This post is for the July Carnival of Aces.
In this post I will be working from the definition of compulsory sexuality proposed by Lisa Millbank:
Compulsory sexuality refers to a set of social attitudes, institutions and practices which hold and enforce the belief that everyone should have or want to have frequent sex (of a socially approved kind).
Millbank provides a thorough discussion of many aspects of compulsory sexuality, most of which are beyond the scope of my post, so I encourage readers who are interested in serious feminist discourse to read her whole post.
[I]t seems clear that compulsory sexuality in its capacity as assumed universal sexuality (that everyone must be sexual) marginalises and erases asexual identities. If everyone is sexual then asexual people do not exist, or have simply not yet found the right context in which to be sexual. [Emphasis in original]
Asexuality is a sexual orientation defined by lack of sexual attraction. Asexuality is also a sexual identity. Not all people who are asexual by orientation will choose to identify as asexual. To me, the choice of an asexual identification is a statement about how we relate to the larger heterosexual world and also how we relate to other groups that experience different kinds of sexual attraction. Asexuals are not necessarily “not sexual” (some asexuals may be sexually active) but our choice of identity is a statement that we do not relate to sexuality in the same way everybody else does. To say that there is such a thing as “compulsory sexuality” is to state that we feel our way of relating to sexuality is not acknowledged, understood, or accepted by the larger society and that we feel pressured by that society to adopt norms of sexuality that do not make room for our lived experiences.
Compulsory heterosexuality and the context of asexuality
As Millbank points out, in our society compulsory sexuality is specifically compulsory heterosexuality (also known as heteronormativity). Non-heterosexual orientations, identities, and behaviors are socially disapproved to varying degrees and are not considered equal to, nor are equally privileged as, heterosexual orientations, identities, and behaviors.
However, it is not as simple as gay/lesbian vs. straight. One of the topics I post a lot about on this blog is biphobia. Biphobia is prejudice or hatred against bisexuals that is specific to their bisexuality. Notable features of biphobia include erasure of bisexual identity, marginalization of bisexual individuals from both straight and gay/lesbian spaces, and stereotypes of bisexuals as being confused, greedy, or promiscuous because they are attracted to more than one sex or gender. If you’re not familiar with biphobia or would like to learn more about how it works, I encourage you to read my posts on this topic.
In recognizing biphobia as a real phenomenon, we are acknowledging that compulsory heterosexuality not only disadvantages homosexuality but that it also has embedded in it the assumption that all people should be attracted to only one sex or gender (monosexuality). When bisexuals are true to themselves by having partners of more than one sex or gender or by otherwise expressing or demonstrating the multiple nature of their sexual attractions, they are still disadvantaged against and marginalized by the heterosexual majority because they are not monosexual. To put this another way, choice of bisexual identity is in part a statement that a person does not relate to sexuality in the same way that monosexuals do. Neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality makes room for this person’s lived experience of their own sexuality.
Talking about the assumption of monosexuality can be controversial. Since gay and lesbian people are monosexual, it is possible for them to engage in biphobia, that is, to be prejudiced against bisexuals in the ways mentioned above. This does not mean that bisexuals are “more oppressed” than gay or lesbian people, nor does it imply that gay and lesbian people are equally privileged to heterosexuals. It simply means that there are multiple ways in which heterosexuality is privileged and that some of these affect gay and lesbian people more and some affect bisexuals more. Because there are multiple systems of dominance, almost everybody is privileged in some way compared to some other group of people, even if they are disadvantaged in many ways compared to majority groups.
This brings us back to asexuality. I use the term “acephobia” to refer to prejudice against asexuals that is specific to our asexuality. Some people use the term asexophobia instead; since the obvious parallel formation to homophobia and biphobia, aphobia, is ambiguous in meaning, we need a different word. Some manifestations of acephobia include erasure of asexual identity, marginalization of asexuals from heterosexual and LGBT spaces, and stereotypes of asexuals as confused, prudish, emotionally frigid, and similar.
