ISSUE ADVISORY: Asexuality: Sexual Empowerment Isn’t for Everyone, and That’s Okay
Pride month may be over, but it’s still important to bring attention to an identity that often doesn’t get much attention, even in feminist spaces. Asexuality, although more widely acknowledged now than in the past, is still often included only as an afterthought. Even if it is included, it is often mentioned alongside some outdated assumptions. In some very important cases, it is left out entirely, such as in the otherwise very forward-thinking Equality Act.
Another place asexuality is often excluded is in sex-positive feminism. It is true that our society has been shaped greatly by men’s influence, and it is important to recognize the impact that has on all of us. Feminists in particular have fought for decades to combat the lasting impact of men’s dominance in society, and the sex-positivity movement has encouraged and enabled women to feel empowered in their sexuality. However, in a space where women are encouraged to break the chains of oppressive structures and take control of their own bodies, the conversation often centers on encouraging more sex, but gives little consideration to those who want to have less.
In her book, Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, Angela Chen examines the intersections many other identities have with an asexual identity. In Chapter 4, “Just Let Me Liberate You”, she specifically touches upon the ways in which even sex-positive feminism can alienate or erase asexuality. She notes that “there is a difference between addressing desires that are already there (or exploring to see what you might like) and going searching for what must be there” (Chen 59) because of external expectations. The idea of the “charmed circle” gives us some indication of why those expectations may come not only from society at large, but also from feminists themselves.
The Charmed Circle
The term charmed circle was coined in 1984 by cultural anthropologist Gayle Rubin to illustrate the ways sex-positive feminism has tended towards linking liberation and political activism to personal sexual choices. Inside the circle are accepted or “privileged” ways of having sex (e.g. heterosexual, monogamous, procreative, vanilla, etc.), while outside the circle are shamed or “transgressive” ways of having sex (e.g. same-sex, promiscuous, pornographic, paid, etc.). Chen and others have noted that during this time, sex-positive feminists began to simply “reverse” the circle: encouraging previously shamed sexual acts became synonymous with overcoming the oppressive systems that created it. Rather than solving the problem, however, this overcorrection “only redistributes the shame and the stigma” associated with these actions (Chen 59). The only true way to overcome those systems is to eliminate the circle altogether.
These sex positive feminists would say that they want women to have “as much sex as she wants”, but inadvertently exclude women who were not interested in performing those acts. This false equivalency has led many women to feel like a political failure because of their disinterest in this “sexual liberation”.
Asexuality is met with confusion in much of society today because of its relative obscurity compared to other queer identities, and in some feminist spaces, there’s an extra layer to that confusion. Chen shares several reflections from ace people on the trend of people being encouraged, in a sex-positive feminist setting, to try some of these “transgressive” acts when they expressed their lack of sexual attraction. These suggestions themselves may not be harmful, but the lack of suggestions in the opposite direction is. As Chen says, “it was taken for granted that every woman would love sex, if only she could figure out how” (55).
In some ways, this insistence that ace people at least try sex (of whatever type) is not far off from the reactions of many others when faced with asexuality as a concept. Aces are often told that something must be “wrong” with them or that they just must be “missing” something, that there has to be a “reason” that they don’t experience sexual attraction, or don’t experience it a “normal” amount. In feminist spaces, there may exist the additional assumption that the only reason someone might not want sex is because of either oppression or repression (Chen 54). There’s no denying that this is the case for some women, but assuming that it is the case for all women is simply untrue, and only serves to alienate anyone who differs from that expectation. Ace people are often told that they are just in denial of their “true” sexuality. It is important that feminists don’t fall into the same trap, especially not under the guise of sex positivity.
As important as it is to listen to people who already identify as asexual when they say they don’t want to have sex, it’s equally important not to restrict our acceptance only to people who already identify with that (or any) label. Even if someone doesn’t know what “asexual” means, their experience should not be discounted. I’ve seen too many examples of someone online asking if it was normal for them not to be attracted to their significant other, and to be told “no”– unless they already identify as asexual, then it’s fine. Or, that it’s fine as long as they then begin identifying as asexual.
Just as there is no singular ace experience, no single experience means that someone must identify as ace. The solution to these misunderstandings is not to prescribe people with an identity, it is to be more accepting of the diversity of human experiences and avoid believing that someone is broken because their experience differs from the “norm”.
In the Equality Act
One relevant example of the importance of recognizing asexuality is in the Equality Act– you may be shocked to learn that the definition of “sexual orientation” that dictates who is protected by the act includes only “homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality”. Anyone who doesn’t fit into one of those three boxes, including ace people, will not be protected under anti-discrimination law even if the Equality Act is passed. This stands in stark contrast to the very inclusive definition of “gender identity” given in the act, a definition that allows for our understanding of gender to change and which does not limit protection only to trans people who have medically transitioned, for example.
To ensure that everyone is protected under the Equality Act, contact your Senators to affirm or gain their support of the bill and to let them know that you demand a more inclusive, forward-thinking definition of sexual orientation to be in the final act. For more information on how to do that, see this Action Alert on supporting the Equality Act more generally.
Recognizing asexuality, in feminist spaces and beyond, means ensuring that no one’s experience is discounted, that no one is shamed for the things they want (or don’t want) to do with their bodies, and that personal sexual activity is not substituted for meaningful political action.
To make this a reality, you can begin by educating yourself on these issues. Chen goes into much greater detail on asexuality’s intersections with feminism as well as with gender, race, disability, and much more in Ace, which makes it a great place to start, and additional resources are also linked below. You should also be sure to talk to the people in your community, your family and friends, and your fellow feminists to make sure they share in this intersectional vision of our future.
To continue moving forward, it is important that modern feminists not fall into the same traps as those that came before us, and to accept that “as much sex as you want” is allowed to be “none”.
J. Beall, NOW Accounting Intern
Chen, Angela. Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex. September 15, 2020.
Rubin, Gayle. Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality. 1984.(https://sites.middlebury.edu/sexandsociety/files/2015/01/Rubin-Thinking-Sex.pdf)
Nair, Yasmin. Your Sex is Not Radical. June 28, 2015. (https://yasminnair.com/your-sex-is-not-radical/)
The Radical Prude. No True Sex Positive Feminist. March 25, 2012. (https://radicalprude.blogspot.com/2012/03/no-true-sex-positive-feminist.html)
A Life Unexamined. Sex-Positivity, Compulsory Sexuality and Intersecting Identities. June 27, 2012. (https://alifeunexamined.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/sex-positivity-compulsory-sexuality-and-intersecting-identities/)
Learn | The Ace and Aro Advocacy Project (Additional Resources)