Historical Asexuals: A political dilemma

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?

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
This entry was posted in Articles, asexual identity, asexual politics, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Historical Asexuals: A political dilemma

  1. demiandproud says:

    I think that’s where the asexual community and research community might differ: for research into asexuality, it may be more useful to find a more “objective” type of asexuality, whereas for a community of people it may be far more productive to leave it to people to self-identify as asexual…

    Historical figures? I think it’s sorta-kinda a canon vs. fanon argument… there’s no real way to definitely label them one way or another, but it’s perfectly fine to develop a theory and argue in its favour. In humanities, which is where that sort of research would take place, nothing is ever really true, only likely and based on evidence and consolidated into a consensus and then challenged again with another theory. Historical canon: was Shakespeare gay? We’ll never know. Academic fanon: was Shakespeare gay? Yes, because of X, Y and Z. No, because of A, B and C, which is reliable because of D.

    I think it’s going to go the same way for trying to label people, historical or fictional, ace.

  2. flergalwit says:

    You know, I wrote a survey to investigate the question of whether aces prefer objective or identity based definitions, but never got round to posting it. My general impression is that most members of the community tend to prefer the former, whereas activists and certainly researchers prefer the latter. But it needs to be tested.

    Myself, I prefer objective definitions* and see the identity thing as an epistemic issue. Self identity can be wrong but is more likely to be right than someone else’s speculations, and in any case the potential damage from contradicting someone’s id is much greater than what good it’s likely to accomplish. This applies a lot more when the person is still alive…

    * Though lifelong and unchangeable are not part of the definition. I think only “not a choice” is essential.

    • Siggy says:

      I definitely see it as more than just an epistemic issue. It’s more like… there are a lot of ace-like characteristics, and which of these characteristics constitute asexuality is just an arbitrary choice we make. Self-identity is important because it is that choice.

      I’m definitely in the “activist” category, so I’m not contradicting your impressions. Anecdotally, objective definitions seem to be more popular among people who are newer to the community, and seem especially common on AVEN.

    • Sennkestra says:

      I think there’s a valid role for an objective definitions based on known behavior or individual’s expressed feelings, but I think it should be distinguished from asexuality as we use it now, which refers specifically to the identity/sexual orientation. Sort of like how health studies like the CDC use more objective terms like MSM (men who have sex with men) as opposed to identity terms like “gay” or “bisexual”. For example, instead of creating categories like “lesbian and gay individuals in history”, it might be more appropriate to talk about “major figures who engaged in same-sex sexual contact” in history, which better accounts for the fact that the way that same-sex contact would have been viewed or understood could be very different in different cultural contexts.

      For an objective behavioral correlate of asexuality historically, well, I think that’s basically celibacy studies, which is interesting but not necessarily relevent to all asexual people. As for a desire-based objective correlate, that might be “closer” to how we think about asexuality now, but it’s also harder to use because it’s rare to have lots of explicit information about individuals’ own reports of their sexual desire (or lack thereof), especially if you go further back than a couple hundred years, and it’s also harder to interpret how reports would translate into our modern structures of desire.

      • Siggy says:

        But, but, wouldn’t it be more flexible and open-minded to use the same word to describe everything regardless of nuances? Like this spoon, this spoon is pretty asexual, and the vernacular archive is just too embedded in sexusociety to admit it. 😉

      • queenieofaces says:

        It’s worth noting that that’s what Gregory Pflugfelder does in Cartographies of Desire–he’s looking at “male-male sexuality” rather than “gay” or “bisexual” men. I generally recommend the introduction to his book if you’re interested in historical studies of people who might be considered LGBT now.

      • flergalwit says:

        Sennkestra: “Sort of like how health studies like the CDC use more objective terms like MSM.”
        That’s not what I mean; I’m talking about the orientation. What I’m saying is that (to me), self-identity is a best approximator / measurer of something that nevertheless exists independently of identity (sexual attraction level).

