Sunday, October 14, 2012

Read the Label Carefully

Some years ago I participated in an online discussion about the words that are used to describe sexual orientations.  One participant, a graduate student in sociology as I recall, said that the words "homosexual," "heterosexual," and "bisexual" irritated him: why couldn't we just use the word "humansexual"?  He had a point, I guess.  While we're at it, why bother with classifications like "vertebrate" or "invertebrate"?  Why can't we just use a word like "earth entities"?  It would be so much more inclusive.  While we're at it, why not just give up using language altogether?  Words are so confusing and divisive.  In the good old days before we invented all these different languages, we just sniffed each other's butts, and everybody got along fine.

I hadn't thought about this point until now, but what would "humansexual" even mean?  If it's constructed on the model of "homosexual," it makes no sense at all.  I think it was supposed to mean that one's sexual orientation was toward other humans -- which would exclude animalphiles, and that's just not fair.  Still, I suppose that something like that was in that guy's mind: we should just brush aside all human differences and focus on what we have in common.  Fair enough.  If only it were that easy.  In any case, humans are not a sex, so the term would make no sense to begin with.  Obviously the guy who proposed it -- a highly educated person, remember -- didn't understand what "homosexual" and "sexual orientation" mean.  To quote Kinsey again:
… It [“bisexual”] should, however, be used with the understanding that it is patterned on the words heterosexual and homosexual, and, like them, refers to the sex of the partner, and proves nothing about the constitution of the person who is labeled bisexual [657].
In this matter, years of schooling have little or no effect on people's misunderstandings.

In the years since that exchange, I've seen many similar coinages, both in ordinary conversation and in scholarly discourse, that were equally off-kilter.  "Homosensual," for example, which also shows a misunderstanding of what "homosexual means."   "Homosocial" and "homoerotic," of course; also "homoromantic" and "homoaffectional."  The author of one amazingly demented scholarly paper tossed in "homodepressed," "homoplatonic,"and  "homomorbid."  I wonder what the point of these inventions is; probably the hope of going viral in other scholars' footnotes.  Which is a valid goal on its own terms, but doesn't add anything to the archive of human knowledge.

The book I've been griping about for the past week, by the way, is Understanding Asexuality by Anthony F. Bogaert (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).  I've gotten bogged down in the first chapter because of his bogus attacks on Kinsey -- which continue throughout the book -- but I've harped on that numerous times already.  On his principal topic, asexuality, he also goes astray.

I checked out Understanding Sexuality because asexuality has been turning up on the mainstream radar lately.  I'd noticed a couple of articles about it at Salon, and then some asexual individuals expressed interest in volunteering for GLB Speakers Bureau and the sexuality panels we do.  That was fine with me; I had some questions of my own about it, and I'd have been interested to hear what they had to say, but they don't seem to have followed up by becoming volunteers.  For example: is asexuality a sexual orientation, or is it the absence of one?  (This is analogous to the question whether atheism is a religion or the absence of one.  Is not collecting stamps a hobby, or the absence of one?)

Bogaert presumably thinks that asexuality is a sexual orientation.  He argues for a distinction that could be useful, between "sexual attraction" and "romantic attraction," and postulates that many asexuals have romantic feelings without wanting to express them genitally.  It appears, though this is not something he really follows through, that "romantic attraction" still has a sexual orientation, towards one's own sex or towards the other.  (Remember, the "sex" in "sexual orientation" refers to the sex of the partner, not to what one wants to do with them.)  It doesn't seem that asexuals are indifferent whether they bond romantically to males or to females, and this again leads to confusion in the labeling: it "is not unusual for an asexual person to say that he is asexual but biromantic, or that she is asexual but heteroromantic" (15), Bogaert says.  Again, this shows a misunderstanding about the meaning of "sexual" in "sexual orientation."  "Heteroromantic" could be shorthand for "my romantic interests are heterosexual," but I see no reason to suppose that Bogaert or his asexual informants realize that.

