Why sexual people don’t get asexuality and why it matters

I had three initial aims with my asexuality research: mapping out community in a ideographically adequate way, understanding the role the internet played in the formation of the community and exploring what the reception of asexuality reveals about sexual culture. There’s still more I want to write in relation to the first two points but I’ve basically drawn my conclusions at this point. Which means that my interest in asexuality has basically transmuted into an interest in how sexual people react to asexuality. This sounds much more obscure than it actually is.

In essence I’m arguing that the reactions of sexual people to asexuality reveal the architectonic principle of contemporary sexual culture, namely the sexual assumption: the usually unexamined presupposition that sexual attraction is both universal (everyone ‘has it’) and uniform (it’s fundamentally the same thing in all instances) such that its absence must be explicable in terms of a distinguishable pathology. This is instantiated at the level of both the cultural system and socio-cultural interaction: it’s entailed propositionally, even if not asserted outright, within prevailing lay and academic discourses pertaining to sexuality but it’s also reproduced by individuals in interaction (talking about sex, either in the abstract or in terms of their own experience) and intraaction (making sense of their own experience through internal conversation).

Until the asexual community came along, the ideational relationship (the logical structure internal to academic and lay discourses about sex) and patterns of socio-cultural interaction (the causal structure stemming from thought and talk about sex) reinforced one another. Or to drop the critical realist terminology: the sexual assumption got reproduced at the level of ideas because nothing conflicted with it at the level of experience. But when something comes along which empirically repudiates it (namely the asexual community) the underlying principle suddenly becomes contested. This doesn’t mean discourse ‘makes’ sexual people not get ‘asexuality’ but it does mean that, given the centrality of the sexual assumption to our prevailing ways of understand sexuality, being confronted with asexuality immediately invites explanation. One such explanation is to drop the ideational commitment but, given that its usually tacit, few people (including myself) can do this immediately – though many, it seems, do so once they’ve reflected upon it. Instead the usual response is to evade the logical conflict by explaining away asexuality: its a hormone deficiency, the person was sexually abused, they’re lying, they’re gay but repressed, they’ve just not met the right person yet (etc).

The empirical evidence of quite how pervasive, indeed near universal, this kind of reaction is seems increasingly conclusive. What I am suggesting is that the sexual assumption is what explains this being a ‘kind’ of reaction i.e. all the explanations, in spite of their superficial differences in content, involve a reassertion of the uniformity and/or universality of sexual attraction. I’m not saying people are deliberately or consciously defending the sexual assumption (though I’m not categorically saying no one will ever be doing this) but rather that it is this, as the foundational assumption ‘holding together’ the conceptual architecture of the sexual culture which has emerged from the mid/late 20th century onwards, which asexuality renders problematic. The precisecontent of any given individual’s attempts to explain away asexuality varies depending on the specifics of their personal and intellectual history within this sexual culture (i.e. it’s not a homogenous thing) but the shared form of the response is explained by the architectonic principle of that culture and the logical relation of contradiction in which it stands to the empirical observation of asexual individuals who are ‘normal’ (i.e. non pathological). Logical relations don’t force people to act (some people don’t try and explain it away) but everyone who has not experienced what David Jay calls the ‘head-clicky thing’ has the same initial reaction. The above is my first attempt to offer a convoluted social theorists explanation of what I mean when, in interviews, I talk about sexual people not ‘getting’ asexuality. If you follow my chain of reasoning then, I ask of you, test it out: go and read the comments on the Guardian article I linked to and think about the reactions of people on there and what they have in common. Or do the same with pretty much any news article which has comments that I’ve encountered. There is something really fucking interesting happening there.

Mark Carrigan is editor of the Sociological Imagination. He blogs here and tweets here.

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