A few posts ago, in Slut Shaming and the Empowered Young Woman, one reader commented on the way that asexuality is written out of a lot of the most visible debates on what it means to be mature, empowered, and sexually self-aware. She also observed that asexual feeling, identity, and relationship practices are so nonexistent in pop culture that it’s almost impossible to know where to begin analyzing it. In her high school experiences as well as in mine, dating was one of the biggest status symbols you could achieve, and it was fairly well assumed that dating was the gateway to rounding those bases and scoring a home run, as it were. (I’ve never been too clear on that base analogy, and the fact that it doesn’t really seem to translate for GLB people isn’t its only problem.) As The New Goodnight Kiss documents, for some young people, sex has become a lot more openly casual than what I remember. But that activity still has a lot to do with teenaged pecking orders, even as it may also have to do with fulfilling experiences of sexual freedom or the development of positive relationships for some young people. So what about asexuality and youth culture? How do kids learn to associate certain values with being sexual and not being sexual?
There is SO MUCH important stuff that could be said on this topic, but here are a few observations that have always struck me as kinda paradoxical:
Family tropes and sexuality tropes do not mix.
Although children are often conceived through sex (but not always!) all the sexuality required to make the kid is often fastidiously scrubbed “clean.” It’s like a perfume commercial followed by a baby food commercial. One night, it’s all seduction, edginess, and hedonism—and then the child arrives and it’s all sunlight falling on a fresh-faced mother gazing at her infant swaddled in white linens (probably the mother and baby are white, too). In a certain system of logic, one image causally leads to another, but you can never see both at once.
These kinds of images are often very heteronormative, but even for queer people, or if other reproductive technologies (such as donor insemination, in vitro fertilization, adoption, fostering, etc.) were used to bring children into families (single parent, families, extended families, families of choice, etc.), the message we receive in a lot of ways is that adult sexuality and “childhood innocence” need to be categorically separated.
Kids are assumed, in some ways, to be asexual.
Puberty rituals and other initiations and practices around often explicitly mark a symbolic entry into adulthood or sexual maturity. But analytically, we know that kids are already sexual in their own ways, with different significances than adult sexualities. They’re often interested in their own bodies, each other’s bodies, their parents’ bodies, and the bodies they see in commercial media. (I know I was! I spent an inordinate amount of time drawing shapely women with my crayons in those early years…)
Instead of taking these early curiosities seriously, we often indulge in a culture of squeamishness about them and use “the talk” as a punchline—or better yet, the moment in “the talk” where the kid says “it’s okay, I already know about the birds and the bees” and the parent/guardian/teacher heaves a sigh of relief and beats a hasty retreat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a scenario depicted that’s anything other than deeply sympathetic about the plight of adults having to actually talk about “the facts of life” with kids. (The hang up-free hippie parents in Away We Go are only used as a foil to the “normal” couple who finds them disgusting). If I were a script writer, I’d insert a parent character who seems genuinely surprised that another adult is hell-bent on avoiding a frank discussion of something that they constantly joke about through innuendo, see commercialized, and perceive as a reason to be (over)protective with their children. (The “not my little girl!” routine echoes down through father characters since sitcom time immemorial).
Yet we market stuff to kids with a heterosexual and heteromantic (the romantic usually seen as leading to the sexual) framing all the time.
Just look at the Disney princesses, children’s makeup, fashion, Bratz dolls, the new LEGO. The narrative behind almost every song, TV or movie plot, popular fiction, etc., uses a “boy meets girl” tension to move the story along—or a “person meets person,” scenario, if we’re lucky.
Although in one sense, there seems to be a desire to pretend that kids have no sexuality or sexual awareness—whether it be asexual, autosexual, GLBQQ2, pansexual, hetero, unlabeled or otherwise—we constantly feed them the narratives that give them a narrow sense of their options when it comes to forming social, romantic, and sexual attachments. Asexuality rarely if ever seems to be among them, unless it’s as a casualty of trauma, dis/ability, nerdiness, or something else beyond one’s control.
And although abstinence is a popular education tactic among many of the powers that be, it almost never occasions an intelligent conversation about asexuality and how they are not the same.
As I’ve alluded to in my post about Teaching Homosexuality, there’s no end to the controversies surrounding the topic of sex ed. Has anybody been taught in elementary or high school about asexuality? I sure wasn’t. Abstinence is of course mentioned as the best way to avoid STIs and unwanted pregnancy, but kids need to understand how abstinence differs from celibacy and from asexuality, which is a sexual orientation. Says AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, “asexual people have the same emotional needs as everybody else and are just as capable of forming intimate relationships.” (Thanks to the reader mentioned above for this link!)
Asexuality is a sexual orientation, not a method of birth control or a stop on the way to “mature” sexuality. As one asexual blogger describes, it can refer to a spectrum that might include people who prefer no physicality with others, or only some forms, or only self-gratification, as well as people who don’t experience themselves as having sexual “needs” or “desires” but will have and enjoy sex with their sexual partners. Asexuals can also have other sexual and gender orientations - an asexual person may also identify as heteromantic, trans, straight, genderqueer, lesbian, etc.
In other words, asexuality is as complex as the rest of the giant gray area of human experience, and it’s not a “lack” of sexuality that can therefore be left out of the conversation.