Against Compulsory Sexuality: Asexual Figures of Resistance

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In the aftermath of the #MeToo moment, we are called to revisit old conversations about human dignity, gendered power, and the conditions under which consent can be freely given. To date, the shape of this discourse in the mainstream has lacked sustained analysis through the frameworks of critical feminist and queer theory, particularly these fields’ insight that gender, sexuality, and behavior mutually inform each other. I argue that to understand and begin to repair the sexual politics of our present moment we must take seriously these fields’ contention that sex, like gender, is a historically and socially determined category and, therefore, that its definition is malleable. Only by understanding what we mean when we say “sex” can we begin to disentangle the role sex plays in shaping social conventions and power differentials.

My dissertation reads the narratives of 20th- and 21st-century American popular culture through the lens of the emerging field of asexuality studies. Asexuality studies constitutes a growing body of cultural as well as scientific inquiry. As Kristina Gupta (2015) suggests, asexuality can act as a useful critical foil to compulsory sexuality, that is, to the unspoken social imperative to desire and to engage in sexual activity with other people. We see evidence of compulsory sexuality not just in the omnipresence and presumption of the (heterosexual) couple in cultural and social institutions, but also in our own assumption, for instance, that a single individual must be in want of a partner.

Reading against the grain of compulsory sexuality, whose discursive dominance Ela Przybylo (2011) has termed sexusociety, in this dissertation I analyze three figures of asexuality that exists on the on the margins of sexual culture. The figures of the Spinster, the Child, and the Robot do not operate outside the limits of sexusociety but rather trouble it from within. More often than not the resistance they face is indicative of the hidden mechanisms of compulsory sexuality at work in sustaining the society they exist in. These figures of resistance, canonically asexual or not, serve as inflection points where the (il)logic of compulsory sexuality begins to fray. All three figural types are all slurs that have been levelled against asexuals, and are figures that, when they present in fiction, are presumed asexual until proven otherwise. I examine the way that they resist compulsory sexuality rather than claiming a straightforward asexual identity for them, because I am uninterested in the question of whether asexuality should be thought of as a distinct sexuality, or outside of sexuality altogether. Rather, embracing a relatively capacious definition of asexuality as my analytic expands the archive available to me and allows me to identify limit cases of compulsory sexuality where its operations fail to cohere.

Starting from existing groundwork laid in the intersections between asexuality studies and queer and feminist scholarship, as in Cerankowski and Milks’s Asexualities: Queer and Feminist Perspectives (2014) and Ela Przybylo’s Asexual Erotics (2019), I use these figures to illustrate how compulsory sexuality masks the ways we have been preconditioned to allow our own sexual objectification and to participate in the objectification of others. To read asexually is to make a vital intervention into a conversation about the ways compulsory sexuality constrains our quotidian interactions with each other and with the world. It is to begin to imagine a new, more just way of relating that does not transform the other into an object of desire, but rather, as radical feminist Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz puts it, comprises “a relationship of whole to whole.” I offer no definitive way out of sexusociety in these pages. I extend an invitation, though, to think of asexuality not as an absence or withdrawal, but as a potential to disturb patterns by offering new perspectives on old patterns of objectification, complicated consent, and self-denial in the service of adhering to unfulfilling narratives.






McDowell, Maggie (2022). Against Compulsory Sexuality: Asexual Figures of Resistance. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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