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July 21, 2011 / missmarymax

The Sexual Swine: How the “Enlightened Ace” Trope Devalues Sex

Bodies in Urban Places - Never Leave London
Bodies in Urban Places – Never Leave London (Flickr).

Yesterday, we discussed some of the issues with the “asexual people are totes more enlightened than the rest of us!” narrative.  So, today, it’s time to examine the (equally useless) flip-side of that penny.

Just in case this doesn’t go without saying, conceiving of asexuality as enlightenment fundamentally implies sexuality inhibits it. The argument tends to be that, even if asexual people can — and do — have sex and relationships, their “interest” does not constitute drive. And it’s the drive — the overwhelming need for sex — that supposedly inhibits a person’s ability to pursue all else. Sexual people, then, are understood as primarily sexual — as eros first and all else second.

Um… people?

For a reportedly hypersexual culture, we sure have some Puritan tendencies. Centuries removed from Hester Prynn and her non-fictional counterparts, we’re still holding fast to our anti-sex biases.  These biases, for the record, obstruct our ability to recognize sexuality as something (potentially) positive, in much the same way that any other identity or interaction can be. (Including those aspects we’ve deemed “purer” or more “meaningful” — say, our philosophical enlightenment.)

This anti-sex perspective categorizes sex as animalistic and other pursuits as cultured, civilized . (This despite a strong body of evidence suggesting sexual relationships and identities are highly culturally constructed. How, for instance, am I to chalk up my friend’s hetero desire as the baser side of her “nature,” when hetero desire didn’t exist, as such, prior to the nineteenth century? And while we’re on the subject, let’s keep in mind that “cultured” pursuits are just that: constructed, culturally, through social institutions and ideas. For example: morality. Clearly, a great deal of the religious teachings shaping moral thought divide the mind from the body — (y’all know my feelings on that one, right?) — and then privilege the “rational” over the “physical” realm. (Incidentally, that tendency is more than a bit connected to the tendency to value men over women, as the rational has been gendered masculine, historically, and the body feminine. So if you’re not the biggest fan of sexism — o, no wai! mee eethr — that’s a good reason not to hate on the body or — by extension — the body’s having-of-sex.)

The myth that sexuality is an overwhelming, all-encompassing need is (say it with me now) a myth. It’s also a specific offshoot of the “sex is bad” narrative, which for women (and people perceived as women) is generally tied to the usual slutshaming, virgin/whore rubbish. As women, we can hold fast to our prude label (or try to) — or we can unpin our Marian-the-librarian-buns and become insatiable nymphs. Sexuality, by this account, lies in wait inside Pandora’s box; once released it cannot possibly be contained. Eat of the apple, child, and gluttony must needs ensue. Women who desire automatically become incapable of doing anything else. Thus, the woman who avoids that nasty trap of desire effectively increases her ability to, um, meditate her way toward meaning. (Or so I am told.)

For men (and people perceived as men), that box is generally presumed already open. [Insert every “joke” you’ve ever heard about a man’s inability to think with his brain, given the presence of his penis.] (Now, I’d normally point out that not all men have penises; however, these bullshit sexuality narratives we’re discussing tend to be based (here’s a shocker!) on pretty limited notions of sex and gender. Thus, in this narrative all men not only have penises, they’re also universally had by them.)

The man who cannot control his desire is a trope routinely used by rape-apologists, (boys will be boys will be hard-ons), but even when it’s not being employed toward a victim-blaming end, this understanding of male sexuality effectively dehumanizes men. If female sexuality is Pandora’s box, male sexuality is that same box sans lid. It’s uncontrollable — and therefore dangerous — from the word go.

