Asexuality, Identity and ‘Scratching an Itch’

It’s pretty great when you stumble across people discussing your work on the internet. All the more so when they ask thought-provoking questions which make you reconsider arguments you’ve made in the past and encourage you to explore their limitations:

Asexual elitism is an elitist attitude where some asexuals don’t consider other people to be asexual because they participate in an activity that the asexual elitist thinks falls outside of the realm of asexuality. What the activity is, be it masturbation, kissing, or sex, varies between asexual elitists (gbrd143). AVEN rejects asexual elitism by defining asexuality on its website homepage as ‘A person who does not experience sexual attraction’ (The Asexual Visibility and Education Network). This definition allows an asexual to engage in any type or amount of sexual behaviour; their identity only relies on the fact that they are not sexually attracted.

I think it’s important to qualify what the article says about me only describing sex-aversion and sex-neutrality. In the paper I published before this I actually list four terms: sex-positive, sex-neutral, sex-averse and anti-sex (Carrigan 2011: 468).  I discuss sex-aversion and sex-neutrality in more detail in this paper but that’s because almost everyone who took part in the research (with the qualifier that the open-response format of the questionnaires meant I couldn’t tell in some cases) seemed to fit clearly into one of those two categories. I hadn’t realised the categories I was talking about had narrowed in this way between the two pieces of work and retrospectively I certainly regret this. The broader point made in this article still stands though and it’s an important one:

Carrigan claims that asexuals exist who specifically want to have sex, but the explanation for this is that they have sex for the intimacy it offers. In all these articulations, the asexual who wants to have sex because it feels good is absent.

A person who wants to have sex, but is not sexually attracted to anyone, is a type of asexual that is largely ignored or, as shown in Carrigan’s explanation, written away as wanting to have sex for a reason other than the act itself. This kind of asexual is so absent from conversations about asexuality that we might be led to believe that they don’t exist or are impossible.

– Talia in AVENues issue #25 http://www.asexuality.org/home/avenues.html

I guess there’s been a case of theoretical blindness on my part here. I’ve made the argument that what leads someone to come to identify as asexual is that certain attribute(s) of themselves are rendered problematic by the implicit and explicit judgements they encounter from significant others. Exactly what these attribute(s) are is a complex question and, in many ways, one which I think can’t be answered sociologically. But given the diversity within the asexual community, the heterogeneity underneath the umbrella definition, it seems obvious to me that this is not one attribute that all people who come to identify as asexual share. In an important sense I’m a constructivist about ‘asexuality’ but a realist about the processes which lead concrete individuals to come to identify as asexualI think ‘asexuality’ is a cultural label, with its own history and a shifting politics attached to it, which has been the focal point for the elaboration of a rich web of terms and concepts. But just because the network of individuals who are both elaborating this terminology and using it to navigate their everyday lives (the two cannot ultimately be separated) are converging on the same label doesn’t mean they’re doing so for the same reasons or that they’re applying it to the same attributes.

In this sense, the model I’m offering has no difficulty in accepting the existence of “asexuals that have sex because they orgasm, it feels good, and they actually want to”. But it’s never occurred to me because (a) there was no sign of them in my data (b) I didn’t knowingly encounter any when I did the internet phase of my research which was almost five years ago now (c) my model does struggle to make sense of why people like this come to identify asexual because I’ve understood this biographical process in terms of the individual coming to recognise certain attribute(s) of themselves as amounting in practice to ‘not being sexual enough’ or ‘not being sexual in the right way’ as a result of the stigmatising and/or pathologising judgements of significant others. In other words, I’ve been arguing that people come to identify as asexual because ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’ is rendered problematic by those around them. Just to be clear, I’m saying the problem here is with my model – I’m writing this post because I found the article in AVENues very thought provoking and I want to understand this issue better than I do at present:

I have often described sex-favourable asexuals as having an itch they want to scratch. They cannot find the right tools for the job, but they’ll use whatever is available because it really itches and they don’t mind the tools at their disposal. They’ve accepted that there is no ‘right tool’ and they will never get the job done the typical way […] the sex is of a different kind, but not ruined. Another type of sex-favourable asexuals could have no metaphorical itch or sexual libido. They might enjoy sex simply because, like jogging, it feels good. If something feels good, why not do it?

The conceptual difficulty emerges because I’d imagine either of these conditions (having sex because of an ‘itch’ that needs to be ‘scratched or simply because ‘it feels good’ in the way that sport or exercise does) is true for the majority of sexual people at least some of the time. People have sex with those they’re not sexually attracted to. People have sex when they’re ‘not in the mood’. People have sex because of intrinsic physical pleasures in a way which renders the specificity of the sexual partner wholly or partly redundant. So from my point of view, as someone who researches asexuality, there are two questions which stand out for me here. Firstly, how should  ’sex-favourable asexuals’ be conceptually distinguished from Gray-A’s* on the one hand and the variable centrality of sexual attraction to the sexual experience of non-asexuals on the other? Secondly, how do ‘sex-favourable asexuals’ come to identify as asexual and what ‘work’ does this identification do biographically? Is it just a convenient label for them? Does the label help ‘solve’ any problems they face in everyday life as a result of not experiencing sexual attraction? Are there particular difficulties they face (over and above the politics of ‘asexual elitism’ which sparked the AVENues article) specifically in virtue of not experiencing sexual attraction yet still having sex? How frequently do people in this category have sex? Does the absence of sexual attraction actually play a positive role in shaping sexual behaviour?

*Which I guess is where I would have ‘placed’ these experiences if I’d thought more directly about it. This post has already taken me longer than I expected to write but I might come back to this point at a later date.


Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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