In recognizing acephobia as a real phenomenon, we are acknowledging that compulsory heterosexuality not only disadvantages homosexuality and bisexuality (note that asexuality is actually a form of non-monosexuality; neither “multiple” nor “none” is equal to one), but that it also has embedded in it the assumption that all people should be sexually attracted to somebody. When asexuals are true to ourselves by not having sexual partners or by otherwise expressing or demonstrating our lack of sexual attraction, we are still disadvantaged against and marginalized by the heterosexual majority because we are not sexual in a recognized way.
Talking about acephobia is even more controversial than talking about biphobia. Since gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are all sexual in a recognized way (experiencing sexual attraction), it is possible for them to engage in acephobia and to be prejudiced against asexuals. This does not mean that asexuals are “more oppressed” than gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, or that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are equally privileged to heterosexuals. It simply means that there are multiple ways in which heterosexuality is privileged and that some of these affect gay and lesbian people more, some affect bisexuals more, and some affect asexuals more.
This finally brings us back to the question of compulsory sexuality. While gay and lesbian people may focus their critiques on the privileging of heterosexual orientation, identity, and behavior (since this is what affects them most) and bisexuals may focus their critiques on the assumption of monosexuality (since this may be what affects them most), asexuals may focus our critiques on compulsory sexuality because this is often what affects us most. Again, this does not mean that any of these are more or less important than the others, nor does a focus on the area that affects you the most mean that you deny the other areas. By each of us working against the aspects of compulsory heterosexuality that affect us most, together we can tackle all of its manifestations and be successful in overturning this harmful social system.
Compulsory sexuality and asexual experience
So what does compulsory sexuality mean for asexuals? Above, I said many asexuals feel that
our way of relating to sexuality is not acknowledged, understood, or accepted by the larger society and that we feel pressured by that society to adopt norms of sexuality that do not make room for our lived experiences.
While each individual person may experience this differently or give emphasis to different elements of what they experience, and remembering again that some asexuals are sexually active, Millbank’s definition of compulsory sexuality as “the belief that everyone should have or want to have frequent sex” is a view shared by many asexuals.
An excellent post on this topic is The Culture of Hypersexuality and the Erasure of Asexuals and Nonsexual Love by outlawroad. I recommend reading the whole post, but I will share a few excerpts here:
…Everyone who has entered or completed puberty is assumed to be sexually active and interested in sex because that is what the majority considers to be exclusively and definitively “normal.” …
…Openly asexual characters in media are almost nonexistent. When a character is implied to be asexual, there is also an ongoing problem of characterizing them as sociopathic, socially awkward, unattractive, strange, cold, distant, uninterested in love or romance or friendship, and finally, as “curable” by the magical healing properties of sex…
…The whole of this situation often leads to feelings of extreme isolation, loneliness, depression, hopelessness, despair, anger, resentment, and betrayal in people who are sexually inactive (especially asexuals) and/or aromantic…
…Because we are socially conditioned as a society to view all emotional connection and romantic feelings as being inherently sexual in nature, this can also lead to a person’s confusion about their own feelings and relationships with others…
Thus, many asexuals feel a profound sense of exclusion from social norms about sexuality, we may be regarded by others who know our sexual orientation (or who see its expression in our conduct or words) as abnormal, even as “freaks”, and we may come to feel ourselves “broken” or damaged in some way. These feelings, incidentally, are compounded by the invisibility of asexuality. I personally was 31 years old when I first learned that asexuality existed. All the time before that, I thought that my lack of sexual attraction and lack of interest in sex was just something strange about me. To feel both alienated and alone can be a terrible experience for some people, especially young people.
Compulsory sexuality as a feminist issue
Compulsory sexuality is also something that is gendered. Our society expects that every person will fit into one of the two allowed gender roles, female and male. Society enforces beliefs about how these genders are allowed to act, even how they are presumed to be, and these beliefs include expectations about sexuality. Male Asexuality and Its Challenge to Masculinity by The Thinking Asexual explores the expectations placed on men (defined for the purpose of this essay as those assigned by society to the male gender role) in regard to sexual activity and how asexuality goes against these norms.
The situation for women (defined for the purpose of this essay as those assigned by society to the female gender role) is more complex and I will explore this topic for the remainder of this post. The trick is that there are two different sets of expectations for women when it comes to sexuality. This is often known as the virgin-whore dichotomy.
