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Asexual awareness week

Once upon a time, I was young and foolish, and thinking I was so enlightened about sexuality I suggested at a lunch table with friends that Freud was onto something when he said “the only unnatural sexuality is none at all”. Little did I know a friend at that table with me — about whom I think the world, and would never want to hurt — identified as asexual.

I was mortified to learn this a few years later. Such a casual throwaway comment, made thinking I was flip and clever and progressive, that hurt a dear friend.

I’m happy to see this exists. Maybe I can assuage my guilty conscience a bit by helping promote it. Though I am not asexual myself, I know a few people who do identify as such, and in all our talk about gender and sexuality around these parts, it’s only fitting that we avoid erasing an entire class of people.

From their 101 page:

What is an asexual person?

An asexual person is someone who does not experience sexual attraction. Most individuals find there are certain people they are not sexually attracted to. For asexuals, this includes everybody!

Is asexual another word for celibate?

Unlike celibacy, which is a lifestyle choice, asexuality is a sexual orientation – just like homosexuality, bisexuality, and heterosexuality. Celibacy is a conscious decision not to have sex, regardless of sexual desire. Many asexuals do not consider themselves celibate, as they are giving up no more in abstaining from sex than a gay person is by abstaining from sex with someone of a different gender or a straight person is by abstaining from sex with the same gender. Furthermore, some asexual people do choose to have sex, and therefore are certainly not celibate.

It’s not about simply being celibate — asexual folks can choose to engage in sexual activities with people or with themselves, without necessarily having a sex drive of their own. They can be in romantic relationships. They can climax. They can do everything you can do. They can have an undirected sex drive. They can simply have no sex drive and if left to their own devices, would not seek it out. Or perhaps they even have boundaries that they define with their partners in advance. Or perhaps they have no desire to enter a romantic relationship at all. It’s every bit as varied as every other orientation.

We’d all do well to remember that when trying to be inclusive.

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    They can’t be Real Asexuals© unless they deny that sex exists because [wingnut] we all know that Real AtheistsⓇ deny that God exists [/wingnut].

    Without an organized movement, and a telegenic spokesperson to appear on Oprah, how can they hope to get enough recognition to even shoehorn a vowel into LGBTQ?

  2. says

    Yay! We’re becoming more visible. I had a rather *lightbulb* moment when I discovered asexual defined as an orientation. It was the first orientation that actually felt like it ‘fit’ me.

    AVEN is a good place to go to learn and meet other Aces as well.

  3. says

    Thanks for this post, Jason. I think part of the reason why the asexual community gets so little visibility is that, just like atheists, it’s difficult to build community on the basis of not being something. We are a diverse group of individuals whose one commonality is this fact of not possessing a trait; there’s only so much time you can spend discussing that.

    That being said, higher visibility can lead to more recognition and greater acceptance, both of which are good things.

  4. Terrene says

    “I wonder what is so incomprehensible about asexuality?”

    I’m going to moot poor publicity. Because until five minutes ago I too had, with blissful ignorance, never questioned the definition I’ve always heard – that to be asexual is to have no sex drive.

    And now I’ve had my own lightbulb moment and it all makes so much more sense to think of it in terms of orientation. Thank you Mr Thibeault and to Rawnaeris for hammering that home for me :-)

  5. thinkfree83 says

    I’m glad to see this post, being another asexual atheist. Although not all asexuals are celibate, I think that voluntary celibacy should be honored as a valid lifestyle choice, rather than as a dodge for people trying to repress homosexuality. The idea that everyone must be in a sexual/romantic relationship to achieve personal fulfillment is damaging IMO.

  6. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    I wonder what is so incomprehensible about asexuality?

    As if society’s mixed messages about sexuals made perfect sense:
    The greatest pleasure a person can feel, against which all other experiences are compared… when there’s nothing good on tv or you’re bored… and if you don’t enjoy it, you’re doing it wrong or haven’t tried often enough.
    Plus gender roles, religions’ anti-sex traditions/propaganda, and newage spirituality to muddy the subject.
     
     
    Article: Archives of Sexual Behavior – Why Humans Have Sex

    * The link has the full list of surveyed reasons and a link to the full pdf from the journal, sorted in several ways.

  7. Oob says

    Wow….

    Until about 5 minutes ago I’d never even heard of this. I’ve got some research to do though, because having an actual word for it (that isn’t said as a joke) could be a lot more useful to me than just saying “It’s just not something I think about.” when people ask about my “sexuality”.

  8. Arkady says

    Thanks for this, more general awareness of the existence of asexuality may save some teens a lot of confusion! Took me a long time to work out why I felt romantic attraction (to people of either gender), but none of what Captain Awkward refers to as ‘pants-feelings’.

