“In our society, intimacy is strongly equated to sex,” says David Jay, founder of AVEN, creator of asexuality.org, and a self-avowed asexual. During a lunchtime talk at the LGBT center about asexuality, Jay points out that as kids, we grow up with the understanding that intimacy equals sex and that sex will make us unequivocally happy. In a sappy romance, the hero’s eyes meet the heroine’s, they share a cute or witty repartee, and all of a sudden we see glimpses of smooth skin, feel our own nervously fluttering pulse, hear crescendoing music that reverberates in our bones and lulls us, crashing wave after violently crashing wave, to our first cinematic climax even as our parents try to protect our virginal, prepubescent eyes. Perfume is sold in delicious shots of exposed necks. Clothes are sold in ads where nobody wears anything. As Switchfoot sings in _Easier Than Love_, “sex is currency […] sex is industry […] sex is easier than love, it’s easier than life.”
This is not to say that sex itself is not valuable. What I am suggesting, rather, is that the hype around it is misguided. I think that sex can be an incredibly intimate expression of love. I also think that sex is a pleasurable act and should be enjoyed as such by those who so desire, not covered up as a disgrace. However, I don’t think that it is inaccurate to say that our current model of talking sex is not working. The fight for hetero sexual rights has resulted in much needed conversation about sex, but it has also historically promoted heteronormativity.
In his 1990 essay “The Invention of Heterosexuality”, Jonathan Ned Katz, a historian of human sexuality and director of OutHistory.org, writes: “Starting […] as defensive subculture, heterosex soon triumphed as dominant culture,” so that in the 1900s-1930s, “ironically, we find sex-conservatives […] fighting against the depiction not just of sexual perversity [in which homosexuality was then included] but also of the new normal hetero-sexuality.” According to Katz, Floyd Dell’s _Love in the Machine Age_ was essentially an argument by “a prominent antipuritan of the 1930s using the dire threat of homosexuality as his rationale for greater heterosexual freedom.”
As Jay pointed out during Wednesday’s talk, heteronormativity affects asexuals in much the same way that it affects homosexuals. In the late Victorian era, mental health experts “defined a new ideal of male-female relationships that included […] an essential, necessary, normal eroticism.” In 1892, Dr. Krafft-Ebing defined, in his _Psychopathia Sexualis_, the word “hetero-sexual” as “erotic feeling for a different sex” and hypothesized an “inborn ‘sexual instinct’ for relations with the ‘opposite sex’, the inherent ‘purpose’ of which was to foster procreation.” Not until half a century later would non-procreative and premarital sex enter “within the boundaries of normality,” but as early as the turn of the century, hetero sex was already becoming currency in the emerging consumerist culture. In the heterosexual fight for reproductive and hedonistic rights, homosexuality and asexuality were left behind.
Ironically, one common misconception of asexuality seems to be that asexuals are sex-conservatives. One of several “Asexual Perspectives” on asexuality.org points out the contrariness of such thinking: by imposing limitations on sex, sexual conservatives actually presuppose that people want to have sex. According to Jay, asexuals don’t think that sex is “bad” or “evil”, just “boring” or, for some, “gross.”
Some asexuals are, indeed, “antisexuals,” but Jay describes them as a “splinter” group, with which the general asexual community tends not to agree. As a general rule, the community does not say that people should not have sex. Nor do asexuals believe that they are morally superior for not having sex. They would just like to not have sex, and not to feel like there must be something wrong with them because they don’t want it. One of AVEN’s recent battles has been for the revision of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders entry on “hypoactive sexual disorder,” which implies by its very existence in a manual of “mental disorders” that you’re fucked up in the head if you don’t want to fuck.
Nor is asexuality the same thing as abstinence. While abstinence is the conscious choice not to have sex, asexuality is a sexual orientation. Rather than choosing not to have sex, asexuals simply don’t want to have sex, no more than a lesbian wants to have sex with a man or a very straight man have sex with his very gay friend. In order to help every shy newbie to feel comfortable, the asexual community maintains the belief that sexuality, like any other aspect of one’s personality, can vary and that such variation is not trivial. However, Jay adds that most asexuals see asexuality as “something that won’t change, that they’ve felt their entire life.”
