I started this series of articles on the definition of asexuality by arguing that the phenomenon is more diverse than other sexual orientations. In order to capture that diversity, a more abstract philosophical definition is required. I initially proposed the following definition: an asexual person is a person who does not value partnered sex enough to purse it. After some debate, I decided that it should be modified to exclude voluntary celibacy, through adding the following clause: an asexual person is a person who does not value partnered sex enough to pursue it, and who does not perceive that celibacy provides greater intrinsic rewards. This definition was meant to capture the notion that voluntarily celibate people would be motivated to pursue partnered sex but for supervening ideological beliefs. My idea was essentially that: 1. An asexual person doesn’t have inclinations to engage in sexual activities, 2. A voluntarily celibate person has inclinations to engage in sexual activities, but chooses not to act on them. While this captured much of what is different about asexuality and celibacy, I realized that it would have the unfortunate consequence of excluding celibate asexual people from the definition.
Rather than adding a clause to my original definition, I have instead decided to reformulate it to read as follows: an asexual person is a person who does not derive intrinsic goods from partnered sex. This definition centres on the distinction between intrinsic values (things that are valued in themselves) and extrinsic values (things that are valued as a means to an end). Intrinsic and extrinsic values may be either good or bad. The paradigm intrinsic good is pleasure, while the paradigm intrinsic evil is pain. There is disagreement concerning the number of intrinsic values, with some philosophers recognizing only those two, while others accept a broader range. Regardless, human action may be theorized according to the motivation to obtain intrinsic goods and avoid intrinsic evils. For example, when we need food, we feel hunger, a state that we experience as unsatisfying. In response, we are motivated to eat food in order to avoid the pain of hunger and achieve pleasure through eating and feeling satiated.
Similarly, sexual people are motivated to have partnered sex due to states of sexual desire and sexual attraction. Much like how people are motivated to eat food to assuage hunger and enjoy the pleasure of eating and feeling satiated, states of sexual desire motivate people to engage in partnered sexual activities to affect accompanying states of sexual arousal. Through these activities, people assuage the tension associated with these states and derive intrinsic goods (pleasure, emotional connections, love, etc.). Furthermore, people experiencing sexual attraction may form sexual desires whereby they derive more intrinsic goods when they assuage those desires through partnered sex with an attractive person. This is analogous to how people derive more intrinsic goods through satiating hunger by eating a favourite food.
My idea is that asexual people don’t derive intrinsic goods from partnered sex, because they don’t experience the states of sexual desire and sexual attraction which motivate sexual people to engage in partnered sexual activities affecting states of sexual arousal through which they seek to avoid pain and derive pleasure. This is analogous to how someone who never experiences hunger wouldn’t have a motivation to eat food, and wouldn’t be able to affect the intrinsic values of pleasure and pain through assuaging the state of being hungry.
A virtue of this definition is its ability to account for the various manifestations of asexuality. A sex-indifferent asexual person does not derive intrinsic values from partnered sex. A sex-averse/repulsed and/or touch-averse asexual person does not derive intrinsic goods from partnered sex, but does derive intrinsic evils. A gray-asexual person does not derive sufficient intrinsic goods from partnered sex to motivate action. A sex-averse/repulsed and/or touch averse gray-asexual person derives both intrinsic goods and intrinsic evils from partnered sex, whereby the negative motivator wins out on balance. A demisexual person derives intrinsic goods from partnered sex only when they have formed a close emotional bond with their sexual partner. Sex-favourable asexuals (understood here as people who experience sexual desire but who do not experience sexual attraction) derive intrinsic goods from partnered sex but do not derive additional intrinsic goods from having sex with attractive people.
In these ways, this definition explains the varieties of asexuality through showing how states of sexual attraction, desire, and repulsion/aversion (or lack there of) alter people’s motivations with respect to partnered sexual activities. There is one other phenomenon that I would like to briefly discuss, that of asexual people who enjoy partnered sex (sometimes also described as sex-favourable, but who experience neither sexual attraction nor sexual desire). These asexuals have found that they can derive some intrinsic goods from partnered sex, but unlike a sexual person they don’t do so through seeking to affect states of sexual attraction and sexual desire. By analogy, this is like someone who has learned to like the taste of food, but who never experiences hunger. And this explains why those asexuals don’t have the same drive towards partnered sex that sexual people do.
Thus, a full version of my definition should read: an asexual person is a person who does not derive intrinsic goods from partnered sex through affecting states of sexual desire or sexual attraction. In this way, my definition incorporates the sexual desire and sexual attraction models, but represents an advancement because it reflects how each variety of asexual has differing motivations with respect to pursuing or avoiding partnered sex based on those models. Furthermore, by specifying states of sexual attraction and states of sexual desire, I’m distancing myself from implications that in the context of asexuality these concepts describe inherent or innate phenomena which are lifelong and stable. As I’ve argued before, for some asexuals that is true, but for many it is not.
In addition, this definition better explains the differences between intrinsic and instrumental reasons for having sex. Previously, I had been working with this definition: an asexual person is a person who does not experience sexual attraction and/or who lacks intrinsic desire for partnered sex. But that definition cannot work, because there are asexuals who experience neither sexual attraction nor sexual desire but who still desire partnered sex for intrinsic reasons (but not to affect states of sexual attraction or sexual desire). My new definition accounts for that distinction. And in doing so, it allows for asexuals who may desire sex for extrinsic reasons (such as to please a partner or conceive a child) since it says nothing about that class of motivations. Importantly, it not only excludes extrinsic motivations for having sex, but it also excludes extrinsic motivations for not having sex, and in this way excludes celibacy from the definition while allowing for an asexual person to be celibate.
Through this series on definitions, I have advanced two related sets of propositions. First, I have argued that definitions of asexuality should be based on a different paradigm, one which focuses on people’s motivations and values and the costs and benefits which they perceive as accruing to actions. Second, I have argued for specific definitions of asexuality in light of that paradigm, with the definition I advance in this article representing the latest and hopefully final version. I say “hopefully” because, while I would like to be right, I anticipate and welcome criticism and debate. My intention when writing on this topic is to contribute to an evolving discussion that enhances our understanding of asexualities, asexual peoples, and asexual communities.
On that note, I would like to extend a thank you to everyone who has participated in these discussions over the last few months, both on AS-NS and AVEN. I would also like to acknowledge the following source:
T. Bradley Richards, Sexual Desire and the Phenomenology of Attraction, Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review/Revue Canadienne de Philosophie, 2015, Volume 54, Issue 2, pages 263–283.