    The most bizarre responses I’ve seen to asexuality online have come from religious nuts pushing celibacy for religious reasons. Apparently religious celibacy only counts if you’re actively resisting temptation, those of us who don’t get ‘tempted’ (and think religious reasons for celibacy are mostly nonsence) must be broken somehow and in need of fixing (someone earnestly told me that I must have been abused or traumatised and can’t remember it! When the worst that’s ever happened to me was testing the waters with an understanding partner, and finding it as exciting as watching paint dry), so that once ‘fixed’, we can be subject to temptation and gain religious creds for fighting said temptation…

  9. watry says

    As another asexual, yay for ace awareness! But I do think it’s worth saying straight out that, yes, some of us do have libidos. I learned from hanging out on the AVEN forums that plenty of us masturbate, have wet dreams, and so on.

    MrFancyPants @6, I think you can draw out the parallel even further. We’ve seen in the past two years or so how hard it can be to group atheists on the basis of atheism because although we all define ourselves as such, we have different priorities and even different definitions beyond ‘probably no god’. Same for asexuals–some of us have libidos, some don’t, some are celibate, some are not, some are anti-sexual, etc., etc.

    I really hope that all made sense.

  10. says

    @Pierce: Actually we have a lot of “telegenic speakers,” methinks! Asexual folks have been in the media consistently for years. We haven’t done Oprah, but we’ve been on 20/20, HuffPost Live, Montel, The View, Tucker Carlson, CNN, and more. Many of these bits feature David Jay, who’s usually read as pretty charismatic. I’m an asexual spokesperson too (gee, really?), and I’ve been in less media than he has, but I’ve been in a documentary (it’s called (A)sexual, available on Netflix), more than a half dozen magazine articles, radio and podcasts, and TV spots.

    Hopefully I’ll have a book out soon. :) In the meantime, I definitely recommend those Asexual Awareness Week links, and I have a YouTube channel and a Tumblr featuring asexuality-related videos and rants. :)

  11. says

    Terrene, glad I could help. For me, I discovered the term ‘asexual’ over on Natalie Reed’s blog, early last year. And something about her mentioning it in passing made me research it, which is how I found AVEN.

    It’s funny, but I’ve been a lot more comfortable in my own skin since I had a word to group my tendencies under. (I like being able to name things) It also helped that sensation of needing to ‘fix’ myself. The realization that I wasn’t broken, and that there were a lot of others out there with the same orientation did wonders for my perception of myself.

  12. John Horstman says

    That definition is problematic in my estimation. In focusing on “sexual attraction”, it necessarily defines sexuality as partnered (or at least outwardly and/or specifically oriented). As presently used in sexuality studies (in my experience), asexuality is the lack of sexuality (it’s right there in the name: “a-“, ‘not’, “sexuality”, a socio-psychological complex of desires, feelings, behaviors, fantasies, and/or physical sensations/responses considered ‘sexual’, which is to say related to sensations that are in my present context here in USA in 2013 CE commonly – though not universally – associated with desire for and/or experience of pleasurable genital stimulation and/or orgasm), and that includes autosexuality/solo-sexuality/non-oriented sexuality, not ONLY partnered/other-oriented sexuality. In (my circles of) sexuality education/activism, we’ve been trying for decades (I personally have only been involved in sexuality activism for a decade or so, but others have been trying for longer) to get self-sexuality recognized as ‘legitimate’ and in some cases even minimally non-pathological, and this has the potential to undermine those efforts. My hypothesis is that people who experience only self-sexual/non-oriented sexual desire are likely identifying as “asexual” in the first place becasue the heterosexist popular conceptualization of sexuality is always implicitly partnered. People with sexualities not oriented toward other people but who still experience sexuality reinforce the problematic popular conceptualization of ‘sexuality’ as always partnered when they identify as asexual – I see this as a result of internalized heterosexism.

    I will qualify the above with this: language is always a political exercise. I do not mean to directly deny the legitimacy of any given person’s self-identification as asexual. If you wish to change/succeed in changing the broadly used/understood definition of the term (presently ‘lack of sex drive’ in common understanding, more technically ‘lack of sexuality’) to mean ‘lack of sexual attraction’ or ‘lack of other-oriented sexuality’, then by all means have at it. Those of us in sexuality studies will have to change our term-of-art to compensate: I make no special claim to the term itself (I myself have started using “nonsexual” to describe people who do not experience sexuality at all, even without broad consensus, as “asexual” seems to be the identity label that is gaining the strongest support, and as an identity it is not perfectly congruent with the present academic use of the term). I absolutely do intend to challenge people identifying as asexual – particularly those who “have libidos”, as watry puts it – to question whether they’re adopting and reinforcing a heterosexist conception of sexuality in the first place, and to be consciously aware that they are in fact attempting to change the definition/function of an existing term of categorization as a political act. That’s a perfectly reasonable, legitimate aim/behavior, and it should be undertaken with a full awareness of its nature to be most effective (and perhaps help head-off arguments over semantic authenticity).

  13. says

    Well, for the record, John, lots of people who study sexuality in an academic capacity have acknowledged asexuality as a sexual orientation. I agree with you that people often think of sexual orientation as “partnered” and that if you experience no sexual attraction to anyone it doesn’t mean you can’t have sexual experiences with yourself–and that’s something regularly discussed in the asexual community. Some have libidos and are self-sexual, and some don’t. Some even have partnered sex without attraction to the partner because they like sex itself. Asexuality is also now included as an *exception* to sexual dysfunctions in the DSM-5 (in two places–Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder and Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder.

