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.