Last month, the ace journal club discussed
“Growing into Asexuality: The Queer Erotics of Childhood”, Chapter 3 of Asexual Erotics: Intimate Readings of Compulsory Sexuality by Ela Przybylo (2019).
You can access a copy of this book here. Our discussion notes are below the fold.
The journal club meets once a month on Discord, using text or voice as club members prefer. We discuss a variety of academic works in ace studies, ranging from gender studies to psychology. Don’t worry about journal access, we can provide access. If you’re interested, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org for an invite.
Przybylo addresses the conflict between two views on children. On the one hand, you have the usual desexualization of children, and on the other hand you have queer theory’s sexualization of children. Przybylo wants to find some middle ground that is friendly to asexual development. She does so by examining several works:
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto, Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Nursing and Self-Portrait/Cutting, and Vivek Shraya’s Trisha.
– Throughout the book, Przybylo uses Audre Lorde’s concept of the erotic, which is not necessarily sexual. The journal club was in agreement about disliking this.
– She uses this to push back against the queer theory theory assumption that sexuality is inherently radical, but Lorde’s concept of the erotic seems to be the embodiment of that very assumption.
– We like the discussion of the distinction between desexualization vs asexuality. It’s a problem in academic literature that they often use the word “asexuality” to discuss groups that are more properly described as desexualized.
– We observe that there are two kinds of desexualization. There are subjects who are assumed to be nonsexual, because other people find it inconvenient to recognize their sexual desires (e.g. the Mammy archetype). And then there are subjects who are recognized to have sexual desires, but whose desires are policed and suppressed. Perhaps these two forms of desexualization should be discussed separately.
– When it comes to LGBTQ+ people, they experience the latter kind of desexualization, which is why it makes sense that activists and academics have insisted that sex is radical.
– This is discussed on page 92. It says childhood asexuality is considered impossible or hostile within queer theory, because people see sex as essential to the queerness. We really liked this part of the chapter.
Growing into asexuality
– The chapter offers some interesting commentary about how sexual narratives relate to time. We typically think of individuals as growing upwards over time, into sexual maturity. Przybylo discusses alternative narratives of growing upwards into asexuality, or growing downwards. For instance, Przybylo highlights this narrative in the SCUM Manifesto.
– Question: Why does the ace community ignore or marginalize this kind of narrative?
– There are some things particular to the SCUM Manifesto narrative that don’t fit well with asexuality. Solanas has a line that “[Y]ou’ve got to go through a lot of sex to get to anti-sex”, but we think you can skip that middle step and just go straight to anti-sex. And Solanas’ narrative seems to be about still having sex but being numb to it or not caring, which might relate to her experience with sex work.
– This relates to discussion of who is a “real” asexual. People who used to be more sexual are considered more suspect. Asexuality is very tied into sexual orientation, which is framed as a permanent thing that people are born with.
– Ace communities used to be older (like 30s or 40s), but now people are finding an asexual identity at a younger age. So you didn’t have as many people spending a lot of their lives performing sexuality because they think that’s the only option. Also, if you’re 19, there just isn’t much time to have done all that.
– There’s also this dynamic where some people in ace communities want a space to not have to talk about all this sexual stuff.
– In mainstream logic, going from having no sex to having sex is more plausible, for instance if someone was single and then enters a relationship.
– If someone experiences change in their sexuality later in life, this can be used as an excuse to medicalize the condition. One of the narratives of HSDD is an adult who had a “normal” sexuality and then lost it.
– Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Nursing shows herself in the nude breastfeeding a child who is somewhat older than the normative age. See here (cn: nudity).
– In discussing this work, Przybylo does not mention, but seems to take it for granted that we are already aware of the cultural context surrounding breastfeeding. For instance, the way breastfeeding becomes taboo after a year or so, because people think it’s too sexualizing.
– It would have been interesting to look at different norms around the world regarding breastfeeding and the appropriate ages.
– Trisha is a photo-essay depicting the artist imitating photos of her mother. You can find it here.
– More so than the other artworks under discussion, it’s not clear how Trisha addresses the themes of the chapter, since it seems to have little to do with sexuality. It’s an example of how erotics doesn’t need to be sexual, but then it seems the only connection to the sexual in the first place is that we called it erotic?
– The relationship seems to be that Trisha describes a downward progression where her mother used to be happy and playful as in these old photos, but that was stripped away through marriage, motherhood, and diasporic trauma.
– Obviously the connection comes from the fact that she is cutting a cake.
– The article has lots of disclaimers about how all the sexual narratives under discussion are tied to whiteness, so we were disappointed that that the chapter doesn’t followup with any commentary of the narratives operate for people of color.
– The discussion of the erotics of children and intergenerational loving is unsettling, and doesn’t adequately address the surrounding context of child abuse. Child sexual abuse seems like a legitimate reason to be cautious about the sexualization of children. For instance, people are generally quicker to sexualize children of color, and there is concern that this leads them to be more vulnerable to abuse.
– Solanas is a running theme throughout the book, although she’s only mentioned once in this chapter. The book glosses over the fact that Solanas tried to murder Andy Warhol. We noted that it’s common for academics to ignore this sort of context in order to just talk about the text. But what sits weird about it is that there’s an epilogue which discusses how incels are totally distinct from asexuality because they’re a violent and hateful group… as opposed to Solanas?
– On page 102, the chapter talks about how contemporary asexual identity is distinct from Solanas’ asexuality, which is a good disclaimer that would have been nice to have in earlier parts of the book.