When I’m talking about asexuality, I love to say that it complicates things. And I mean it as a compliment. The idea that asexuality forces us to rethink some of our most basic assumptions about sexuality is a real delight to me. Among those questions I like to think about is the notion of sexual freedom. In one word, I’ve got the feeling that there is a problem with this idea of sexual freedom. I’ve got the feeling that the way the question is framed makes asexuality incompatible with sexual freedom. And that’s a shame, because a lot of us, asexual people, think of ourselves as sexually free. And I don’t see why we could not be.
The Pressure Cooker Metaphor
If there’s a problem with the idea of sexual freedom it surely owes a great debt to the Pressure Cooker Metaphor. To understand the Pressure Cooker Metaphor, you have to picture society as the pressure cooker and sexuality as the steam. Sexuality is thought to be a life force and this life force is trying to get free from the pressure cooker. Unfortunately, laws, institutions and mores prevent this force from expressing itself. Like steam in the pressure cooker, sexuality is repressed*. The problem is that repression makes the pressure goes up. And that’s dangerous. To prevent the explosion, one has to let the steam out. And that’s the job of the sexual liberation : to let the steam out, to free sexuality.
Sexuality is a life force
I know that this pressure cooker’s story is very popular. Besides, I don’t pretend that it doesn’t have its uses. It does. My main concern is that this kind of plot doesn’t take into consideration asexuality. The first thing to say is that a conception of sexuality as a life force (the life force ?) makes me really uneasy. If sexuality is a life force, does it mean that asexual people are less alive than others ? Plus, as an asexual person, I’m a bit skeptical towards this idea of sexuality as an all powerful drive. Honestly, if my liberation depended on the liberation of my “sexual energy” I’d have to wait…forever.
You don’t exist
Besides, in this story of sexual liberation, the only problem you can have with sexuality is the lack… of sexuality. And this too doesn’t make any sense to me. But there’s more, because if you think carefully about it, you realize that this train of thought is in fact very antagonistic to the very idea of asexuality. Let me explain, if you presume –as the Pressure Cooker Metaphor does– that sexuality is a life force shared by everyone, there’s no room at all for asexuality. The only thing that can exist is sexual repression. Since everyone “possesses” sexuality, a person without sexual attraction (or even a person who doesn’t have sex) can’t be nothing more than a person who represses his or her “true” sexuality. And as a matter of fact that’s exactly what led doctors and psychiatrists to invent the HSDD**. No wonder they’re confused…
Wanna be free sexually ? Stop being asexual
Let’s bear with me for just a minute more. I’ve said that sexuality was thought as a life force, I’ve said that the repression of sexuality was evil, but there’s an epilogue to this story. Because, in order to prevent the pressure cooker to blow, there’s a remedy : the liberation of sexuality. And the liberation of sexuality is the release of sexual energies. To liberate your sexuality you have to break free from harmful inhibitions, you have to let your desires run wild. Or to put it differently : in order to free your sexuality you have to get as far away as you can from asexuality. It means above all not to be asexual. And I’m saying this again : what is bugging me is not the call to express sexual potentialities. Not at all. What I’m up against is the idea that the liberation of sexuality is the opposite of asexuality. Until evidence to the contrary, asexuality is a sexuality. And I don’t see why some sexualities should be less free than others.
The conclusion in a nutshell is that, according to me, the very grammar of sexual freedom doesn’t allow asexuality to be included. It simply does not. Those views of sexuality as a life force, of harmful repression and of the release of sexual energies are far too deeply embedded in our sexual culture to give any room to asexuality. In fact you find those ideas everywhere : chauvinist masculinity, sexology, the queer movement, psychoanalysis and even some segments of feminist thought. Now, if like me, you think that a really inclusive politics of sexuality should account for sexualities as well as for asexualities, then we’ve got some thinking to do. Because in my mind a real theory of sexual freedom should be able to account for the fact that you can have less sex and be more free, that you can have less desire and be more free. But to include those possibilities, we definitely need to rethink the meaning of sexual freedom.
* : I’m saying this again : I support all consensual sexualities. Of course some sexualities are oppressed by the way society is organized and of course that’s a shame. But that’s not my point here. See this paper : The Two Meanings of Sex-positivity.
** : The Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (DSM-IV-TR) is a mental disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The ancestor of this disorder (in previous editions of the manual) was named “Inhibited Sexual Desire Disorder” which shows clearly – by the use of the word “inhibited” — the influence of the underlying Pressure Cooker Metaphor.