How asexuality became an identity

post by Yuxi_Liu · 2019-12-25T15:47:49.930Z · score: -3 (12 votes) · LW · GW · 6 comments

Contents

  Why post it on LessWrong
  Foucault
  Sexuality nowadays
  Future speculations
None
6 comments

Why post it on LessWrong

This essay deconstructs sexuality, which many people consider to be essential to a full personal identity. If sexuality is incidental and rather boring, as some asexuals like me claim, then this requires sexual people to think hard about what is human nature and whether they have assumed too much about it.

Foucault

The main idea of the French philosopher Foucault is that the western cultural focus on sex is a historical accident, rather than a scientific necessity. This, in the big words of academic philosophy, is called "historicizing sexuality". This section is mostly me summarizing History of Sexuality.

Roughly, his theory is that the Western cultural focus on sex only came about from a sequence of historical events. If the events had gone very differently, sex would be in a very different place in Western culture. I am thinking about this because I found it rather strange that so many conspiracy theories about children's media seem to get into sexual violence. And I'm like, Are they written by Freud?

If you think a bit deeper about this, it's all bullshit. Knowing about sex is not the loss of innocence. It makes more life. Death should be the loss of innocence. Human culture indeed is centered around keeping life interesting and death far away. Knowing death hurts humans in this culture and knowing sex strengthens. If grownups really want to protect the innocence of children, they would concentrate on eliminating death and celebrating sex and birth.

The reality is exactly backwards from this theory. Small humans are usually expected to understand death by 5, and adult humans talk about death with children with about the same kind of attitude as with other adults, solemn but understanding. On the topic of sex, though, there is an age-wall between adults (including teenagers) and children, fiercely maintained by embarrassment, social rejection, and violent legal punishment.

Foucault's theory is like this: the modern Western attitude on sex is heavily corrupted (he had fierce opinions) by the governments that wished to control its subjects. The governments are political creatures, wanting to control the bodies of its humans. This is "biopolitics" (political power over biological things).

What does biopolitics look like?

Those are the most obvious ones, but Foucault noticed more subtle ones. Since 18th century, medicine has entered the crime system. Some criminals are no longer considered evil, but sick. They are no longer beaten and tortured, but rather put into controlled environments like mental hospitals and studied, with drugs and therapies (might still be just as painful) applied.

The governments want to control sex, because it is a productive power. In the past, kings had power to kill. This has changed to a power to create, as governments are now more into controlling of how people shall live and produce and reproduce.

I don't think Foucault said it, but I think it's due to the governments having the technology to do so, and realized that it could earn them more money to do so.

Foucault was writing in the 1970s during a "sexual revolution" where Western people became less constrained in sex. Gay rights (and many other kinds of queer rights) movement really became popular at that time. He started this book saying that the sexual revolution leaves people with the false impression that sex was silenced during the 17-19 century. Instead, it was everywhere, just in a very controlled and political/medical way.

In the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church called for its followers to confess their sinful desires as well as their actions. The priests encouraged their confessioners to talk endlessly about their particular sexual thoughts.

at the start of the 18th century, governments became increasingly aware that they were not merely having to manage "subjects" or "a people" but a "population", and that as such they had to concern themselves with such issues as birth and death rates, marriage, and contraception, thereby increasing their interest and changing their discourse on sexuality. ... prior to the 18th century, discourse on sexuality focuses on the productive role of the married couple, which is monitored by both canonical and civil law. In the 18th and 19th centuries, he argues, society ceases discussing the sex lives of married couples, instead taking an increasing interest in sexualities that did not fit within this union; the "world of perversion" that includes the sexuality of children, the mentally ill, the criminal and the homosexual.

Foucault talks about the "art of sex" in China, India, and other eastern countries, and notes that Western countries didn't have an art of sex. Instead there was a science of sex that started to develop in 18th century.

The Catholic confession of sex has made people think that sex reveals some deep truth about who someone is, and the science of sexuality makes it even more so.

Gays were criminals, then they were sick.

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpe­trator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology.

After turning homosexuality from a moral problem into a medical problem, gays were no longer a moral crime, but a sickness. The gay movement built on this by claiming sexuality (queer or not) as not a sickness, but some very important self-identity that one must discover.

Sexuality nowadays

in 21s century, through a chain of historical events, Western culture is convinced that sexuality is a key part of everyone's identity.

This belief is obviously stupid for an obvious reason: many people are asexual. Most children are, many castrated adults are, and some non-castrated adults (~1%) are. And yet this strange belief persists.

It could have been otherwise. Sexuality can be seen as mostly what people do with their sexual organs, much like how reading is what people do with their eyes, and eating is what people do with their mouths. What one likes to eat is stable throughout one's life, and can say a lot about where one grew up, but people have no problem imagining that they might like some different cuisine and still be "the same person". But when asking them to imagine themselves as having different sexual preferences, they have more trouble. Similarly, people could very well imagine going through life not finding their "true taste", since "true taste" doesn't actually exist and they don't think they do.