The virgin-whore dichotomy is often presented as “all women are expected to be virgins, and if you’re not a virgin you’re treated as a whore” but it is a lot more complex than that. Some women are expected to be virgins and in our society these are typically white, middle-class or upper-class women. Women of color and working-class or poor women are often depicted as hypersexualized and may find that men (especially white, middle-class or upper-class men) expect them to be sexually available whenever these men want. It is also worth noting that while certain classes of women may be expected to be virgins, what is actually expected is that they will be virgins until marriage and that they will marry. We might instead call it the wife-whore dichotomy. The expectations on wives are a topic far beyond the scope of this post, but we can restate the wife-whore dichotomy as the expectation that some women (often white and/or middle-class) should be sexually available only to their husbands while other women (often non-white and/or working-class or poor) are expected to be sexually available to, or to make a sexual display for, all men (see also this discussion). Neither of these traditional gender roles allows for women to refuse throughout their lives to make themselves sexually available to any man. Both lesbians and asexual or other celibate women fall afoul of this expectation.
Lisa Millbank identifies sex moralism as the force that governs the “wife” role and compulsory sexuality as the force that governs the “whore” role and a large section of her post is devoted to analyzing how these two forces interact with each other and with forms of feminism that oppose them.
It is also worth noting that some feminists (including Millbank) feel that since the 1960s, social expectations for white, middle-class women in the West have changed and that compulsory sexuality may be winning out over sex moralism as the dominant expectation for most or all women. Read Millbank’s post if you are interested in learning more about this view.
I am not going to engage that debate here so I will simply note that society’s expectations for the female gender role vary by race and class, and may differ by community and historical period, but that some amount of sexual activity is expected of all women and that asexuality goes against these norms.
Compulsory sexuality is a vast, complex topic and I have provided only a brief, limited exploration here. It is one element of compulsory heterosexuality or heteronormativity and is the aspect that may affect asexuals the most. It applies to both men and women, but in different ways because of the different gender roles our society enforces. It may be experienced in a different form depending on your race and social class or socioeconomic status. But as a pervasive, hegemonic force it does apply to everybody and that is something that asexuals may be uniquely positioned to interrogate and challenge. I also believe that asexuals can and should lead the way in developing and promoting alternatives that are inclusive and affirming to everybody and I hope that my blog may contribute to this in some minuscule way.
Author note: Since this essay was published, I made three minor edits for the sake of clarity in phrasing.
Huh! How come I never reblogged this…?
ok, i’m gonna try to actually formulate this argument instead of just screaming my thesis over and over again into the void. my thinking on this is pretty indebted to this article by radtransfem. it’s been a few years since i read it last and i don’t really want to reread the whole thing right now b/c i’m lazy so it may be that my opinion diverges from hers. the part of her argument that i want to talk about is at the very beginning anyway:
“A slut is a person of any gender who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you,” write Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy in The Ethical Slut: A guide to infinite sexual possibilities.
In doing so, they create space for every sexual possibility except for one: the possibility to consider whether sex may not be nice.
Some might suggest this space exists, already populated by woman-haters, given the shame, hatred and violence on offer for women who dare to have sex on their own terms. But these moralistic right-wing views don’t hold that sex is not nice – they hold that women who have sex (and others who are seen to be treated as women in sex) are not nice.
As such it is both progressive and radical to say that sex is not shameful for women, and that a woman should not be punished for her sexual choices; radical, because shaming and punishment are both commonplace.
But in the present day it is not radical to say that “sex is nice”. If anything, it’s tautological. Sex, for all practical purposes, is defined much of the time as only “that which is nice” – in many feminist discourses, if it is not nice, it is not sex.
This precludes certain ways of thinking about sex. I would like to look at the things we are able to think when we allow ourselves to criticise not just singular sex acts but the ‘niceness’ of sex under patriarchy as a whole.
i co-sign this passage unreservedly. i am a survivor of rape and abuse at the hands of a straight white cis man. my ex used sex-positive rhetoric and ideas, particularly kink positivity, to manipulate and coerce me into having painful, violent sex with him over and over again. he framed every rape as something i had done to him, as my failure as a partner who did not communicate clearly enough. if i had just told him what i wanted so that he could understand it, he posited, the rapes would never have occurred. i was so wrapped up in the idea of being a ggg partner, and in my firm belief in the niceness of sex, that i wasn’t able to recognize the abuse as it was happening.
i realize that this situation is typical for people in abusive, romantic relationships. i am not trying to blame the sex-posi movement for everything my ex did to me. what i would like to talk about are the issues inherent in an ideology that made it so easy for him to emotionally manipulate me and wave away his abusive actions, including unambiguous physical and sexual violence, as breakdowns in communication.
