[Note: This was slightly revised for clarity on 9 February 2013.]
This essay is an obvious nod and huge THANK YOU to Adrienne Rich, for writing "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence". (You may click on the essay title in the previous sentence for the full text.) An excerpt follows:
When I was young, as children tend to be, I lived in a world that didn't know of sex. None of my caregivers demonstrated it, and no one in my family, except later my older brother, had any pornography around. I suspect many in my family didn't have sex at all, at least with other people including their spouses. I think this is not that unusual. Many couples I know, lesbian, gay, and heterosexual, stopped having sex together a few years into their relationship. Contrary to popular patriarchal heterosexist, anti-asexual opinion, this doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the relationship. Sex is about as overrated and unnecessary as commerically bottled water.The bias of compulsory heterosexuality, through which lesbian experience is perceived on a scale ranging from deviant to abhorrent, or simply rendered invisible, could be illustrated from many other texts than the two just preceding. The assumption made by Rossi, that women are "innately sexually oriented" toward men, or by Lessing, that the lesbian choice is simply an acting-out of bitterness toward men, are by no means theirs alone; they are widely current in literature and in the social sciences.I am concerned here with two other matters as well: first, how and why women's choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners co-workers, lovers, tribe, has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding and disguise; and second, the virtual or total neglect of lesbian existence in a wide range of writings, Including feminist scholarship. Obviously there is a connection here. I believe that much feminist theory and criticism is stranded on this shoal.My organizing impulse is the belief that it is not enough for feminist thought that specifically lesbian texts exist. Any theory or cultural/political creation that treats lesbian existence as a marginal or less "natural" phenomenon, as mere "sexual preference," or as the mirror image of either heterosexual or male homosexual relations is profoundly weakened thereby, whatever its other contributions. Feminist theory can no longer afford merely to voice a toleration of "lesbianism" as an "alternative life-style," or make token allusion to lesbians. A feminist critique of compulsory heterosexual orientation for women is long overdue. In this exploratory paper, I shall try to show why. -- Adrienne Rich (1980)
Let there be no mistaking this or understating of it: white Puritanistic anti-sexuality, a bedrock of white U.S. society, is still actively virulent and pernicious to this day. This is almost entirely due to a privately prostitute-using, child molesting, infidelity-embracing brand of Christian male preachers who, only on the pulpit, use fire and brimstone to condemn so many people of so many ages for wanting to be sexually active in ways that don't have a thing to do with "one man possessing one woman in a patriarchal marriage". This is to say, they condemn themselves publicly, lying through their teeth, lying to the bone, in order to instill in everyone else the shame and guilt they feel for doing to others what their white male sky-god apparently condemns.
To such a white male sky-god: go fuck yourself. May the Goddess who embraces sexuality and eroticism, including lesbian eroticism and love, banish you forever from the minds of human beings.
I don't wish to diminish in any way the power of those predatory preachers. They are and do evil on this Earth and how it is that masses of people go to them for moral guidance or spiritual enlightenment, is beyond me. I grew up exposed to white Christianity primarily--as a religion, but also white/european Judaism--more culturally than religiously. The Christianity I was exposed to was horribly anti-sexual, anti-woman, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-pagan and anti-wiccan, and about as heterosexist, homophobic, and lesbophobic as it gets. What it was not against is easier to list: it was not against patriarchally atrocious heterosexist marriage that condemned women to serve and submit to men, including sexually against their will.
With that as one bedrock of my society, I turn to another: hypersexualisation and pornographisation of culture and society. This has intensified significantly in my lifetime. Internet pornography, in large part due to Bill "the sexual abuser" Clinton, is unrestricted. This effectively means that those who think depicting, recording, and mass distributing the pimping and raping of women by men is and ought to be free men's speech, regardless of how silencing it is to the rest of us. Pornography silences, it doesn't give voice. It tells lies, not the truth, about human beings, about sexuality, and about what is natural. Just watch this video if you think dominant media, advertising, and the pornography industry are invested in telling us the truth and eroticising what's natural:
If you find the image of the woman on the billboard more attractive than the image of the woman at the start of the video, your sexuality and sense of beauty has been grossly compromised and controlled by pornographers and advertising executives who are selling products, including women as products for sale to men.
Sexual behavior is getting more objectifying and violent in younger and younger populations, in large part because child sexual abuse by adults remains unchecked and covertly supported, such as by priests in the Catholic Church and men who pass their abuses of children and women to each other through internet networks designed solely to accomplish this. Talk about evil.