    If you’re interested in what’s been published on this subject for the last ten years, I recommend you check out Asexual Explorations, Asexuality Studies, Mark Carrigan‘s work, or Anthony Bogaert’s textbook Understanding Asexuality.

  14. Oob says

    After reading around, I’m still in a bit of shock about all this. In spite of what is said above about being on certain programs on TV, such appearances are still rare enough that I never even knew such a thing existed until now.

    Well, I guess I kinda did, because honestly this explains a lot about me. I got nothing going on, sexually, and have never wanted to, either internally or externally. Going “atheist” ended up being a tad more painful for me just because I always got the impression that I was being seen as a “prude” with “leftover hangups”. Apparently there’s a full “range” and a movement and everything, this “range” of asexuality will take a bit of getting used to though, as all I’ve got is my own experience to go on, and frankly I’m at the extreme end of it from their definitions. I’m the one who just sorta stares and blinks when PZ posts a bunch of flower pictures and says “these things look like genitals”. Um… Okay?

    Thank you for posting this, it’s the first time I’ve seen it mentioned here (not that it’s the first time it HAS been mentioned, but there is NO system of cataloging on most blogs, this one included, making it very hard to “peruse” archives, this place really needs a table of contents). I doubt I’d use this word in public though. My past experience has been that being called asexual is just a joke, not something anyone would take seriously (and usually is code for “you’re just repressed”).

  15. says

    Hi Oob, having been in the whole asexuality awareness business since before there was an Internet to do it on, I gotta say I’ve heard stories like yours many times–wow this exists, wow this is what’s been going on with me all this time, wow there are other people like this, wow there’s a community. I imagine it takes some getting used to–I’m kind of weird in that I don’t remember ever NOT acknowledging that I was “nonsexual” (the word I used before the asexual community began to be formed online and started using that word). It’s really not necessary to “come out,” as it were, if you feel uncomfortable with using those words or describing yourself in those terms, but there are tons of resources (as you may have found looking around). I personally make asexuality awareness videos and I am probably the best-known asexual channel on YouTube, so maybe you can gain perspective from some of my better videos (I have a lot of videos but a LOT of the older ones are very rambly.)

    Here are a few of them if you would like to see some debunking of misconceptions and stuff:

    Asexual Bingo: I do a humorous rundown of the nastiest comments and mock them.

    Shit People Say to Asexuals: 16 asexual people repeat the most common things that are said to invalidate them (or just annoy them), and I edited this project: yep, the whole “you’re just a prude/repressed” is in there. The video info has a link that explains why the stuff we said in the video isn’t accurate or is inappropriate.

    I guess the other one I’d recommend is the Asexuality: An Overview but that one’s featured in the Asexual Awareness Week materials I think.

    I also have this really extensive site and collection of links in a sidebar on my asexuality page–you can find links to academic research, mainstream media appearances, and interviews. There’s also an asexuality-related documentary that you can watch if you have Netflix; it’s called (A)sexual. And if you like, you can check out my asexuality-related essays on Tumblr.

    For the record, I never really think the stuff PZ posts looks like genitals either. But usually “dirty” humor doesn’t escape me. :)

  16. says

    This makes me so bloody happy to exist.

    Just this weekend, while back “home” in Georgia, I decided to try coming out to an old friend, who promptly said “Bullshit”.

    Granted, in my years back home, I tried my damndest to be some kind of sexual rebel, flaunting all those crazy rules about relationships and throwing up middle fingers to the family that told me I was too ugly to get laid/married by drinking too much and bedding anyone who wanted me. But I never guessed why I never really enjoyed my encounters (lack of pants feels, everything felt fake, like I was putting on a show), not until a few years ago. And the term asexual fit. It clicked with me.

    So maybe I’m not ready to share this with any close friends from back home yet, but I’m embracing it in steps.

    So um…thanks!

  17. David Marjanović says

    Without an organized movement, and a telegenic spokesperson to appear on Oprah, how can they hope to get enough recognition to even shoehorn a vowel into LGBTQ?

    The term QUILTBAG already exists. (I is for intersex, U probably for undecided/unsure, I forgot.)

  18. says

    Yeah, you got it right: Q (queer), U (unsure/undecided), I (intersex), L (lesbian), T (trans*), B (bisexual), A (asexual), G (gay). Some people will say the A is for allies instead or in addition, though.

    Also, the movement is actually more organized than people think. There’s no single asexual culture or President of Asexuality or anything, but there are several organizations that actually do political and social advocacy, as well as specific educational efforts and tons of blogs and YouTube outreach and whatnot. The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (asexuality.org), Asexual Awareness Week (asexualawarenessweek.com), and Partnership for Asexual Visibility and Education (acesandallies.org) are some major ones. :)

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