        The asexual identity is of interest in itself of course, but to me it’s secondary, ontologically speaking (but epistemically primary, at least at present). Whereas someone who favours social constructivism (as I understand it) sees the identity itself as the main point and foundation.

        Of course as Siggy alludes to, the very fact we find the asexual category interesting enough to give a name to is a social choice of some sort, but I think ultimately you could say that about any objective quantity, e.g. mass, length etc.

  3. elainexe says:

    I think that’s an interesting thing to think about because you can also see it not just when looking at history, but in globalism. I come across some occasional discussion about Western sexual orientation constructs being exported into places where they may have their own different constructs. I think it must be the same sort of impulse at play here….to universalize our experiences and think they apply to everyone. Or perhaps we can call it ignoring intersectionality? Surely the time period we live in is one sort of intersection too.
    Anyway, when I look at historical people I tend to think more about their actions rather than their identities. How they feel is difficult to figure out unless they specifically said so. Their lifestyles are a bit more obvious. Most of the time when I’m looking for things relevant to asexuality in history though I’m looking at it from a theological perspective, so my concerns are probably a bit different than many aces.

    • Siggy says:

      Yeah, I was definitely also thinking about the spread of Western concepts of sexual orientation to other cultures. Although there’s a big difference: Nothing I can say will ever impact the life of Nikola Tesla, but I could very well say things that impact the lives of people in other cultures.

  4. I’m most interested in finding traces of people (especially women) who seem to share important aspects of my experience. While in many cases all we can see are their actions (for instance, if someone never married), other people left writings or someone else wrote down their words in which they talked about their feelings about or experiences. I explored two examples of this in Potentially Asexual Women in Early Muslim History. I think there is likely more of this information preserved that we realize but it will take a lot of work to locate and access it.

    I use the label “potentially asexual” to describe this, but it’s mostly a convenient shorthand and not necessarily an attempt to impose a particular modern identity or view of sexuality on them.

    Having done the research for the Potentially Asexual Women piece the other month, I found the Przybylo and Cooper paper highly disappointing. They really can’t do better than the same political celibacy example again? I felt like they were more interested in proving their theory than about actually discovering and highlighting the lives of potentially asexual people for their own sake.

    • Siggy says:

      My main problem with Przybylo & Cooper was that they talked the talk about broadening asexuality, but apparently didn’t bother to learn about the discourse of gray/demi people, or even the idea of “potentially asexual” people. They were trying to establish a more radical view of asexual diversity, but I think they got upstaged by ordinary ace discourse.

      ETA: I should say I didn’t really read the whole thing so I’m mostly reacting to the first few sections.

      • Sennkestra says:

        Also, the whole weird “we have experience with asexuality because we are capable of having important nonsexual relationships” thing….especially when one author states “I am beginning to wonder if my problem lies with the fact that I’ve always seen asexuality and sexuality as mutually exclusive orientations.But why can’t I self-identify as experiencing same-sex sexual attraction and opposite-sex asexual attraction?”

        It’s phrased like it’s a radical proposition, but like, we’ve been talking about romantic vs. sexual attractions and orientations for years already, as the authors might have known if they chose to engage more with actual asexual communities.

        (I’m also confused because like, I know pryzbylo has attended ace events like worldpride, so I’d expect a little more community literacy from them? Unless they just choose to disregard it?)

    • Siggy says:

      I looked over the rest of the paper and I regret not having read it before. The examples of political asexuality in feminism, and in Agnes Martin? Now I just really don’t know what Przybylo & Cooper were trying to go for at all.

    • Sciatrix says:

      Yes! I think I talked a little bit about this here, but for me, it’s totally about carving out space to see myself reflected in people in history. It’s less about how those historical people would have identified and more about making a space for me and my, mmm, non-mainstream desires to exist in a past historical context.

    • Carmilla DeWinter says:

      Just adding my agreement here. You can’t say someone had this or that sexual orientation if they had no idea of the concept “sexual orientation”. Only “(would) potentially (identify as) … (if alive now in Western culture)”.

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