AND NOW FOR THE ASEXUALS…: CEASELESS LABELLING IN GENDER STUDIES

In the process of reviewing an ongoing PhD dissertation, I learn about the recent scholarly interest on asexuality. Apparently, some of the key volumes are Anthony Bogaert’s Understanding Asexuality (2012), Karli June Cerankowski and Megan Milks’ edited collection Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives (2014) and The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality (2014) by Julie Sondra Decker (which has a five-star rating on Amazon.com!).

Asexuality, it seems, is being vindicated as a legitimate sexual identity and/or orientation in yet another attempt at de-stigmatizing what others treat as a disease, whether physical or psychological. Also, to question and challenge the widespread sexualisation of human life in the 21st century. The dissertation also teaches me that there are many asexual communities, the largest being the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), founded in 2001 by David Jay. The main novel dealing with asexuality seems to be Keri Hulme’s 1984 Booker-Prize winner The Bone People.

If I understand matters correctly, asexuality is by no means the same as celibacy, which is the lack of sexual activity some persons vow to comply with for religious (or other) reasons. Asexuals are not frigid, either. Now called ‘hypoactive sexual desire disorder’ or HSDD, colloquially-named frigidity is regarded officially by psychiatrists as a sexual dysfunction causing distress, hence in need of a cure (HSDD was labelled a disorder as recently as 1977). There is plenty of criticism against this intervention of medical science into sexual normativity and against the pathologizing of desire, which, obviously self-defined asexuals resist. As we all should.

I learn all this one day after discussing with an MA tutoree working on a dissertation about the slow visibilization of bisexuality whether we, in Gender Studies, are making any sense at all (I should extend this to activism and the lives of individual persons). Now, the problem with bisexuality is that it appears to be disruptive of LGTB labelling as, famously, it is not clear whether bisexuality is an inborn identity/orientation like the others, heterosexuality included, or the complete denial that sexuality can be determined. I engaged in a peculiar conversation with my student as a) I have no idea whether bisexual people feel an inclination towards males an females from a very early age, b) I often wonder how many people would turn out to be bisexual if only the accidents of their biography led them this way. I recall very distinctly the words of a male student I once had, who claimed he was not gay: he just had fallen in love with a man.

Committing the sin of ageism, I tended to believe that asexuality is a phase of life, or even, phases which may alternate with bouts of sexual activity. It seems I’m awfully wrong. Asexuals simply do not feel an interest in sex, which puts them, understandably, in a very awkward position regarding both hetero-normativists and LGTB activists, all of them defining human beings according to their sexual activity. I am personally sick and tired of the supposition that sex is so central to our lives which is why I welcome the emergence of the asexual position, as it is a true challenge to the way we have understood personal identity in the last 100 years. I can imagine what coming out as an asexual entails and it cannot be easy: you’re just frigid/abnormal/a freak, you haven’t found the right person(s), I’ll teach you what sexual arousal is about., etc., etc. As long as anyone who feels normal to themselves suffer the prejudice others heap on them, we, in Gender Studies, must struggle to defend them and make room for the free expression of their identities.

Having said that, I must confess I am puzzled indeed. Not by the existence of men and women unconcerned about sex, as everyday experience indicates they are around indeed, but by their need to form communities, develop new labels, stand out. I have never been particularly fond of the LGTB label as I find it anti-heterosexual in quite a prejudiced, even gross way (it seems to respond to the need of having a common enemy and denies us, heterosexuals, the chance of opposing patriarchal hetero-normativity). I’d much rather we all used ‘queer’ in the sense of ‘anti-normative’ and let people be, avoiding the essentialisms that plague the gender-related labels.

Bisexual and asexual are not really free, either, from this essentialism as they seem to override other possibilities, namely, that the individual’s biography passes through sexual phases in a much more fluctuating way. I don’t find it very hard to imagine someone who engages in heterosexual sex during a certain period of his/her life, then combines this with homosexual sex or goes through a strict homosexual period, and then lives off sex for a while, perhaps to start all over again. Why, then, this need to attach labels to what we do in bed and with whom? Not to raise the obvious politically incorrect matter of where we put the limits to what is acceptable in human sexuality.

I do not know how and when this ceaseless process of labelling will end, if ever. Asexuality, in any case, opens up onto an unmapped territory. Let me explain. What is usually condemned by the bigoted is engaging in a particular activity which appears to be abnormal but which is not really so. The, if you allow me, originality of the asexual position is that it is not even about refraining from doing something, as asexuals are not, like celibate individuals, actively rejecting or avoiding sex. Asexuality questions the very idea that having sex is central to human life and, thus, their lack of sexual activity becomes not a lack at all. It is even quite in-your-face: why would it bother anyone that someone does not do something? (=have sex).

What is found to be annoying about asexuality and the reason why the label is criticised so harshly, I believe, is that it highlights the absurd importance that sex has gained in our lives. I’ll try to draw an analogy with sports (in a way, sex is a kind of sport today): people who practice sports believe that life without exercising is empty, but people who are not keen on sports do not feel this is the case. Now, imagine a situation in which you would have to silence the fact that you don’t like sports for fear of being labelled a freak…

What a strange world we live in, really.

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