So, I was on the radio last week talking about asexuality. I’ll have more to say about that later: I should soon have an audio copy of the program which I can post here, and I’ll share my thoughts on it then. For now though, there’s something that came up during the show which I want to talk more about. It’s the answer to a basic question that people often seem to have when introduced to the definition of asexuality and the concept of it as a sexual orientation. To review, when we define as asexual a person who does not experience sexual attraction, it is necessary to explain what we mean by sexual attraction. Following what we said at the workshop earlier, I’ve been defining it as directed sexual desire. This leaves open the possibility of defining as asexual someone who can experience some kind of undirected sexual desire, as it does someone who does not experience sexual desire at all. The question is, why do we call both these sorts of people asexual? Since they have such different experiences as regards something as basic as their own sexual desire, shouldn’t we distinguish them in such a way as to not say that they share the same sexual orientation? Additionally, since the word “asexual” suggests a negation of sexuality, why do we not confine the label to those who experience no sort of sexual desire at all?
The justification for calling both these sorts of people asexual lies I think in the concept of sexual orientation itself. After all, what exactly do we mean by this? I’d say that it is a concept referring to our sexual desires in relation to others. For instance, when we talk about homosexuals we are talking about people who have sexual desires directed mainly towards members of the same sex/gender. (This is another matter, but I don’t think the prevailing concepts of sexual orientation really distinguish between sex and gender, so I’m going to call it “sex/gender” for now.) When we speak of asexuality as a sexual orientation we are therefore speaking about a term describing people who have no sexual desires directed towards anyone. People who experience no sexual desire and those who experience only undirected sexual desire are both then meaningfully described as asexual, since neither experience desire directed towards anyone: their experiences of sexual desire in relation to others are both null, and so both are equally asexual by the standard logic of the terms of sexual orientation. Of course, it could be objected that despite their shared lack of the experience of sexual attraction, we’re still describing a diverse group of people who differ in many ways as regards their experience of sexuality. This is true. However, this is also true of the people described by any other designation of sexual orientation. For instance, we define as heterosexuals both men who are attracted to women and women who are attracted to men, despite the sex/gender difference in the objects of their desire and even the subjects themselves: the focus of the term is entirely on the relative sex/gender relation. The language of sexual orientation is generalizing, and if we want to label people with anything beyond their own names then I think that we have to be willing to make such generalizations.