve argued that underlying these assumptions is something I’ve termed the sexual assumption: sexual attraction is both universal (everyone ‘has it’) and uniform (it’s fundamentally the same thing in all instances) such that its absence must be explicable in terms of a distinguishable pathology. I have a project planned to test my hypothesis that this assumption is something which demonstrably emerged in the second half of the 20th century, as an assumption made within academic discourse which ‘broke free’ and came to structure the way in which we think and talk about sexuality in everyday conversation.
It’s certainly possible that people might label themselves too soon – various researchers, including myself, have noted that we’ve yet to see the kind of longitudinal research about asexuality which would help us understand this issue in greater depth. But equally it’s important to recognise that this notion of ‘too soon’ is something most asexual individuals encounter in their everyday lives. As friends would put it, “maybe you’re just a late bloomer?” or “maybe you haven’t met the right person yet?”. It’s not exactly something people are likely to be in the dark about, simply because the omnipresence of this reaction means they must think about it. But what makes these questions so corrosive is the simple fact that it’s not possible to know that these friends are wrong. How do you know that you might not come to be other than you currently are? In a sense I think it’s the wrong question, with the caveat that I also think the assumption of essential identity which underlies it (i.e. by coming to identify in this way, I am revealing a permanent and unchanging aspect of myself which I can never repudiate) is also the wrong way of looking at the issue.
Ιs asexuality hormone related/ genetic/ societal?
It’s an understandable question but I don’t think you can explain asexuality in these sorts of terms i.e. like most human things of any complexity, it’s both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’. I’d reject the idea that asexuality can be ’caused’ by genes or hormones on philosophical grounds. However I’m completely open to the possibility that there may be a hormonal and genetic element in asexuality, though the diversity within the community (e.g. between people who are actively disgusted by sex and those who are simply indifferent to it) suggests that there are likely to be different causal pathways at work. Furthermore, the process of going from not experiencing sexual attraction to coming to identify as asexual is clearly a near entirely social one.
How did you become interested in asexuality?
Sheer curiosity. I didn’t really understand it when I first encountered it and, in the process of coming to understand it, many assumptions I hadn’t been aware of became apparent to me. This is a pretty common experience of people working on this topic. Once you really start to look at the data and think through the implications of it, it soon becomes blindingly obvious that many of the concepts we use to think and talk about sexuality are extremely limited. Not least of all the fact that everyone assumes that sexual attraction is a universal thing.
Do you see asexuality as a movement or as a sexual orientation? Or both?
It’s obviously both but I think there are sometimes tensions between the two. There are people who don’t experience sexual attraction (i.e. share a common orientation) and pretty pervasively find that wider society doesn’t recognise that they exist – this leads many of them to seek to change perceptions, increase their visibility and make connections with other groups in similar situations. Without the sexual orientation you don’t get the movement but they are practically two distinct things.
This Guardian article was the first time I’d noticed sexual people (I prefer this term to ‘allosexual’ i.e. ‘sexual’ and ‘asexual’ as adjectives rather than nouns) respond with indignation, as bewildering as it was in its intensity, to being identified as ‘sexual’ people i.e. as a distinguishable group rather than humanity as such. But inevitably, when we designate a group, particularly when using a noun, the possibility exists that we falsely attribute a homogeneity to that group which doesn’t exist. Which the post reblogged above insightfully elaborates, in terms of both consequences and curing it, in the case of asexual people’s perceptions of sexual people:
However, by talking about allosexual people as if they can’t help but need sex all the time constantly and can only think of relationships as sexual, we are only perpetuating the problem. It teaches us that if we ever want to be in a relationship with a person who is allosexual, we will be forced to have sex, since they can’t live without it. It makes us more likely to distrust or push away allosexual folks as friends, zucchinis, or partners, since we are believing these ludicrous assumptions society teaches us. It makes us discount the experiences of allosexual people in non-sexual primary relationships, accounting that they won’t last, since a sexual person cannot live without sex.
This totally erases allosexual people who abstain from sex for whatever reason. Allosexual people at least have their own experiences to know that they are not constantly craving sex. However, many of us don’t have these experiences, so we allow what society teaches us to become our main archetype for what allosexual people are like.
So how do we fix this? We need to not make generalizations or assumptions about allosexual people. We need to realize that, like us, they are human and their sexualities exist on a wide spectrum. We need to look at the beliefs we have about sexuality and allosexual folks and critically examine where those come from and how society, the media, and we are contributing to them. We need to not shame people for being allosexual, and accept their sexualities as part of who they are, and realize that does not make them a better or worse person. We need to openly communicate with our romantic, sexual, platonic, and queerplatonic partners about what their sexualities mean to them and talk about how that interacts with our own. We need to listen when allosexual people call us out and tell us we are making assumptions or contributing to the false conceptions of sexuality that our society teaches us.
