There can be a lot of complexity involved in articulating the nuances of societal norms around sexuality, and even in the briefest of offhand references, sometimes people can miss the mark. One of the most common mistakes I see (and the one that I’m the most sensitized to, for the same reasons that I identify as ace) are the mistakes that zero in on the types of sex you’re told not to have without accounting for the types of sex you’re told to have, to the point of being not just incomplete but outright inaccurate. Neglecting the latter leads into overgeneralizations as ludicrously inaccurate as “everybody tells you not to have sex,” instead of attending to the specifics of which particular subjectivities and choices are condemned. This, in turn, is functionally how you end up with people arriving at the notion of asexual privilege.
So how can that be avoided? I don’t claim to have the answer completely sorted out, which is why I’m inviting input here in the comments. As an opening to the discussion, though, here are some things that I think are important to understand: 1) there is no one singular monolithic “society” that speaks with one voice, 2) other sexual norms can intersect with sexnormativity/compulsory sexuality, and 3) when talking about other types of sexual norms, you should try to take that intersection into account.
There Is No One Singular “Society”
When we talk about societal norms, if we’re being precise, we are not necessarily talking about something that is wholly uniform, monolithic, and internally-consistent across all time and space. There is no one singular universal Societal Message that everyone on the planet receives about sex. It’s more like there’s a range of patterns that can be identified — in communication, in social pressures, in punitive measures — and understood as a type of norm.
Identifying a single pattern only highlights one piece of a very large and interwoven puzzle. For example, some of these patterns have been referred to by names such as misogyny, racism, heteronormativity, cissexism, and so on. Each of these describes an axis according to which certain sexual agents/choices are treated as more socially acceptable vs. unacceptable. In some cases we may encounter an example in isolation, but other times (often) these patterns intersect, operating in tandem with each other or compounding one another. For instance, misogyny and heteronormativity are two societal norms that very often intersect with another pattern called sexnormativity.
Sexnormativity is a name for a pattern of sexual norms under which sex, itself, is the norm. This is not just something that affects people under the asexual umbrella — when it comes to ace-specific problems, I use the term “anti-ace” for that. Sexnormativity, though, refers to a broader pattern that puts pressure on people regardless of identity. To better paint a picture for you, here are some specific examples of what I mean by sexnormativity:
- Sexnormativity is the cultural condemnation of sexual inactivity and sexual boundaries.
- It’s using “virgin” and “prude” as insults.
- It’s comedies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin where adult virginity is framed as anomalous and laughable.
- It’s dramas like House, M.D. that say anyone who doesn’t want sex is either “sick, lying, or dead.”
- Sexnormativity is the construction of sex as religiously mandatory.
- It’s conservative Christianity’s message that sex is uniquely holy.
- It’s purity culture and its laudatory language about the “gift” of sex.
- It’s the Mormon doctrine that unmarried people cannot reach the highest tier of heaven.
- It’s the necessity of sex in being a “good Muslim wife.”
- It’s the view that sex can’t be prohibited among Buddhist clergy because sex is a fulfillment of Heavenly Principle.
- It’s what makes people feel like a “bad Pagan” if they don’t want sex.
- Sexnormativity is the construction of sex as key to liberation.
- Sexnormativity is the construction of sex as inherently healthy.
- It’s the perspective that sex is medically good for you (see Gupta 2011).
- It’s the classification of “frigidity” as a medical disorder (see Margolin 2017; Angel 2010).
- It’s low interest in sex being pathologized as Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder and Female Sexual Arousal Disorder, which are still listed as official diagnoses in the DSM today (see Jutel 2010; Chasin 2017).
This is what I mean by sexnormativity: in different contexts, in different ways, through varying means and justifications, the throughline of pressure to want and have (normative) sex. Many sexnormative messages may have other norms and prejudices at play — for instance, placing disproportionate pressure on women to submit to the sexual desires of men, framing heterosexual sex as the “default” or most acceptable type of sex, etc. Identifying some issues as sexnormative doesn’t necessarily entail saying that all sex is treated equally; it only means that people are pressured to express or pursue sexual activity/desire/pleasure in particular ways, often with heavy constraints.
Taking Sexnormativity Into Account
When referring to some aspect of sexual norms, being accurate calls for taking sexnormativity into account and determining when it’s relevant. More broadly, a thorough assessment of what’s going on with societal norms has to look at both sides of the equation: both what’s condemned/what people are pressured away from and what’s valued/what people are pressured into. Too many times, I’ve seen people generalize from “this message tells people not to have particular kinds of sex” to “this message tells people not to have sex,” which is imprecise reasoning that usually fails to address what’s actually at stake.
Where it crosses the line from imprecise to completely inaccurate is where sex is still excessively valued in a sexnormative way. I’ve seen this mistake pop up even in rigorous academic analyses, for instance, with critics describing certain ideologies as “anti-sex” and failing to address how those ideologies are in fact very clearly pro-sex (of a narrow and particular kind). In order for a message to be truly “anti-sex,” it would need to be truly endorsing a celibate lifestyle (not just presenting straight/married sex as the only acceptable kind), and I think you’ll find that’s rarely the case.
As I’ve said, there can be a lot of complexity involved in pinning down how these things actually work. Regardless of which sexual norms you’re talking about, though, it should be possible to talk about them without inaccurate sweeping statements that posit sex, itself, as always a denigrated act. Usually, the reality is more complicated that that. So in order to avoid implicitly implying you’re always safe and socially accepted as long as you don’t have/want sex, you need to get more specific about what’s actually going on. It’s beyond me to provide a more comprehensive guide to every issue, but I think the above are some worthwhile starting points.
What else would you add here? Let me know in the comments.