- "good, giving, game": compulsory sexuality and sex positivity
dan savage is a misogynist, a transmisogynist, a biphobe, and a transphobe. he’s also one of the loudest and most recognizable voices of the sex-posi movement. he coined the term ‘ggg’ on his shitty sex advice column, savage love. here’s the definition:
[O]ne should strive to be Good in bed, Giving ”equal time and equal pleasure” to one’s partner, and Game ”for anything—within reason.” [x]
this seemed like a pretty reasonable sexual ethos to 19-year-old me. try to make your partner happy? make sure their needs are being met? seek someone who will likewise prioritize my needs? sure!
the problem with the concept of ggg-ness is that it puts you in the position of feeling obligated to prioritize your partner’s needs above your own. uncomfortable with x sex act for y reason? that’s not very ggg of you. it’s not like he wants to shit in your mouth* or something.
the underlying assumption behind the term is that sex is nice, so why would you not want to try new things? why would you not want to have a lot of it? if sex is nice, then the only people who aren’t ggg are selfish jerks, freaky-deaky moralists, or damaged goods.
the presumed niceness of sex is present in the label itself: sex positivity. there can be no room under the sex-positive umbrella for negativity about sex, for an understanding of bad sexual experiences as anything other than aberrant. sex-positive rhetoric may include people who are uninterested as sex as an afterthought or a footnote, but typically the sex-posi response to people’s negative feelings about sex falls into one of three categories: talking over them, incredulity, or backpedaling. ”you just don’t understand.” ”but that wasn’t really sex because it wasn’t consensual!” ”but why wouldn’t you want to do it?” ”you could at least try." "oh, well, of course if you’re asexual… anyway.” all of these responses make perfect sense when we accept the niceness of sex as axiomatic.
- "if it is not nice, it is not sex": rape and sex positivity
rape is commonly defined as non-consensual sexual intercourse. a lot of people argue that rape is not sex because it is not consensual. sex positivity uses this formulation, stating that all sex is by definition consensual. the line of thinking is that, if it was not consensual, it can’t be called sex. this forms the basis of the argument that sex is nice. semantically centering consent is all well and good, but there’s just one problem: it’s bullshit.
of course rape is sex! it’s literally sexual contact. my ex boyfriend hurt me repeatedly, violently, during and by means of the sex acts he performed on my body. the western feminist case for rape as not sex stems from the trivialization and normalization of rape under the patriarchy: calling rape “sex” implies that no harm was done to the victim. the point is that we should not lie about violence against women — don’t sugarcoat it, call a spade a goddamn spade for fuck’s sake. it’s like calling squares rectangles: technically accurate, but not common parlance and therefore misleading. however, sex-positive rhetoric does not acknowledge this nuance. the sex-positive formulation of sex looks like this:
when sex actually looks more like this, in my experience:
when my ex-boyfriend raped me, he was having sex with me. we both understood it as such, and so did any other participants as far as i know. the sex-positive definition of sex is harmful because it assumes that there is a clear and obvious divide between sex and rape. as the vast majority of rape survivors will be able to tell you, that is absolutely not the case.
my rapes were very sexual, and because i frequently initiated the contact or requested the acts that he hurt me with, i did not understand them as rape. if rape was not sex, then how could i have been sexually assaulted when i understood what had happened to me as sex, not rape? if sex was nice, then why couldn’t i stop crying? if rape is not clearly and immediately identifiable to the victim, how can the assumption that sex is nice possibly help her?
i don’t think it can.
