Normalizing Difference: Redefining Asexuality

[5 minute read]

The problem with asexuality, as I’ve discussed before, is that it is hard to talk about on its own terms — even in a grammatical sense.

For example: If you’re homosexual, you can say, “I’m sexually attracted to people of my same gender.” If you’re pansexual, you can say, “I’m sexually attracted to all genders.”

These are positive constructions: I do experience attraction to x. But if you’re asexual, the sentence structure use is a negative construction: “I don’t experience sexual attraction.” Etymologically, it’s a negative identity: it literally means not-sexual. I’m not-something. This is Parmenides’ dilemma: the Greek philosopher’s famous poem describes how the goddess told him not to contemplate “not-being,” for it is categorically impossible to fathom that which is not. No wonder then, that asexuality is always rendered in terms of allosexuality. As we saw in journalism and in fanfic, an asexual person is always compared to an allosexual norm in order to describe the ace’s asexuality.

blogasexual1Parmenides suffering the effects of contemplating “not-being.”

But what if that weren’t the case? Asexuality obviously exists independently of allosexuality, so how might we describe it in its own terms? One scholar who has boldly gone where no Greek philosopher has gone before is Benjamin Kahan, the author of Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life. Although contemporary discourse about asexuality is careful to distinguish celibacy (the abstention from sexual behavior) from asexuality (a state of being which exists independently of sexual behavior that a person may or may not practice), Kahan uses celibacy to describe what we might otherwise call asexuality. At first, this seemed an unnecessarily confusing choice, especially since Kahan dedicates his last chapter to aromantic asexuality. But I came to realize: casting celibacy as only a religious or political choice assumes that that person would otherwise behave “normatively” sexually. Such a rhetorical move erases the very real potential that celibates do not, in fact, repress any sexual desires, but instead desire their own celibacy — perhaps in the same way that aces might desire their own asexuality.

blogasex2Desiring celibacy? Say what?

Popular images of celibates — priests and nuns, spinsters and forty-year-old virgins — represent celibacy as anti-sexual frigidity, a cover for sexual “perversity,” or the pitiful pining of total losers, but never something desirable in itself. However, Kahan argues that we’ve been approaching celibacy all wrong when we imagine it as the opposite of sexuality. Asexuality, when its existence is recognized, has at least managed to be classified as one of many sexualities like bisexuality and heterosexuality, even if that classification is complicated by its etymology: not-sexuality. But celibacy, Kahan argues, is not not-sex; it is another mode of doing sex. I would argue the same is true of asexuality. By re-sexualizing nongenital attractions, we get closer to understanding asexuality as a positive construction. We might be able to answer what it is that aces want — what pleasures they’re attracted to in a nongenital sense, if not sex with other beings or objects.

blogasex3Come, let us enter together the door to new a/sexual possibilities.

This is the driving force of Kahan’s argument. His book underscores the importance of “understanding celibacy not as an absence or as a stigmatized identity but in positive terms as an attractive identity with its own desires and pleasures.”[1] If we apply the same principle to asexuality, it becomes imperative to reorient hegemonic ideas about asexuality. We must look beyond the language of lack and assumptions of asexuality’s opposition to erotonormativity, and instead locate what it is in and of itself. What does asexuality look like when it isn’t compared to another sexual orientation? What do aces want?

To answer this, I suggest looking at how Kahan grapples with answering a similar, though distinct, question: what do celibates want? When he says that celibacy is a form of sex, Kahan is careful to distinguish celibacy from kinks; although celibates (like aces) can have kinks, celibacy and asexuality are not coterminous with kinks. For Kahan, bringing nongenital attractions back into the realm of sexuality seems to mean recognizing other, asexual attractions on equal footing with what we’ve historically known to be sexual attractions — not as a substitute for or deferral from sexual attraction, but a sexual attraction because it offers the same kind of fulfillment that normative sexual attractions do. Essentially, Kahan wants us to expand the definition of what qualifies as attractive desire to include the attractions of the celibate. Specifically, Kahan writes, “rather than desiring something lacking and trying to obtain it” — for instance, desiring a sexual relationship and going for it — “the celibate desire is the reiteration of celibacy itself.”[2]

What does the celibate want? To be celibate. To maintain their celibacy, to revel in their identity. What does the ace want? I would tentatively suggest the same. Perhaps aces want to be ace.

Kahan’s argument about celibacy might not fully answer what it means to be asexual. Reiterative desire is only one kind of nongenital attraction, and there’s a possibility that pulling asexuality back into the realm of normative sexuality erodes some of its characteristic queerness. But by insisting that we consider what celibacy is on its own terms — positive terms — Kahan’s argument show us the possibility of self-definition, and positive asexuality.

[1] Benjamin A. Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 3.

[2] Ibid., 69.


Abnormalizing Difference: Sexual Normativity in Asexual Sherlock Fanfic

[7 minute read]

(CW: discussion of sexual violence in fanfic.)

Can I tell you a secret? I knew the titular character of BBC’s Sherlock had become one of the mascots of the ace community before I even watched the show — and I defended his reputation as such before I watched it, too, as evidenced in a text conversation between myself and my best friend:

Best Friend: Omg, you have to watch Sherlock. They’re so gay.

