Sunday, September 12, 2010

Pissing in the Wind

I didn't die! Was just having internet access issues (comment moderation may be slow for the next few days). And why is August always so boring, while so much goes on in September? I don't get it. Anyway, recently Elizabeth posted about a new study of asexuality which states:

Asexuality may also be defined as an absence of sexual desire, regardless of sexual behavior. Indeed, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (“AVEN”) (Jay 2005) holds that an independence from sexual desire is the key feature of asexuality, claiming that “an asexual is someone who does not experience sexual attraction".

Also:

Whether the primary component of asexuality is behavioral (a lack of sexual behavior), desire-based (a lack of sexual desire), or identity-based (labeling oneself as “asexual”) is debatable.

Uhh, how about "none of the above"?

And one more:

Bogaert’s (2004) nationally representative study of asexuality examined the prevalence of asexual desire in Great Britain. Drawing on a survey of 18,876 respondents in England, Wales, and Scotland, he found that approximately 1.1% of the sample indicated that they “have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all” (Bogaert 2004: 281).

You'll see that Bogaert's reference to "sexual attraction" morphs into "desire" with no explanation. As you probably know, AVEN makes no mention of sexual desire in its definition of asexuality. I share Elizabeth's frustration that the researchers would conflate "an independence from sexual desire" and "someone who does not experience sexual attraction". The researchers refer to asexuality as a lack of sexual desire many more times throughout their study. If this was one isolated incident, it might not warrant further comment. However, whether it's academia or the media, people just can't seem to stop calling asexuality a "lack of sexual desire". But why do people keep calling it this, and why does it even matter? It's more than just asexuals splitting hairs. Elizabeth got some good discussion about the study itself, so hopefully I'll be able to speak to something slightly different...

What might bother me most about calling asexuality a "lack of sexual desire" is that the definition used by most asexuals, "a person who experiences (little or) no sexual attraction" is so easy to find once you start looking into asexuality. Type "asexuality" into a search engine and you'll get AVEN first thing, where the standard definition used by asexuals is on the first page. So I'm led to believe that most people looking into asexuality know our definition, but just choose to ignore it. In the study above, our definition was acknowledged, but then subsumed into a different definition. Now, don't get me wrong, I can totally understand why someone, especially a researcher, wouldn't want to just swallow the AVEN definition. But without AVEN, it's unlikely that there would be even the minor interest in asexuality that we're currently seeing. And when people outside the asexual community make up their own definitions of asexuality, they seem to provide further vagueness rather than increased clarity. What's really confusing is that the study mentioned by Elizabeth claims to take a social constructionist approach, which to me, would suggest the opposite of basically ignoring the words a group of people uses to define themselves.

Sometimes, trying to spread the word that asexuality is a lack of sexual attraction feels like, well, pissing in the wind. Why do people keep using-- and independently coming up with-- what asexuals themselves consider a "wrong" definition? I have one theory, and apologies if it's wildly obvious. But there's a lot of ground between embracing asexuals as totally normal and thinking that we're just making it all up for attention ('cause we get such awesome attention, right?). I'm guessing that a lot of people, including some asexuals, fall somewhere in this middle area. When people use "sexual desire" as a definition, I think that they're substituting a vaguer word for a more exact one. They may be open to the idea of asexuality, but they're not yet ready to give it approval as a legit orientation. Because at least to my own ears, "sexual attraction" frames asexuality as an orientation, whereas "sexual desire" is more amorphous. So I don't think people will stop using this "sexual desire" definition until asexuality is a lot more accepted. However, understanding often leads to acceptance, and having lots of different definitions floating around doesn't help with that.

(Yet another reason it's problematic is because sexual disorders are often called "sexual desire disorders", not "sexual attraction disorders". If you don't think asexuality is a disorder, then help out the cause by not calling it a "lack of sexual desire". Again, this issue might get lost on media folks, but shouldn't be lost on researchers.)

In support of sexual desire, it seems logical that asexuals would be said not to feel it. Most people, even those well-versed in sexuality, tend to lump all sexual and romantic feelings together, using terms interchangeably. And it will take a metric fuckton (or perhaps you prefer a metric shitload) of education to change that, much more, I think, than just telling people about asexuality. But asexuals aren't totally innocent when it comes to clarity, either. On AVEN, I often see people separating "attraction" and "desire" and then using "desire" to mean sex drive or libido. People tend to have a "well, duh" attitude about this, but I don't think it's at all clear without further explanation. It might be technically correct, but it's confusing. If "sex drive" is what we mean, why not cut out the middleman and just say that? Another problem is that when we use "sexual desire" to mean sex drive, we can say "asexuals may experience sexual desire" which sounds a lot more contradictory, at least to me, than "asexuals may have a sex drive...it's just not directed at anyone".

So I'm thinking that "sexual desire" should probably be scrapped in situations where a detailed understanding of sexuality is important. While "desire" and "attraction" might be different things, all you need to do is say "Jane feels sexual desire for Bob" to have them be basically the same, at least in popular usage. If someone is using "sexual desire", I want to know why they chose to use that term in particular. I know that my wish for people to define all their terms is a bit repetitive, but it's important. It's exciting to talk about new concepts, but if we're using the same words for different things, real communication becomes extremely difficult.

