CAN ASEXUALITY BE FEMINIST?

by Rita Alcaire*

As I sit down to write my doctoral thesis on asexuality in Portugal, three years after I started to get involved with various dimensions of the subject, I am stuck on an aspect that caught my attention right from the start: what links feminisms and asexuality, or, can asexuality be feminist?

 Activist Rita Cardoso proudly holds the asexual flag at the 2015 Pride in Lisbon. Photo by Ângela C. Almeida.

But before moving forward, it is best to explain what I am talking about when I refer to asexuality. Asexuality is a designation that refers to a broad and complex reality. When using the term, we are referring to someone who does not feel sexual attraction for other people, regardless of their gender, and whom may or may not have desire or interest in sexual activity. Therefore, within this designation, there may be countless realities, experiences, identities, behaviours and ways of living intimacy. It is a fairly broad spectrum.

Asexuality is considered, though not consensually, a sexual orientation. As homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality and pansexuality, asexuality is not a choice. Asexual people may feel romantic, aesthetic, intellectual, social, emotional attraction for others, without necessarily feeling sexual attraction for them. That does not invalidate the fact that they may develop deep bonds and strong relationships of love, intimacy, and complicity. It also does not prevent them from having romantic or sexual contacts. It depends on how each person feels that it is best for them in the context of the relationships they establish. What we are taught to think from an early age is that these different kinds of attraction always come together, or even more, they are one and the same, a whole. What asexuality shows us is that it is not necessarily so.

The concept of asexuality, as we know it today and as I have just described it above, is relatively recent. It emerged in the United States in the early 2000s in communities that formed and mobilised on the Internet as a way to share common experiences and moved by a misidentification with existing sexual orientations, in a clear break with hegemonic sexuality. The best-known of all these communities is certainly the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), the largest online asexual community, with tens of thousands of users from all over the world, self-identified asexuals, allies, friends, partners, relatives, etc.

In a nutshell, beyond its original English version, AVEN has subpages in more than a dozen other languages, hosts an extensive resource archive, and offers registered members an online chat channel to share experiences, discussion forums, a census (and soon the results of an extensive survey conducted in 2014-2015 will be known). There is also a wiki open to the contribution of registered users, videos, meeting places and dates, FAQ section, and - very importantly - resources for teachers, families, and friends of asexuals. Beyond its strong online presence, collectives, groups, and associations of people who identify themselves as asexuals and their allies do activism on the streets and in institutions and events of visibility and education, in order to make known their sexual orientation, to fight for rights of dignity, recognition, and the right not to be discriminated against.

The asexuality flag. Source 
Asexual people become visible in this way and also through the use of some symbols such as the asexual flag which is composed of four horizontal stripes, black, gray, white and purple: the black, represents asexuality; gray represents gray-asexuality and demisexuality (people who are sexually attracted to others in circumstances that are not very clear and people who only feel sexual attraction for others when they build strong emotional bonds with them, respectively); white, represents partners and allies; and purple, representing the community. There is also the celebrated cake, of a joke that 'cake is better than sex', and the use of black rings.
There is also a growing body of academic and scientific publications on the subject fed directly by these virtual communities, recruiting participants for their studies and bringing knowledge about asexuality to other spheres of information-sharing. A broad look at the Portuguese and international scenes - both of which are extensively documented online - coupled with an analysis of exchanges among asexuals or between asexuals and others, in forums, chat, or Facebook groups, revealed that sex-positive feminism is the most dominant form of feminism on the Internet (if it is ever possible to quantify the Internet) in debates about asexuality.

The term sex-positive is generally attributed to Wilhelm Reich and the movement with the same name, which began in the early 1980s, presupposes the belief that sex is a positive force for advancement in societies. Thus, for sex-positive feminism, the idea that sexual freedom is essential for the empowerment of women is central. Sex-positive feminism does not believe in blaming or embarrassing people for their sexual orientation and behaviour or their gender identity. The asexual community, and I am using this term in an operative way by bringing together various distinct associative experiences, has strongly criticised sex-positive feminism and different sex-positive spaces - online and offline - as unfriendly and disregarding asexuals and asexuality.

