Asexuality in early radical feminism, Part 1

Photo is of two people attending a table. A sign behind them says "Yea it's a heavy trip BUT! This is a chance to CHOOSE YOUR OWN label instead of having someone else do it for you: straight asexual lesbian bisexual anti-label dyke separatist ? lesbian feminist anti-sexual or whatever"
Source: Pollner, F. (1973). Lesbian dynamics. Off Our Backs, 3(6), 7-7. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25783532

Recently, the above photo, dated to 1973, was dug up by some fine folks on tumblr. The photo comes from an event called “Lesbian/Feminist Dialogue” at Barnard College. The article accompanying it also refers to a workshop about asexuality, and an asexual manifesto distributed by the New York Radical Feminists:

I attended the workshop on asexuality lead by Barbara Getz. According to Barbara, asexuality is an orientation that regards a partner as nonessential to sex and sex as nonessential to a satisfying relationship. (“The Asexual Manifesto” can be obtained from New York Radical Feminists […])

This is an intriguing glimpse into asexuality in the early 70s, but it raises so many questions. Was there really a coherent conversation about asexuality as a sexual orientation, or was this a fluke? It seems likely that multiple people at various times came up with asexuality as a concept, but these people weren’t necessarily all talking to each other. It could be that different people were using “asexuality” in different ways, some ways that vaguely resemble our own, and other ways that resemble it not at all.

Unfortunately, much of this history has been lost. We have no idea who Barbara Getz is, or what her workshop really said. Nobody can find a copy of “The Asexual Manifesto”.

What I did find, was a 2010 paper called “Radical Refusals: On the anarchist politics of women choosing asexuality”, by Breanne Fahs. Fahs is a professor of Women and Gender studies who has done historical work on early radical feminism. Fahs discusses two cases from the same period as the above photo: Valerie Solanas, and the Cell 16 group.

In part 1, will discuss each of these cases, using Fahs’ writing, a few primary sources, and by reaching out to Fahs herself.  In part 2, I will critically discuss “Radical Refusals”, and another critique, written in 1977.

Valerie Solanas

Valerie Solanas is known for two things: writing the SCUM Manifesto, and shooting Andy Warhol. No really, she attempted murder, that was a big deal that helped catalyze the beginning of radical feminism. Fahs has written about Solanas at length in these two articles, as well as a whole book.

The SCUM Manifesto is a 1967 satirical essay about a fictional organization (SCUM) dedicated to overthrowing society and getting rid of all the men. While satirical, the SCUM Manifesto presented a view that Solanas was sympathetic to, and it was unclear to what extent she really meant it. Personally, I found the essay difficult to understand; a 50-year cultural gap will do that. But at the time of publication, she had at least a few fans among radical feminists.

When Solanas shot Warhol in 1968, it appeared to many observers, both sympathetic and unsympathetic, as if she was in some way living up to the views espoused in the SCUM Manifesto. Ti-Grace Atkinson, who led the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) described her initial reaction:

Some woman had done something appropriate to the feelings we were all having. She was fighting back. That’s what it felt like.

Atkinson came to Solanas’ defense in the subsequent trial, but NOW decided to distance itself from Solanas. This catalyzed a split between Atkinson and NOW, and Atkinson left to form one of the very first radical feminist groups, The Feminists. (The New York Radical Feminists, mentioned in relation to the photo at the top, was founded in 1969 by a former member of The Feminists.) Of course, that wasn’t Atkinson’s only motivation; she also cited NOW’s reluctance to address any issues related to sex (e.g. abortion).

As for Solanas herself, Atkinson expressed a lot of ambivalence, saying that Solanas was not really a feminist.  Solanas inspired many feminists, but the attempted murder was not motivated by feminism, it was because she believed Warhol was plotting to steal a manuscript that she lent him, which he subsequently lost. (During the trial, Solanas was declared to have paranoid schizophrenia.)

This is deep and fascinating history, but I should return to the topic of this post. Asexuality is explicitly mentioned (once) in the SCUM Manifesto:

[…] those females least embedded in the male `Culture’, the least nice, those crass and simple souls who reduce fucking to fucking, who are too childish for the grown-up world of suburbs, mortgages, mops and baby shit, […] in short, those who, by the standards of our `culture’ are SCUM… these females are cool and relatively cerebral and skirting asexuality.

[…] SCUM gets around… and around and around… they’ve seen the whole show — every bit of it — the fucking scene, the dyke scene […] you’ve got to go through a lot of sex to get to anti-sex, and SCUM’s been through it all, and they’re now ready for a new show […]

Here, “asexuality” appears to refer to a principled stand against sex, and it is the ideal for members of the fictional SCUM society. Solanas describes asexuality as something that is achieved after having all kinds of sex. So, uh, this is just fascinating, but it doesn’t really resemble modern concepts of asexuality at all. Nonetheless, I consider this an important data point, perhaps a negative data point suggesting a lack of a modern understanding of asexuality.

