Sex is not what makes us human
Black folks, whether you believe we transcend the category of human or not, can and do exist asexually.
“Sex is what makes us human.”
This, of course, is an absurd claim. And yet, it’s a lie that many believe. A lie that I have heard many times, in one form or another. I continually find myself having to argue that sex and sexuality are not and never will be factors in whether or not one should be afforded humanness.
The category of human is not an unyielding one, for sure. At least through a dominant white supremacist understanding. Humanness and who is allowed access to it, as understood through white ascendant ideals and white knowledge production, is limited.
Regardless of whether or not we avow or disavow “human” as a category, whether or not we recognize the validity of its use, it still has tangible ramifications and concessions attached to it. I’d say that the same is true of race—a social construct with a discernible impact on our lives.
Black Twitter grappled with Afropessimistic thought this week when one user tweeted, “slaves didn’t have a sexuality because they were property, not humans.” Reactions to the tweet varied, of course, with the majority of responses challenging its thesis and reaffirming the humanity of our enslaved ancestors. Many also made sure to assert that they indeed had sexual desires and proclivities, albeit unrecognized by their captors as anything other than exploitable labor.
Unsurprisingly, such a premise drew the ire of those who disagreed with it or found it inaccessible. Perhaps this would have been avoided, and the tweet would have been read as less inflammatory, had it ended with some variation “in the white imagination” or “according to white supremacy,” or if it had done more to contextualize its claim. Perhaps.
Regardless, in light of both the initial tweet and its flurry of reactions, I feel this needs to be said: it would be great if these conversations could take place without reinforcing ideas, whether intentionally or inadvertently, that are already used to harm, exclude, and discriminate against asexual folks—tangibly, not theoretically.
I understand the concept of interrogating “human” as a category and the disparities born from it, just as I understand the need to assert Black humanity in the face of our constant dehumanization. However, understanding or defining “humanness” through sexuality, and whether or not one experiences sexuality or possesses sexuality, is both reductive and unproductive.
Ask any asexual who has been dehumanized, in one form or another, specifically because of their asexuality. Ask any Black asexual who has had their dehumanization compounded by their asexuality.
The idea of tethering “humanness” to sexuality has only ever provided opportunities to further marginalize folks without sexuality or with sexualities understood as non-normative. Regardless of what the category of “human” denotes or symbolizes, and regardless of who created it and why, I see no reason for sexuality to ever be a part of that categorization when we know for a fact that sexuality is not universally understood, experienced, or engaged with.
To reiterate: I encourage people to interrogate “humanness” and how it has been used against the most marginalized of us, but I want people to do so with a politic that does not reify discrimination and harm we already know to be real—especially for those whose plight continues to go largely unseen and invalidated. Even more, I want people to interrogate their understanding of sexuality and the uses of sex.
When the state-sanctioned killing of George Floyd resulted in protests, we were greeted with unfortunate and peculiar signage that fetishized and sexualized Blackness. The sign-holders were convinced that this was the contribution they should make to the conversation about the precarity of Black life. An essay on the “uses of sex” poured out of me to challenge the idea that Black humanity could ever be afforded or evidenced through our sexual objectification and fetishization. I also argue that “de-centering and de-pedestaling sex—ceasing to falsely regard it as an activity that defines humanness—will serve us as a whole, but especially asexual and aromantic folks.”
“Human” so often becomes one of the uses of sex. Many people use sex, and all the things surrounding it, to codify and define humanness, and therefore to exclude asexuals from the category of human. At the same time, sex and sexuality have historically been used to beastialize Black folks, that is to make our engagement with sex into the evidence of our animality, to bar us from humanness.
If humanness and animality exist as binary categories, and they do in the social imagination, then Blackness exists as a sort of abjection between, outside of, and on top of those categories—as a disruption of their boundaries. Historically, myths about the sex and sexuality of Black folks have been used as evidence for that abjection. I am simply arguing that the two—humanness and sexuality—need not ever be in conversation in a way which posits one as a prerequisite for the other. Black folks, whether you believe we transcend the category of human or not, can and do exist asexually.
I welcome the work of those theorizing and philosophizing about what is beyond human, what transcends human, and how Blackness fits into that. There are many times when I would even go so far as to say that if white people are what is “human,” then “human” is not what I want to be. I have often even regarded this bodily form as a flesh prison and dreamt aloud about astral projection.
But, the reality of “human” still rears its head. Those who are not deemed human are subjected to the worst horrors this world has to offer, while being denied certain protections reserved only for humans. This is not even to speak of the connections between humanness and personhood and citizenship—from the literal fracturing of Black folks into 3/5ths a person to Dred Scott’s 1846 lawsuit to be recognized as a person and a free man.
The asserting of Black humanity is not to say that other categories of being outside of human are not real, possible, or legible—it is to say that we deserve to live without the violence that is imposed on those who are deemed not human. I’d argue that even those of us who are not academics or intellectuals have wrestled with the concept of Blackness transcending humanness. Even so, Blackness as super-human has often resulted in the same kinds of violence as when we are regarded as subhuman.
It’s my opinion that, at this juncture, it would be a useful and productive conversation to interrogate how sex and sexuality have become regarded in the social imagination in the first place, so that we even need the category of asexual and that those categorized as asexual are understood as abnormal to the point of dehumanization.
Moreover, what limitations does this place on our understanding of sex, humanness, and Blackness altogether? And what possibilities might arise if we severed the connections that we have imagined as inherent between them?