How can a better account of sexual attraction and desire help reduce injustice?

The word asexuality highlighted in a dictionary


Luke Brunning, University of Birmingham.                
ORCID ID icon 0000-0003-4763-2817

Natasha McKeever, University of Leeds.
ORCID ID icon 0000-0002-0799-1623

Asexuality is frequently misunderstood in a way that harms asexual people. Defined as the absence of sexual attraction, asexuality is often conflated with the absence or disorder of sexual desire, the avoidance of sex, or disinterest in romantic relationships. In fact, asexual people, like everyone, are diverse. Some asexual people have sex and some have romantic relationships without sex. Some are polyamorous, or like Kink. Asexual people are united, however, in experiencing little or no sexual attraction. But this experience needs to be understood better. 

Sex attraction and sexual desire are dissimilar. Desire is linked closely to action whereas attraction focuses existing desires, or generates new ones, by marking parts of our environment as inviting in some way. Asexual people desire to have sex for lots of reasons, but do not experience other people as ‘inviting’ a sexual encounter. This is not to say that asexual people do not experience attraction. In fact, asexual testimony is helping us appreciate the breadth of interpersonal attraction, e.g. to beauty, humour, tactility, and so on.

In exploring these nuances, it can be seen that that many existing philosophical theories of sexual desire struggle to accommodate asexual sexuality, because they do not distinguish clearly between sexual attraction and sexual desire. Furthermore, since sexual desire can be decoupled from sexual attraction, and since attraction takes many forms, we should not think that sex in the absence of sexual attraction is bad, or that romantic life requires sexual attraction for love and intimacy to flourish, or that the only way be intimate with someone as an individual, in a non-objectifying way, is to find them sexually attractive (as opposed to attractive in other ways).

Asexual people have been harmed because their experience of romantic life has either been erased completely, or it has been denigrated unfairly. A better understanding of asexuality, and human sexuality in general, helps redress these injustices while enabling us to deepen our understanding of romantic flourishing.

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