Recently, I wrote about an interview in Wired's sex issue that sought to shed light on asexuality. After it ran, I received an email from an agender, asexual person I'll call Cody who felt I had mistakenly conflated a few key aspects and wanted to set the record straight.
First, here is the original piece. In it, I rounded up some of the more fascinating bits of author Kat McGowan's Wired piece, where she interviewed a slew of college students who identified as asexual. McGowan introduced a handful of terms under the asexual umbrella (such as demisexual, and gray-asexual) and let the students describe their own relationship to the term or concept. She also dug into a little bit of the history of the term's acceptance in mainstream conversations and the challenges asexual identifiers face.
In an effort to frame the discussion for a more general reader who is unlikely to identify as asexual (only 1 to 6 percent of the population does so at this time), I used some shorthand descriptors (i.e., that asexual means not being "into" sex), and tried to show it as perfectly relatable by suggesting that we are all perhaps more fluid in our orientation than we realize. I suggested that there is something refreshing about any orientation that isn't so sexed up. But this effort, though done in good faith, was misleading and inaccurate: It may have left some readers with the notion that asexuality is simply not feeling into sex one day (or at all), as if it's just a libido thing. It's not.
Below, Cody answers my questions about asexuality, where the piece went wrong, and the complications in raising awareness about asexuality — all of which adds some much-needed depth and nuance to this conversation.
Can you help define asexuality for readers?
Asexuality means a lack of sexual attraction to any gender, and nothing else. There are related terms to help discuss asexuality as an umbrella over a spectrum of experiences, but even with these terms, asexuality is not any sort of comment on sexual behavior. It is merely a description.
How do you explain what it means to strangers or acquaintances?
I just say, "It's like if you're straight, you're attracted to the opposite gender. If you're bi, it's to more than one gender. If you're homosexual it's to the same gender. And if you're asexual, it means you're not attracted to any gender. So that's me. I'm not sexually attracted to any gender." Of course there's also pan, poly, skolio, as orientations and more; sexual alignments vs. romantic ones; a whole spectrum of possibilities in terms of sexuality that only gets even more interesting when you remember to recognize genders outside of the binary as well.
But for people who aren't already acquainted, it can be a little bit much for a casual or first conversation. So if they ask, I'll tell them more.
What are some of the common questions you get about asexuality?
People are super interested by the notion of not having sex, and they want to know all about it. And because it's so often asexuals who are talking about the validity of sex-free lifestyles, it keeps getting associated as a purely asexual topic. It becomes synonymous with asexuality, essentially. I absolutely won't deny that the decision to have relationships without sex—or the strong identification with not desiring sex with other people—is a common preference among people who are asexual. But just because it's common doesn't mean that it's supposed to be part of the definition. So people think they're asking me about asexuality when they ask me about asexual sex lives, libidos, or desires, but they're not. They're asking me about the lives of people with low, nonexistent, or fluctuating libidos and that happens in every sexual orientation, not just in asexuality.
I wish more people would talk about it happening in other orientations, too. I think there can be a lot of stigma around having a low libido. We invent pills and make self-help books and everyone's trying to figure out how often is enough. For some people, a low libido causes actual dysphoria. But I feel that there are many for whom the dysphoria is more social. They're not sad they're not having that much sex, they're only worried that other people think it's wrong. If they didn't feel that social pressure, they might not have any stress about their low or non-libidos at all.
What are some of the more ridiculous things others say to you when you tell them you are asexual?
I don't have anyone in my life anymore who isn't open and respectful of diversity so I never had any problems within my immediate friends or family. For instance, when my sibling and I both came out at the same time as being agender to my mom, it was while we were taking turns at the toaster to make toast and she said "Hey, all I want is for you to be happy." And then we had toast together. That was it.
I wasn't the first genderqueer person in my social group, so it was more like discovering I had other things in common with people I already loved, more than finding out I was "different" in some way from the people I loved. In fact, in coming out as asexual in particular, I was way more unsure about it at first than they were. My mom wanted to throw me a damn party or something. Everybody just kept saying, "This is so great, you must feel so relieved!" I actually told them to tone down the cheer and give me a minute to process.