I don't really believe in such a thing as "evil" as a force that is separate from human behavior. I don't think "evil forces" enter human beings and can be purged from them, but respect the fact that many spiritual and faith traditions do believe this. I state that belief of mine only to reinforce one thing: I don't think the kind of sexuality that exists in the world that is not abusive, exploitive, stigmatising, and oppressive is evil. (Let's see: what does that leave us with?) I think what men, by and large, do to it and with it is evil. And the "it"--human sexuality, as Audre Lorde, Andrea Dworkin, Catharine A. MacKinnon, and Patricia Hill Collins, among other radical feminists of color and white radical feminists, have noted, is not ever dislocated from the political structures and mandates of a society.
The large cultural society I have lived in has always been dominated by pro-patriarchal white heterosexual men. These men, by and large, pride themselves on not being accountable to women, not being accountable to people of color, and not being accountable to lesbians, gay men, transgendered people, and intersex people. Instead, a vast majority of these men, over history, have used their particularly dangerous forms of sexuality and their sexual organs as weapons against humanity, to shame, control, terrorise, dehumanise, and degrade, and humiliate children and women as classes of people so that we will be subordinate, submissive, and subservient to men.
What I will next focus on is the sexual abuse of children and how that, alone, but always in conjunction with everything stated above, shapes and controls human sexuality. That child sexual abuse is one key site of what forms sexuality has always been known to me, as soon as I knew about human sexuality. Because before I knew about it, I'd been sexually abused.
What this abuse did to me was to fuse and confuse my sexual feelings, thoughts, desires, and behavior with a political agenda promoted by patriarchy. What it did was teach me how sex and dissociation go together like sexism and heterosexual marriage. What it did, was to prepare my sexuality to be in line with what white straight male sexuality is supposed to be: terrifying, degrading, humiliating, controling, patriarchal, heterosexist, pro-capitalistic, colonising, and white supremacist. When I say pro-capitalistic what I mean is sex tied to commerce, money, and the classed power imbalances inherent in any capitalist system. So too with the other systems of oppression: sex is, according to dominant society, supposed to be misogynistic and sexist, racist, transphobic, lesbophobic and homophobic. It is designed to make intersexuality and asexuality invisible as social realities.
Intersexuality describes the reality that people are not born discretely as female and male, nor as girl and boy, but rather are made into these, sometimes surgically at birth. As we now know, physical sexual attributes called "sexual markers" and "gender" are complex, fluid, flexible, not stagnant, not fixed-at-birth, not "in opposition", not politically and socially hierarchical unless they are made to be so. In this society, they are made to be so. And all manner of violence and dehumanisation flows from that belief, made real, that sex and gender are arranged to be dualistic, oppositional, and hierarchical.
Asexuality, as the term is used in a human social context, refers to a reality that there are people who do not experience sexuality as it is constructed and enforced by WHM supremacy. There are people who do not have "sexual desires" and "sexual feelings" as defined by dominant society. There are people who do not enjoy or participate in (unless by coercion and force) "sex" as it is defined and constructed by all the forces named above.
In my region, culture, and era, asexuality was assumed to be natural to children and the elderly and unnatural to adults in the period between youth and old-age. These assumptions are false, but these simplistic conclusions are not only not the end of the story, they don't tell us much about the middle of it either.
There are other related questions some of us must and occasionally do ask. Why, if I'm heterosexual, do I not wish to have genital intercourse? Why, if I'm gay, do I not wish to have sex with men, women, transgendered, or intersex people? Why if I'm sexually active, do I feel like me being so is more compulsive that genuinely desired? Why do I find that after being "sexual" with someone, I feel dissatisfied and disinterested in ever doing that again?
Part of the answer, surely, must be that the "sex" people have is the "sex" that is manufactured and sold, and some people don't want to have sex sold to them as a commodity. Some people don't wish for sex to express socially inhumane power imbalances. Some people don't want sex if sex means being dehumanised, degraded, humiliated, controlled, and oppressed. Some people don't want to have sex that requires them to be someone's oppressor or master. And many people do. And to those white people who do, guess what? You're likely to be engaging in politically correct sex. So know that and don't be in denial about it, please. And don't pretend that the sex you're having is hated by society when, in fact, it is required, mandated, and enforced by society. It may be preached about hatefully by white male Christian preachers but it is routinely practiced by them off the pulpit.
Without exceptions I'm aware of, everything people term both "normal sex" and "trangressive sex" are formed by the very same bedrocks. They are both informed by the very same values, the very same social structures, and the very same political imperatives. BDSM, as it is termed by some, is normal sex. Normal sex involves themes of control, dominance, and submission. There's nothing sexually revolutionary going on in either. They are both fully and entirely "status quo". That one is practiced as a subculture to the other is no more an indication of it being revolutionary than Mormonism is to dominant Christianity.