I was relieved to hear few such assumptions about asexuals among students’ comments and questions during the talk. Rather, the questions centered around, well, sex. “So, what if an asexual has a sexual partner who wants to have sex?” Jay mentions the possibility of open relationships where sexual partners can have sex with others as long as they remain emotionally faithful. “Yeah, but will they have sex if the sexual partner insists?” Jay notes that individuals differ, but says that it likely wouldn’t be the same, intimate experience as sex between sexuals because only one is “exposed and vulnerable” while the other is just “going through the motions and trying to figure things out.” “Do asexuals masturbate?” Jay notes again that individuals vary, but also cites a survey that found that the proportion of masturbators was about the same as among sexuals.
Well hold on a sec, David Jay, how can somebody masturbate and not want sex? Here, Jay makes an important distinction between physical arousal and sexual desire. According to Jay, most asexuals experience scientific arousal, but don’t desire to actually have sex with another person. So while masturbating, an asexual might think about the feeling of melting or of sleek tuxedo cats or of nothing at all, but will not fantasize about sex as a partnered experience.
For more on the distinction between arousal and desire: The famous sex scholar Kinsey found in the 1940s and ’50s that 54 percent of men and only 12 percent of women reported being erotically aroused by depictions of nude people. Despite this discrepancy, however, “laboratory studies have shown that women almost invariantly show physical signs of sexual excitement to porn movies,” according to Erick Janssen of “Why People Use Porn” (www.pbs.org/frontline). If you think this means that your girlfriend really does want to watch porn with you and has been lying this whole time, think again: these same physical responses to porn occur even “when [women] experience negative emotions such as disgust or anger” as well (“Why People Use Porn”).
And of course, the question that everybody expects: If asexuals don’t feel sexual attraction to their romantic partners, then how can they distinguish between partners and ‘just friends’? I can see Jay’s frustration at the difficulty of explaining love without sexual attraction to a group of sexuals used to seeing sex as the penultimate expression of love and the precious pinnacle of intimacy. An “Asexual Perspective” entitled “Understanding Asexuality from the Outside” asks us to consider an alternate world where a cultural obsession about eyebrows replaces an obsession about sex, concluding that “there are more important things in life.”
My most satisfying answer has been my own incredulity at such a question. Sure, sex is “great”, “the ultimate”, “da bomb”, but seriously? What is love if we can’t conceive of its existence without sex? Isn’t it more than just being friends who fuck? There is a level of devotion, of caring, of understanding, and of attraction beyond the physical that draws people together regardless of whether they plan to have sex or not. If we can’t conceive of loving somebody as more than a friend or family member without wanting to fuck them, I think that we are seriously confused. Risking redundancy, I want to point out another quotation from Switchfoot’s Easier Than Love: “Everyone’s a lost romantic/ since our love became a kissing show.” Read as such: we no longer understand romance when we confuse love and physical affection.
In a January 4, 2009 “Asexual Perspective” on asexuality.org, an anonymous asexual writes,
“Who should care about asexuality? Everyone who’s ever felt pressured to kiss someone they weren’t attracted to, suffer through a boring blind date, or have sex because everyone else was doing it. Everyone who ever wondered if there was something more than the dating-marriage track, and why we have so few meaningful relationship options. Asexuals are tired of our culture’s constant pressure to be sexual and sexy. We envision a world where people are free to explore their sexuality in their own way and in their own time, whether their libido is at zero or hyperdrive. Why would anyone disagree with that idea of freedom?”
According to a 1994 survey of 18,876 British residents, an estimated 1% of the population has “never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all.” Assuming that this estimate holds true, then nearly 70 million people worldwide, among them approximately 76 Princeton students (50 undergraduate, 26 graduate), do not experience sexual attraction.
In a society where lust and love are so frequently conflated, a disinterest in sex can be isolating. “Before Google”, David Jay tells us, “asexuals had no way of finding one another.” That’s why Jay created asexuality.org in 2001, only a few years after Google went online. The website serves as a tool for educating visitors about sexuality, but more significantly as a forum where asexuals can connect with other asexuals.
Often times, newbies come to the forums feeling confused or “broken” because they feel like they somehow can’t connect with others. They feel left out of a society that doesn’t try to understand them. As each person comes out to the accepting forum community in the “Welcome Lounge,” they are presented with slice after loving slice of cake.