(Personally, I consider "I hate ginger!!" and "I love blueberry muffins!" as essential parts of my personality, but that is very constructed, and there is no cultural assumption that what you eat is essential to who you are, unlike sexuality. Like what would it be if a love of muffins is a part of one's personality? A muffinality?)

This incorporation of sexuality into a personal identity is behind many strange phenomena.

First, the puzzle I started with: why do so many conspiracy theories on children's culture involve sexual violence? Violence is dangerous, and conspiracy theory is mostly about hidden dangers. Children's media involve things that children care about, some of which involve dangerous things that they must avoid. They also mention about things that adults care about, such as taxes. Sex, however, is completely absent, due to a culturally imposed silence on it. Adult conspiracy theorists, looking for hidden dangers, are unconsciously guided by this absence, and siezes upon sexual danger as the true danger, which is multiplied by their own high regard for sex as a defining feature of personal identity (and thus deviations mostly lead to gross malformations of personal identity).

The most amusing phenomenon is asexuality as an identity. The way I think, sexuality is a thing people do, not part of an identity unless you make it so. Asexuals are not people with "asexuality" as their sexual identity, but without sexuality as part of their identity.

Historically, asexuals existed, just like sexuals existed, but asexuality was mostly an incidental thing that people do, rather than itself being an identity. Christian priests kept celibate in service of God. Their asexuality was a part of the priesthood identity. Only with the focussing of sexuality, could asexuality itself become focussed. Liking drawing a circle by blackening everything outside, asexuality became an identity because sexuality became so essential to a person's identity, that even its abscence is a prominent identity.

The great deal of diversity within the ace (sometimes broadened to "ace/aro", for "asexual or aromantic") community is expected: the ace community is a community defined not by a common possession, but a common non-possession. Such "communities of absence" are expected to be very diverse, much as the community of irreligious would be very diverse, united only by the lack of religion, or the community of people who really don't like math.

That's how I explain my asexuality to others, anyway, by comparing sex (something I don't feel have personal significance, but many do) with math (the opposite!).

I might also use this to explain my mathematicality to others.

Personally, I think ZFC is unbearably dreary, ultrafinitism insane, and category theory potentially worth loving, but just because Platonism is part of my personal identity, doesn't mean I think mathematicality is a part of most people's identity.

Future speculations

I remember vaguely Yudkowsky's view on sex, that there is a correct way to be sexual, that the correct way is to get into some kind of traditional, romantic relationship, full of interpersonal emotional connection and intellectual thought, instead of just porn and cute catgirls/catboys. From my view, that's just bullshit. Sophisticated sexuality is overvalued! Asexuals might masterbate for reasons such as body relaxation. They might have romantic relations where they give sex but don't receive. Sexuals can similarly trivialize sex, without being less human.

And I expect sex to become more trivial in many possible futures, because many trends point towards it. Technology is pushing apart sexual activity and human reproduction (a biological source of sex's power). Sexual robotics and virtual porn is developing at an even pace with computer science. Queer rights is slowly infecting the world. Safe and stable governmental institutions and longer healthspans de-emphasize importance of stable families and marriages (a social source of sex's power), and reproduction (indeed, it could actively suppress reproduction).

In Stranger in a Strange Land, water is so precious on Mars that Martians created a whole lot of significance over it.

If sex and reproduction are separated, and sex would become trivial, what about reproduction? Reproduction, unlike sex, has deep physical importance for any lifeform. For this reason, reproduction would remain as vital as always. However, discussing future reproduction would be about as arousing to current humans as discussing fusion technology can cause humans to salivate.

In fact, it might become a very, very dreary task, undertaken only with monomaniacal determination or a clear utilitarian gain, much like how current people feel about starting corporations (this is a pun, since "corporation" is Latin for "body"). This can happen if social norms on reproduction become more prescriptive, with more rules about what to do, what not to do, etc.

It could also become personally trivial, even though it is collectively vital. An extreme case of this happens in the Brave New World way, where humans become highly eusocial, personal reproduction has stopped, and all reproduction is centralized and highly optimized.

The only thing I don't expect is more of the same. Something as simple as the contraceptive pill has fundamentally changed human sex and reproduction. Imagine the impact of fully artificial wombs, synthetic zygotes from multiple sources, and healthspans of over 200 years.

6 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-12-25T17:08:29.381Z · score: 16 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
The governments want to control sex, because it is a productive power.