What is not status quo, what is not enforced, mandated, and required, is asexuality in adults as a group. What is not status quo, is mutual and consensual sharing of power as eroticism, in adults as a group. What is not status quo is having a sexuality that is not manufactured, profited from financially, which is to say, bought and sold and turned into commerce.
And I believe one significant, undervalued, and invisibilised population of human beings exploring alternative methods of expressing eroticism, sexually and otherwise, are physically disabled people. The physically non-disabled have a great deal to learn from physically disabled folks about how to have sex, how to make love, and how to express affection.
I am stunned at the vehemence with which people will defend their "right" to have status quo sex. As if there's anything stopping them! As if it isn't mandated and enforced! As if there's any socially viable and fully validated options to do otherwise!
Asexuality is not enforced in adults. It is denied as a reality. It is not mandated. It is stigmatised as only a medical or psychological problem in need of treatment. It is not compulsory. It is the opposite of compulsory.
I am asexual. This is not an identity any more than me having a particular eye color is "my identity". Or preferring dark chocolate to milk chocolate. Or enjoying watching movies in theatres over watching DVDs. It's an issue both of preference and proclivity.
[The next paragraph was revised and added to on 7 March 2010, in part thanks to an alert about a typo. Thanks, Nick!]
This is, in part, a choice I have made, a practice I have developed, and a strategy for living in an oppressive world that I find consistent with my values to not exploit, violate, harm, objectify, and otherwise oppress others with sex, or be oppressed, objectified, harmed, violated, and exploited by the systems which are designed to make it easy to do any of the above. It doesn't mean I don't experience any sexual arousal or physical attraction. (This is the case with many healthy people who are asexual: we may or may not experience sexual arousal and physical attraction; there may be periods in our lives when we do and other periods when we don't.) It means I don't have an enacted, compulsory, dominant behavioral-social-political narrative along the lines of: "I feel arousal therefore I must masturbate to images of exploited people". "I am physically attracted to that guy, so that means I must pursue getting to know him." No. Having such feelings and attractions tells me nothing about what I must do. It's not "a sign" or an indicator that something must play out in the social world, or in the world of my fantasies.
Currently, my sexual feelings, desires, and attractions don't rule my activities; they don't have the kind of clout I used to imagine they had when I indulged them or imbued them with a mystic relevance or meaning. Being asexual means I'm able and happy to let those sensations, feelings, and attractions be--just be. My identity is not bound to a set of behaviors designed to demonstrate to the world "this is who I am", sexually and socially". I see many men act this way: as if various sets of behaviors must be played out over and over to reinforce "who one is". Nothing I feel has to be outwardly expressed, or manifested in social behavior. And my places of privilege are part of this story: As someone white and male and cis, I can withdraw from some practices and not be seen as deviant. For many people who are of color and/or female and/or transgender, not being seen as deviant by dominant culture is nearly impossible.
What being asexual most means to me is that I am free to choose how and whether to act on any sexual feelings or sexual arousal or attractions I experience, to the extent that I do. I don't assume I must act on my male privilege to dehumanisingly objectify people just because I find them attractive or desirable. I don't assume I am entitled to have sex with others just because I experience desire for connection in their presence. I don't assume I have the right to approach and invade people's social lives in order to obtain sexualised attention and sex with them. This means I reject as harmful and oppressive all forms of rapism. It means I reject as inhumane all forms of predation and sexual perpetration. It means, in my case, that I value a selfhood that is more integrated than dissociated. As a radical rejection of the status quo, I don't require myself to sexually behave in the colonial and patriarchal ways described above.
What I know about a lot of people, from them telling me directly, is that it is extremely difficult to know what one likes and doesn't like in a society that scripts and enforces forms of sexuality that are so obnoxiously narrow and desperately empty.
I embrace asexuality as valid, good, and reasonable. I experience it as healthy, loving, and anti-oppressive. For me it is one way to express eroticism which for me is not tied to social sexual behavior. And to anyone who says that my refusal to participate, in any way, with the sexuality that is status quo is wrong, unhealthy, or harmful, I say: don't knock it 'til you've tried it. And, you don't know what you're missing. Sip from the cup of asexuality and you might just discover feelings, ways of relating, and dimensions of being you never knew existed. And please note: it's not a beverage that is marketed and sold.
* * *
For more on how various people understand and experience asexuality, please go to *this website*, started by a white man named David Jay. My views are not theirs nor are theirs mine, but AVEN is a place to explore this reality and in a social space, albeit white-centric, where it isn't stigmatised as unhealthy, unethical, unreasonable, or undesirable.
Coincidentally or not, I just found out that at The Angry Black Woman blog, something of a very related nature was posted just yesterday. Click here for that.