I’ve spoken before about what it means, as a woman, to inherit the “you will be raped” template as your sole sexual script. Understanding sexual desire only as sexual violence, as something painful/ frightening/ abusive that’s done to you in spite of your disinterest, creates a concept of sex based in shame, fear, and guilt — at the expense of safety, intimacy, and pleasure. It’s hardly any less harmful to inherit this template as a man. Although women and transpeople suffer the majority of rape culture’s violence, the story of sex as a violent uncontrolled force harms boys and men as well. It results in male people who relate to their own sexuality as something dangerous, violent, or overwhelming. (See, for example, this basically-devastating question submitted to Scarleteen and Heather Corinna’s brilliant response.) In a culture that discusses sex in negative terms and blurs the line between sexual activity and sexual violence, the male role is no more freeing than the female one. It’s no more freeing to hear “you’re bound to be a rapist” than it is to hear “you’re bound to be raped.”

What does this have to do with the enlightened ace, you ask? Quite a bit, actually. The notion of asexuality as enlightenment requires not only mis-understandings of asexuality (say, as restraint, purity, celibacy, or sacrifice) — but also dangerously off-base notions of sex. Nonsexuality represents a higher cultural plane only when sexuality is deemed savage. Only when sex is sinful is its absence a foundation for spiritual growth.

The ways we currently conceive of sex — as dirty and primitive and burdensome — are not the only ways we can conceive of it. But new concepts require us to do more than wax poetic about the presumed ability of ace people to shrug off this corporeal struggle for one less bodily. They require us to reconceive of how we understand sex — and to do so in ways that improve sexual experience for people of all orientations.

Ultimately, “ace people are so much more evolved” uncritically accepts notions of sex, bodies, and gender that are far more burdensome than desire itself. Unpacking those assumptions won’t necessarily bring us closer to peaceful levitation. Nevertheless, it’s a good first step in rising up.

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6 Comments

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  1. sui solitaire / Jul 21 2011 8:33 pm

    You need to be a writer or scholar for critical gender studies or something. Seriously, you write like the articles I had to read for classes in undergrad.

    I definitely agree that, at least in the US, everything is hypersexualized– advertising, films, etc.– but at the same time, we’re very sexually repressed. We’re hypersexualized to the point of objectification, but not open about sex– because if we were, we wouldn’t be objectifying in the first place, methinks.

    • missmarymax / Aug 8 2011 8:22 pm

      Exactly. There’s a great articulation of this in The Lolita Effect that I (of course) can’t properly remember at the moment. Basically, “sex” is everywhere only if you accept the very limited, very fucked-up definition of “sex” that we’re sold. Broader, more complex, more constructive, less commodifiable notions of sex? — are basically nowhere. This is why it always scares me to see one side of the hypersexuality/ repression narrative brought up without the other. It’s the virgin/whore dichotomy at the cultural level. p.s. Comments like that one I just made are why your suggestion that I be a WGS writer or scholar made me grin from ear to ear. In a perfect world, where everything goes as planned, wouldn’t that be LOVELY. ::hopes the grad schools and employers and people what give financial aid feel the same way you do:: 😉

  2. Amelia Jane / Jul 22 2011 1:24 am

    That part about separating the mind and the body; YES! What is with that? We are shamed so much for things our body does, and has to do – we all eat, we all poop, we are all born from sex and/or genitals and/or organs related to sex – that there is no escape from the idea that we ought to be very upset with our bodies, all of the time…but why? What is the purpose of this? So that we’re constantly subdued? So that we expend energy on trying to be ‘purer’ or ‘better’ rather than celebrating ourselves, and then celebrating others? Be anywhere but here, in your body, because youre body is shameful…except, it’s all that we are, all of the time. Sure, the sum of the parts equals more than the whole, but we still need the parts to become that more, and it seems strange that we’re not encouraged from birth to celebrate our defecating, genitalia having, snot-nosed selves. I’m pretty sure that I feel most at ease in my body and mind when I’m taking a poo, and there was never a time that I become more quickly comfortable with myself than when having to pee in a dustbin full of sawdust in front of whoever else happened to be there! My mind calms down when I go for long walks…I just don’t see the point in shame about bodily processes, and I don’t see why people believe it’s necessary to separate the mind from the body. Where would it live, anyway?

Trackbacks

  1. The Sexual Swine: How the ?Enlightened Ace? Trope Devalues Sex … | yvymicidima
  2. The Sexual Swine: How the ?Enlightened Ace? Trope Devalues Sex … | ifosepepy
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