When it comes to being out in public I have a lot of privilege in choosing whether or not to disclose anything about being queer because people tend to assume my gender is female, my primary partner is a cis male, we chose to have a kid so people see me as being in a conventionally "accepted" relationship arrangement. I'm white, and I live in a liberal area so the few visually queer things about me don't usually quirk too many eyebrows. But it's not like I've never heard anything weird some of the times I have disclosed and it's usually been with people who don't know me personally first.
The worst personal example came up with a new doctor. When I told him I was asexual, he said that "wouldn't be physically possible" because I have given birth to a child. And he told me that I couldn't and shouldn't be asexual because "having sex is the most important part of the human experience. It's what makes us human." I explained to him that, while there isn't a ton of academic study on asexuality yet, the most referenced poll was done in the UK and found over 1 percent of people may be asexual, which makes millions. I reported him, because there was a possibility that more of his patients were asexual than just me, and his later boss told me he'd thought asexual meant "having no, or two sets, of genitalia." I told her it was unacceptable for a medical professional to be that ignorant and she agreed.
Occasionally, I've been asked if asexuality is related to being intersex or autistic (or another disorder on the spectrum that can effect someone socially). People seem to wonder that a lot. Those questions are way more awkward for me because I see them as expressing a whole range of ableist ignorance beyond just general ignorance about what asexuality means and about the spectrum humans come in.
I think that's part of why those who are commonly seen as not equal by society are also seen as sexually deviant, sexually promiscuous, sexually vacant, or denied sexuality entirely. Thinking that asexuality means having no sex drive and then immediately connecting that to disabilities or the state of being intersex is about also seeing people who are disabled or intersex as having no sex drives or sexual agency of their own.
How does asexuality come up with potential romantic partners?
When I came out, I was married to someone and also dating someone in a consensual polyamorous stick where I was in the middle. My relationships with my romantic partners were never "asexual relationships." They were just relationships between people who all were, coincidentally, within the asexual spectrum.
My husband had sexual attraction to any gender, but only rarely. (That means his orientation was under the asexual spectrum, but more like somewhere between pansexual and gray asexual.) He was most likely to be romantically attracted to people he perceived as women, and he was cis, so his romantic orientation was heteroromantic. His interest in sex was there, but wasn't important to him. He eventually stopped masturbating and would turn down sex often if he was tired or busy, but enjoyed it when he did have it. He'd had partners of other genders before me and our sexual activity together spanned anything from six times a week to once every couple years or so.
For the woman I was dating, she had no sexual attraction to anyone, so her sexual orientation was asexual. She was, as I understood it, not interested emotionally in men. She liked women or genderqueer people. That was her romantic orientation. She found people hot and was aware of sexiness in general, but in her case she didn't want to express any of her sexual feelings in physical ways with others. There was lots of turning each other on, emotional forms of intimacy (sexy and otherwise), lots of masturbation (though never together), and she was particularly satisfied by cheesy, smutty novels and erotica.
Both of my partners were happy, but I was confused by them. My relationship with my spouse mostly made sense because it more closely fit the narrative of what partners are "supposed to do," but I worried that we didn't have enough sex, and I was always worried about trying to "fix" our level of interest. I also second-guessed why my girlfriend never wanted to go "further" with me and worried that maybe what we had wasn't real. I asked her if she wouldn't, one day, find someone else. Because surely she'd want to get married or have sex with someone. How could she say she knew she didn't want to if she'd never tried? Did she think that maybe this was really just related to her insecurity?
In the end, it ended up being their confidence that they had a right to do what felt right to them that taught me about romantic relationships, not the other way around. It was only by my incredible good luck that they put up with my bullshit long enough for me to sort it out.
Why do you think asexuality is so easily misunderstood?
Lots of reasons. To my mind, it's partly an issue of people not understanding why the use for the word is evolving. And, for all these rules we have about when sex is finally "okay," if you go and say you don't actually want any, people really lose their shit. I think people find the idea of not wanting to have sex WAY more interesting than what asexuality actually means. In reality, people don't really care about who you're attracted to, they care about what you're doing or not doing.
