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Cory Silverberg

Reconciling the Sexual and the Asexual

By August 14, 2008

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A recent post of mine about a DC circuit legal opinion generated a lot of interesting and unexpected responses. The post was essentially about how sexual activity is not usually considered something essential in the lives of people with disabilities (and as a result people with disabilities sexual rights are often removed) but a panel of judges offered an opinion that sexual activity should be considered a major activity in life.

Once the post was up I received a few emails and then a few comments on the blog from people who identify as asexual. These folks were concerned that the ruling only contributes to the notion that if you donít want sex there must be something wrong with you and that it could result in further marginalization of their lived experience, which many of them consider a sexual orientation. I understand their concern. When youíre already marginalized you tend to have a keener sense of those things that could further push you out down the road. But I think thereís an opportunity here for a conversation that could result in a lot more than just two marginalized groups fighting over a few table scraps of human rights thrown their way by the powers that be.

After all both groups are being marginalized around their sexuality and in fact both groups are being denied the right to express their sexuality. In the case of people with disabilities theyíre considered asexual regardless of how they feel or what they desire. In the case of people who identify as asexual theyíre considered delusional (and sexual) regardless of how they feel or what they donít desire (keep in mind, lots of people who identify as asexual desire relationships, and human connections; they just donít desire those connections to be explicitly sexual).

In the posts Iíve read from people who identify as asexual I feel like there is some dismissal of the issues for folks with disabilities. I haven't yet read anything from the disability community about the asexual response, but if anyone has I'd love to read it. The conflict reminds me a bit of the problem some women disability activists had with second wave feminismís approach to objectification. When the second wave rolled in one of the targets was cat calling. Because these conversations were always (inappropriately) in a heterosexual context the issue at hand was men whistling and calling out to women on the street. This was demeaning, objectifying, and a symptom of a larger problem. At the same time some women disability activists felt like this issue had no relevance to them. I remember reading (and hearing repeated in groups) the sentiment that some women with disabilities express which was basically ďI wish someone would objectify me, they all think Iím asexual.Ē The rights that one group was fighting for werenít only out of step with the priorities of the other group, they didnít acknowledge the difference of experience.

It would be nice if we could avoid that happening here and think about how these two groups might work together to combat the marginalization they both experience. I'm not sure how that happens, but I guess that's why I'm writing this.

It still feels right for me to say say that all humans are sexual. To me that statement has never meant that all humans have sex or even want sex. Rather that, in this context, sexual is a term that describes an aspect or filter of experience. The aspect is in me whether or not I desire sexual interactions with men, women, or no one. Problems arise when one group wants to tell another that their experience just isnít so. Whether thatís the medical establishment telling people with disabilities that the sexual pleasure they experience ďisnít realĒ or the psychological community telling people who identify as asexual that theyíre just hiding out; in both cases you have to ask why one group thinks they know better about an entire group of people, and where their need for conformity comes from.

Read more - Venus of Willendork Blog: Itís My Right (Which Iíll Engage if I Want To).

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Comments
August 15, 2008 at 1:26 am
(1) Andrew says:

The relationship between asexuality and disability rights is a complicated one that definitely needs work on both sides. Asexuals are often told that their asexuality isn’t real (and they are just delusional) or isn’t valid (that somehow it must be the result of something bad and this somehow makes is less legitimate.) Asexuals understandably want to distance ourselves from the second type (as well as the first), so many asexuals emphasize how healthy they are or how their doctor told them that their hormone levels are fine. The assumption is that surely mentally and physically healthy adults can’t be asexual, and asexuals want to challenge this. But often we leave unchallenged the unspoken subtext about people who do have a disability or a health problem or a mental problem. This assumption and it’s subtext is suspiciously like the one that desexualizes people with disabilities. However, rather than challenge the assumption about people with disabilities, many asexuals emphasize their own health.

On the other side, there is often a focus that disabled people are not asexual (rather than not necessarily asexual.)

It seems that in both cases people are buying into the sorts of assumptions that marginalize those in the other group. The disability rights groups seem to accept that there is something seriously wrong with being asexual, and they emphasize that disabled people aren’t that. On the asexual side, people buy into the idea that being disabled would somehow delegitimate someones asexuality (because we know that disabled people are like that?)

It seems that both of these run the risk or marginalizing those at the intersection of these two groups. Some asexuals do have a disability. Some disabled people are asexual. And it doesn’t make either part of their experience any less real or any less part of their experience.

August 15, 2008 at 6:25 pm
(2) Cory says:

I’d be interested in what you think Andrew about the way I describe people as sexual. Essentially what I’m saying is that people who are asexual are sexual, and their sexuality is expressed in a way that’s different than someone who isn’t asexual. I think if we started with the premise that we’re all sexual, but that doesn’t have to mean we all want or do the same things, it would address both people who are asexual and people with disabilities.

August 15, 2008 at 10:09 pm
(3) Andrew says:

Some asexuals have strong feelings that they aren’t sexual. Other don’t. (Personally, I don’t.) I’ve heard of asexuals who take offense at claims that all people are sexual, seeing it as a denial of their personhood. I think that sometimes they are right, to some extent, because often these claims are made in a context that implicitly or explicitly their experience as asexual. From what I’ve read by other asexuals, some are fine with the idea that all people are sexual if a broad enough definition is used and some think of asexuality as their sexuality. Some really don’t like this idea.

If we accept the reality and legitimacy of asexuality, I think there are three ways to address the question of if asexuals are sexual or not. First, we can say asexuals are not sexual as the name seems to imply. Secondly, we can say that asexuals are sexual and use a broad enough definition of sexual to include asexuals. I think that this option will help many integrate asexuality into their thinking, so I see it as helpful. I used to favor this view. Now I’m wary, and my main problem with it is if we take “sexual” in such a broad way, what are we asserting when we say “all people are sexual?” Is it even something worth saying, especially since so many people will interpret in a way that suggests a universality of sexual desire. Option three is to give up all attempts at answering the question. Given the huge variation in beliefs of what sexuality is from person to person and from culture to culture, I’m skeptical that saying all people are sexual means anything at all. It seems to be more about an interpretive lens that people use for understanding themselves and others. The thing is is that if it’s a lense, the claim that all people are sexual seems to be more about the lens and how people are viewed than anything about the people themselves. I see the claim that all people are sexual as mistaking the lens people are viewed through with an actual property of all people. If, instead, we make someone’s being sexual as their use of sexuality as a lens to view people (which is how I read what you said in your blog), then it may well be wrong. Very young children haven’t yet acquired that interpretive lens, and some adults report thinking about sex or sexuality extraordinarily rarely. Anyway, that’s my two cents on the issue.

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