“It takes courage to push yourself to places that you have never been before… to test your limits… to break through barriers. And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”—Anais Nin (via youmightfindyourself)
Sex sells—if, that is, the endless stream of sexy commercials advertising anything from shampoo to candy, Bumpits, and Doritos is anything to go by. We are surrounded by sex and obsessed with it, both personally and politically. We care who is having sex with whom, what they are calling their relationship, and which guido Snooki “smushed” last week. Among the sex-laden billboards, radio shows, and TV sitcoms, it can be easy to overlook the growing numbers of people who officially identify as asexual, or just not interested.
AVEN, the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, defines an asexual as simply “a person who does not experience sexual attraction.” This basic definition, however, does not even begin to cover the range of different experiences described by the umbrella term “asexual.” To navigate the complexities of asexual identity, I met with Alexis Karinin, a Cornell junior who first began to identify as asexual about a year ago. “I’ve always sort of realized that I’ve been on a different page,” she told me, “but I always thought that meant I was weird and inept and defective in some way… It took me a long time, a lot of anxiety and a lot of feeling very excluded and inept before I realized that no, I’m normal, just a different kind of normal, and I can find my own ways of expressing myself.”
For some time, Alexis had known of the online asexual community’s existence, but she just didn’t think the term applied to her. “I thought everyone experienced sexual attraction the same way that I did,” she said, “And then I sort of heard some non-asexual people talk about how they actually experienced it, and I was like wait, wait, that’s never—what, what? I’ve never felt like that!”
The complex spectrum of emotions that members of AVEN’s community experience is hard to classify, but Alexis broke down some of the more common identities for me. “Some asexuals consider themselves a- or non-sex, which means they’re not interested in romantic relationships and don’t really get crushes in the same way. Some are romantic, so they might want a relationship that is actually very emotionally involved, but does not have much of a sexual component. Some people identify as asexual, but are into S&M and bondage and all of that stuff, but for its own sake. A lot of asexuals might actually engage in sex, either as a compromise for their partners or just for reasons of closeness, in the same way that someone who is straight can have sex with someone of their own gender and even enjoy it, but not really be attracted to them.”
However, not all members of the community are so accepting of asexuals who pursue romantic relationships, masturbate, or have sex. Although officially discouraged by AVEN, “asexual elitists” argue that asexuality is defined by sexual behavior, not just sexual attraction. Alexis vehemently opposes this definition, and explained, “There’s this idea of the unassailable asexual. Someone who’s good-looking, so no one can say they just can’t get any; someone who has never been abused as a child, so no one can say it’s trauma; someone who’s been in a relationship, so no one can say they just haven’t found the right person yet. And there’s all these impossible standards. Some people might meet all of them, but then if you hold those people up as the ideal you might belittle those people who have, for example, dealt with sexual abuse. Their asexuality is just as legitimate. There just needs to be acceptance.”
The first official recognition of asexuality dates back to a 1948 study of sexual behavior by Alfred Kinsey: the same study that famously redefined sexuality as being on a “Kinsey scale” rather than a binary of 100% homosexual versus 100% heterosexual. In the study, Kinsey also identified a group of “X” type individuals with “no socio-sexual contacts or relations.” This group, Kinsey found, consisted of 1.5% of the studied adult male population, 14-19% of unmarried females, and 1-3% of married females.
The data that really peaked public interest, however, came from a 1994 study that surveyed 18,876 residents of the United Kingdom about their sexual orientation in order to combat AIDS. In the study, 1.05% of respondents identified themselves as having “never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all.” That official 1% elicited a frenzy of media response and became the focus of intense speculation. It has also, slowly, begun to inspire more serious scholarship, and acted as one of the catalysts for the 2001 founding of AVEN by David Jay in order to “create public acceptance and discussion of asexuality and facilitate the growth of an asexual community.”
One of the most difficult challenges that any asexual faces is public ignorance. Many asexuals talk about “coming out of the closet,” but Alexis told me that it’s a very different issue for asexuals than for homosexuals because the former are less likely to face extreme reactions, such as violence. In fact, Alexis noted wryly, certain environments might actually praise people for being asexual. “I guess the problem is more that people don’t actually believe that asexuals exist,” she told me. “A lot of people assume that if you say you’re asexual you’re really just repressed, or really uptight, or you just haven’t found the right person yet, that’s another line, or that you haven’t matured yet.”
Another common misconception of asexuality claims that it is a behavioral disorder or a medical problem. Alexis agrees, to a point. “Any big change in libido can be an indication of something bad,” she said. “One of the definitions of disorder is something that causes you discomfort or distress, but if it’s not causing you distress—if you’ve just always felt this way, or it feels natural—then maybe that’s just who you are and maybe there’s nothing wrong with it. It definitely caused me more distress to deny my asexuality. If it’s not causing someone distress, and if they live comfortably accepting that identity, then maybe it is part of them.”
