Sometimes, it’s fun to look back at history and find some one who just might have been asexual. My personal favorite is Nikola Tesla, if only because he was a physicist, and also the subject of a certain Kate Beaton comic. But I don’t take the idea very seriously, and have mixed feelings about the whole project of pinning asexuality on every historical figure that halfway fits.
Here are some feelings we have about finding asexuality in historical figures: It’s fun. It helps us feel less alone. But then, we think about important distinctions between asexuality and celibacy. And then we think about how much we hate being placed within an orientation category without our consent.
I want to forget, for a moment, whether those historical figures were “really” asexual. Forget how Tesla might have really felt about sex and romance, or how he might have felt about calling him ace. What does it mean for us to think of historical figures as asexual?
Przybylo and Cooper recently addressed this question in their paper “Asexual Resonances: Towards a Queerly Asexual Archive“, and in my opinion they got it entirely backwards. They said:
The truth archive [i.e. scientific research into asexuality] motivates a search for asexuality in perfectly embodied form, an asexuality that is ever present in the body, more or less unchanging throughout one’s lifetime, and categorically not a “choice.” When asexuality is sought for with these strict definitional terms in mind, it is found rarely, and next to never historically.
In other words, finding asexuals in history represents a more expansive view of asexuality, and a rejection of essentialist definitions.
I take the opposite view. When we identify historical figures as asexual, we are devaluing their self-identity in favor of what (we think) their “real” sexuality is. We are treating asexuality like it is a real thing that exists across all cultures, rather than a social construction of our own time. In other words, identifying historical figures as asexual is the essentialist choice.
A useful comparison can be drawn to gay politics. It’s common to point at historical figures who might have been gay, or people in ancient cultures, or even animals. All this despite none of them identifying as gay, and none of them having a social context where gayness is a recognizable thing. What is the political messaging here? The message is that being gay is natural, always has been natural, and gay people were simply born that way. The message is essentialist.
Now, possibly unlike Przybylo, I think a little essentialism is fine. I mean yes, sexual orientation is a social construction, but it’s also one that works. And it certainly seems like the underlying thing being described (e.g. some people don’t inherently want sex) should exist across all eras.
But let’s get our choices straight. If we choose to identify historical figures (or fictional characters or animals) as ace, we are emphasizing the immutable basis of asexuality. If we choose not to identify them as ace, we are emphasizing the importance of self-identity. Which ideas do you prefer to emphasize?