This is not the kind of sentence that I want to read on LessWrong. I see no reason to argue based on such a vague notion of government that supposedly wants things

comment by Viliam · 2019-12-25T22:43:16.943Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Based on what we know about the role of reproduction (and sexuality) in evolution, my priors for "sex is only a big deal because of some historical accident" are pretty low. I would need much stronger evidence than an opinion of Foucault to even consider this possibility seriously.

That said, of course different cultures may have different norms for which sexual behavior is acceptable, and which beliefs about sexual behavior are acceptable.

Knowing about sex is not the loss of innocence. It makes more life. Death should be the loss of innocence. Human culture indeed is centered around keeping life interesting and death far away. Knowing death hurts humans in this culture and knowing sex strengthens. If grownups really want to protect the innocence of children, they would concentrate on eliminating death and celebrating sex and birth.

I am just guessing here, but the thing that removes "innocence" is probably the knowledge of the zero-sum nature of sexual competition.

What I mean is that kids, in order to survive, require a lot of cooperation from adults. In a friendly environment, they can grow up with an ideal of how nice the world would be if just everyone cooperated with everyone else. Of course they know the world is currently not that way (although they way underestimate how much). But it still seems like an attainable goal. Death is a thing that happens to other people (mostly the old ones, which seem like a different species). The bad guys can be defeated, and sometimes even converted to become good guys. The heaven on earth is an open possibility in the future.

And then you learn (in a monogamous society) that when two boys love the same girl, at least one of them is going to lose. Etc. Then you realize, in near mode, that this threat very likely applies to you, and that too many people are potential competitors. The world becomes a battleground.

(Some people go one level meta, and promote polyamory as a solution. Okay, that solves the part with sex, but not the part with reproduction. At some moment of their lives many people decide to have kids, and their preferred partners are usually not willing to have and support unlimited number of kids. Competition again.)

Foucault's theory is like this: the modern Western attitude on sex is heavily corrupted (he had fierce opinions) by the governments that wished to control its subjects.

If China is an example of the "West", what exactly would be the "East" (and "North" and "South") here? Where are the governments that do not wish to control their subjects?

In the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church called for its followers to confess their sinful desires as well as their actions. The priests encouraged their confessioners to talk endlessly about their particular sexual thoughts.

Yet those people had more kids than most people in developed countries have today.

Something as simple as the contraceptive pill has fundamentally changed human sex and reproduction.

Yet many people would feel jealous if their partner had protected sex with someone else. Human nature does not adapt so quickly. (Sometimes for a good reason. Your partner having protected sex with someone else is sometimes the first step towards having unprotected sex with them.)

.

Let me suggest an alternative explanation: I imagine that for an asexual person the behavior of their sexual peers may be confusing, and explanations in style "they are brainwashed" may be tempting because they explain the problem away. It does not mean they are good explanations though.

comment by Dagon · 2019-12-25T22:29:54.879Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I notice I am confused. I don't have a good theory of identity, and don't understand why sexuality is any less good a component of identity than anything else.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2019-12-25T18:13:46.495Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I remember vaguely Yudkowsky's view on sex, that there is a correct way to be sexual, that the correct way is to get into some kind of traditional, romantic relationship, full of interpersonal emotional connection and intellectual thought, instead of just porn and cute catgirls/catboys.

I am quite confident Eliezer's stance on relationships is to do whatever you want, at least from an ethics standpoint. A "traditional, romantic relationship" is really not what I would expect Eliezer to advocate. 

comment by Viliam · 2019-12-25T21:47:27.875Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I remember correctly, the argument was that, I'll use my own words here, dealing with problems in style "relationships between genders are too difficult, let's use sexbots instead and everyone will be happy" ultimately leads to wireheading, if you apply it consistently to all your desires, not just sexual ones.

This is not a general argument against making things easier. If the difficulty is something that kills you, or hurts you irreversibly, that kind of difficulty should be removed. Or humans should be modified into more resilient, so they can overcome any existing difficulty without permanent damage. In the Nietzschean "what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger", the first option is bad, but the second option is good.

The context for the argument was the long game: if we succeed to conquer the universe by inventing a friendly superhuman intelligence, what then? If you could do literally anything, what is the meaningful thing to do? Eliezer's proposal was that the superintelligence should make us immortal (and otherwise not-irreversibly-damageable), but then let us overcome the remaining problems by ourselves. To give us unlimited time and opportunities to become stronger. As opposed to a nanny-bot that would make us weaker by satisfying all our base desires without us having to do anything, which would lead to our skills and intelligence gradually atrophying to sub-human, and even sub-animal, levels. (By the way, the theme of "does this make you weaker or stronger?" is also present in other parts of the Sequences.)

comment by Mary Chernyshenko (mary-chernyshenko) · 2019-12-25T22:03:14.332Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reproduction will become a dreary task? Undertaken only with monomaniacal determination or a clear utilitarian gain? Have you ever tried to put a teething child to sleep?..