Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

So Long, Compulsory Sex! See Ya, Viagra! Asexuality is Here

Guest blogger Kristina Gupta on the power of asexuality

[Bella's intro: We think society is oh-so-open-minded when it comes to sex. Sexual messages are everywhere. There are endless tips for how to get more sex and enjoy it more. But the incessant sex talk and the unchallenged message that everyone does and should experience sexual attraction is a kind of pressure that makes us, as a society, far less enlightened and open-minded than we should be. The first post I ever wrote on Asexuality, back in 2009, got more page views than anything else I've ever written in more than 6 years here at Psych Today. There was almost no scholarly research at the time. Now we have scholars who have done important work on the topic. There are even a few anthologies on asexuality. I am so delighted that the co-editor of one of them, Kristina Gupta, has written this guest post for us. She can say something that perhaps no one else can: She wrote her dissertation on asexuality and compulsory sexuality, and has continued to develop her expertise on the matter ever since. Thanks, Kristina!]

Relax, It’s Ok Not to Have Sex Once In Awhile: Lessons Everyone Can Learn from the Asexuality Movement

By Kristina Gupta

In 2009, Dr. DePaulo wrote an excellent post about asexuality, which provides a nice introduction to the contemporary asexual movement. Just to recap briefly, in the past fifteen years, people in online communities have begun to define asexuality as a sexual identity or orientation. The largest online community, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), defines an asexual person as someone who does not experience sexual attraction. Asexual identity is defined primarily by how a person feels, not how a person acts – many people who identify as asexual describe themselves as not feeling internally motivated to engage in sexual activity with other people, but may do so for a variety of reasons.

In 2009, there wasn’t yet a lot of scholarship available on asexual identities, as Dr. DePaulo notes in her post. Since that time, a number of articles and books have been published. [Bella's note: This is a link to a very useful bibliography of scholarly writings on asexuality.] I can heartily recommend two recent collections – Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives (2014), edited by Karli June Cerankowski and Megan Milks, and Asexuality and Sexual Normativity: An Anthology (2014), which I co-edited with Mark Carrigan and Todd Morrison.

In my opinion, two of the more interesting (and related) questions that have begun to be addressed in this recent scholarship are, first, what can the asexuality movement teach us about contemporary society and, second, what can “sexual” people learn from the asexuality movement?

In regards to the first question, a number of scholars and activists argue that the asexuality movement encourages us to recognize the ways in which sexuality may be compulsory in contemporary society. In other words, our society assumes that (almost) everyone is, at their core, “sexual” and there exists a great deal of social pressure to experience sexual desire, engage in sexual activities, and adopt a sexual identity. At the same time, various types of “non-sexuality” (such as a lack of sexual desire or activity) are stigmatized – for example, in one study, researchers found that heterosexual-identified people expressed more bias toward asexual people than toward heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual people. This is not to deny, of course, the fact that our society also continues to stigmatize people – especially women – who are perceived as engaging in “too much” sexual activity.

This answer to the first question leads into the answer to the second question: what can “sexual” people learn from the asexuality movement? Many people, even those who consider themselves to be highly sexual, will probably experience changes in their level of interest in sex and/or in their patterns of sexual activity. Sexual desire and activity may change (increase or decrease) as one ages, if one’s relationship status changes, or if other factors that affect sexuality (such as employment status or health status) change.

Yet, as part of compulsory sexuality, our society sends the message than almost any decrease in sexual desire or activity is a major problem that must be addressed immediately. For example, advertisements for Viagra tell men that they must maintain sexual virility throughout their lives, even if they must take medication to do so (Marshall 2002). Currently, pharmaceutical companies are working to develop drugs for “female sexual dysfunction,” and some feminist activists worry that the ads for these drugs will send the message that women must also maintain high levels of interest in sex, whatever the cost (Tiefer 2006). Many mainstream women’s magazines and sexual and relationship self-help books send the message that if a couple begins to have sex less frequently, the relationship is doomed to failure. Some of these books go so far as to encourage readers to have sex even if they don’t want to, in order to prevent a partner from leaving (Gupta and Cacchioni 2013).

All of these messages can create intense anxiety for individuals and couples who experience changes in sexual desire or activity. So what “sexual” people can learn from the asexuality movement is that these messages reflect certain assumptions about sexuality that are not necessarily true all of the time or for all people. A decrease in sexual desire or activity can be a distressing problem, but it doesn’t have to be. People who identify as asexual are actively challenging compulsory sexuality and are demonstrating that it is possible to build intimate relationships that are not based on sexual attraction or sexual activity and that it is possible to lead a fulfilling life even if, or perhaps even because, one does not experience sexual attraction. This alternative message can give “sexual” people the space to take a deep breath and ask themselves the question – why am I so worried about this decrease in sexual desire or activity? Is part of the distress or anxiety I am feeling coming primarily from the fact that society is telling me that I have a problem? Do I want to work to increase my sexual desire or do I want to instead see this change as either something temporary that will pass as circumstances change or as a new phase of life that could even be enjoyed?

Certainly, many “sexual” people will still decide that they want to work to increase their level of interest in sex or their sexual activity, but hopefully the lessons they learn from asexual-identified people will allow them to do so with less anxiety. And some “sexual” people may just decide that they want to explore and take pleasure from a “less sexual” phase in their lives. If the asexuality movement teaches us how to respond differently to the pressure that many people experience to constantly feel sexual desire, engage in sexual activity, and adopt a sexual identoty, then the movement has offered us all a valuable lesson indeed.

About the Author

Kristina Gupta is an Assistant Professor in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at Wake Forest University. Her dissertation analyzed contemporary asexual identities and compulsory sexuality.

Citations

Gupta, Kristina and Thea Cacchioni. 2013. Sexual Improvement as if Your Health Depends on It: An Analysis of Contemporary Sex Manuals. Feminism & Psychology. 23(4): 442-458.

Marshall, Barbara L. 2002. “`Hard Science’: Gendered Constructions of Sexual Dysfunction in the `Viagra Age’.” Sexualities 5 (2): 131–58.

Tiefer, Leonore. 2006. “Female Sexual Dysfunction: A Case Study of Disease Mongering and Activist Resistance.” PLoS Med 3 (4): e178.

[Note: For other posts on sex, sexuality, and what marrying vs. staying single has to do with any of it, click here.]

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

more...

Subscribe to Living Single

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?