Asexuality in early radical feminism, Part 2

In the first part of this series, I discussed asexuality in early radical feminism, in the late 60s and early 70s, focusing on two cases: Valerie Solanas, and Cell 16.  We found the word “asexual” being used in unfamiliar ways, alongside more familiar ideas that foreshadowed asexual thought.  Here, I will look at secondary sources that offered commentary on that history.

Breanne Fahs

First, we turn towards Breanne Fahs’ 2010 article, “Radical Refusals: On the anarchist politics of women choosing asexuality”, which is how I found out about Valerie Solanas and Cell 16 in the first place.  The interesting thing is that when Fahs’ article first came out, reception on AVEN was strongly negative. Andrew Hinderliter, who at the time ran the asexual research bibliography, spoke out against Fahs. He said that he wouldn’t normally criticize articles in his bibliography, but the low quality of this particular paper demanded it.

I’m not going to go through Hinderliter’s entire critique, but there are definitely valid complaints about the part of Fahs’ paper that deals with modern asexuality. For example, she says that asexuals are driven into relationships by “social desirability and economics”, apparently ignorant of the concept of romantic orientation. She also takes the viewpoint that ace communities ignore the radical implications of asexuality that she herself writes about–typical academic, ignoring relevant community discussions and substituting her own.

Another major complaint was that Fahs defines asexuality as “permanent, identity-based sexual refusals” (note that it could be a political identity rather than a sexual orientation identity).  This obviously doesn’t match modern definitions, and at first it appears to come out of thin air.  I asked Fahs about this, and she said it came from her oral history interviews (as described in her book Firebrand Feminism).  While that may be the case, I think it was misleading to apply the definition to modern discourse.

Nonetheless, I can’t say I share Hinderliter’s concern about the paper. With almost a decade’s worth of hindsight, I’m not afraid that some old academic article will sow seeds of confusion regarding asexuality. (Granted, some factual errors propagate through the academic literature.)  Instead, I’m beginning to see the value in this paper, which connects asexuality to some historical ideas and writings that I might otherwise never have heard of.

I asked Fahs about Hinderliter, and she complained that Hinderliter seemed to think asexuality should never be framed as a political choice, or be politicized at all.

What I think, is that in 2010, we were particularly concerned about the integrity of the definition of asexuality, because that definition was very much under threat. But today in 2018, the definition is more established, and the greater threat comes from tumblr exclusionists, who want to deny that asexuals ever would have taken part in queer or feminist movements. Today, when someone posts a 1973 photo that mentions asexuality, it is welcomed and celebrated by ace tumblr. If the photo had shown up in 2010, would we have celebrated it, or would we have cast suspicion upon it, asking whether they really understood asexuality in the proper way?

And I wonder, maybe we should be more suspicious? Maybe we should be less celebratory of old photos and writings from the 70s? Is our desire to see ourselves in history so strong that we’re willing to see Valerie Solanas as part of it? On the other hand, what of Dana Densmore, who predicted many issues we still deal with today, without speaking of asexuality at all?

Myra T. Johnson

When talking about asexuality in the 70s, there is another landmark piece of history that cannot go unmentioned. That is, “Asexual and Autoerotic Women: Two Invisible Groups” a book chapter by Myra T. Johnson. You can’t find this one on the internet, but we summarized and discussed it here. Johnson used a concept of asexuality that is very similar to our own, albeit distinguishing between “asexual” and “autoerotic” (similar to the modern distinction between nonlibidoist and libidoist asexuals).

Actually there’s a lot of history from the 70s, but the reason I bring up Johnson in particular, is because of her commentary on how asexuality relates to feminism. She first looks at the sexual revolution, quoting several letters to fashion magazines where readers complained that “sexual freedom” was leaving out the freedom not to have sex. Johnson’s critique could be seen as echoing that of Dana Densmore.  And indeed, Myra Johnson approvingly quotes Densmore’s “Independence from the Sexual Revolution”.

Next, Johnson criticizes the way lesbianism or asexuality were sometimes advocated as political strategies.

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 “scapegoat” and the woman who feels asexual or autosexual might function as a political symbol–her identity still lost in the slogans, and her reality going unnoticed.

This seems to be directly criticizing the views of, e.g., Valerie Solanas.  And one of the examples that Johnson mentions comes from The Feminists, Ti-Grace Atkinson’s radical feminist group.

So, maybe something happened between 1968 and 1977, that led to such well-developed ideas as those expressed by Myra T. Johnson.  It gives reason to suspect there had been many undocumented conversations about it. Perhaps one of those conversations occurred in 1973 at Barnard College.

Concluding remarks

Regardless of what conversations may have happened in the 70s, one thing we know for sure, is that it had a bummer ending.  The conversations, while they “danced around” asexuality, they clearly did not reach a tipping point.  When online ace communities formed in the late 90s and early 2000s, people in those communities did not see themselves as continuing an unbroken tradition from the 70s, but instead had to start from scratch.

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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6 Responses to Asexuality in early radical feminism, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Asexuality in early radical feminism, Part 1 | The Asexual Agenda

  2. umm, do you know how much i love the line “typical academic, ignoring relevant community discussions and substituting her own”??


  3. So there’s a term here I never heard before: autosexual. Can someone point me in the direction to go if I want to learn more about that?

    • Siggy says:

      Myra T. Johnson is using “autosexual” interchangeably with “autoerotic”, and it’s basically what we would call “libidoist asexual” today. To spell it out, it’s people who masturbate. I’ve also seen people use “autosexual” in modern times, when they think that’s an important aspect to highlight.

      IMO, part of the problem with the libidoist/non-libidoist distinction is that–you know how some people will react to asexuality by immediately asking if you masturbate?–identifying as libidoist/non-libidoist is like pre-emptively answering that question before anyone is rude enough to ask.

  4. Pingback: Paper: On the Racialization of Asexuality | The Asexual Agenda

  5. Pingback: I hate “A is not for Ally” | The Asexual Agenda

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