Panel Discussion: Is Asexuality Radical?

Welcome to the our first panel discussion post!

The panel discussion series is a new monthly feature in which our regular writers are asked to weigh in on a question or topic of interest in the broader ace community. The aim of these posts is to present a range of different perspectives, and hopefully to provoke further discussion of the topic in the comments or on other blogs and in other online communities.

This month’s post revolves around the question ‘can asexuality be considered inherently radical?’

Sciatrix writes: I think the question is a little bit complicated, because I don’t necessarily think the experience of having a particular sexuality is inherently radical. For me, the politics of my life are about what I choose to do rather than how I feel about them, and sexuality is firmly in the category of “how I feel.”

That said, I think asexuality is interesting because the reification of asexuality as an identity is a necessary and inevitable response to the cultural construction of homosexuality as an identity. If you’ve ever looked into the history of how Western thought conceptualizes sexuality, you’d have realized that sexual orientation as a concept is very new—it’s only been around for approximately the last 150 years. Past that, you might have had individual preferences or not, but the general mode of thought was that those were preferences. Sexual orientation as a categorical trait really started as the result of characterizing homosexuality under a medical model, but once you had the box to tick for ‘homosexual,’ other descriptive words followed. Between that and the work to destigmatize homosexuality, more cultural attention got paid to that box designating a given person’s sexual orientation. Asexual people start to wonder what’s missing when they don’t fit under the box, and with increased communication as mediated by the internet, well, I think that the asexual community would have formed no matter what.

So if anything, I don’t think asexuality is a radical identity per se. Rather, I think it’s a perfectly natural outgrowth of centuries of social and cultural trends about how Anglo/Western culture thinks about human sexuality and identity.

Siggy writes: All the sexualities are radical in their own way, but I point out something that makes asexuality particularly radical.  Asexuality does not merely demand that other people accept the relationships that asexuals have with each other.  Asexuality demands that other people, even those who are not themselves asexual, actively participate different kinds of relationships.  Most radically, this is often asked of straight people who would otherwise only have normative relationships.

This is true for most of the kinds of relationships we talk about.  There’s the sexless romantic relationship, which removes an aspect that is conventionally considered essential.  Even sexual relationships typically require a lot of negotiation, and perhaps a transformation of how sex is done. And though it’s impossible to generalize about the huge variety of non-romantic relationships, it is clear that they aren’t the kind of relationships people would have otherwise.

Some people will find that they simply don’t have the capacity for some of these kinds of relationships.  Other people might find the different relationship acceptable or even valuable.  This could transform the kinds of relationships we have in society, beyond the boundaries of our 1% minority.

I don’t think radicalness is desirable for its own sake.  However, the goal of having the kinds of relationships we want is a good goal to have, and it also happens to be a radical goal.

Laura writes: I think that asexuality can have a radical potential. As an individual ace tries to create a livable life for themselves as someone who does not experience sexual attraction, they may discover that society tends to push back on their efforts in certain ways. The areas where they experience the most pushback I believe reflect the ways in which asexuality particularly challenges the status quo. Some aces may choose to speak out against the status quo and, in so doing, adopt a radical asexual politics.

However, not all aces may choose this course of action. Many may be content to carve out just enough space for themselves to be free of pressure, without challenging the system itself. Others may find that compromise is their best way forward. There are many factors that influence a person’s choice of response, including oppression or marginalization they experience in other areas of their life; the amount or lack of resources that they have; and the specific circumstances in which they find themselves.

Not all aces need to embrace radical politics. However, as long as marginalization of aces is systemic (as I believe that it is), then everybody who works to challenge the system is helping to make life more livable for every ace who lives in that society. Radical asexual politics should aim to dismantle the systemic forces that marginalize aces so people are free to just be asexual without it needing to mean more than that.

Elizabeth writes: To be honest, I’m not sure I understand the question. Because to say that something is “radically different” you have to know what it’s different from—you need a comparison group, or the question doesn’t make sense. I’m not sure that allosexuals (or even non-straight allosexuals) are a coherent enough group to provide that kind of comparison. So on a superficial level, I sort of understand what we’re talking about, but the more I think about it, the more the question breaks down. Then I start wondering if it’s even a useful question.

Part of the problem is that behaviorally, asexuality means nothing. And there’s significant overlap between the categories (“asexual” and “lesbian” are not mutually exclusive). This question reminds me a little of the “are aces queer?” debate and people’s tendency to narrow “asexual” down to “asexual, aromantic, and single/celibate” instead of taking the full spectrum into account. So I want to actively resist that.