Wow, this looked a lot shorter when I was writing it. I'll come with something slightly less pedantic next time...or at least, will try my darndest. And oh, meetup on September 19th! Check out the "San Francisco Meetup" thread in AVEN's Meetup Mart for details. You don't have to be an AVEN member to access the information.

7 comments:

grasexuality said...

This'll be a quick comment, cause I need to get to bed now... but you bring up a good point about our lack of clarity re: what we mean by "sexual desire." What I tend to take it as is just "wanting to have sex" on any level (as in genuinely wanting to, and not just wanting to please a partner), not necessarily sex drive.

I also have to point out that I don't think there even IS such a thing as a "sex drive" as that implies that sexual desire is something like hunger, which it's not. It's not something that has a baseline state at all. It's all too complicated for me to explain, so I'll just recommend Emily Nagoski's excellent series of posts on the subject, which start here. I always had a problem with the term "sex drive" but until I read that I couldn't articulate exactly why. So yeah, I'd love it if we all struck that term out of our collective vocabularies, but I doubt that will happen anytime soon. :P

sciatrix said...

To be rather pessimistic, I'm really not sure that all sexuality researchers accept that asexuality is an orientation rather than a desire disorder. Maybe I'm just mistrusting, but sexuality researchers have a very long history of pathologizing sexual minorities. It's entirely possible that the researchers knew about AVEN's definition and deliberately chose to ignore it on the grounds that we couldn't come up with a better operational definition than trained professionals. Or that their personal biases slant towards asexuality being an interesting disorder rather than a valid orientation, and they altered definitions to fit that implicit assumption, either consciously or unconsciously. After all, if you're proceeding under the assumption that asexuality is a disorder, you've got to frame it as something other than an orientation.

Which is all the more reason for asexual writers to steer clear of ambiguously-defined terminology, really. If there's people who will misinterpret because "desire" fits into their already existing views on asexuality, we had better take that into consideration.

Siggy said...

I don't think this is a case of using the wrong definition of "asexual", but rather, using a different definition of "desire". It seems like they have a pretty clear definition of "desire" in their minds, and it's basically the same as "attraction". They mostly use "desire" rather than "attraction", because that's the language historically used in the literature. But note in the actual survey questions, they ask about attraction. It's as if they're already aware of this language issue between the literature and survey-takers, and they already correct for it. So is this really that big of a problem?

I don't think we're in a good position to criticize their definition of "desire" when they have a clear definition in mind, and it's we who have an ambiguous definition.

Noskcaj Llahsram said...

Is something wrong, you seem at least 14% more angry. I think you have stumbled on to a interesting linguistic dissonance between us and academia. [I wanted to right something more additive, but I'm on little sleep right now and it sort of evaporated somewhere between my forebrain and fingers]

Ily said...

grasexuality-- huh, I'll check that out. "Sex drive" seems to be one of those things that's intuitive to some people but not others. Maybe I take "sexual desire" too literally because when I hear the term, I think, theoretically, of all the possible reasons why someone would desire to have sex. No wonder I'm confused.

sciatrix-- Yeah, that's what I'm saying. I hope for the best but tend to have low expectations, especially for media. So often I'm going, "Hey, this isn't that bad!" ;-)

Siggy-- I think it's only an issue because people really do call asexuality a "lack of sexual desire" all the time, it isn't just this one study. To me, there's a big difference in the connotations of those words, which is what I was trying to get at.

NL-- Do I? Thanks for asking...I wouldn't say I'm angrier than usual (I always have a baseline of righteous indignation) but I would say I'm a bit stressed out. 3 days without internet can do that to you! :-P

heidi said...

I find it frustrating that asexuality is always defined by lack/loss/void/negative/absence/etc. when really all we like/love/have/enjoy is just... other-than-sexual.

Surely there's a definition for asexuality out there that meets my lofty ideal of something beyond the sex! (Perhaps "asexuality is life freed from sexual self expectations" or something, though there's still a ton wrong with that, too!)

Ally said...

Adding my two cents, because this is something that SERIOUSLY annoys me. Inevitably, when I'm having a conversation with my friends/peers/family about my being asexual, I attempt to explain, "I feel a certain sexual desire, but it's not attached to attraction to another person." someone goes, "Then what are you attracted to?" *headdesk*

With regards to it as a legitimate sexual orientation, I think we're a LONG way from that, which is frustrating for all of us. Too often, when it's seen at all, it's seen, like heidi has said, as a void where sexuality should be. I have friends who have known for years that I am asexual, and claim to accept it, but whenever I suggest that someone ELSE might be, the response is always, "no way." and "Just because you're this way, doesn't mean other people are." or some such thing.

With regards to the definitions of both 'desire' and 'attraction,' I don't want to get all anti-sexual or anything, but I think a lot of it comes from the fact that there are a lot of sexuals who can't tell the difference between the two. We're bombarded, due to media exposure, with sex sex sex in every facet of our existence, and sex and attraction, and the giving in to said attraction is seen as insurmountable, universal, that I feel like to many sexuals, the attraction is just as biological as the desire. It's not just, "I NEED sex or sex related stimulation." It's "I NEED that, with this person in particular." And they pass that on to their understanding of us, which is a huge part of what's going on with studies like this.