Yet another myth conflates asexuality with anti-sexuality. “I’ve met some people who when I said I was asexual remarked that that meant I was a chastity-belt wearing monk, and I’m, ‘oh my god, no,’” Alexis laughed. “I happen to be a very sex-positive person, but I’m just not interested in it myself… In fact, I think that sex-positivity should encompass asexuality because it should encompass respect for anyone’s decisions about their own body and their own sexuality.” For some reason, she said, “People get offended as though you’re telling them not to have sex.”
Surprisingly, Alexis told me, the asexual community has found little support from other sexual minorities. In fact, asexuals are often excluded from LGBTQ spaces. “I have read arguments saying ‘if you’re asexual you’re not actually queer, you’re just a straight person who doesn’t care about sex.’ That just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Unlike many sexual minority organizations, AVEN does not have an explicit political mission. Instead, they are more geared towards outreach and visibility—and to correcting negative portrayals of asexuals in the media. Alexis brought up one particularly egregious example: a recent ad for Plan B in which the actress stated earnestly, “After a little problem with my birth control, I could vow to become an asexual, a-social, a-everything girl—or I can get a real plan.” Alexis, like the rest of the asexual community, did not appreciate the sentiment. “That conflation of asocial, asexual… oh god,” she said.
Dan Savage, who writes the popular LGBTQ-friendly syndicated advice column Savage Love and puts out a corresponding podcast, has also come under fire from the asexual community. In a February 2011 column, for example, he answered a writer’s concerns about lack of sex drive by asking, “Why would you even contemplate inflicting yourself on a normally sexual person? Why not go find another minimally sexual person?” The idea that a romantic relationship must also be sexual in order to be healthy rankled with not a few asexual blogs and bloggers, one of whom lamented, “Sadly, Savage seems unable to understand that not all men are rapaciously monosexual.”
Asexuals also get their fair share of positive coverage, mostly through fictional characters in TV, books, and movies—although J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame, Isaac Newton, and Morrissey of the rock band The Smiths were reportedly asexual as well. Notable examples include Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory and Charlie Weasley from Harry Potter who, according to J.K. Rowling, isn’t gay, “just more interested in dragons than women.” Sherlock Holmes never had any significant sexual attractions, even to Irene Adler, who seems more of a professional rival.
And, of course, The Doctor from Doctor Who, the great love of asexuals everywhere, who seems to have little or no sexual attraction to anyone, including his varied cast of attractive, young female companions.
One of the most striking things about AVEN is just how tight-knit the community seems. While the AVEN site is also filled with abundant testimonials and resources, Alexis told me that she uses it primarily for the social element driven by the forums. In fact, the list of topics under “community” is much longer than that under “asexuality.” Many asexuals make lasting connections through the site, including dating and marriage. Recently, she’s been using a smaller oﬀ shoot of AVEN that focuses more heavily on gender issues, but says that it draws its membership almost exclusively from AVEN. “It’s an interesting little online community with some awesomely weird folk,” she said. “We’re all pretty much obsessed with cake and gender issues and Doctor Who. I’ve met a lot of them in ‘real’ life, and in fact, my partner and I are going down to meet some of them in New York City this weekend… It’s almost surprising how close you can become to people very quickly. It’s kind of awkward at first, but we have a lot in common.” By “cake,” Alexis meant the tongue-in-cheek symbol of the asexual community, a slice of cake, which originated when one asexual described his experience by saying, “Between cake and sex, I’d choose cake.”
While some asexuals try to date within the community by ing sites such Asexualitic.com, others are more open to dating sexual partners. Alexis emphasized that even though “some asexuals are very sex-repulsed, others are very sex-indiﬀ erent… It’s not a bad experience.” Broaching the subject can be awkward, Alexis acknowledged. “Some of the asexuals I know that do date choose to stay within ace-minded communities for that reason, in that it’s kind of awkward to go on the first date and say, ‘Oh, by the way…’ But some of the people I know are very blunt about it, and it works for them.”
Overall, Alexis said, many asexual relationships don’t diﬀ er all that much from a “normal” sexual relationship. Open relationships do tend to be a greater presence on AVEN than in the general public, though, and many asexuals have more fluid life plans than getting married and having kids at a certain age. “Some people re-adopt that plan later,” Alexis said, “but on their own terms.”
One perk of identifying as asexual, Alexis told me, is that many people find that “discovering their asexuality liberated them from feeling like they had to be held up to certain standards, and it helped them become much closer to a lot of their friends, in that they started treating their relationships more like friendships, and their friendships more like relationships.” She clarified, “In a certain way, they try to remove the ‘just’ in front of ‘just friends,’ because no, a friendship does not have to be in any way a lesser kind of relationship than a romantic one. Society makes you think that your goal in life is to find a specific romantic relationship. And ultimately, we should build emotionally close relationships with everyone around us.”
Throughout our interview, Alexis’ primary focus returned again and again to acceptance: both within the community of all experiences, and outside the community of asexuality. She sees the goal of AVEN as “just getting the word out there as a legitimate orientation and not a disorder or some kind of deviation.” As she pointed out, “There’s not normal people and asexual people, there’s sexual and there’s asexual people, and they’re both equally legitimate ways to approach the world and have relationships.”