Me: No Sherlock isn’t! He’s supposed to be asexual!

Judging by the events of series four (spoiler alert), we both might have been a little optimistically defensive of our interpretations of Sherlock’s sexuality; but I think I was justified in my devotion to Sherlock-as-ace. Until Archie’s Jughead last year, and Bojack Horseman’s Todd this year, aces had no authentic canonical representations of themselves to turn to in popular fictional media (let alone celebrities).[1] So we appropriated other characters for ourselves. No other fictional character had given voice to the experiences I considered uniquely ace quite like Sherlock did: his quick jump to defend himself from what he perceived as John’s eventual sexual advances by claiming “I’m married to my work” (“A Study in Pink”); his refusal to recognize Irene’s overt sexual advances by protesting “Why would I want to have dinner if I wasn’t hungry?” (“A Scandal in Belgravia”); and his deft evasion of imaginary-John’s insistent questions about his seemingly absent sexual desires by insisting that “Nothing made me” the way that Sherlock is (“The Abominable Bride”). In my eyes, Sherlock actively distances himself from the erotonormative expectations of the people around him, like I do, and I loved him for it (platonically, of course).

fic1Asexuality is A-okay.

However, for all the refusal of normative sexuality that Sherlock performs in the BBC series, there exists a perversely normalizing trend within asexuality-themed Sherlock fanfic. When I ran out of new Sherlock episodes to watch, I found a thread on the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network’s message board, wherein users recommended ace Sherlock fanfic that they had come across. Although I would later read fics featuring other interpretations of Sherlock’s sexuality (inspiring this earlier Metathesis post), the first few Sherlock fics that I read all featured an ace Sherlock, and, in one case, an ace John. But, with one notable exception, these first few fics also featured its ace character experiencing some form of sexual harassment or violence.

In one graphic fic, Sherlock tolerates tacitly unwanted sex with John out of fear of losing his companionship. In another fic, college-aged Sherlock evades his boyfriend’s sexual contact one too many times and gets called a freak. In a more light-hearted fic, Sherlock recounts narrowly escaping losing his virginity at a brothel after his brother pressures him into visiting one. In other fics, Sherlock feels that he’s a dysfunctional human for being ace and denies himself platonic intimate contact for fear of sending mixed signals. Although these fics and those like them generally end happily or at least peacefully, with John understanding and affirming Sherlock’s asexuality, or John and Sherlock negotiating their sexual boundaries together, this upbeat ending can come only after a moment wherein erotonormativity’s current stranglehold on sexuality is reasserted — indeed, normalized.

Maybe there is something unique about the BBC series that affords the exploration of how dominant ideas about sexuality make aces vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence; for instance, I haven’t yet dug very deeply into Doctor Who’s limited selection of ace fic, but so far, I haven’t experienced the same phenomenon. Perhaps where Doctor Who institutionalizes some nonsexual companionships and allows for alternative — albeit alien, in both senses of the word — normalized ideas about human behavior, Sherlock’s long refusal to directly address Sherlock’s sexuality encourages fic writers to render Sherlock’s cryptic rejection of sexual advances as discomfort with his asexuality. Whatever the cause of this trend in Sherlock fic, it reproduces some of the narratives about asexuality that I described last week. Asexuality is, however briefly, depicted as freakish: subhuman, antisocial, pathological. Furthermore, ace Sherlock must find a way to educate his companion about his asexuality, often in terms that privilege his companion’s sexual needs and desires over his asexual needs and desires. Erotonormativity haunts these fictional narratives as much as it does real life.

fic2The show doesn’t really disabuse people of this norm, either.

Understandably, fic writers looking to positively represent asexual experiences want to show their characters contending with, and eventually overcoming struggles that are common to the ace community. These often include the threat of so-called reparative rape when erotonormativity says that everyone should want sex; the miscommunication that occurs when erotonormativity codes otherwise nonsexual gestures as sexual innuendo; and the internalized doubt and dismissal of one’s asexual desires when erotonormativity insists an allosexual partner’s sexual desires must be catered to, because asexuality is outside the norm. This is, after all, the general state of affairs aces have been told to anticipate from those who are not asexual, and art has been known to imitate life — especially when ace writers are looking for a space to test out reactions to situations and ideologies that they might face in their lives outside fiction writing.

But fanfic is, of course, fiction. Many fics already have an extremely distant relationship to both reality and the canonical source text they’re drawn from. Why not imagine a world wherein asexuality is normalized, aces don’t have to explain themselves, and their desires are privileged? I’m concerned that “asexual experience,” insofar as experiences can be generalized, is becoming characterized only in relationship to erotonormativity, perhaps in a similar way to how queerness is sometimes characterized only in opposition to heteronormativity. What would it look like to accept asexuality on its own terms? This is what I’ll be exploring the rest of this month for Metathesis.

[1] Technically USA’s Sirens featured a canonically out ace, but we’re all still applying brain bleach to erase that representation from our memories.