There’s no consensus outside the ace community about whether we’re (more/less) different (than other sexualities). From the “how dare you call yourself queer!” camp I see a lot of people saying “you [aro-aces] aren’t different enough [from straight people]” but at the same time, there’s no shortage of people going, “What? How? Are you even human?” Clearly the latter group sees us as inherently different. But both groups fail to take the complexity of either allos or aces into account.

So I don’t think it’s helpful to compare to other sexualities. The only way I think it makes sense to consider asexuality radical is in the context of specific cultural norms that consider asexuality inconceivable—and culture can change. So no, I don’t think there’s anything inherently radical about it. In the future, I’d like to see both same-sex attractions and no sexual attractions considered normal variations.

Talia writes: When I think about asexuality in relation to other sexualities my mind jumps to a comment Siggy made regarding sex-favorable asexuals. He wrote:

“even if its [the repulsed/indifferent dichotomy] intention was just to discuss whether people were or were not bothered by sex talk, the word “indifferent” strongly suggests “neutral”, as if it were the middle of a spectrum. So it always felt like a trichotomy (you have a negative, neutral, or positive attitude towards sex in relation to yourself), but with the last option removed because it was just too unthinkable. The repulsed/indifferent dichotomy has basically demanded the “sex-favorable” category for a long time, and what’s surprising is that it took so long to happen.”

I feel the same way about asexuality on a whole. Dominant ways of thinking about allosexuality have basically demanded asexuality. The West is infamous for thinking in dualisms and binaries, problematic as they are. While I don’t think that asexuality is the clear opposite of allosexuality, because they overlap in under-discussed ways, theoretically asexuality and allosexuality can compliment each other as opposites. They can be thought of as two sides of the same coin or variations at different extremes.

The presence of sexual attraction, sexual desire, sexual behaviour, and/or sexual interest always signals an inverse possibility – an absence or lack. Previously this absence or lack has been voiced as pathology or illness rather than as a legitimate sexual orientation of its own. Alternatively, on the Kinsey Scale, this absence was recognized as an unknown outlier, X, which many of us now say represents asexual people. I am surprised that it’s taking asexuality so long to be recognized because asexuality fits neatly into the existing model of sexualities.
However, if there is only room for asexuality as a lack or absence, always in relation to describe what is not, does the way we think about other sexualities have room for what asexuality actually is?

I am tempted to say that asexuality is radical because I think that the unique things that asexual people do and make possible are amazing. Acknowledging asexuality on its own terms, and in its complexity, forces people to re-imagine sexuality. At the very least, what was thought as pathology becomes a legitimate identity. At best, there are endless asexual ways of being that all contribute different knowledges. But, isn’t this also true of bisexual ways of being, heteroflexible ways of being, etc.?

Asexuality is different from other sexualities, but I’m not convinced that it’s different enough from the rest of difference to be radical. In other words, if everything in a given order or way of being is different from everything else in that order, more difference simply follows the established rules. If everything is unique, being unique isn’t radical. So is asexuality as unique as bisexuality, heteroflexibility, etc., or does it blow every other model out of the water? I’m leaning towards the former, but I don’t think I’ve seen enough to make the call.

Jo writes: My personal feelings about my own asexuality tend to fluctuate between the two ideas on a daily basis. Do I feel like my sexual orientation is inherently radical as I go through everyday life? Yeah, a lot of the time I do. As an aromantic asexual I often feel like there is some sort of fundamental disconnect between the way I interact with people (and the world in general) and the way everyone else seems to. Other times, I’m quite happy to see myself as just one particular position on a spectrum of sexuality, no more or no less different to anyone else.

On a broader level, I often wonder what will happen to asexuality as a category as our society moves towards a broader and more inclusive model of what ‘normal’ sexuality looks like. I don’t think we’re there yet by any means – look at how the FDA has now approved a drug intended to ‘fix’ women who experience low or absent sexual desire, and are thus continuing to pathologise any form of sexuality outside of a narrow norm. But on the other hand, there is an increasing amount of research and public conversation around how varied and diverse sexual desire and attraction can be. Emily Nagoski, for example, has done some truly awesome work on responsive sexual desire, which shatters the myth that desire is meant to be spontaneous, before any erotic/sexual activity has been initiated. Nagoski’s research is fascinating and (I think) incredibly valuable – but at the same time, it causes me to question some of the ideas I find in the ace community. For example, there seems to be a lot of overlap between what responsive sexual desire (in Nagoski’s model) looks like and what demisexuality looks like. Does that mean that demisexuality – and even asexuality, if we continue to broaden our definitions of sexual attraction and desire along these lines – will become an orientation under threat? Is it a good or bad thing if our own ace-spectrum categories become subsumed by a better, more expansive norm?