Most importantly, I believe we need to have discussions with our allosexual friends about their experiences. This will help dispel many of the misconceptions some of us have about allosexual folks, as well as open communication and create allies. There’s an entire wealth of information to be shared and explored. We merely need to talk about it!
One of the things that fascinates me about the asexual community is quite how diverse it is (in a range of different ways) without the extent of this difference undermining the collective identity (i.e. the ‘umbrella’ definition). In fact the difference is, in a superficially paradoxical way, the condition which secures the commonality. But it stands to reason that much as ‘asexual’ works discursively by negating the ‘sexual’, bringing an opposing point of identification into language around which a relatively heterogeneous array of subjects can converge, so too might this be true of ‘sexual’. It’s just that until we identify ‘sexual’ people, as a distinguishable sub group (albeit a very large one) rather than human beings as such, the discursive opening which allows the articulation of internal differences (i.e. the range of what it is to be ‘sexual’) is foreclosed and there’s no basis for reciprocal articulation of the ways in which we differ in spite of our commonality of being ‘sexual’.
HEY. I’m calling you out, ace community. I’ve seen something prevalent in our community, and I think it’s time that it needs to end.
The way we talk about and portray allosexual folks is often almost a caricature. We often speak of them as if they are constantly horny, unable to abstain from sex, and unable to experience love without needing sex. We sometimes act as if we are superior because we are able to pursue our interests without ‘all that sex business’ getting in the way. We often suggest that our friendships are more important to us, or even that allosexuals will always choose a sexual relationship over a platonic or queerplatonic one.
We need to stop this. This is detrimental to many people. It erases the experiences of allosexual folks who are in queerplatonic relationships, are celibate, are aromantic, or are in mixed relationships with asexuals. In addition…
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The sexual assumption is the usually unexamined presupposition that sexual attraction is both universal (everyone ‘has it’) and uniform (it’s fundamentally the same thing in all instances) such that its absence must be explicable in terms of a distinguishable pathology.
All from this Guardian article about asexuality earlier in the week:
- What, not even a bit of mild masturbation?
- The only person I have seen in real life who was asexual was affected pretty severely with his autism so I don’t know if someone who has never felt attracted to another person is suffering from some kind of disorder.
- Nature invented sex for reproduction. Being asexual is like being born without an arm. It’s not normal, but no one should get all excited about it.
- So you can literally lie there and flick the bean without thinking about anything? I don’t believe you. Call me cynical, but I’m not even sure there is such a thing as asexuality. If you have a sex drive, even if it isn’t “directed at anyone or anything”, surely that makes you a sexual being of some sort?
- In some ways, it’d be great to be asexual. There are so many other things to do, books to read (or write), mountains to climb, symphonies to compose, TV show box sets to watch, countries to travel to, languages to learn, video games to master, diseases to discover cures for, internet forums to engage in endless hair-splitting debates on, &c. Think of how much one would get done if one didn’t have to share one’s nervous system with the ancient machinery one’s genes built for passing themselves on.
- I find it hard to believe that the hormone levels of asexual people who do not have anysexual desire would have hormone levels comparable to sexual people.
- Maybe it’s just people who can’t find the opposite sex they think they deserve.
- As you may I’m really struggling with this asexual stuff, I fail to see how “romantic attraction” can not involve some sort of physical trait in the person you’re attracted, even if it’s just “pleasing to the eye”.
- Can I ask if this is post menopause? It’s one of those well known but hush hush “facts” in my extended family that the women (from my mothers side at least) lost pretty much all desire for sex once menopause is done. And most of their close female friends feel the same way. It’s just that talking about it openly is not done.
- Because without sex, we don’t exist. We’re genetically predisposed to have a pronounced relationship with it.
And then I got bored. There were a lot of comments. But it’s helped developed my idea about something to add into my postdoc plan: the comments and responses to asexual articles online constitute a great resource and, rather than abstract theoretical speculation, I want to collate and systematically analyse responses to asexuality by non-asexuals. More specifically I want to analyse attempts to explain away asexuality: what do they have in common on a conceptual level? I’m offering the sexual assumption as an empirical hypothesis based on (a) what I found in my research about experiences of sexual responses to asexuality (b) my own experience in the last few years of doing media work, talking to lots of people about my research and generally seeing a lot of different people react to asexuality.
“Spotlight on Asexuality Studies” was a groundbreaking event hosted by the Identity Repertoires/Mind the Gap research group in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK. Academics, activists, community members, therapists and students gathered in the university library and online to discuss contemporary asexual research, with papers presented both in-person and from the United States and Canada via video-conference.
