Friday, February 20, 2015

Merging discourses on sexual repression

Content warning: this post deals with some uncomfortable issues regarding people who are or think they are sexually repressed.

In a recent post on The Asexual Agenda, I discussed how it is okay to identify as asexual even if you feel your asexuality was caused by some identifiable reason.  Among the reasons that people commonly identify is sexual repression, particularly from a religious upbringing.

There is a similar common narrative among atheists.  For example, Libby Anne said that she used to be "sexually suppressed and extinguished" by religious purity culture, and that she was "essentially asexual".  For thousands more examples, there was an informal study conducted by Darrel Ray (see Greta for a summary), which concluded that leaving religion improves people's sex lives.

These two discourses are in conflict about their valuation of sexual repression.

Asexual discourse is essentially reacting to the accusation that asexuals are sexually repressed.  Some have reacted by asserting that asexuals aren't sexually repressed.  Some have probed the meaning of sexual repression, and questioned whether it exists at all.  Some have questioned whether sexual repression is necessarily a bad thing, even if we acknowledge that its source, religious purity culture, is bad.

Atheist discourse is primarily geared towards criticizing problems with religion and recovering from religion.  Sexual repression caused by religion is a problem to be overcome.  There is no reason to look for any positive or neutral aspects in repression, or to probe its meaning.  For example, Darrel Ray's Sex and Secularism report claims that sexual repression is ineffective at actually reducing sexual activity (although it tends to slightly delay it), and that the primary effect is that people feel guiltier about their sexual behavior. This is pretty damning, because even if you believe that it's good to reduce sexual behavior, repression seems ineffective in achieving that.

I would like for atheists and asexuals to listen to each other more.  However, on reflection I think asexuals are already listening to atheists.  After all, most people in the asexual community are non-religious themselves, and I found Libby Anne's article (as well as others) through ace community discussions.  So really I should say, I would like atheists to listen to asexuals more.

There are many questions which get asked by aces, which are never addressed by atheists. Questions with no straightforward answers.

What does it really mean to be sexually repressed?  In some cases, it appears to mean only that a person has sexual desires, but feels too guilty to act upon them.  In other cases, like Libby Anne's, it appears to mean lacking sexual desires.  If one has no sexual fantasies or desires, how does one know that one's "true" self is the counterfactual self, the one with fantasies and desires?

How do we know that repression is bad?  Though religion may be bad, there is no reason to think that all of its consequences are uniformly bad.  I accept that guilt is bad, especially when it has no positive effect on one's behavior.  Lack of sexual desire or attraction, though, is more subjective.  It may cause relationship problems, and it may cause personal distress.  There are some people who overcome sexual repression and subjectively feel that it is an improvement in their lives.  But are these problems inherent to ourselves, or inherent to the way society is structured (or both)?

How do we know it can be changed?  Yes, we've heard stories of people who have successfully overcome sexual repression.  But I've heard plenty of stories of people who tried and failed. It often constitutes a form of self-harm, as people try to have sex in hopes of "fixing" themselves.  And since sexuality is a spectrum, there are people who try and end up landing in the middle.

How do we distinguish between attempts that will fail, and attempts that will succeed?  This is an empirical question.

If you are recovering from religion, and its effects on your sexuality, your experience is valid.  You only need to come to terms with your own experience, and you don't need to answer to anyone else's experiences.  You don't need to have answers to the questions I've posed.  Nonetheless, I think these are questions that the atheist community should think seriously about.

(Aside: If you looked at Darrel Ray's study, I have an important comment to make.  Darrel Ray hypothesizes that people who grow up religious and then become non-religious still have residual guilt.  This hypothesis is of great interest to asexuals who think they may have been affected by religious upbringing.  Darrel Ray claims to disprove the hypothesis.  However, the associated survey question was, "How much anger do you experience towards religion because of how it affected your sexuality?" which simply appears not to address the hypothesis.  Therefore, I am skeptical of his conclusion, and have ignored it.)