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Critical Reflections on “Ace of (BDSM) Clubs” and Linking Asexuality to BDSM: Where are we Starting From?

Critical Reflections on “Ace of (BDSM) Clubs” and Linking Asexuality to BDSM: Where are we Starting From?

content warning: this article includes vague mentions of BDSM, sexual behaviour, and invalidation of asexual identity. The one reference to corrective behaviour of asexuality is surrounded by asterisks: ** like this. **

Lorca Jolene Sloan's 2015 academic article “Ace of (BDSM) Clubs: Building Asexual Relationships Through BDSM Practice” was used to frame the call for submissions for this issue on BDSM and kink in The Asexual. I have mixed feelings about Sloan's article; it furthers academic discussion on asexuality and imagines BDSM as a positive tool for some asexual people, but it makes these contributions in a limiting framework that narrows the scope of who can be understood as asexual. In other words, the very foundation of the article, who gets to be seen and understood as asexual, does not reflect the vast differences in the asexual community. Paying attention to these exclusions in the asexual community is important in general, but it becomes especially important when we move on to discussing an even more nuanced topic: asexual people who participate in BDSM.

I will begin by discussing the important contributions that Sloan's article makes. First, “Ace of (BDSM) Clubs” was published in Sexualities, a well known peer-reviewed academic journal that includes work on human sexuality from many academic disciplines. This is not the first time that asexuality has been written about in this journal, but I think it is always significant when academic research on asexuality is published and information about our community is shared with a wider audience. Furthermore, at numerous points throughout the article Sloan writes positively about asexual people who are repulsed, averse, or neutral towards engaging in sexual experiences. These ways of being are considered normal and legitimate. This validation is important because, as Sloan also notes, **many asexual people are “met with scepticism, grief, or even threats of corrective rape when they came out to friends and family as asexual” (561).** This is part of the harsh reality that many in the asexual community are familiar with, but may be new information to readers of Sexualities. Sloan's article furthers important academic discussion on asexuality that in some ways reflects popular discussions in the asexual community.

The second contribution Sloan makes is linking asexuality and BDSM. This is not a new link, but it is infrequently written about and discussed. Both the asexual and BDSM communities are often misunderstood and stigmatized in pop culture so discussing either, let alone both simultaneously, is a risky and radical act. In “Ace of (BDSM) Clubs” Sloan also theorizes that asexual people can use BDSM as a tool for navigating sexual expectations, sexual behaviours, and asserting their own agency (548). BDSM has the capacity to provide a framework asexual people can choose to use to re-imagine relationships on their own terms. Sloan comes to this theory by interviewing fifteen asexual people who participate in BDSM, bringing their voices and experiences to the forefront. Although Sloan uses inflammatory words like “paradoxically” and “incongruous” to describe asexual people engaging in BDSM (548, 557), the experiences are otherwise treated respectfully and as legitimate. Readers of “Ace of (BDSM) Clubs” are encouraged to see engaging in BDSM and sex as not necessarily challenging to an individual's asexual identity. I write not necessarily challenging because this is not always the case.

While Sloan's article validates some ways to be asexual, others are ignored or written out of existence. This is most evident in Sloan's definition of asexuality in the article:

most individuals come to identify as asexual through acknowledging and communicating that they do not experience sexual attraction towards individuals of   any gender (Bogaert, 2004; Carrigan, 2011; Scherrer, 2008). To elaborate, they never feel a visceral desire to engage in intercourse or any other act with another person in order to experience arousal and/or orgasm. They never feel drawn to another individual or motivated to initiate a relationship based upon the desire for sexual intimacy or satisfaction (Carrigan, 2011; Scherrer, 2008). Asexual individuals’ responses to the prospect of sex range from revulsion to indifference, and it follows from this variability that asexual individuals do not necessarily abstain from sex (Bogaert, 2004; Carrigan, 2011; Scherrer, 2008). Some even enjoy arousal and orgasms, but attest that only objects, situations, or masturbation elicit these feelings (Carrigan, 2011). Their arousal is not caused by nor directed at an individual. Indeed, three of my informants explain that people are absent, peripheral, or ‘‘faceless’’ in their fantasies (549).

Sloan's definition of asexuality includes many examples of what asexual individuals do or do not do. A shorter version of Sloan's definition is, asexual people: do not experience sexual attraction, “never” desire intercourse for arousal and/or orgasm, “never” initiate relationships because they desire sexual intimacy or satisfaction, they are only revulsed or indifferent to sex, and some have sex, arousal, and orgasms, but only receive these feelings from “objects, situations, or masturbation” rather than an individual. Most importantly, Sloan does not mention that the most important factor for knowing someone is asexual is if they self-identify as asexual. Beyond that, Sloan has many explanations for what asexual people do and do not do, which I argue excludes many people who identify as asexual.

