My "no" is not a passive "yes": Patriarchy and the conflation of non-autonomous sexuality with non-sexuality
I think the assumption that sex-indifferent aces are open to sex/having sex/etc. is an expression of compulsory sexuality. I did not grow up in a culture of of compulsory tennis-playing, so if I say that I am not interested, people understand that I probably do not want to play. But under compulsory sexuality, if I do not have some kind of obstacle like sex-aversion/sex-repulsion, then of course I am OK with participating in sex … huh? (Sara K, Why Are Sex-Indifferent Aces Assumed to Be Open to Sex?)
Earlier this year, I looked at sex-normative discourses in Islam in regard to marriage. Across a series of posts, I explored how a combination of compulsory sexuality and patriarchy would make it difficult, if not impossible, for an asexual Muslim (especially an asexual Muslim woman) who is not able to provide sex to survive in a marriage where a mutual agreement of celibacy had broken down (I also looked at the many obstacles that stand in the way of making such an agreement in the first place and how this can affect asexual Muslims who wish to legitimize non-sexual relationships through the legal structure of marriage).
In these posts, I argued that both partners in a marriage are considered to have a "right" to sex, and that these rights are a mirror of each other, but that women are disadvantaged in that the consequences for us in withholding sex are more severe, and in that we have a more difficult time leaving a failed marriage. This is an accurate representation of most contemporary Muslim discourse on marriage that I have seen.
This summer, I read Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, by Kecia Ali. This book takes us back to the 800s CE as Islamic jurisprudence was first being systematized. Ali shows how scholars at this time developed a framework in which the primary purpose of marriage was understood as a man gaining sexual access to a woman (since sex outside of marriage is considered religiously prohibited or haram in Islam). Because sexual access was what he "owned" through the marriage, the wife was expected to make herself potentially sexually available to him at all times except when the rules of the religion itself designated her as unavailable (such as during the fasting day in Ramadan, or during her menstrual period, post-partum bleeding, or illness). This framework was then used to justify requiring a wife to obtain her husband's permission before leaving the house (in reality, the Prophet stated that women were always permitted to go out for their needs, and he specifically prohibited men from preventing their wives from going out to the mosque) and to give a husband control over certain of his wife's voluntary religious observances like fasting. All of this was because these activities would make her sexually unavailable to her husband for a period of time. Even making herself potentially sexually unavailable without permission, not just declining a specific sexual advance from the husband, was considered nushuz (recalcitrance or disobedience) that justified disciplinary action.
Needless to say, this is patriarchy taken to a blatant, horrifying, extreme of male dominance. These early scholars did recognize that the Quran and Sunna granted wives a reciprocal right to sex, but Ali shows how they went out of their way to minimize any ability for the wife to seek legal recourse if her husband withheld sex from her, or indeed for her or anybody else, even a judge, to place any expectation or obligation on a man to do anything that he didn't want to do (I'm reminded of this quote by Andrea Dworkin).
So what does all of this have to do with Sara K's quote with which I opened the post?
Precisely because the patriarchy here is so blatant, with so little attempt to cloak itself in any justifying rhetoric, I believe that examination of it can offer us insight into how compulsory sexuality operates. In particular, I feel that it clarifies the difference between a non-autonomous or passive sexuality, and non-sexuality. I read Sara K as saying that her sex indifference is a default "no" to sex, a "not interested", and that it shares with sex aversion a preference for a non-sexual life, but that it is being read by others as a passive yes which is then taken to be similar to the active yes of the sex-favorable asexual.
When we look just at the question of women's sexual rights within the framework I am discussing, it might seem that women were not considered to have sexual desires of their own (independent of their husband) that were worthy of being fulfilled. In some feminist discourse, this is described as, "women* were expected to be asexual" (here understood as meaning "non-sexual" rather than the more narrow sense of "does not experience sexual attraction").
And yet in this same framework, the woman is expected to literally be continuously sexually available at all times to her husband. That sure doesn't sound like any non-sexuality or asexuality that I've ever heard of!
The reality is that in the framework I described above, the wife is expected to have a passive or non-autonomous sexuality. It exists whenever her husband wants it to. When he wants sex, she must willingly submit, and make sure to show him that she enjoyed it. But when he doesn't want sex, then she shouldn't have any desires that it would inconvenience him to fulfill. The sex-positive feminist discourse of "women were expected to be asexual" somehow manages to erase the whole "when he wants sex" part of the framework. The example I'm discussing here is from the pre-modern Muslim world (specifically the regions that are now Saudi Arabia and Iraq), but I'm pretty sure that there is no patriarchal society where "submit when he wants sex" hasn't been part of the wife's expected behavior. The non-autonomous sexuality that patriarchy constructs for wives thus includes the expectation of passive yes as part of its very definition. Women as wives are still expected to be willing for sex, to take part in it, and to enjoy it. They just aren't supposed to actively seek it out on their own initiative.
Given this fact, it appears to me that the type of sex-positive feminist discourse I am referring to must define "sexual desire" purely as the active or initiating role, and that receptive willingness (the passive yes) doesn't count as "real" sexual desire or real sexuality. This is the only way it would make sense to describe a receptive willingness for sex as "asexual". In this case, how are allosexual women defined? As those who take the active, initiating role? Is there any space in this discourse for the active no and the always no? I don't see it. The implications of this kind of discourse impute a compulsory sexuality to me against my will. They distort my self-definition and deny my agency. They replace my NO with a passive yes. I will even go so far as to call this a manifestation of rape culture and an act of patriarchal violence against me, and against other asexual women in the same position. A feminism that does this to me is a feminism that is inimical to my interests as a sex-averse asexual woman and that participates in my oppression. I must reject it. I hope that sex-positive feminists who engage in this discourse will recognize the implications of their use of the label "asexuality" and of their understanding and depiction of non-autonomous sexuality, and that they will reject it as well.
Finally, to return to the question of 9th century Islamic jurisprudence, the framework I mentioned above has thankfully been replaced by a more equitable one, even if it is still overly (and unjustifiably) patriarchal. However, some of the rules developed under the earlier framework persist, particularly in conservative discourse. The value of Ali's book for Islamic feminists is in showing where such rules came from and how they were constructed by patriarchal men, which can help us to dismantle them.
*The original article linked here makes this claim about white women specifically. What I am arguing is that patriarchy has never had an expectation of total non-sexuality for women of any race or social status. Even white or class privilege has historically not protected most women from compulsory sexuality (or, as Lisa Millbank puts it, for women these privileges can often be a shitty lemon). These privileges may limit the expectation of a woman's sexuality to her husband alone, but the expectation still exists and, since we're discussing marriage here, privileged women are in their weakest position. It's worth noting in this context that the implicit subject of the pre-modern Islamic legal discourse I am examining is an upper class woman, though the rules are to be applied to all women including slaves (hence the title of Kecia Ali's book). My post should also not be understood as an attack on the original article (which is excellent overall and makes many good points) or on its author, as I have seen similar claims in a number of other pieces and consider its assumptions to be pervasive in much sex-positive discourse. I used it as an example because I couldn't let the use of "pure asexual virgins" pass unremarked. Trust me when I say that as an asexual virgin, I am not actually the societal ideal because I am also a 41-year old sex-negative spinster.