Asexuality, Feminism and Masculinities : an Interview with Ela Przybylo (Part 2)

Read the first part


Asexuality and Feminism



1- How the sexual imperative and what you’ve named the “hetero-coital cluster” can be thought together ?

I would say that heteronormativity works in tandem with the sexual imperative. If the hetero-coital cluster is that specific entanglement that directs our bodies towards a very scripted narrative of sexual relating (one that is, to say the least, hetero and coupled and coital and orgasmic and ejaculatory), then we can say that it depends on the sexual imperative. But even while the cluster loosens up, in the sense that a greater plurality of sexual practices is coming into the sexual vernacular, the sexual imperative is not loosening its hold. In this sense it becomes less devastating in a broad sense to have sex “incorrectly” than it is to not have sex at all. So I would say that hetero-coitality relies on the sexual imperative but the sexual imperative exceeds hetero-coitality.

2-The so called “sex wars” opposing the so-called pro-sex feminists and radical feminists rages in France. Do you think, as Cerankowski and Milks in their 2010 paper, that the study of asexuality could advance this discussion ? How ?

I am not really familiar with recent feminist debates around sex in the French context. I would agree with Breanne Fahs (2010) that asexuality has been lost in feminist debates in large part because of a polarized focus on the “pro-sex” v. “anti-sex” debate. I think it is important to not conflate asexuality with either of these perspectives but also to see that asexuality could be effectively deployed to complicate both sides of the impasse. So, for instance, asexuality can problematize a “pro-sex” approach that does not take stock of the sexual imperative. Conversely, asexuality also asks us to revisit “sex-negativity” which has acquired a much less popular position in feminist and queer theorizing.

3- Do you think that celibacy can be thought as a tool of empowerment for women ? Why ?

The first thing I want to say here is that I find it important in my work to blur strict distinctions between asexuality and celibacy which rely on assumptions that the latter is a choice, as such. I think that is more conducive to place asexuality and celibacy in dialogue with one another or perhaps even to see them as varying modes of nonsexual engagement. Undoing a categorical disassociation of asexuality from celibacy encourages us to better spot our anxieties around the politics of not “doing” sex – and whatever shape and form this might take.

To answer your question: while it is unfair to say that asexuality is feminist by default, asexuality offers a rich terrain for feminist involvement. It can be harnessed in the ongoing project of demolishing hetero-coitality and heteronormativity. It provides us with a renewed politicization of the conjoining of sex and love. It can offer a tangible means for distancing oneself from the pressure to conform to sexual normativity. But whether or not it is “empowering” for women really depends on the context, the uptake, the person in question. What Eunjung Kim (2011) has termed desexualization, for instance, has been used in the disservice of groups of women both historically and in the present.




Asexuality and Masculinities



1-Do you think that hegemonic masculinities depend on a certain conception of male sexuality ? What is this conception about?

Hegemonic masculinities are, at their core, about particular ways of having sex, being sexual, and ostentatiously performing one’s sexuality. For instance, feminist psychologists have put forward the “male sexual drive discourse” as the overwhelming cultural designation of men as endlessly in pursuit of sex (supposedly, with women). To be understood as “a man,” indeed to feel oneself as “the man” is thus predicated on fucking, screwing, being unabashedly hetero-sexual. Interestingly, one of the things that came up in the interviews I did with asexually-identified, masculine-identified men in Southern Ontario was that the public performance of the sexual imperative and the male sexual drive discourse is crucial to bonding with others and to social belonging. In a forthcoming book chapter, which will be out in October 2013 (the book itself is edited by Karli June Cerankowski and Megan Milks) I explore just this.

2-Can asexuality and male asexuality in particular offer an alternative to this all powerful conception of male sexuality ?

Asexuality does provide alternative forms of engagement with masculine ideals. For one it challenges the male sexual drive discourse. So asexuality certainly dishevels some of the basic coordinates of “being a man” today. The men I interviewed all experienced what Cara MacInnis and Gordon Hodson (2013) have called “antiasexual prejudice” or “antiasexual bias” in that they were bullied, teased, had experiences of “not fitting in,” had trouble finding romantic partners or companions, experienced degrees of social exclusion, and undertook unwanted (hetero)sex.




Additional Questions


1-I’m trying to convince academics in France that the study of asexuality is a fascinating issue. If, after everything you’ve just said, some are still not convinced, what could you add to convince them ?

Asexuality is absolutely a pertinent topic. To defer a thinking of asexuality is to demonstrate an unambivalent investment in projects of the sexual imperative. I think asexuality studies will either develop into a burgeoning subfield of inquiry within the interdisciplinary study of sexuality or it will be deemed irrelevant, “unsexy.” If you find that others feel asexuality is not relevant or fascinating, it is worthwhile to consider what commitments, personal and political, make them feel this way. I strongly believe that asexuality matters to everyone, not just to those who identify as “asexual.”

2- On a personal note : what are you planning ? Are you going to write a book ?

Yes, I am currently developing my dissertation, which I plan to make into a book.

Thanks a lot Ela !

About Baptiste

I blog here or here and tweet here.
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16 Responses to Asexuality, Feminism and Masculinities : an Interview with Ela Przybylo (Part 2)

  1. epochryphal says:

    I agree about “undoing [the] categorical disassociation” of celibacy and asexuality – I think there is a very productive dialogue waiting there. I’m particularly interested in discussion of reasons for celibacy, from a search for enlightenment to anxiety about sex, from finding sex a distraction or unimportant to intersections with mental illnesses and sex addiction or compulsions or intrusive thoughts. Particularly I think a dialogue between people with such mental illnesses who identify as asexual, who identify as celibate, and perhaps also with folks who don’t identify as either of those, would be quite productive.