Ultimately, though, I think these sorts of questions need to remember that the world we experience as aces now is different to the world that perhaps should be or will be. At the moment, I’m tempted to still see asexuality as at least somewhat radical – how radical exactly probably depends on the individual.

About Jo

Jo is an ancient history honours student in Australia, with a particular interest in gender and sexuality in antiquity. In her free time she devours books, tea and Doctor Who, but is honestly not that into cake, and proudly calls herself a feminist and an activist. She identifies an an aromantic asexual a little bit more every day. Jo also blogs at A Life Unexamined on feminism and asexuality.
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25 Responses to Panel Discussion: Is Asexuality Radical?

  1. Sennkestra says:

    Oooh, this looks like it’ll be a cool series!

    As for my own thoughts as asexuality as “radical”…I’ve kind of been turned off of the concept just because of how much certain of queer/feminist studies authors have jumped on asexuality as the most “radical”of identities in a way that makes me uncomfortable. A lot of the queer/feminist academic work has focused on the “radical” potential of asexuality to overthrow heterosexuality/the gender binary/capitalism/you name it, but often in a way that tokenizes asexuals as radical messiahs or simply appropriates the concept in favor of their personal pet “radical” theory (like in that one paper where the author hails asexuality as a sort of superior successor to political seperatist lesbianism, and completely misunderstands asexual communities in the process).

    I also find that when people describe asexuals as “radical”, they don’t just mean “challenging the accepted norms” – they often imply an added “aligning with certain radical political agendas like being anti-capitalism and radical feminism and for abolishing biological sex, etc.”. And while some aces may be in favor of these things, being asexual in and of itself doesn’t necessitate supporting such political ideas.

    So while asexual community theory does undermine a lot of norms in perhaps radical ways, I don’t think that simply being an asexual person is necessarily “radical” in the sense I often see it used. While there are certainly many of us who embrace asexuality as a way to completely undermine popular theories of sexuality, there are also many asexuals who just want a word that describes themselves, and allows them to fit into the general order rather than overthrow it.

    • Sennkestra says:

      So tl;dr: I think the concept of asexuality and current asexual discourse challenges assumed norms in ways than can be considered “radical”. But individual aces don’t necessarily align with “Radical” politics, and the use of the word “radical” still carried connotations I’m not comfortable with.

      There’s actually a quote I like from the 1977 Johnson paper on asexual and autoerotic women that I think has proved uncannily prophetic that is somewhat relevant to the above:

      “In seeking to liberate women, the advocates of these strategies may be inviting yet another tyranny. A consensus which praises women who do not have sex with men as politically conscious might alleviate the oppression of traditionally assigned female functions, but would probably create new oppressive functions. The woman who still wants to have sex with men might function as a “scapegoat” and the woman who feels asexual or autosexual might functional as a political symbol – her identity still lost in the slogans, and her reality going unnoticed.

    • Jo says:

      Yeah, I’ve read that strange paper too – it feels like it completely misses the point of asexuality, and instead, like you say, sticks all of this political meaning onto it that isn’t inherently there.

      What I’m realising from people’s comments so far is that when I think of the question ‘is asexuality radical’ I think about ‘radical’ as referring to social interaction and difference, rather than a specific political agenda. Perhaps it wasn’t actually the correct choice of word for what I was thinking of myself. (Nonetheless, it still turned out some very interesting responses.) I definitely agree that any sense of political radicalism is something that is not inherently linked to asexuality, even though some of us might have a greater tendency towards other non-normative ideas.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks for bringing that up. I had thought about it a little bit too, but I couldn’t articulate it as well as you and Asexuality Archive both have. And also being limited to a short response makes it harder to get into everything. I’m really just thinking, at this point… what does it even mean to “be radical”? And is being accepted contingent on others ideas about whether we’re “radical enough”?

  2. What I found most interesting about this panel is that the respondents (including me) weren’t all addressing the same issues, but were looking at different questions and angles.

  3. Is asexuality radical? TOTALLY RADICAL! Gnarly, tubular, way cool, and awesome, too!

    Oh, wait, that’s not what you’re going for here…

    Anyway, I’m not a fan of positioning asexuality as something “radical”. Being radical implies action, it implies an active challenge. Nothing about asexuality means that you’re stickin’ it to the man or fighting the power. And I think it’s counter-productive to claim that it is radical in some way. That kind of language is going to drive away the “casual” asexual who doesn’t want to be associated with all that “social justicey stuff”, and it’s going to attract the “WHY DO YOU SHOVE THIS IN OUR FACES” people to come screaming at us.