- the case for bodily autonomy
as you’ve probably gathered by now, i am not sex-positive. i might call myself sex-negative, although i’d want to read radtransfem’s article again before taking up that banner. i am certainly kink-critical. i think that sex positivity is a harmful concept when treated as a complete analysis of sex under the patriarchy in western culture. i think it excludes and shames asexuals, demisexuals, rape survivors, abuse survivors, and people who are otherwise uninterested in or have a difficult relationship with sex. i think it supports the concept of 'gray rape' and places the onus on rape victims to make sure their assailants understand that they do not consent. in short, i think it’s misogynistic.
in lieu of sex positivity, i propose a sexual ethos of bodily autonomy. i believe that all people have the right to dictate how others interact with them sexually. i believe that all people should be free to structure their sex lives and pursue their sexual interests in whatever way makes them most comfortable, happy, and fulfilled, as long as they are not violating the bodily autonomy of another. the central concept of bodily autonomy is not that sex is nice, but that your body is yours, and no one else’s.
bodily autonomy attaches no value judgments to sex — it treats sexual contact as an activity that comes with potential risks and rewards like any other. sex is just a thing you can do with your body, if you choose to. there is room for the a person to like or dislike sex, have sex frequently or rarely, to hate sex, to fear sex, to love sex, to want sex, and on and on. the statement “sex is good!” makes no sense in terms of bodily autonomy — one would instead say, “sex is good for me."
bodily autonomy centers consent explicitly, not implicitly. it leaves room for a vast multiplicity of experiences with and feelings toward sex without erasure or judgment. sex positivity is moralistic, but bodily autonomy is flexible. it’s a big umbrella with room under it for all of us, not just those who enjoy or desire regular sexual contact with others. what’s more, it’s an ethos that makes me feel safe as a sexual assault survivor, rather than alienated and threatened. for that reason alone, i think it’s a concept well worth exploring.
* or, you know, whatever
naw you got it. :)
i reckon in going for “body autonomy” the next step is to go, ok, what is the pressure that makes it hard for me to have autonomy? and when i look at it, “people think bad things about me when i have sex” (sex moralism) isn’t that pressure. sure it sucks, but the one that’s killing me is, “people think bad things about me when I don’t have sex” (compulsory sexuality). so for me to get autonomy, i need to push back against that one.
and since i wrote that article, i’ve been prodded into realising by several Black woman writers that there’s something more general going on, and that you can rephrase it like this: the problem with majority sex-positive discourse is that it takes the subject - the kind of person - that it’s trying to liberate, as a particular kind of white woman. one for whom the biggest problem is, “people think bad things about me when i have sex”. and it goes, ok, that liberates me & mine, that must be what Women™ need to liberate them!
i wanna reiterate (or iterate, not sure if i’ve said it before) that there is tonnes of sex+ theory which says, “hey, sex is bad sometimes, we gotta look at that”. but in The Ethical Prude I focused on sex+ practice and on the atmospheres that billow around the communities i’m in. what does that theory do when it hits the ground? where does it become praxis? how does it intermix with other attitudes, how is it coopted, what are its limits? what are the actual effects of it on, say, trans women? and that’s where i’m coming from when i wrote The Ethical Prude.
We will not survive by joining the game according to the rules set up by our enemies; we will not survive by imitating the doublespeak bullshit/nonthink standard English of the powers that be: Therefore, if the FBI asks you do you know so-and-so, a member of the Black Panther Party, for example, you will not respond in this Watergate ‘wise’: ‘I do seem to recall having had some association with the person in question during, or should I say, sometime during, the past.’ You will say, instead, for example: 'What's it to you? What do I look like to you? What right do you have to ask me that question?'–
June Jordan, White English/Black English: The Politics of Translation (1972), in Moving Towards Home: Political Essays (Virago Press, 1989), p33
Ah, now, Carol Adams actually out and said it:
We could claim that the hidden majority of this world has been primarily vegetarian. But this vegetarianism was not a result of a viewpoint seeking just human relationships with animals. Even so, it is a very important fact that the hidden majority of the world has been primarily vegetarian. If a diet of beans and grains has been the basis for sustenance for the majority of the world until recently, then meat is not essential. While knowledge of the variety of cultures that depended, by and large, on vegetarianism helps to dislodge our Western focus on meat, what is most threatening to our cultural discourse is self-determined vegetarianism in cultures where meat is plentiful.
- Sexual Politics of Meat, original preface, page 30 of the 20th anniversary edition (
"Yes, I know there’s all those other vegetarians out there in the non-Western world. But their relationships with animals aren’t really theoretically relevant, and it’s not like they’re doing it intentionally. They’re only useful to mention ‘coz they prove you can survive without meat. Only Western vegetarians are positioned to be proper animal liberation advocates."