    • ace-muslim says:

      Some asexuals seem to talk about celibacy like, “I would choose to have sex if I were interested in it, but I’m not, so it doesn’t apply to me.” Personally, I’m not interested in sex for its own sake, but I could choose to have it for other reasons. I choose not to, and therefore consider myself both asexual and celibate. They can go together!

      • Calinlapin says:

        I’m confilcted about this idea of “blurring strict distinctions between asexuality and celibacy”. It is clear that :
        1- the distinction is useful as a communication tool (in part. for media exposition)
        2- it is useful because it allows for a better understanding of what’s going on (reductionnism)
        3- But, it’s also interesting to think about nonsexuality/asexuality from a social perspective, like a certain manner of being into contact with social norms about sexuality. It reminds me of the “collective identity model” :

        Quote : Now imagine that same person in a different environment, where they are reminded of their lack of sexuality constantly. In this environment things like intimacy and attraction are entangled in a set of sexual ideas which have nothing to do with the person’s life. The person is constantly expected to be thinking and feeling things which they are not. This second environment could create feelings of confusion and isolation leading to the formation of an asexual identity and make the person asexual.

        • L says:

          In reply to your:

          1. I don’t believe that making an issue simple and palatable is the best course of action when it comes to speaking on behalf of groups who are much more complex than the talking points and spokespeople let on. See the way trans* rights have been sidelined and ignored for decades to further LGB interests while we have been promised for nearly as long that we will be included in the conversation “soon”. As a trans* person, I cannot trust an LGB person to speak for me unless it furthers their own interests. In short: simplistic communication communicates nothing but simplicity. Asexuality is not simple, and it does us (or some of us, I should say) a great disservice to make it out to be so.

          2. It does not allow for a better understanding of “what’s going on”. It allows for a better understanding of what goes on with -celibate asexuals-, and no one else. Reductive logic is bad logic.

          3. I’ve said this a number of times recently elsewhere, but it will always bear repeating: noncelibate asexuals are capable of being just as alienated from the wider hegemonic heterosexual culture as celibate aces are, because the way hat noncelibate aces approach sex and sexual narratives is fundamentally different than for someone who is allosexual.

          • Siggy says:

            I think Calinlapin’s points 1-3 were meant to be in favor of distinguishing asexuality and celibacy, not against. (ETA: I meant points 1-2)

          • L says:

            (Can’t reply to you, Siggy, so I’ll reply to myself)

            Yeah, it sounds like that they are speaking in favor of distinction, but the points they raise actually seem to point to the opposite? (Acknowledging diversity and nuance is the opposite of reductionism, doesn’t “technically” aid easy communication. I might have been confused by the phrasing.

          • Siggy says:

            The distinction between asexuality and celibacy is a deliberate rhetorical move. It’s good communication, because it emphasizes the difference between asexuality and behavior. It’s good politics, because it appeals to sex-positive people who dislike purity culture.

            On the other hand, it ignores the similarities to celibacy. If it’s okay for people to not want sex because of their orientation, what is wrong with allosexual people who choose not to have sex? Aren’t the social norms against asexuality and the social norms against celibacy coming from similar places?

            Equating asexuality and celibacy is a big oversimplification. Distinguishing them is a smaller simplification. Przybylo places celibacy and asexuality in dialogue with each other, and I feel this is the most truthful.

  2. Siggy says:

    I’m glad you touched on masculinity in your interview. Although, I feel like I must not have been brought up with the idea that masculinity is “predicated on fucking, screwing, being unabashedly hetero-sexual.” The narrative was there, sure, but it felt ordinary to reject the narrative, at least in its most obvious forms (similar to how we reject sexism when it is overt, but perpetuate more subtle forms). I’m sure that being socialized as male has had some profound effects on my experience as ace, but I’ve never been able to pin down exactly how.

    • Calinlapin says:

      Well, I don’t know if it’s more subtle, but I believe the idea that male sexuality acts as a synecdoque for male power is pretty deeply rooted. Male heterosexuality has to be about power, assertion, achievement. You cannot be soft, weak. You have to perform (like a man). So I believe the feminist’s idea is that male sexuality is the mainstay of male identity, that gender leans on sexuality is an acceptable hypothesis.

      On the personal side, it’s pretty clear to me that my masculinity is quite complicated/redefined by my asexuality. An exampe among thousands : for the most part, it’s quite hard for me to socialize with heterosexual men. I mostly feel like an usurper…

      • Victrix says:

        I have to agree. Personally I’ve always felt there was a subtle force underlying things and implying how I should act, which I often clashed with despite bit even being fully aware of its presence. I’ve also had issues with how easily I’ve been able to socialise with people, also particularly heterosexual males, this trends to mainly be an issue at work. Discovering asexuality helped a lot in addressing those issues and realising their presence and overcoming them.

        • Calinlapin says:

          Yes me too, it’s been easier to deal with masculinity’s norms since I’ve discovered asexuality, but more on the psychological side. Before thinking about all that, I was prone to belittle myself on the basis that I couldn’t meet those masculinity standards. Now, I’m like : do I really wanted to be this chauvinistic, homophobic, sexist guy in the first place ?

      • L says:

        I’m beginning to think that, like asexuality = celibacy (which I’ll remark on in a different reply), it is reductive and ultimately only a helpful model when using it in tandem with other reductive models. You might be interested in this book:

        • Calinlapin says:

          Well, I’m sorry for the misunderstanding above. As Siggy noted, I was mostly giving reasons in favor of the distinction. And I was not in any case making an argument for asexuality to be conflated with celibacy. Furthermore, I believe Ela’s point is about sociology not community building or whatsoever. I’m sorry if I was unclear ! 🙂

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

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