For more information about the event, see the website.
The talk I gave at the recent Spotlight on Asexuality Studies event:[audio: https://markcarrigan.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/markspotlight.mp3]
I was a little confused when I first encountered the term asexual. The person who used the term defined as asexual and yet, living with him at the time, I knew he had sex. Or at the very least that he sometimes brought people home who then spent the night. In common with most people, my initial sense of the term was some half-remembered throwback from secondary school Biology. So it was a little confusing to me that he apparently slept with people. It was the questions raised by this situation that fostered my initial interest in asexuality and, as I got answers, I found myself confronted by more questions which only amplified my newfound curiosity about the subject. By the start of 2009 I had resolved to satisfy my curiosity (in the process putting some of my training in social research to good use) and in the somewhat ephemeral space of time precariously lodged between my personal life and my PhD, I began a research project exploring asexuality and what it meant to asexual individuals.
As well as the asexual individuals I already knew, I found participants through the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) and the Asexuality Live Journal. The front page of the AVEN website defines an asexual as ‘someone who does not experience sexual attraction’ and due to the popularity of the site this definition has been highly influential. However as I soon found out, it was not exhaustive. Behind this ‘umbrella term’ lay a wide variety of people who related in a whole host of different ways to sex and romance. Some asexuals are indifferent to sex and, in the context of a relationship, are happy to have it because they know it’s important to their partners. Others find the prospect abhorrent and are utterly averse to the prospect of sex (although I heard many sad tales of people subjecting themselves to an experience they hated because at that point they didn’t feel it was ok to say they didn’t want to). Some asexuals are ardent romantics and want nothing more than to find someone special to share their life with. Others prefer to find companionship through friends and family, with no interest in finding a partner. What unites them is a common experience of feeling alienated from a society which, particularly for young people, places a great burden on sexual experience as a sign of self exploration and growing up. For a lot of asexuals this left them feeling “broken” (this was a common phrase used) and abnormal. At least it did until they discovered the asexuality community and for the first time began to feel that their orientation was ok.
Overall the research has been an enormously positive experience for me, at least apart from my partner’s initial fears that the whole thing was a convoluted preliminary to coming out as asexual myself (apparently this used to happen with some frequency in the early days of modern sexuality studies). The idea that romantic attraction and sexual attraction are distinct (though for many people related) things has clarified a lot in my personal life. It’s also helped me understand the confusing encounters which too often plagued my adolescence. I’m much more comfortable with the fact that sex is something which only really makes sense for me within the context of a committed relationship (whereas I’d previously felt shy at expressing this thought around some of my more libertine friends). I’ve also been left with the strong conviction that the recognition of asexuality is not just important for asexuals but for everyone else as well.
For instance consider the impact that the struggle for gay rights has had on society and culture more widely. At its worst the increased awareness and visibility has produced phenomena such as the mock-lesbian Nuts-style porn shoots and the meterosexual cliché. At best though it has worked to make the world a safer and more humane place in which to live: more tolerant of sexual diversity, more aware of sexual choice and more open to sexual difference.
So why did the fight for gay liberation have this impact? At least in part it was down to the ideas which it established in the popular consciousness. For instance it wasn’t until people started calling themselves homosexual that it made sense for other people to call themselves 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.
Similarly I think that a wider recognition of asexuality would inevitably give rise to a much deeper understanding of what it is to be sexual. Despite the pervasiveness with which the importance of sex is affirmed within our culture, we’re often profoundly inarticulate about the role that sex plays in our lives and why it is important to us. At least in terms of the younger generation, we’re far more likely to discuss sex (good sex, bad sex, weird sex ) then we are the place we presume it ought to occupy in our lives. We’re so prone to seeing sexuality as a marker of personal fulfilment that we rarely stop and ask ourselves where we, as individuals, stand in relation to it and what importance it genuinely holds in our lives. Crucially some of us don’t feel particularly free to say that, while we may want sex, it holds no great importance in our lives (at least not relative to other things like friends, romance and love).
Nowadays most people know someone from the LGBT community and, in many cases, this acquaintance forces them (at least fleetingly) to think about their own sexuality and what it means to them. What would happen if most people knew someone from the asexual community? I think, or at least hope, it would lead the rest of us to think more deeply about sex and in the process clarify where it stands for us in relation to romance and love. In short it would help us all to be a bit clearer about what matters to us and why. Perhaps then we’d all see that there’s more to life than sex and, more to the point, we’d be a lot clearer about what that ‘more’ is.
Originally posted on The Most Cake