    Beyond that, it often seems to be outsiders who push the whole “radicalness” concept on us. I’ve seen the political tokenization that Sennkestra mentions, but more frequently, it’s “Look at what I discovered: Asexuals! See how weird they are? They’re so different, therefore they must be radical!” Neither case is good for us. Sometimes they’ll misinterpret an individual activist’s intentionally-stickin-it-to-the-man views as the Ace Party Manifesto and act like we all want to go around forcing people to draw out relationship diagrams on a whiteboard. Sometimes they’ll write about how our very existence will force everyone to rethink humor and food. Some people claim us as the furthest reaches of sexual liberation, while others claim us as the strongest defense against sinful lustiness. I don’t want to have anything to do with ANY of that. (And most of the time, the people who are promoting these views have no interest in actually finding out what asexual people think about them…)

    Of particular annoyance to me is when someone who is not asexual and/or not a man talks about how asexual men are such a huge challenge to masculinity that we’re going to take down the patriarchy or reframe feminism or whatever. I’m just like, “Y’know, I was thinking of just watching a movie tonight… Can we, uh, maybe see about dismantling the kyriarchy next week?”

    Just being asexual is no more radical than just being tall. I’m tall, but when I walk around, I don’t hear people talk about how I’m forcing the clothing industry to rethink what sizes mean or revolutionizing how people have to angle their eyeballs when they have a conversation. I’m just tall. That’s how it is.

    I’m just asexual. That’s how it is.

  4. luvtheheaven says:

    it often seems to be outsiders who push the whole “radicalness” concept on us. I’ve seen the political tokenization that Sennkestra mentions, but more frequently, it’s “Look at what I discovered: Asexuals! See how weird they are? They’re so different, therefore they must be radical!” [It] is good for us.

    That’s what I was thinking when I first saw this question. I agree with your whole post…

    And I also think what Laura and Elizabeth said rings true to me.

    This whole discussion has been fascinating to read! 😛

  5. Siggy says:

    I find it interesting that many people have negative associations with the word “radical”. One of my first associations is with Douglas Adams, who famously identified as a radical atheist merely to signal that he really meant it. So that’s how I use it. I am here, I have thought seriously about why I am here, and if you can’t deal with it then to you I’m a radical. B-|

    However, in feminist and queer communities, there’s an attitude that Julia Serano calls subversivism, “the practice of extolling certain gender and sexual expressions and identities simply because they are unconventional or nonconforming.” Serano discusses how this is used as a tool against transsexual people, since they’re perceived to be insufficiently transgressive. Subversivism clearly hits aces hard too, with heteroromantics and demisexuals being especially frequent targets. So that’s what I see as the danger of declaring sexualities to be inherently radical.

    • Megan Milks’s paper, “Stunted Growth” (you may be able to access partial content here) has a good discussion of this, and served as a partial inspiration for my response in this panel.

      • Jo says:

        That’s a great article – just reading the free preview now, but think I will have to track down the full version at uni today. Thanks for mentioning it!

      • Siggy says:

        I’m so glad there are feminist scholars who are willing to openly criticize Fahs and Przybylo, and in the process cite Julia Serano alongside Sciatrix and Kaz.

        Hey Sennkestra, weren’t you reviewing articles from Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives? You should do this one.

        • Speaking of Pryzbylo, this paper on queerly asexual archives that I found today is a perfect example of what Sennkestra was saying about certain feminist and queer theory approaches to asexuality. Those ordinary asexuals don’t really understand asexuality but we with our superior theory know better than them!

          • Jo says:

            Gah. This is one of the reasons why I really enjoyed participating in/reading the results of the ‘asexual lives’ study I posted on a while ago – it actually bothered to listen to what ace people said about their everyday lived experience and how most people are not having totally radical lives, but mainly just making minor changes and negotiations as they go along. (Though the authors of this study are also a bit too apply-theory-here in some papers they’ve published so far.)

          • Sennkestra says:

            Lol, Pryzbylo strikes again. I swear they miss the point more and more with every paper. I particularly like the use of “science” in scare quotes for everything outside of queer and feminist academia, the uncritical citations of Fahs, and the blatant cherrypicking of quotes from AVEN to try and set up asexual groups up as rigid, asexuality-is-not-a-chosen-identity essentialists (bonus points for citing the other quotes that blatantly point out how wrong that claim is by describing them as “AVEN contradicting itself”.)

