This article was originally presented as a talk at the Rad Fem Collective conference in London 22nd September 2019.
To clarify, I researched why increasing numbers of young women are identifying as ‘asexual’. I have not covered reasons for men identifying as ‘asexual’. I recognise that a wide range of people call themselves ‘asexual’, including women who are sexually active with men; my piece focuses only on those who are celibate. I believe ‘asexuality’/celibacy is often positive for women and the identity in itself is not harmful. What is harmful is the individualist interpretation that currently goes along with it. This means an ‘asexual’ woman may positively reject the role of sex object for herself, yet believe it is fine for other women to be used/abused by men.
‘Asexuality’ – Why young women who reject the role of ‘sex object’ are identifying as ‘asexual’ rather than engaging in feminist activism.
There is a rising trend amongst young women to identify as ‘asexual’ – this is considered an emerging ‘sexual orientation’. These women are in effect rejecting the role of ‘sex object’ and refraining from sex with men. Many express disgust with porn-sick sexuality, to the extent that some call themselves ‘repulsed asexuals’. However, they usually do not oppose porn, prostitution and sexual objectification of other women in wider society. Why is this? I argue that this is because they interpret their ‘asexuality’ as a personal preference; all other preferences, including the use of pornography, are seen as equal and ‘valid’. This is a case of the cult of the individual, or identity politics, leading to political inaction. This also highlights some of the problems with viewing all sexual behaviour and choices as inborn or innate.
What is ‘asexuality’?
The idea of ‘asexuality’ as a sexual orientation gained ground in the 1990s and 2000s when groups formed on the internet. Nowadays, the main online ‘asexual’ community is AVEN (The Asexual Visibility and Education Network), founded in 2001.
There are a wide range of people who identify as ‘asexual’; the ‘official’ definition is someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction. In practice, most are celibate but this is not always the case. The vast majority of ‘asexuals’ are young women. According to a survey of AVEN’s users: over 70% are female and the majority are under 30 years old, clustered around the late teens and early 20s. [Sex ratio estimated from AVEN census data; impossible to determine actual % because many identify as ‘non-binary’ or ‘trans’]
This means an increasing number of young women are choosing to identify as ‘asexual’. Why is this?
To answer this, we need to ask, what is it that ‘asexual’ women are rejecting – what is sex?
What is ‘sex’?
Sexuality and the act of sex are constructed – by and for men – under male supremacy. The sexuality of male supremacy is that of male domination and female subordination. Other terms for this sexuality are SadoSexuality (it is inherently sadomasochistic) or heterosexuality (Sheila Jeffreys’ term, not solely in reference to male-female relations but also to the power dynamics and the eroticisation of power difference). Many feminists have argued that sexuality is used to maintain men’s dominion. Due to women’s increased economic independence in the Western world, sexuality has become more sadomasochistic to compensate and keep women in their place. The escalating violence of pornography (and hence in sexuality) can be seen as a backlash to advances in women’s socio-economic rights.
In recent decades the porn industry has exploded, largely owing to the rise of the internet. Porn now plays a key role in the construction of sexuality, and it acts as sex education for children. I say children, because most have been exposed to porn before even reaching their teens. According to Culture Reframed, the average age of first viewing porn is estimated by researchers to be 12 – but could possibly be as young as 8. Culture Reframed refers to porn as “the crisis of the digital age.”
Not only is porn becoming more pervasive, but it is becoming increasingly violent and degrading. Anal sex, ejaculating on a woman’s face, gagging, choking and strangling women are all common sexual practice.
Rape is often a girl or young woman’s first sexual experience.
Porn teaches rape as standard sexual practice.
In light of all this, is it any wonder that young women are choosing to identify as ‘asexual’?
Quotes from ‘Asexual’ Women
These quotes are taken from AVEN’s public online message boards
1) Considering what porn-constructed sex consists of, the violence and the threat of being choked/raped/killed by a man, this quote from an ‘asexual’ woman seems perfectly logical:
“I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to have sex; I found the idea disgusting and it always seemed like a very violent activity.”
2) Here is an example of a woman saying what discovering ‘asexual’ identity meant to her:
“Discovering asexuality was definitely empowering for me as I have experienced a lot of sexual trauma and also have a condition that makes penetrative intercourse incredibly painful.”
There is a lot to unpack from this statement. First, this doesn’t fit in with the ‘official definition’ of simply not being sexually attracted to anyone. She links her ‘asexuality’ to experience of male sexual violence. Yet she speaks about her “sexual trauma” and experiences of PIV in such a way that ignores the male perpetrators of this abuse.
3) Next is an example of a post from a woman who has just found out about ‘asexuality’. It is her first post on the forum and she is desperate for answers. Again, her story is not one that focuses upon having never felt ‘sexual attraction’ (the ‘official’ definition of ‘asexuality’).
The original post is quite long; these are some of the key phrases:
“Am I the only one who is scared by how violent sexuality is, especially porn. It seems like most popular porn is violent: men hit, gag, choke, toss, pull hair, coerce, ejaculate on faces. Why [do] most men enjoy to see women being abused? I don’t understand that I and some asexuals are the only ones who find porn scary and fucked up. If there was a chance to delete sexuality from the world I would do it.”
Clearly she is distressed and disturbed by men’s violence against women, and this is what drew who to the ‘asexual’ community.
This is the response she received:
“There is no need for anyone to understand everything. If you don’t want to see something, then don’t look at it, or read it, or go to the movie displaying it, or listen to it. Try to recognize that people may do things you don’t like and that may disturb, sicken, or sadden you. They’re not doing it for you and they don’t owe you an explanation of why they’re doing it. Just concentrate on your own life.”
This perfectly sums up the neo-liberal attitude towards porn, prostitution and abuse of women – shut up, look away, concentrate on your own life.
