Earlier this week, I had the privilege of meeting with some lovely folks over at the University of Arizona's LGBTQ Affairs department for a roundtable discussion about asexuality. This discussion was inspired, in part, by the desire to inform those who work with sexually marginalized groups or as sexuality educators about the oftentimes ignored or negated asexual community. Thanks to the internet, more and more folks who identify as asexual, have been able to reach out and form networks and communities, and this has, in turn, raised the visibility. While I am in no way an expert, I'd like to take this opportunity to share what I have learned in an effort to spread awareness.
What is Asexuality?
Put simply, it is defined by a lack of sexual attraction towards others. However, there are many different degrees and manifestations of this, so ultimately, like any other sexuality, it is a wholly unique and self-defined experience. One helpful way of understanding asexuality is by understanding what it is not.
Asexuality is not celibacy or abstinence. The latter two are a choice to abstain from sex, while the former is an intrinsic orientation. So again, those who identify as asexual (or as "Aces," colloquially speaking), do not experience sexual attraction towards others. This may manifest as abstaining from sex or it may not. The defining aspect is the lack of attraction, rather than the lack of sex. Many aces may experience romantic/emotional attractions to others and may therefore be engaged in romantic relationships. This may or may not involve different degrees of sexual activity. For some, having sex is simply a desire to bring their partner happiness and fulfill their partners needs, but they themselves do not actually experience sexual attraction or desire towards their partners. For some, having sex is simply tolerated, for others, it is an enjoyable act. So what is the difference between having sexual attractions towards others and simply enjoying sex as a physical sensation? As The Asexual Visibility and Education Network has aptly put it: "think of it as not being hungry but still enjoying an ice cream cone."
Some Aces absolutely do not enjoy and cannot tolerate having sex with their romantic partners. Obviously, this can be a tricky business, and just like in any other mature relationships, there are a variety of solutions. Some negotiate open or polyamorous relationships, and therefore their partner's can have their needs met with other sexual partners. Some are in relationships with others who also identify somewhere on the asexual spectrum, so not engaging sexually is a non-issue. In the cases where an asexual person is in a romantic relationship with a sexual person, sometimes the strength of the emotional bond is strong enough to carry them through. And other times, just like in any other relationship where specific needs and preferences are irreconcilable, the relationship may simply not be meant to be.
What else is asexuality not? It is not a pathology. Historically, any trait or orientation that does not conform to a society's sense of "normal," a notion that oftentimes has religious underpinnings, has been labeled as a sickness. This is despite the fact that these traits are not causing any bodily harm to oneself or others. Of course, if one experiences a sudden change in levels of sexual desire, this could be a red flag for a medical issue or result of a certain medication, and so is worth talking to your doctor about. This is true of any sudden physical change. But short of that, lack of sexual attraction does not indicate any "illness." In this same effort to try to pathologize asexuality, some claim that asexuality must be the result of early sexual trauma or fear of intimacy. There is absolutely no scientific basis or research to support this. Sadly, a significant portion of all communities, no matter how they sexually identify, have experienced sexual abuse. Naturally then, this will be reflected in the asexual community, as well. This does not negate their identity. If there are traumas and issues to work through, these issues do not simply disappear- regardless of the way somebody self-identifies.
Some Other Myths
Myth: Asexual individuals do not have any libido and do not masturbate.
Fact: While many Aces do not have any sexual desire whatsoever, many do, in fact, experience arousal and do masturbate. There is a distinction between sexual arousal and sexual attraction. Again, asexuality is defined by a lack of sexual attraction toward another person. This is why it is considered a sexual orientation. So if this is a sexual orientation in and of itself, does that mean that asexual people cannot also be homosexual or heterosexual, etc.? Technically, yes. However, Aces can be hetero-romantic or homo-romantic or bi-romantic, etc. One can be romantically attracted to the same or opposite sex without being sexually attracted.
Myth: Aces must all be women.
Fact: People of all genders can and do identify as asexual.
Myth: Asexual folk must all be sexually repressed.
Fact: Most people who identify as asexual are actually sex-positive* and have progressive attitudes towards sexuality. They simply do not experience sexual attraction themselves. Even those who are personally repulsed by sex can have sex-positive attitudes on a general level.
There are plenty more myths to bust that are outside the scope of this article's word count! A great resource for those who either identify as asexual, are questioning their sexuality, who are allies or who would like to be allies, or who would simply like to get more informed is: The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (www.asexuality.org). An organization that is local to Arizona is Aces of Arizona (www.acesofarizona.org).
*"Sex-positive" is an ideology that views all aspects and manifestations of safe, sane, and consensual sex as a good and positive thing.
Ally Booker is a pleasure activist. She is passionate about educating herself and others on cool sexuality related things like communication skills, creating and respecting boundaries, sexual self-determination, destigmatization, gender and sexual expressions, sex toy use and safety, and all the other mechanics of pleasure. You can often find her milling around her Tucson shop, Jellywink Boutique, 418 E. 7th St., (888) 874-6588.