Asexuality and The Sexual Imperative : An Interview with Ela Przybylo (Part 1)

Hi Ela,

Can you introduce yourself and say a few words about your work?

My name is Ela Przybylo and I am a feminist researcher based in Canada. For the past several years I have been interested in exploring asexuality – less so as an identity and platform for community organizing, than as a variety of ways people engage with the sexual imperative.



Asexuality and The Sexual Imperative


1- In your 2011 paper you used the term “sexu-society”, can you explain what it is all about?

The goal of this term was to parallel heteronormativity on the sexual axis. If heteronormativity draws our attention to “the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent – that is, organized as a sexuality – but also privileged” – as Berlant and Warner put forth in 1998 – then sexusociety attempts to mark the centrality of sex and sexuality in our culture and the ways in which we have come to organize our practices of joy and loving, life and fulfillment as well as institutional structures around conceptualizations of the sexual imperative.


2-In your thesis “Asexuality and the Feminist Politics of ‘Not Doing It’”, you’ve written about the “sexual imperative”. Can you tell us what the “sexual imperative” is and what are the basic ideas that are attached to it ?


The sexual imperative is a term that was articulated by critical feminist psychologists (Wendy Hollway, Annie Potts, and Nicola Gavey). It relates, as I understand it, to a four-tiered functionality of sex in our culture, wherein: (1) sex is privileged above other ways of relating, (2) sexuality and the self are fused, (3) sex is configured as “healthy” (in particular, culturally designated contexts), (4) sex remains genital, orgasmic, ejaculatory, and in the case of heterosex, coital.


3-In your 2011 paper, you’ve used Michel Foucault’s idea that sexuality has been constructed as “the truth of our being”. Can you tell us a bit more about this? Do you think this kind of association between sexuality and inner truth has consequences upon the lives of asexual people ?


So Michel Foucault, in The History of Sexuality, Volume I (1978), fleshes out the modern conjoining of sexuality and self. He calls sex the “master key,” the deep within of our being according to which we come to understand our social existence. He thus marks our cultural attachments to sex as historical in nature, as born within a context where sex is needed to secure the disciplining and regulation of bodies and populations. On the surface, it seems that talk of sex, of having sex, of being sexually adventuress, of taking our sexuality into our own hands and fucking whom we choose and how we choose is a liberating experience, a practice in the freeing of bodies, norms, practices, and an expansion of possibilities. While in a way this is true, Foucault’s assessment helps us to see how even as we are multiplying our sexual possibilities, such multiplication is an effect of the centralization of sex, as well as of sex’s tactical position in moderating bodies. If sex is experienced at the site of the body as pure joy and as health, the appropriate path of critique is to inquire into why this is so.
Asexuality has a strange relationship with all this. On the one hand, an asexual perspective can help us dismantle, or perhaps examine, sex’s centralized position. On the other hand, “asexuality” as a sexual identity is, strangely, about sex – even if it strives to negotiate desires, pleasures, libidinal energies that struggle with the compulsiveness of sex. The fusing of sex and self does of course make itself felt in the lives of those who identify as asexual or who might fall near asexuality on the spectrum. This is why asexuality itself becomes a sexual fact worth confessing. Sex – in abundance or dearth – makes us who we are today.

4-Last year, I’ve written a short paper in which I mentioned your work. In presenting the idea of the sexual imperative, it appeared to me that the association between freedom and sexuality is also used to set sexuality as the normal way of being. and asexuality as an unfinished state. Do you agree ? Can you say a few words on this opposition between asexuality and freedom and the way it relates to the sexual imperative ?

Yes, you’re right. Sex becomes freedom in the sense that it is understood as indexical of the sorts of people we are and the sorts of people we want to be – that is happy, healthy people. Foucault talks about the way in which sex is configured as a practice of freedom in the service of a certain harnessing of bodies and populations – for instance for reproductive pursuits. I think that today bodies at sex are rendered free not for reproductive reasons but for health and pleasure abiding. Sex, supposedly, makes us better because it is both enactment and evidence of health and pleasure. Healthy, happy bodies fuck, what else? How else can we sing joy and overcome depression?

About Baptiste

I blog here or here and tweet here.
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8 Responses to Asexuality and The Sexual Imperative : An Interview with Ela Przybylo (Part 1)

  1. Siggy says:

    What does it mean to say that the cultural attachment to sex is historical in nature? Is it saying that it comes from an earlier period of history (presumably before 1978 when it was written)?

  2. Pingback: Asexuality, Feminism and Masculinities : an Interview with Ela Przybylo (Part 2) | The Asexual Agenda

  3. Pingback: Asexualité, féminisme, masculinité et impératif sexuel : une interview avec Ela Przybylo | Asexualité-s

  4. SC says:

    ❤ "How else can we sing joy and overcome depression?"

  5. Pingback: AktivistA 2016, Teil 4 von 5: Allonormativität, queere Szene und Queer Studies – AktivistA

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