1. “Sexy” is not a term I have used to describe myself. It is however a term with which I have recently been confronted.
2. Sex is a term with which I do not find identification. It is a term that I have come to know and understand in a messy fashion, as well as a practice I choose to engage with and glean enjoyment and validation from as an asexually-identified person.

During one recent moment of intimacy, during sex, I was called “sexy.” The speaker – a partner, a co-agent with me in an act of sex, an evocator, an interlocutor, (a compliment-giver?) – sought to flatter and to validate me in the midst of a union forged under the watch of sexuality. I laughed; the term itself, so wholly unbefitting of my personhood, and over-extravagant in its dramatic deployment, cut through an air of tenderness and speared my body, fixing me in sex and in “sexy.” All this and more occurs in the very moment I negotiate with the culture and structure that defines my absence-identity – in sex. The two of us giggle like infants at the exchange before continuing.

But the adjective sticks in my mind. To engage with John L. Austin and Judith Butler is to understand that a term is performative in the act of speech – to be deemed “sexy” is to hold oneself in the subjectivity of the speaker or rather to be fixed there involuntarily. To become in a space and time a “self” of that which is “sexy” is to align selfhood to “sexy” and all the meanings, sensibilities, and practices with which it is to be so. When I profess to labour over my appearance and behaviour in ways that defy sexualisation, what agency can be spoken of in the moment those very things, along with the relations held between myself and a speaker, also themselves become “sex(y)”? The question then arises whether to refute one’s name despite the relation pursued (here, what might be named a sexual union), whether to engage with “sexy” and inhabit it agentively, or to ignore the act of naming it/me altogether in a way that also ignores the beloved speaker. None are “correct,” all are weaponised, and a dialogue ensues not between two parties, but triangularly between the one who names, the one who is named, and the structure that brings the name into existence. How I allow asexuality to define me, and how I engage in sexuality and sex, are both negotiations – and fraught ones at that – caught in language as well as desire. In fact, it might be said that speech is dually driven by the desire of speech to speak and of speaking desire itself.

In formulating the above, I herald a discussion of how language and speech come to shape our understandings of sex, and by extension of asexuality. And I seek here to tentatively explore what can be theorised through linguistic metaphors pertaining to the asexual and the sexual. I believe such a method is in large part enabled by an asexual vantage-point and comes from the daily negotiation of sexuality’s grammar in our collective pronouncement of an identity marked by difference, absence and queerness.

Let us begin at the mouth. With what do we speak? I cannot bring myself to say it is with the mother-tongue. The circumstances of our conception and birth are bound – if not merely physically, then also representationally – by coitus, sexual union and a heteronormative, reproductive imperative. We are brought into the world by sex: from the missionary position to the desire to reproduce. The mother-tongue is already Oedipal, the mouth already has Daddy-issues, or less flippantly, the condition of life as asexual is always already sex itself (even queer reproductive methods cannot escape emulating to some extent or another this sexual pre-origin). Further, the individual-authentic metaphor of the mother-tongue cannot adequately account for the difference of an asexual’s relation to sex and sexuality from the mother’s (sexual) role of “parent.” Sex birthed me, but it is not comfortably nor naturally vocalised by me. Sex is not my mother-tongue, it cannot be.

Yet to grow up “asexually” is to be immersed in the language of sex, or rather to “surface” from that immersion and come to know one’s foreign relationship to a sexual-tongue. To live is to have fluency assumed and to exist under sexua-linguistic forces that aim to ensure one’s fluency. I have laboured to be proficient, or more assuredly, I cannot escape my own desire for proficiency in sex as a vehicle to a legible life. What results is a deeply personal and absolute understanding of that which I am not, an intelligibility within a system of compulsory sexuality – a “sexual script” – or rather, an already-linguistic formation of myself that exists outside of sex in any active sense but sounded-out by the language of sex. To clarify, I, and copious other asexuals, know full well what “sexy” is or is supposed to mean. We are all too aware of what constitutes the attractive or desirable; that sexual attraction can be subjective and taste-based (dialectal?) despite the fact that it is to a large degree unexperienced by asexuals. Just as one can understand “Schadenfreude” based on its usage rather than any knowledge of the German language, asexuals understand the meanings of sex in its various socio-societal forms without the need for translation. My engagement with/in sex is not translation. It is mutually intelligible: a speech act in which I become a present absentee, a sexual asexual, a proficient-foreigner, a contradictory mode of legibility-as-survival. Whilst my engagement with sexuality’s grammar is subject to mispronunciation, slippages in syntax, and perhaps a limited vocabulary, my language is one of necessary in-betweenness. Is it a patois?

Do I speak a slang, a hybrid? Do I speak another language altogether? Am I a mute in a language system unfit for me? Am I vernacular? Am I illiterate? Asexuality regarding sex is more than silence I am sure. Sex is a language that we necessarily speak to be heard, a vocabulary one must use, even if to express its inadequacy, and here it is crucial to reinvoke Butler in reminding that speech acts themselves are not merely words: speech is action.

