Laura Buttrick considers how asexuality, sex positive feminism and feminist opposition to rape culture and patriarchy intersect
By Laura Buttrick. Laura is a game design student from Lincoln, UK. She writes on her blog Being Loquacious about feminism, sexuality, mental health issues and fandom. She was previously a game reviewer for the California Literary Review. She can be found on Twitter at @coffinfinate.
A few days ago I posted on my personal blog about being in an open asexual relationship. I touched very briefly on some feminist ideology, but the focus of that post was to bring asexuality to the forefront of the discussion. Now I would like to explore in a little more depth what I only mentioned in passing before. Asexuality is not exclusively the domain of women. Anyone identifying as any gender can also identify as asexual, and I feel it is important that I stress this before I continue.
Asexuality is the lack of sexual desire and lack of interest in sexual activities. It has a prevalence rate of 1% among the population and is considered a separate concept from celibacy (asexuals do not have to be celibate and those who practice celibacy do not have to be asexual). In her paper Asexual and Autoerotic Women, Myra T. Johnson identified asexual women as an invisible minority “oppressed by a consensus that they are nonexistent.” She claims that even feminism has left these women behind, or that they are written off as using political motivations for their asexuality. Has feminism really abandoned asexual women in pursuit of gender liberation?
The debate is already rife. Some would not say that feminism abandoned asexuality, so much as it is the asexual community that wishes to distance itself from feminism. Nicole Dawn writes that the two “rarely intersect” and that members of the asexual community can find that the “sex positive feminist movement does not provide a safe space for asexuals”. This follows from a blog contributor Kaz who highlights the difficulties of having to be “sex positive” and asexuality being immediately pigeonholed as purely “anti-sex”. A direct rebuttal from The Radical Prude rejects the restriction of feminism to a “sex positive” movement concerned only with birth control and abortion rights, and identifies the dismantling of patriarchal structures as a movement of interest to the asexual community as much as any other oppressed minority.
I believe true feminism would not wish to abandon the asexual community. Feminism sets itself staunchly against rape culture, the notion of what is sexually “owed” by women to men, and asexual women no doubt suffer this to an even greater degree when engaging in romantic relationships. The concept of compromise in relationships is one I addressed in my personal blog post – but at no point should asexual individuals have to compromise themselves by submitting to sexual acts they do not wish to engage in. This is surely a viewpoint which rings true with feminist ideals – the autonomy of women and the right to say “no” without needing to justify or give reason.
Conflict arises when it comes to the concept of being “sex positive”. Feminism is a sex positive movement, insofar as it considers women to be free agents who should be able to make their own decisions about sex without being harassed, discriminated against or abused for it. Sex positivity, however, should absolutely include the concept of not engaging in sexual practices and rejecting unwanted sexual advances. Even though feminism goes beyond the scope of sex positivity, the support of asexuality is in fact included in this subset of values already. In short, in being sex positive, feminism should also be positive about asexuality. The mindset that female asexuality is symptomatic of patriarchal repression and alludes to “slut shaming” culture is not merely problematic, but outright insulting to asexual women. There is no room in feminism for such insult.
These are my observations as a feminist and as an ally. I am not asexual but my partner is, and I see first hand how people treat her when they learn of it. The attitudes are absolutely steeped in sexist rhetoric, rhetoric that undermines her own understanding of her sexual and romantic preferences. Her internalisation of the idea that women are simply passive objects when it comes to sex further alienated her from her own sexual identity for many years. When feminism addresses issues of patriarchal control it absolutely encompasses the rights and needs of asexual women into its agenda. Do we need to ally the two explicitly as movements? Not necessarily. The overlap is natural if you only look beneath the surface.
When we stand up against rape culture, we stand up against the preconceived notion that sex is something women owe the world. When we demand that the structures of society built upon patriarchal values are dismantled, we demand that sexism stop driving our definitions of women and their relationship to sex. This does not require anyone who identifies as asexual to get involved with feminism, or to identify as a feminist. But with these ideals in mind, the asexual community can benefit a lot from the goals of the feminist movement.
The public domain image of the black, grey, purple and white striped asexuality flag is from Wikimedia Commons.
Update, 1 October 2016: Twitter information updated.