            This kinda thing is exactly why I don’t trust feminist academia anymore.

            It’s also a great example of the trend of “radicalizing” the definition of asexuality, which is another thing that puts me off the word “radical”. (aka, “I want to write about my pet topic of radical celibacy or sexual dysfunction, and I want to cash in on the AVEN/asexuality hype and get published, but I don’t want to actually do new research on real asexuals, so I’ll “expand the definition” to fit my misleading stereotypes of asexuality”).

            Like, there are existing ways to expand definitions of asexuality that would be great (grey-asexuality anyone? wtfromanticism? demisexuality?) but most of these “radical” definitions are just reverting back to the old school, un-radical “what if we actually just talked about people who don’t have sex instead”.

        • Sennkestra says:

          Haha yeah I should finish that project someday….I have a half-written summary/review of the fMRI article, but I can add the Milks one after that!

      • Elizabeth says:

        That is a really good article… although I’m annoyed by the way I’m cited as just “grasexuality” with my old blog name misspelled. Good thing I changed that. Anyway, thanks for linking!

        • If I remember correctly, this book took about an extra six months more than expected to be published, and the book publication process is already slow, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the chapter was actually written back before you changed your blog name. Though the authors could at least make sure they spelled it right!

  6. epochryphal says:

    Mmmm I like this idea (prompts! maybe could make it possible for me to be a contributor, I’ve thought about it often…are applications closed?)

    I’d definitely argue demisexuality is radical. See only, all the people arguing “orientation only defines who you’re attracted to — not how, that’s just a preference!” Greyness too, though it’s less easy to attack by virtue of not having a consolidated, promulgated definition.

    And of course wtf- and quoi- are radical as hell, especially given how constantly forgotten they are in ace discourse (and impossible-seeming they’re made by ace 101 posts / blogs / visibility activism).

    Asexuality though? Mm…radical in challenging the sex-centric nature of (especially LGBT or kink) spaces, and challenging what sex means. But personally, no, I don’t find asexuality radical, or edge-pushing, or paradigm-challenging, in any meaningful way anymore.

    • Jo says:

      Huh, it’s so interesting that you think of grey and demisexuality as radical, and some of the romantic orientations, but not asexuality itself. Would you mind expanding on why a bit? I’d be really interested in hearing a bit more on that. Doesn’t asexuality also fall into the idea of ‘how’ rather than ‘who,’ as you identified before?

      • luvtheheaven says:

        My interpretation, when I read that, was that “who?” means “which genders?”, and even if the answer is “none” that’s a simple answer to who and not how. The other stuff… it gets more complex to explain. But I’d be interested to read epochryphal’s expanded thoughts…

        I also think romantic orientations as a whole, and how they can be separate from sexual orientations and the asexual community came up with them is just as much a “how” not (only) “who” situation too, though. I think Siggy’s response was touching on this a bit, actually.

        • Jo says:

          Yeah, I thought Siggy’s points were interesting in that regard too, in that aces tend to suck others into the world of asexuality as well. To me that definitely makes it a ‘how’ question as well as a ‘who’ question. One of the ideas I like to fish out when I do visibility work/talking to journalists etc. is that even though our society has gotten a lot more accepting of the ‘who’ aspect of relationships and orientations, we haven’t done so well with the ‘how’ aspect, in that not having sex, for instance, is now often seen as weirder than being attracted to someone of the same gender.

      • epochryphal says:

        I guess, I hear/see a lot of people say “asexuality fits the pattern because 1, 2+, or 0, but demi is about *how* you’re attracted to people so it’s not an *orientation* just a preference” — and I hear that A Lot.

        Like some of y’all talked about, asexuality sort of naturally complements the binary, and fits into a pattern; demi (and grey), not so much. They complicate the idea of directional orientation. Annnnd lead into a bunch of derails about “attraction to redheads is not a valid orientation” and “you’re arguing sapiosexuality is valid” and so forth.

        (As if “sexual attraction is complicated and/or uncommon for me” is equivalent to “I’m only into x ~rare~ trait of people.”)

        I’d also totally attach wtfsexual and quoisexual, not just wtfromantic and quoiromantic. (As for whether aromantic is a radical identity…huh. Maybe–it feels more so than asexuality, perhaps because I see it less, feel like it’s less accepted into queer spaces, is held as suspicious and oppressive rather than just another way to exist?)

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