As a sex-participant asexual I ask whether my involvement within sexual-cultural systems amounts merely to a clumsy use of broken sexu-speech. Am I striking a pitiful tune of dischords and conchords with sexual scripts? All the while, I know myself to be heard, dialogue is present – even if it is triangular. In such a conversation, for the asexual, caught in the grammar of sex and its syntax which holds lives in rhythm and meter, one’s (il-)literacy pronounces one “Other,” or the non-Other, the illegible. Sex becomes mediated – and perhaps this is truism between all people – by a paranoid translation in which one’s ability to speak freely is constrained and ordered by sexual scripting, wherein touch is speech, a caress forms a sentence, a gaze becomes a question mark, a climax embodies a ...? Can kink ever become a dialect, then? Would “femme” or “butch” engender an accent? Is there potential for queer to exist as a codified slang? And how would sexual conversation ring out between and across this variability in ways that account for asexual voices and beings?

Suffice to say, just as those asexually-identified people who imbricate themselves in the form of sex raise questions, so too do the abstinent, the sex-repulsed, and many other asexuals who do not engage in sexual activity. When I say I cannot escape my desire for a legible life in “Sex,” it also follows that anyone pursuant to an “illegible life” cannot either achieve this, for the performative force of “speaking life” becomes also “speaking Sex” and/or “speaking non-Sex.” To behave “asexually” is a speech-act, to render oneself off-script is to write a non-script: and a script is still a script. Non-sex remains sexual in a framework that enunciates sex in the nth degree of every sound. Where the sexual script is absent and disengaged from, where silence appears to endure, entendre and meaning continue sexuality’s grip on the vocal and verbal. One who does not engage in sex, one who does not converse, is still called – perhaps called “sexy” just as one who does engage in sex. Words tar bodies in their vocalisation, naming continues, the space between words opens a chaste and virginal space on the page into which sexuality drains and desires. The space between words dazzle in their vast emptiness, on pages bleached white. Silence is better seen not as the non-Script, but the non-descript, the legible anti-presence.

When I dress and move, when I attempt to seduce, when I have sex, I (re-)engage with the scripts that make me “sexy.” I allow the word to speak for me, and I try to get a word in edgeways in the din that ensues. Engagement in sex is powerful because one rubs up against the language through which one exists. Engaging in sex entails often the proliferation of speech beyond and apart from the spoken word, desire flows through communicative avenues of the bodily, the atmospheric, and the psychic. It must be said that here I follow the script. The conditioning “immersion” of the media, the social, the formal-political acts through me in the sexual relation. At once asexual self, and a sexual self, I cannot deny the snatched euphoria not of orgasm but of linguistic clarity. Within the sexual encounter, there exist turns of phrase or swells of prose in which I gain the fluency of the mother-tongue, in which translation is a moot point, and in which the phonetic or definitional distances of mutual intelligibility cease to be. A speaking-union as much as a sexual-union, the pursuit of which, whether for partner-satisfaction, physical release, or any other reason, is temporarily removed from the structuring constraints of language and speech. To repeat: a sex through which sex is transcended from (in the sense that the form of sex becomes powerless over the “named subject” in the exact moment that an asexual self can snatch a breath from the “immersion” of socio-sexual conditioning logics). To re-ground this point, I am alluding to moments of union in which even the concept of asexual and sexual are forgotten in fleeting ways – ways that render language momentarily useless. Asexual-sexual togetherness in sex (though not always in the act of sex) in which I, “the” asexual, disengage from the act of naming that calls forth my difference, my deficiency. Instead what follows is a condition in which “sexy” can only then be reconfigured, and only for a second or two, in a name-change. And I can laugh.

So yes, I can be “sexy.” Perhaps sexy is “to the eye of the beholder” too, but this does not detach it from a sexual system/script that both visualises and verbalises sex for and by the beholder. What is valuable from this discussion, I think, is mutual intelligibility within and across words such as sex and non-Sex, sexual and asexual (though these are not oppositional binaries). Asexuality becomes a language alongside Sex and Sexuality that is both not wholly foreign, and not wholly (il-)legible. Whilst I have not here considered the explicitly Gray-A or demi-sexual experiences, nor sex between asexually-identified couples, I have spoken from instances of personal experience and attempted to think through these instances with regard to speech and language. I have tried to bring into usage the concept of sexual scripts that convey both the power of Sexuality in calling forth sexual subjects, as well as ways that such scripting can be multiplied and negotiated. Many questions no doubt go unanswered but by avoiding claims that might universalise asexual narratives I hope that the present discussion holds the beginnings of ways of reimagining the sexua-linguistic contexts for asexuality today.

 

Joe Jukes is currently studying for an MA in Sexual Dissidence at the University of Sussex, UK. Their primary research interests concern theory, including Queer- and Gender Theory, Critical Theory as well as Cultural Geography and Rural Studies. They have published in The Asexual before, in the Body Issue, and are hoping to pursue a PhD working towards the creation of “Asexual Theory.” Their Twitter can be found here: https://twitter.com/JoeeJayyy.

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