The Journal of Things We Like (Lots)
Select Page
Elizabeth F. Emens, Compulsory Sexuality, 66 Stan. L. Rev. 303 (2014).

Fourteen years ago, Kenji Yoshino observed that the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were commonly used “as mutually exclusive, cumulatively exhaustive categories”—a usage that casually implied that “bisexuals” and “asexuals” did not exist. In this well-known article in the Stanford Law Review,1 Yoshino methodically examined the ways that straights and gays have conspired to “erase” bisexuals. But while he acknowledged that “asexuals are, if anything, more likely than bisexuals to be erased in sexuality discourse,” he regretfully decided “not to attempt a systematic discussion of asexuals in this article.” In light of the “undertheorized divergences between bisexuality and asexuality,” he concluded “that the two topics deserve separate analysis.”

Under the circumstances, it is especially fitting that the Stanford Law Review has published the first law review article on asexuality. In Compulsory Sexuality, Emens demonstrates the payoff of giving asexuality its analytical due. After briefly describing asexuality’s emergence in several discourses, she turns her eye toward the questions of theory and law posed by the rise of this new identity movement.

Part I tells the story of asexuality’s coming out.  In particular, Emens focuses on four events that mark the rise of asexuality in four distinct contexts—conceptual, clinical, empirical, and social/political. In this telling, asexuality emerged as a conceptual and a clinical category in the early 1980s—at least twenty years before it became an object of empirical study, or the social and political foundation of a new identity movement.

As Emens explains, the concept of asexuality is typically attributed to the psychologist Michael D. Storms, who posited asexuality as a fourth “sexual orientation” alongside homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality in an article published in 1980.2 During that same year, the American Psychiatric Association introduced a new clinical diagnosis of asexuality in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Although the diagnosis was initially known as “Inhibited Sexual Desire,” it has since been reformulated as “Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder,” and its definition has been marked by controversial revisions that bear striking similarities to the DSM’s early diagnoses of “homosexuality” and “gender identity disorder.”

In spite of these early forays into the subject, asexuality did not become an object of empirical study until 2004, when the psychologist Anthony Boegart reported that 1% of the respondents from a national probability sample of more than 18,000 British residents agreed with the statement, “I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all,” and they reported having fewer sexual partners, and less frequent sexual activity with others. During this same time period, a community of self-identified asexuals began to form. In 2001, a self-identified asexual named David Jay founded AVEN, the Asexuality Visibility Education Network. As Emens reports, “AVEN’s membership has grown exponentially in the past decade—from 134 members in 2002, to 26,780 members in 2011, to over 70,000 members in 2013.”

Parts II and III of Compulsory Sexuality provide a careful account of this new identity movement, and an exploration of the fascinating theoretical and legal questions that it presents to scholars and advocates. Part II tackles the task of “mapping asexual identity” through a series of definitional and comparative inquiries. First, Emens notes that asexual identity is defined by a lack of attraction and a lack of choice: Asexuals claim that they have “very little or absolutely no” sexual attraction to other people, and that this lack of attraction is “not a choice.” Next, she observes that asexuals have developed a rich taxonomy of distinctions to mark the boundaries of what counts as “asexual,” and to identify subgroups within the asexual community itself. For example, she notes that some asexuals masturbate, but they do not consider masturbation to be a form of “sex”; some asexuals pursue romantic relationships, but they do not consider these relationships to be “sexual.”

As Emens artfully explains, each of these claims illustrates that asexual identity has been self-consciously articulated “in relation” to other sexual identities—in response to “diversity” within the community of asexuals and “skepticism” from outsiders. Building further upon this relational model, Emens then considers how asexual identity intersects with a long list of other identities—first homosexuality, bisexuality, and polyamory; then gender and disability; and finally as a model of sexual identity based on minoritizing or universalizing conceptions of asexuality, or on orientations toward the quantity, autoeroticism, narcissism, or romanticism of sex. More than anything else in the article, this analysis of asexuality’s intersections offers a lesson in asexuality’s potential to disrupt and transform extant sexuality and identity paradigms—and an example of Emens’ analytical dexterity and revelatory power. Through the lens of asexuality, Emens shows us again and again that there is more to our sexuality and our selves than we could have imagined.

In Part III, Emens offers “a framework for identifying and analyzing types of interactions between law and asexuality,” which she hopes will serve as “a toolkit for advocates and thinkers about asexuality, as they consider what areas of law, if any, they might want to try to change,” and will show “how asexuality can operate as a diagnostic tool or heuristic for identifyingthe ways that law’s interactions with sexuality affect the broader society.” In particular, Emens claims that asexuality and law interact along four analytical axes—(1) legal requirements of sexual activity; (2) legal exceptions to shield sexuality from commodification; (3) legal protections from others’ sexuality; and (4) legal protections for sexual identity. Through this analytical framework, Emens explores the way that asexual identity informs ongoing debates about a broad range of legal issues—the role of conjugality in marriage law, prohibitions on sex work, the maintenance of sex-segregated public spaces, and the benefits and burdens of sexual harassment law. Above all, however, Emens spends the most time considering whether asexuality is likely to be included in federal, state, and local antidiscrimination laws. As Emens suggests, each of these examples reveals another way that law constitutes sexuality for all of us, regardless of how we happen to identify ourselves.

This claim brings us back to the article’s provocative title, Compulsory Sexuality, which refers to Adrienne Rich’s famous polemic on Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.3 In her discussion of a “universalizing” model of asexuality, Emens broaches the most tantalizing prospect of asexuality’s impact. Drawing on Leo Bersani and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, she hints at the possibility that we may all be “asexuals” in one sense or another—and as such, we may all be compelled into sexuality by culture and law.

To be sure, Emens remains thoroughly agnostic on such questions—this is an introductory, exploratory piece, far from the lesbian manifesto for which it was named. Throughout the article, Emens shifts between sweeping claims about “people whose experience is in some significant sense asexual, whether or not they identify as asexual,” and comparatively modest claims about the differences between “sexuals” and “asexuals.” Emens cautiously suggests that a “a much milder version of a universalizing account might have something to it”: “Some work suggests that many people go through more or less sexual phases of their lives, and even of their days,” and “it seems plausible to think that everyone—or, to be safe, let us say nearly everyone—has at some point felt a lack of sexual attraction.” “In this context, a universalizing model might lead us to ask whether the common disbelief or skepticism in response to asexuality could be defensive.”

Although Emens concludes these speculations with a prudent “perhaps so,” they seem to identify the most radical threat that asexuality poses to our laws and our culture. More than anything else, the universalizing model of sexuality promises to make good on the prediction with which Emens concludes: “Examining our lives and laws through the lens of asexuality may lead all of us, sexual and asexual alike, somewhere we have not been before.”



Download PDF
  1. Kenji Yoshino, The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure, 52 Stan. L. Rev. 353 (2000).
  2. Michael D. Storms, Theories of Sexual Orientation, 38 J. Personality & Soc. Psychol. 783, 784-85 (1980).
  3. Adrienne Rich, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, 5 Signs 631 (1980).
Cite as: Clifford Rosky, LGBTA: Asexuality Becomes a Movement, JOTWELL (June 2, 2014) (reviewing Elizabeth F. Emens, Compulsory Sexuality, 66 Stan. L. Rev. 303 (2014)),