Fitting Into the Lexicon
When Emily Lyons came out to her family members and friends, it was with a confession that’s often met with an awkward silence...followed by an eruption of questions. The journey of coming out has certainly taken some twists and turns in the last few decades. The path that was once a dusty tunnel to exile is now almost seen as a rite of passage, a celebration lined with cheerers-on of every orientation. But what if your sexuality doesn’t fit the hetero or LGBTQ lexicon? For Lyons it wasn’t about her sexual preference, but lack there-of. Lyons is asexual.
David Jay is the founder of the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). Articulate and extremely likeable, a charming nerd-type with soft eyes and an intense gaze, in conversation, Jay comes off as very intimate, and perhaps...sexy. When the question of asexuality is posed, he is quick to clarify is that asexuality is not abstinence or celibacy—both of which assume that a person wants to have sex but is denying themselves. Asexuals aren’t anti-sex, they just have no interest. “The political agenda that we have is similar to the LGBTQ community,” Jay notes. “We are looking for awareness, acceptance and to question social norms.”
While the asexuality movement is secure in what it can add to the overall sexual dialogue, for now, most discussions begin with Q&A about what asexuality is. “The only way to explain it is that you might have a sex drive, but you don’t really have a desire to have sex; which is hard to comprehend if you are a sexual being,” says Antony Greene, who would be more androgynous if it weren’t for her sparkling anime-sized eyes and petite features.
Greene self-identifies as a homo-romantic asexual, and as her identity suggests, one can be asexual and still have an aesthetic or romantic preference toward the same sex, opposite sex, or all sexes. You can also be asexual and still have “romantic” partnerships. Greene is in a committed relationship with a bisexual girlfriend.
Asexuals often end up exploring issues of vulnerability and honesty on deeper levels than most sexual couples do. “When asexual people gossip, we don’t just talk about the relationships we are in, we talk about the relationship models we are in,” explains Jay. “Every asexual person ends up with this elaborate world view of how intimacy and their own relationships work.”
The practice of asexuals engaging in mindless sex to please partners, leads to what just might be the human rights issue behind asexuality: the issue of consent and rape. If an asexual is never interested in sex, but is physically able to have sex, the line on date rape may be less than clear. However, Jay thinks might be less of a factor in the asexual community. “We have mechanisms to communicate a lack of consent, whereas, some sexual people don’t,” he says, “which speaks to the status of our society’s ability to communicate consent.”
AVEN member Elizabeth Collins, who identifies as a gray-sexual (which she defines as the gray area between asexual and sexual) admits she’s walked that blurry tightrope in the past. “You have to be very careful when you are with an asexual partner because it’s much easier to get into that non-consensual area,” she says.
The Intricacies of Intimacy
If appearances of asexuals on the daytime talk show circuit has shed light on anything, it’s that asexuality is a hot-button topic. “There’s a fascinating phenomenon,” says Jay. “If I talk about my asexuality, it suddenly puts the spotlight on the sexuality of the person I am talking to, and however they feel about their sexuality comes out.” For some, an asexual’s lack of desire can trigger repressed feelings. Jay equates the experience with a straight person asserting their heterosexuality when a gay is present. “I get a lot of people who feel the need to talk about how sexual they are,” he says.
Such responses speak more to the insecurities of so-called normal folk than the aberrance of asexuals. “When people attack us, at the root of the attack is the accusation that we can’t experience intimacy,” Jay notes. “In our society, intimacy is strongly correlated with sex, however, not all important relationships or experiences of intimacy are sexual.” Likewise, not all sex is intimate. Many believe that intimacy is a different (and perhaps a more intense or important) experience than sex. Jay sees this muddying of intimacy in our culture as one of the biggest problems for asexual people—and everyone else.
Jay realized he was asexual by the end of high school and came out during college. Like most anyone who falls outside of the sexual norm, he spent a long time wondering what was wrong with him. “I knew I wasn’t experiencing something everyone else was experiencing, but I didn’t know what that meant,” he says. “There was a pretty strong indication from pop culture that sexuality is a big deal.” Starting AVEN was a way for Jay to make sure others didn’t have to second guess themselves, or struggle as he had. The overwhelming response of new members is a sense of belonging; they feel as if they’ve found home.
This feeling of finally being at-ease is what has many psychologists and sexologists worried about the movement of asexuality. Sex therapist, Dr. Richard Wagner (a.k.a. Dr. Dick) says, “These people might get support for not being sexual, when they are. People get talked into thinking they don’t like sex because it hurts or they are pre-orgasmic. They might just think ‘Here is a group that supports me,’ rather than digging into their issues.” Sexologist Dr. Annie Sprinkle echoes this concern, “If [asexuality] is used to escape your feelings or issues, you’ve eventually got to deal with you who you are and your choices.”
Sexologist Carol Queen, however, worries more about the unclear definition of the term itself. “In a sex-negative society wherein people have been given narrow or repressive sexual messages, it is perfectly possible that a person who does not desire sex in the ways they see [it] being culturally depicted has not met the ‘right’ person yet, [so much as] they have not met the ‘right’ definition of sexuality that allows them to feel that they fit, and to access desire.” Queen’s concern is that asexuality offers the potential of being a tool to shut off sexual possibility and discourse. “This is not the main way I see it being used, but I do see that that possibility exists,” she says.
Queen speculates that the main reason asexuality has been floundering among mainstream psychologists and sexologists is because very few studies have been done on the subject. “It is an under-studied, little-understood minority that dovetails well enough with phenomena like repression and denial that a psychologist or sexologist might automatically assume that all asexual people are acting from those, rather than a place of choice and clear decision,” she points out. “Pro-sex boosters in these professions have a positive bias toward sexual discovery, exploration, and finding one’s comfortable place in the sexual universe. They tend to believe everyone has that possibility, and want to help people discover it.”
“The desire for dialogue is at the core of the sex-positive movement, and the same desire is at the core of the asexual movement,” says Jay. But an honest sexual dialogue must include the bad and the boring, as well as the good. However, in the sex-positive community, while “sex is boring” is a topic, the kneejerk riposte is: There’s no excuse for bad or boring sex.
“It bothers me when, in the sex-positive movement, offhand statements are made like, ‘All humans are sexual,’” says Lyons. “True, the vast majority of humans are indeed sexual, but a few of us aren’t. It’s aggravating to be dismissed. But the speaker probably doesn’t even know they're dismissing anyone!”
But is everyone sexual? Queen posits, “Sexuality is integral to the human experience; each person has some relationship to it—sometimes a shifting and fluid (or multi-layered) relationship. But this doesn’t always mean that sexual behavior or even desire is integral to it.” Collins, Jay and Greene all admitted to enjoying things like touch and even making out; it seems to be only when genital sexuality is involved that it stops making sense.
Queen recounts rediscovering her sex-positivity when she heard about asexuality. When she caught wind of the movement, her first thoughts were that it represented a space of denial or pre-sexual-consciousness. “But then I did what sex-positive people and sexologists want everyone to be able to do when confronted with a sexual identity with which they’re unfamiliar or challenged: I looked at my own discomfort. I really believe that people should be empowered to self-identify, and that we certainly should not be pushed to identify in ways that are not right for us. If I did not extend that notion to self-identified asexual people, it would be hypocritical.”