Cell 16

Cell 16 was a group that advocated feminist separatism. Their ideas would later go on to inspire lesbian separatist groups, but Cell 16 itself did not advocate lesbianism, and instead advocated celibacy. They published a journal called No More Fun and Games from 1968 to 1973.  Fahs discusses one article in their journal, titled “On Celibacy” by Dana Densmore. The article does not mention asexuality, but says a lot that may resonate even with modern ace audiences.

But I’d like to highlight a different article that Densmore wrote along similar lines, “Independence from the Sexual Revolution“, originally printed in 1971.  It is worth reading in full, but here I quote a few highlights.

The right that is a duty. Sexual freedom that includes no freedom to decline sex, to decline to be defined at every turn by sex. Sex becomes a religion, existing independently of the individuals who share its particular physical consummation.

If you are told over and over that you are a being who has profound sexual needs the odds are very good that you will discover that you do. Particularly when other outlets are forbidden or discouraged. Particularly when it is emphasized that those who do not feel these needs are frigid, neurotic, sexually maladjusted (which for a woman means essentially maladjusted), dried up, barren, to be pitied.

We are programmed to think that not only is sex the only way to demonstrate or prove our love, it is the only (or best) way to express it.

As far as I can tell, there is no evidence that Densmore herself is asexual (she writes “Personally, I recognize that I have sexual feelings.”). But her writing obviously foreshadows many points that ace communities would make decades later. I also have a strong suspicion that some women that we would now consider asexual, would have gravitated towards Cell 16 writings. “Independence from the Sexual Revolution” includes the following passage:

A woman in her forties wrote to me as follows: “Now I realize all that about its being an instinct, but I think there’s something more to the story. When I reflect on my own past experience, I can rarely find a time when I was driven to it from inside need. I’m not saying if I didn’t have it for a long period (which hasn’t ever happened to me), I might not feel the instinct, but I’m saying we need some evidence of just how much because I suspect that even the minimum is far, far less than is believed. I know I talked myself into most sex probably looking for the earth-moving orgasm which maybe was a hoax anyway. What if no one had given me those words with which I talked myself into it? I begin to distrust it all. Reminds me of that line from Notes From the First Year: sometimes you’d rather play ping pong.”

What I’m seeing here, is that there were precursors to asexuality and asexual ideas, but the idea of asexuality itself wasn’t quite articulated.

Did Cell 16 ever refer to asexuality explicitly?  When I looked up Cell 16’s journal, I was shocked to find that, right alongside “On Celibacy”, there is also an article titled “Asexuality”, from 1968.  Intrigued, I tried hard to track down this article, and I finally found it.  It’s quite short, so I include a transcription below.

ASEXUALITY

Considering what one must go through to attain a relationship of whole to whole in this society, or any other I know of, the most “normal” person, the most moral, isthe celibate. I do not mean the female or male tease, who uses sex, but doesn’t do it, but the real celibate, the “monk”. Perhaps we should all try that for a while. A celibate cannot maintain his balance and whole-ness by simple self-denial, or isolation (prison). He must attain a complete unity with himself and the universe, and he usually relates to others with more sensitivity and warmth than the “sexual” being. Of course, too often, celibacy is not a free choice, but one based on a fear of sexual involvement (a damned healthy fear, though). A certain inconfidence exists, self-doubt. The person who has been through the whole sex-scene, and then becomes, by choice and revulsion, a celibate, is the most lucid person.

I do not think the “needs” which we so often refer to are true “needs”. I believe they are conditioned needs, and can be unconditioned. I think all human beings have the need and potential to remain permanently whole through their lives.

Sexual behavior is not the question. It is a natural function that does not require fuss or attention. Chrildren thrive in their sexuality without training manuals and panting desires. Slavewomen (whole and autonomous) can take sex or leave it, as can Whole males (I met one once). Sex will take care of itself. Sexual hangups are just symptoms of the disease, not the disease. I see no reason to discuss the future of sexual behavior in relation to the Liberation of the Human Race from Disunity. The questions are silly: Will homoxexuality or group sex emerge? Will sexual desire last into old age? Should fathers screw their daughters to get rid of the Electra Complex (there will be no fathers)? Should mothers screw their sons? All questions pertaining to sexuality are irrelevant under our present structures of thought, because we have no idea to each other. What does it matter? I will take the results blind whatever they are. And I will do without the crumbs offered in our own hung upside down society. Let us learn to be Whole, and forget about merging.