Am I saying that I think asexuals aren't really asexual after all?  No, I'm not.  I'm pointing out an ambiguity in the term, which fits well with the general confusion about terms like "heterosexual," "homosexual," and "sexual orientation."  Like "bisexual," which originally referred to physical sex and to reproduction, the word "asexual" has roots in reproductive biology: one-celled organisms generally reproduce asexually, without the exchange of genetic material that sexual reproduction involves. Asexual people can reproduce if they want, just as homosexual people can.  But they don't have to reproduce if they don't want to, just as homosexual people don't.  Or heterosexuals: wanting to copulate doesn't mean you necessarily want to have children.

Most painful is Bogaert's attempt to invent an evolutionary basis or function for asexuality.  He's a Darwinian fundamentalist, who believes that every detail of behavior or physiology must have been selected by "Nature" herself for the benefit of the species.  To that end he confuses asexuality and celibacy, though they're not at all the same phenomenon.  He even tries to find an evolutionary rationale for solitary masturbation, seemingly unaware that autoeroticism is widespread in the animal kingdom.  (I use the word "autoeroticism" there because "masturbation" means that the self-stimulation is done by the hand, which isn't even always true among human beings.  Both males and females often achieve self-inflicted orgasm by rubbing against something, a mattress or a pillow or some such.)   He gives no plausible reason for thinking that autoeroticism is anything but a fringe benefit of the pleasure associated with reproductive sex.

And he seems unaware of the existence of the clitoris -- well, he mentions it once: "the organs of sex most directly associated with physical arousal (i.e., penis, clitoris, vagina)  are brimming with nerve endings, which ultimately connect to the pleasure centers of the brain that are capable of making us experience intense pleasure" (23).  Look, I'm a big ol' homo, but even I know that the vagina doesn't have a lot of pleasure-related nerve endings, and most that it does have are near the opening.  It's the vulva, including the labia, and the clitoris that are mainly involved in female erotic pleasure.  Yet whenever Bogaert discusses female sexual arousal, he mentions only vaginal lubrication (see 74, 75, 112, 136).  That's not irrelevant, but it seems like mentioning only the "pre-cum" lubrication produced by a man's urethra before he ejaculates, and ignoring his erection.

But back to my main concern here, which is labeling and identity.  There's going to be some difference between sex researchers and asexuals about what it means to be asexual.  Bogaert wants to define it in terms solely of an absence of erotic attraction, not an absence of erotic drive (or sexual desire, as he calls it), and that's fair enough, because many asexuals apparently masturbate, they just don't associate the pleasure with a real or fantasized partner.  I also suspect that some of the same issues will arise about asexuality that have divided gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, because asexuality seems to lie at one end of a continuum of erotic expression: not an either-or division, but a more-or-less difference of degree.   And people in general really hate differences of degree: they constantly try to turn them into differences of kind.

The word "intimacy" also turns up in this area, and people tend to forget that "intimacy" has long been a euphemism for copulation.  There's never been much agreement about the relation of copulation to intimacy, though most people seem to take for granted that emotional closeness, especially between males and females, will inevitably lead to the old in-out-in-out.  That won't be true for asexuals, but it isn't always true for "sexuals" either.  The most enthusiastic sexual copulator will still probably be emotionally close to people with whom he or she doesn't want to copulate: parents at least, children hopefully, and friends of either sex.  In my own case, and I know I'm not unique in this, there have been numerous people I've loved seriously and even regretted not wanting to have sex with.  It's a perennial though not universal human complaint.  Often emotional closeness kills off erotic interest.  Is this connected to asexuality?  I have no idea.

Those who've written about asexuality mention the incredulity many "sexuals" display at the very idea that some people simply aren't interested in copulation.  That's not really so surprising: as Bogaert acknowledges, most people tend to universalize their own experience and tastes to all of humanity.  I've tried to learn not to do that.  I think it's valid, and important, for people to figure out what they want and need, and try to find people with whom they can share their interests.  One of the main lessons Kinsey tried to teach, but that very few people learned, was that there is enormous variation within human erotic drive, desire, and expression.  That variation isn't going to go away; we might as well learn to respect it.