The exclusions I will discuss in Sloan's article are not new or unique to Sloan. As you can see in the quote, Sloan largely quotes other academics to come up with the definition. In 2013 (two years before Sloan's article was published), I also wrote about Mark Carrigan's definition of asexuality. In “Asexual Elitism is Alive and Well,” published in the online asexual community journal AVENues, I wrote:

Carrigan claims that asexual people exist who specifically want to have sex, but the explanation for this is that they have sex for the intimacy it offers (14). In all of these articulations the asexual person who wants to have sex because it feels good is absent.

A person who wants to have sex but is not sexually attracted to anyone is a type of asexual that is largely ignored or, as shown in Carrigan’s explanation, written away as wanting to have sex for a reason other than the act itself. This kind of asexual person is so absent from conversations about asexuality that we might be led to believe that they don’t exist or are impossible. This is only an illusion created by asexual elitism [...] If I may be so bold, I would say that these are the sex-favorable asexuals that should be added onto Carrigan’s defining list of asexual people’s interest in sex as either sex- neutral or sex-averse (14).

The term sex-favourable asexual was taken up by the online asexual community and six years later is still a topic of discussion, critique, and an identity for many asexual people (including myself). Unfortunately, I do not have the space to review all of these discussions here, but, as Siggy's list of “20 Narratives of Aces who Like Sex” shows, there is plenty going on. In spite of this lively community discussion there is no room for sex-favourable asexuality in Sloan's claims that “asexual individuals’ responses to the prospect of sex range from revulsion to indifference” (549), asexual people never use sexual desire as a motivator for sex (557), and that sexual behaviour for asexual people is never about sexual pleasure (559).

Based on my time in the asexual community and my Master's research on the topic, I believe individuals may identify as asexual because they have: (1) little or no sexual attraction, (2) little or no sexual desire, (3) little or no interest in sexual behaviour, and (4) potentially other reasons that are equally important. Notice already that my definition differs from Sloan's because I focus on self-identification and use the phrases “little” and “no” rather than “never” and “no.” For some asexual people, the phrase “never” simply does not work because in the past they may have experienced sexual attraction (or desire or interest or something else) but do not anymore or it is so infrequent that they feel asexual. Other people may identify with little rather than none. My definition is open ended, making space for what I know is included and attempts to leave the door open for others I have failed to imagine.

Each of the three possible traits, (1) little or no sexual attraction, (2) little or no sexual desire, (3) little or no interest in sexual behaviour, are separate categories. In some individuals they occur simultaneously and overlap so closely they are experienced as one category. In other asexual people they occur separately and need to be separated. An asexual person can have one trait, two traits, or all three traits. For example, an asexual person can (1) have no sexual attraction, (2) high sexual desire, and (3) high interest in sexual behaviour. In this example, an asexual person only has trait one. Another asexual person can have (1) no sexual attraction, (2) little sexual desire, (3) no interest in sexual behaviour. In this example a person has all three traits.

Sloan's definition assumes that all asexual people experience no sexual attraction and then conflates sexual attraction, sexual desire, and interest in sexual behaviour. In other words, Sloan assumes that asexual individuals experience all three traits simultaneously and permanently. This assumption is problematic because it writes certain ways of being asexual out of existence and even our imagination. While this article is about Sloan, Sloan is not the first or only academic to make this mistake and it is commonly repeated in both academia and some parts of the asexual community.

As I have done in this article, I think it is important to review and critically discuss what we mean about asexuality, especially when we link it to BDSM. Without this basic agreement, it is possible to have scenarios where an asexual person feels no sexual attraction, initiates a sexual BDSM encounter they enjoy and orgasm to, and is later considered not asexual. Or a person may feel sexual attraction towards a partner, have no interest in sexual behaviour, and struggle to be understood as asexual. Neither of these people would be understood as asexual in Sloan's definition and yet I know they do exist. BDSM makes the stakes high when sexuality becomes even more complicated and varied than before. This is both promising and dangerous for individuals who already feel misunderstood by their peers or the non-asexual community; kink can be the space where they finally feel at home, or even more marginalized than before. By shifting to more inclusive ways of speaking we can critically attempt to bring the former possibility into the present.

References

Siggy. “20 Narratives of Aces Who Like Sex.” The Asexual Agenda. 13 June, 2016,             https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/20-narratives-of-aces-who-like-sex/

Sloan, Lorca Jolene. “Ace of (BDSM) Clubs: Building Asexual Relationships Through BDSM Practice.” Sexualities 18 5-6 (2015): 548-63.

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