Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Well, I Thought I Was Trendy...

Hi folkswagons! I made good on my "threat", and during my trip, I got about halfway through the book Sex is Not a Natural Act (Leonore Tiefer, 1995). For a book about sexology, I have to say, this one seems pretty relevant to asexuality. This is because Sex is Not a Natural Act starts at the very beginning, before assumptions that would negate asexuality get made. Tiefer takes the time to define and explore the usages of the words "natural" and "normal", an important task that is too often ignored. So far, this is the closest she comes to discussing asexuality:

Using the clinical standard with regard to psychology is more difficult than using it for physiological matters [stuff involving the body] because it's harder to prove psychological disease, deterioration, or disability. Who's to say, for example, that absence of interest in sex is abnormal according to the clinical definition? What sickness befalls the person who avoids sex? What disability? Clearly, such a person misses a life experience that some people value very highly and most people value at least somewhat, but is avoiding sex "unhealthy" in the same way that avoiding protein is? Avoiding sex seems more akin to avoiding travel or avoiding swimming or avoiding investments in anything riskier than savings accounts--it's not trendy, but it's not sick, is it? (13)

If you don't mind me taking you back to high school or college to the "find the thesis statement" exercise, this seems to be Tiefer's: "...to analyze and critique the prevailing biomedical and masculinist paradigm dominant in sexology" (1). The "new paradigm" she describes is called "social constructionism" although "it goes by various names" (1). If I could define social constructionism as Tiefer sees it, it might be something like, "Stop obsessing about what's normal and universal for one damn minute and actually listen to what people have to say about themselves". One good example of a social constructionist attitude is given by Celia Kitzinger, who is quoted as saying, "My aim is not to reveal the 'real' histories, motives and life events of the [study] participants, but to understand how people construct, negotiate, and interpret their experiences" (61). While social constructionists would probably find odd things to say about asexuality (everyone else seems to), at least their methods seem to give us a fighting chance to be seen as a part of sexual diversity, not as people who failed to fit into a narrow view of psychological "health".

So I agree that the biomedical model needs to be challenged, and that social constructionism can provide important insights about sexuality that the language of health and sickness can't even get close to. But while social constructionism is supposed to be a method that is critical of the establishment in the sexology profession, Tiefer is awfully uncritical of it. Of course we're going to see flaws in social constructionism-- every method of inquiry has its pros and cons. While Tiefer does a hard sell of social constructionism, the fact that she doesn't speak to any reasonable criticisms of it is a weakness of the book. Even so, Tiefer is great at showing how little objectivity other scientists have, especially in her chapter on Masters and Johnson, the famed sexologists who came up with the "Human Sexual Response Cycle" that has been, Tiefer argues, wrongly universalized to all of us. As someone once said (Maimonides?), "everything is an impression". And that is no less true in science than in any other field.

Sex Is Not a Natural Act isn't a long book, but it contains a lot of food for thought...expect to hear some more about it in upcoming posts.


heidi said...

Ooh this sounds like a good read. Alas, one I should have read in college - methinks the hubby would raise an eyebrow if I were to read it these days =X

Stilitano said...

Isn't it funny that you'd get lumped in (from a public perspective) as "deviant" with the rest--homosexual, transgendered, etc--when really you have an absense of the stuff?

Also, it's funny how I've been reading you for a while and I only JUST got the "asexy beast" pun, haha.

Ily said...

Luckily I was the one person on the airplane who had an empty seat next to them, so I could read my book about "SEX!" without any odd looks :-)

I think the lumpings-in just prove how ridiculous it is to have such a very small window of "normal".

Thanks for the comments!

Tomatl said...

Sounds like an interesting read, thanks! I guess I've always found the "lumping in" to be quite sensical. When the normal -not necessarily natural :) routine is man and woman unite, make babies, live under same roof. Any one who deviates, gets lumped.

Also, that line is so fabulous- "it's not trendy, but it's not sick"

Isaac said...

It's curious that I also explored the usage of the words natural and normal (in Spanish) referred to heterosexuality in a blog I'm too lazy to continue.