This woman was seeking solace in the ‘asexual’ communtity and hoping to find answers to the distress she felt over pornography. She would benefit from hearing feminist perspective of men’s violence and sexuality – however, the response from the ‘asexual’ identity-based community is that everyone’s sexual identity is equal and ‘valid’ (including men’s identity as sexual user/abuser of women). When she says she wishes to delete ‘sexuality’ for example, this could be interpreted as meaning seeking an end to SadoSexuality or porn-constructed sexuality. She recognises the harm of men’s sexuality. But she has not imagined that men’s sexual behaviour and sexuality can (or should) be changed.
Why are ‘asexual’ women not anti-porn?
The examples I have given demonstrate how an individual interpretation breaks the link between recognising men’s sexual behaviour as harmful, and imagining that it can be changed (e.g. feminists seek to do this via campaigning against porn, prostitution etc.)
This results in a situation where an ‘asexual’ woman rejects the role of a sex object for herself, but accepts it for others. [Individual solution] Many are disgusted by porn and SadoSexuality but feel that this is solely due to their personal ‘sexual orientation’.
This is a case of identity politics leading to political inaction. Everyone has ‘valid identity’ and criticising the choices of others is considered bigotry or ‘shaming’.
Critique of Sexuality = ‘Shaming’
The concept of ‘shaming’ is used to shut down any debate or critique of sexuality. You have probably heard of ‘kink shaming’ – asexuals call any criticism of people who have sex ‘sexual shaming’ (people who have sex are called ‘sexuals’ or ‘allosexuals). On AVEN’s message boards, ‘asexuals’ often express their disgust for SadoSexuality and men’s sexual violence against women. However, these discussions are shut down by moderators and others who say that any criticism of sexual behaviour/choices is ‘shaming’.
Sub-Categories of ‘Asexuality’
‘Asexuality’ has some sub-categories that demonstrate the influence of porn in creating these identities.
Grey-asexual – someone who only experiences sexual attraction under certain circumstances. [I assume this could be applied to pretty much anyone!]
Demisexual – someone who requires an emotional connection, or to build relationship over time, in order to desire sexual contact.
The fact that young people think these experiences are rare and unusual is a result of the impact of pornography.
Overlap with ‘Transgender’ Identity
Many ‘asexual’ women also identify as ‘transgender’ or ‘non-binary’. This is for similar reasons – a desire to escape sexual harassment and objectification from men. ‘Agender’ is a popular identity amongst ‘asexuals’. On the surface, ‘agender’ identity may appear to align with the feminist vision of a ‘gender free’ world. However, this isn’t the case. ‘Agender’ as a personal identity is merely an individual opt-out (likely ineffective if the woman is still recognisably female). This outlook fails to see ‘gender’ as an oppressive system, but something one can simply opt out of while still respecting the ‘valid’ choice of others to have a ‘gender’.
Responses/Reactions to ‘Asexuality’
How do people react to the concept of ‘asexuality’?
‘Asexual’ groups campaign to be part of the ‘LGBT’ coalition and acronym. Currently, the A is sometimes included in LGBTQAA… however, it is fairly lost in the soup and people often don’t know what the A stands for.
The idea of ‘asexuality’ is often met with hostility and ridicule. I believe that is due to the fact that it represents the right to decline sex (specifically with men). The sexual rejection of men is not well-tolerated in patriarchal society. For similar reasons, lesbians are also facing hostility within the ‘LGBT+’ community and pressure to consider men as sexual partners.
Another response I have heard is that ‘asexuality’ is a dysfunction. But then, what is the function of sex? And is this not something to be resisted? Radical feminists recognise that women are controlled and kept down through the enforcement of compulsory heterosexuality. For this reason, the idea of a sex-strike is sometimes endorsed by feminists as a positive form of resistance to patriarchal control.
Radical Potential of ‘Asexuality’
‘Asexual’ women could, with feminist conciousness, reinterpret their ‘asexuality’ as a form of sex resistance, or a rejection of porn-sick SadoSexuality.
This concept is explained by this quote from The Southern Women’s Writing Collective, published in The Sexual Liberals and The Attack on Feminism, (but in this case referring to heterosexual women avoiding sex in marriage):
“Women’s historical sex avoidance can, with feminist consciousness, become an act of sex resistance. The sex resister understands her act as a political one. Her goal is not only personal integrity for herself but political freedom for all women. She resists on three fronts: she resists male-constructed sexual “needs,” she resists the misnaming of her act as prudery, and she especially resists the patriarchy’s attempt to make its work of subordinating women easier by “consensually” constructing her desire in its own oppressive image.”
– Southern Women’s Writing Collective, The Sexual Liberals and The Attack on Feminism (1990), p.144
Summary / Conclusion
The Role of Porn is fundamental in constructing ‘sex’, (Sado)Sexuality and ‘asexual’ identity.
‘Asexual’ identity is not harmful in itself, but the individualism / identity politics that is prevalent nowadays means that ‘asexual’ women (and others) interpret their sexual choices/feelings/behaviors only as personal preferences that are unrelated to wider society.
This interpretation severs the link between recognising men’s sexuality as harmful and believing that it can/should be changed – a belief that would then inspire feminist activism (e.g. campaigning against porn/prostitution).
‘Asexual’ identity could (with feminist consciousness) be reinterpreted positively/politically as an act of sex resistance. However, this radical potential of ‘asexuality’ is lost due to ‘cult of the individual’. Everything is seen as a personal preference and it is considered ‘shaming‘ to judge others for their choices.
This is the de-politicising of sexual choices and behaviour. If young women were exposed to feminist thought and discussion, would they re-interpret their ‘asexuality’ as a rejection of sex object culture and be inspired to take action?