Roxanne Dunbar

In this short essay, Dunbar (now Dunbar-Ortiz) doesn’t explicitly explain what the title means. But she seems to see asexuality as going somewhat beyond celibacy, towards “whole-ness”. Oddly, she also describes this form of celibacy as being realized by someone who “has been through the whole sex-scene”, which sounds directly inspired by the SCUM Manifesto. But where the SCUM Manifesto was satirical, and therefore difficult to interpret, this article seems more in earnest. So yes, here’s another data point.

Concluding remarks

When I asked Breanne Fahs directly about asexuality and celibacy in early radical feminism, she said that it was “danced around quite a lot”.

I think in particular radical feminists of the late 1960s and early 1970s were trying to imagine a world where sex was not burdensome or necessary, so asexuality and celibacy come up in different moments for them.  Cell 16 took it more as a kind of collective argument, building from the journal No More Fun and Games.  Others, like Ti-Grace Atkinson and Kathie Sarachild, disagreed about what to do with sexuality in general, with Kathie veering more toward finding a place for (hetero)sex in radical feminism, and Ti-Grace working to critically attack both sex AND love (super controversial!).  I deal with this a bit in my recent book, Firebrand Feminism.

So if anyone wants to do their own research, it sounds like there is more to find!  I’d be particularly interested to learn about Ti-Grace Atkinson’s attack on love, which could be a precursor to aro ideas.

Next, read part 2, in which we will take a critical look at secondary sources.

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.
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11 Responses to Asexuality in early radical feminism, Part 1

  1. I’m really fascinated by this history especially since I was born in the same year as the Barnard event, 1973.

  2. DasTenna says:

    Thank you for this article. It helps a little bit understanding where some misconceptions of our times might´ve come from, especially the one that “asexual” means “being against Sex and hating it”.

  3. I love getting to see glimpses into the past where ace people may have existed.

    It’s also interesting to see how the context shapes the discourses around our experiences (and those kinda adjacent), and getting to imagine how the ace community would have been shaped had it existed before. A “what could have been” if instead of being influenced by sex-positivism and lgbt politics of the late 90s-early 2000s, we had made our roots in feminist separatism and political lesbianism.

    Having an earlier start for the formation of the ace community could have been a good thing, but it also could have been… not so positive in other ways…

  4. Pingback: Asexuality in early radical feminism, Part 2 | The Asexual Agenda

  5. Pingback: Carnival of Aces Round-Up: Asexuality Before AVEN – Ace Film Reviews

  6. Lisa Orlando says:

    Omigoddess! All these years of Googling, and something finally came up.

    I am the author of the Asexual Manifesto. It disappeared a long time ago. Every time I thought I had located a copy, the person who had it died. There was an excerpt published in Shere Hite’s first book, Sexual Honesty, but that’s the extent of it. I would be so thrilled if someone could locate a copy.

    A brief history: that conference was an attempt to resolve the “gay/straight split.” Barbara Getz and I were on the Coordinating Council of NYRF, when the Council had a discussion about why the split didn’t seem to affect our group. We decided to break into caucuses and write position papers. Evan Morley, despite being a lifelong lesbian, chose to create a bisexual caucus, because she thought that position was underrepresented. That inspired Barbara and me to create an asexual caucus.

    Our caucus was the only one that actually wrote a paper. After the first draft, Barbara became concerned that her therapy practice might suffer if her name was associated with the paper, so I rewrote it and issued it under my name. NYRF sold it through the mail, and it was surprisingly popular.

    After it came out, the Feminists (sans Ti-Grace), who required celibacy of their members, tried to recruit me, but I didn’t like dogmatism, so I passed on them.

    PS: Strange as it seems, I resurfaced later as a bisexual sex radical, writing for Gay Community News and the Village Voice in opposition to the anti-porn movement. Then I went back underground. Now, at 70, I am more asexual than ever, in the sense that I can’t even imagine wanting all that trouble again.

    • Siggy says:

      Wow! Would you mind if I e-mailed you to ask some questions about it? I’ll also point out your comment to other people and maybe other curious folks could ask questions here.

      • Lisa Orlando says:

        After the middle of November, yes. If I weren’t so impulsive, I wouldn’t have posted, or even searched, in the middle of downsizing and moving. But I was going through my books, and it made me just want to take another look. I didn’t expect to find anything!

    • Hi!!! This is amazing!
      I’ve actually reached out to Barbara and talked to her for a bit. I’m working to put together a piece with an asexual academic and I’d love to interview you!
      If you’d be interested send me an email at aceexperiencespodcast@gmail.com.
      Also, thanks so much for doing that work in the past. Finding out that asexual stuff has a pre-internet history honestly means the world to me.

      • toafan says:

        The old Underground podcast doesn’t work with my podcast app, so I was excited to see your handle. The URL you gave returned a DNS error for me though, and googling didn’t turn up any relevant results on the first page. I’m guessing you haven’t started publishing content yet as of my comment?

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