And what are the main concerns conveyed by asexual people (also expressed in the reports collected in my fieldwork)?
  • Feeling of devaluation of the concerns and challenges that asexual people face;
  • Perceived disregard for the concerns of people with low or no sexual desire but who are not necessarily asexual;
  • Feelings of being unwelcome in a movement that rarely addresses their issues and where the vocabulary connected with asexuality, its definitions, or questions of common claim are erased and considered unimportant;
  • Perceived silencing of the negative sexual experiences that exist in the asexual community (sex is always considered good, and it cannot be otherwise);
  • Discontent with the constant ridiculing of asexuals’ sexual practices or their absence;
  • Disregard or even demonization of asexual persons who are in romantic relationships or who have sex.

These are only part of the issues reported, but enough to highlight how sexunormative, and therefore anti-asexual, sex-positive feminism can be felt and faced by asexual people.

In other words, despite what is defended at the outset, the sexualization of the world is maintained, as is the notion that sex is what makes us human, and by doing so, it reinforces ideas that can be very penalising to those who live and experience their sexuality in a different way. Although feminist at its core, sex-positivity may bear a lot in common with the prevailing sexuality norms.

What I wish to highlight with this analysis is that it helps us to understand that we live under the false idea that we are enjoying a moment of sexual revolution and of consequent liberation in which every person is truly sexually free and where sexual freedom is a possibility available to all. The time in which we live in Western society is not genuinely free regarding sexuality because if it were, it would offer the possibility to each and every person (man, woman, trans - all people) to be free in the way they wished to live their sexuality.

In a culture focused on the exposed body, particularly on genitals, which is not sexually liberated but sexually liberal, not having sex or not feeling sexual attraction is considered unacceptable. If it were a sexually liberated and not sexually liberal society, all possibilities of sexuality would be deemed valid sexual identities and possibilities.

Asexual identity is often interpreted as being inherently anti-sex (which is not true) or inherently slut-shaming (which is not true either). The most sex-positive people - in the truest sense of the term - that I have known to this day are people who identify themselves as asexual.

Different types of feminism advocate the visibility and acceptance of sexual minorities (i.e. identities, or orientations), which would include relational and sexual orientations such as polyamory, pansexuality, and asexuality, for example. But this is not the case, and the issues I have addressed are felt not only by asexual people but also by all people who want to feel safe in different spaces. It also affects individuals and groups that want to promote safe spaces and sexual freedom that aimed at people with medium or high levels of sexual desire. 

The problem with that is that vital issues of lived experience are being left aside, and what remains are only obligations and norms.

What I mean is that a sex-positive feminism is often a pro-sex feminism rather than pro-sexuality and this, of course, conflicts with different ways of living intimacy such as asexuality. It must be said that not all sex-positive feminism is acritical, quite the contrary. There is a concern with questioning the status quo, and not only a celebration of sex. My critique does not aim at sex-positive feminism as a whole. The central issue here is to be mindful of the risks of a limited understanding of sexual diversity, of silencing or harming people who do not conform to the norm. But also to reflect on the fact that there is a great public presence of feminism, - there are women bringing whole countries to a halt to claim their rights, feminism was one of the words of the year, it is in the mouths of pop stars, present in various forms of art - that by the high presence of technology reaches a high number of people. And this public presence of feminism cannot address the issue of 'non-sex' as a kind of failed project of the sexual revolution.

What asexuality draws attention to, among many other things, is affection, emotions, negotiation, communication, and consent, to feelings and not necessarily to behaviours. More so, it draws attention to two other questions that are very important: that in the aftermath of the sexual revolution and the attainment of sexual rights for all, with particular emphasis on the claims of the right to sex,  to one’s body, and to pleasure on the part of women, it seems another right was lost, the right to not have sex. Another question, which is particularly dear to me and which is something that I have been working on and trying to integrate into my own feminism, is respect for vulnerability, self-respect and the respect for others. (My) feminism is also built on that.

More than a sexual orientation, an identity, a form of community organisation, for me, since I began to investigate the subject and became involved in asexual activism, asexuality is also, importantly, a feminist view of the world.


Rita Alcaire is an anthropologist and her main interests are sexualities, identities and popular culture (film, television and music). She has co-directed several documentaries, including Filhos do Tédio (2006), Breve História do Rock de Coimbra (2010), O Pessoal do Pico Toma Conta Disso (2010), Um Quarto no Éter (2011), Filarmónicas da Ilha Preta (2011), and Das 9 às 5 (2011), and is currently working on a doctoral project about asexuality in Portugal.


Readers are encouraged to quote, reproduce and share this content for educational, non-profit purposes, provided the source is acknowledged. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the HR&D team.

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