I wasn’t sure if she’d admitted that was her angle, but apparently she has. Well that’s straightforward then. :/
Dualisms are not just free-floating systems of ideas; they are closely associated with domination and accumulation, and are the major cultural expressions and justifications. But I do not mean to imply by this that accumulation, the material sphere, is the real motor and the cultural sphere merely its reflection as assumed in some forms of Marxist theory. The material and the cultural spheres both do the work of domination and may be thought of as mutually selecting one another, just as particular technologies are both selected by certain social and political arrangements and elect them, helping to maintain, strengthen and prepare the ground for certain types of social structures.– Val Plumwood, ‘Feminism & the Mastery of Nature’ (via aidsnegligee)
“…dualisms such as reason/nature may be ancient, but others such as human/nature and subject/object are associated especially with modern, post-enlightenment consciousness. But even the ancient forms do not necessarily fade away because their original context has changed; they are often preserved in our conceptual framework as residues, layers of sediment deposited by past oppressions. Culture thus accumulates a store of such conceptual weapons, which can be mined, refined and redeployed for new uses. So old oppressions stored as dualisms facilitate and break the path for new ones. […]
[For instance] the period of colonial conquest in the west from the fourteenth century onwards brings to the fore civilized/primitive as a variant of reason/nature and of reason/animal and mind/body, and the rise of science brings to the fore subject/object dualism (Bordo 1987).”
-Val Plumwood, 'Feminism & the Mastery of Nature'
In her Methodology of the Oppressed, Chela Sandoval retools Roland Barthes’ semiology from Mythologies to fully dissect and analyse this process. She says that each previous layer is naturalised then used as the “nature” part of a new pairing of, “this natural sign has this cultural meaning”. Then that cultural meaning becomes “nature” with time and is used as a new “natural sign” for the next ideological layer. Sandoval writes of the understanding of this process and ability to see it in motion as one of the methodologies of the oppressed.
The set of interrelated and mutually reinforcing dualisms which permeate western culture forms a fault-line that runs through its entire conceptual system. While the human/nature contrast is one of the more recent of these dualisms, like the others, it can be fully understood only as a part of an interrelated set. Each of them has crucial connections to other elements, and has a common structure with other members of the set. They should be seen as forming a system, an interlocking structure.– Val Plumwood, 'Feminism & the Mastery of Nature' (via aidsnegligee)
A dualism, I have argued, results from a certain kind of denied dependency on a subordinated other. This relationship of denied tendency determines a certain kind of logical structure, in which the denial and the relation of domination/subordination shape the identity of both the relata. […] The dominant conception of the human/nature relation in the west has features corresponding to this logical structure. Because of this structure, escape from dualised relationship and dualised identity represents a particularly difficult problem, involving a sort of logical maze.– Val Plumwood, 'Feminism & the Mastery of Nature' (via aidsnegligee)
I’m very glad (and feel flattered!) to see people like you engaging with my work. Thank you. :) The Prudes’ Progress has been a slow, quiet burner - I think a lot have read The Ethical Prude but taken a look at TPP and gone, “Huh? What’s this nonsense?” Good. I want the Progress to recommend itself only to those who are desperate, as I was, when I wrote it.
seriously, thank you. although The Prudes’ Progress appeared on my dashboard last year, I only read (was ready to read) it mid-September, and it’s already been tremendously valuable. I began a similar process in a former relationship, but my aim was general, and my approach was riddled with self-judgment. I appreciate the clarity and direction of your series (because it’s not enough to identify what we need to remove: we also need to identify what we’re moving toward). I may print the articles (Part VI especially) just so I can go over them with a highlighter.
Yes, well, seeing how much people say, “Why do radical feminists—” (I thought myself a radical feminist at the time) “— spend so much time talking about the negative and never do anything positive?”, my reaction was to roll up my sleeves, and say, “Okay…” I actually originally planned TPP as part of The Ethical Prude, but it rapidly became clear while writing that they’d have to be separated in time!
And thank you, you’ve just inspired me to re-read the 5th and 6th Progressions. I aint done with this stuff either!