Sunday, February 15, 2009

Acknowledging Asexuals Doesn't Mean Denying Anyone's Sexuality

So apparently Dave Hingsburger at Chewing the Fat had called for a Valentine's Day blog carnival on sexuality and disability. I missed my chance to take part in it, but I did really like the posts other people contributed, and wanted to respond to a couple of them.

From Ettina's post on asexuality (and the disability movement's tendency to erase asexual experience when talking about sexuality):
[T]here seems to be a tendency to assume either that disabled people in general (or in certain categories) have nothing in common with normal people, or to assume we're not really different from normal people - or only in superficial ways. In terms of disability and sexuality, this comes off as either assuming all disabled people are asexual, or assuming all disabled people are just as sexual as anyone else.

The latter assumption is what I see many disability rights activists expressing, when they talk about sexuality. They discuss sexuality as something universal to all human beings, including disabled people. Some acknowledge sexual differences such as being gay, but they still say that everyone has sexual feelings.
And I think a big part of this is the idea that saying disabled people - any disabled people - are asexual has been portrayed as a nasty stereotype.
I don't think it's a bad thing at all to be asexual. In fact, I'm glad I am - it seems to save me from a lot of angst, since I'm not constantly looking for Mr. Right. I just wish there wasn't this idea that sexuality is fundamental to every person. Our society is obsessed with sexuality, but we're disability rights activists, we're supposed to challenge society's assumptions.
As I pointed out in the comments section of that post, I think a very similar pattern --- the identities and experiences of one group within a movement getting erased by that movement's efforts to combat stereotypes --- within feminism. The backlash against second-wave feminism --- especially the more radical strains within second-wave feminism --- has drawn up a caricature of feminism that most women would be too afraid or embarrassed to espouse: Feminism as bra-burning, hairy-legged, militantly unattractive, man-hating lesbians' crusade to rid Western culture of everything sexy.

As you might imagine, much feminist blogging (especially on websites geared more toward beginner feminists) tries to demolish this stereotype. And that's fine --- feminism ought to include all sorts of women --- but sometimes this stereotype-busting goes so far as to claim that no feminist is a hairy-legged, conventionally unattractive lesbian*, or that such feminists exist only in the minds of anti-feminists.

Neither trait --- asexuality or indifference to the male gaze --- is a bad thing outside of their use in dismissing activists. Feminists are explained away as dried-up old spinsters who hate sex, or as militant lesbians who hate men, and disabled people are often told we don't have sexualities --- or, if we do, that we shouldn't, and our desires are therefore abnormal and pathological.

The thing to remember is this: What's pernicious about these stereotypes is not their content --- there are asexual people with disabilities, sometimes more within some disabilities than within the general population, and there are lesbian separatists and women who reject conventional beauty practices within feminism --- but their function. They serve to discredit whole categories of people who are only asking for the same rights and choices other people have. That the content of these stererotypes does that speaks less to the suspicious character of the groups being stereotypes and more to the dominant culture's obsession with one particular flavor of sexuality (and with its paranoid insistence that all people wedge themselves into one narrow mold).

*You can freely substitute "asexual" or "celibate" for "lesbian" here --- the stereotype seems to include all categories of women who have no interest in attracting men, and does not bother to distinguish among them.

1 comment:

The Woolworth Cup said...

Ah, what a great post!!
You should leave a comment for Dave, he included the late contributions, too! (If you haven't already, that is...)
Thanks also for introducing me to the "I blame the patriarchy" blog, that one is really radical and funny!