In the recent piece, you took issue with some of my depictions of asexuality. One of them was that I conflated being asexual with having a low libido. I did point out that it was different, but in your view that was too muddled in the way the piece was framed. Can you elaborate on that misconception and explain the difference for readers?
My issue with your article began in the second paragraph when you said, "In a recent piece at Wired, Kat McGowan [...] talks to a group of people who identify as asexual (meaning not into sex) or demisexual (meaning rarely, but sometimes, into sex)."
So, yes, I did feel you conflated being asexual with low, or no, libido. When you go on to say, "the fact of not being DTF is still a barely understood orientation," you're clearly trying to educate and advocate for the freedom to be sex free (which is great) but are making a common error of talking about a lack of sex drive as being synonymous with asexuality.
I understand why people confuse these things so often. Asexual people talk about the lack of sexual libido in their community a lot, and it's easy to then assume it's always a given. And their decision not to have sex, although not exclusively an asexual situation, is still frequently because of, or related to, their lack of sexual attraction to other people. It makes sense they're defending their decisions not to have sex or trying to get people to understand it and how it relates to asexuality because it's a big part of their lives. But we need to be more clear that discussing the validity of low and non-libidos is not the same thing as discussing the validity of asexuality. They are different issues.
I think part of the issue is that up until now, the term asexual has been thought of as a feeling anyone can have when they aren't in the mood. But you mentioned that this then leads people to incorrectly conclude that if you can "feel" asexual, then you can easily be cured. You gave an example in your email to me of singer who publicly aligned herself with asexuality, then recanted.
I think that definitely has been a thing that people have told me. Though I personally see more often that asexuality has been used as a term to talk about asexual reproduction (which might explain why people believe asexuality refers to anatomical differences) or used as a term to talk about somebody who has no sexuality because they're somehow too "damaged" (which I think is an ableist stereotype about people who have disabilities or social dysfunction and how they're often interpreted socially as innocent, childlike, and sexless.)
When the singer I mentioned, or others, misuse asexuality as a descriptor of being "temporarily not in the mood," they are contributing to the misconception that asexuality is about not enjoying sex. Even worse, when they say things she did, like, "I guess I wasn't asexual, I just realized I'd never been with anyone who was any good at it," it's the exact kind of thing you hear from people who think that all anyone who isn't straight needs to do to "get normal" again is to have "good sex," whether they want it or not. 'Cause it's for their own good. 'Cause it'll help them be normal. 'Cause it'll show them what they're missing.
When we say "Oh, I used to be asexual, but then I got over it" or "—but I got a better sex partner," it's putting the wrong thing out there. It's an irresponsible, disrespectful, dangerous thing to say. If you're not in the mood, say you're not in the mood. Don't say you're asexual, demi, or gray ace. Your libido has nothing to do with it and all it does is confuse the issue or put others at risk for anything from frustrating misunderstandings to sexual violence.
In the comments, you felt there were a number of readers who argued that asexuality was something outside of the queer community. What would you say to that?
I think you get that in just about any open discussion of marginalized orientations or identities, not just asexuality. There can be a sense of "it's not your time yet." Or that we've come so far in getting people to accept homosexuality and we're almost there, but if we ask people to accept "too much" at once, they might just stop.
It was the same kind of logic used against anyone people get worried will be "too much" for the mainstream to handle. I feel like when people are asking if asexual people belong in the queer movement, sometimes that's shorthand for "I'm worried if we ask cishet [cisgendered heterosexual] people to understand this too they're going to throw their hands up, say 'This is too much, what's next??' and stop supporting my personal progress altogether."
It's, essentially, an issue of the social mainstream being afraid of the spectrum of human identities and rather than holding them to a higher standard, asking other queer people to keep quiet and not rock the boat and to see their silence about their own needs as being for "the greater good."
I don't feel like there get to be gatekeepers for who is allowed to say they feel queer. And I feel like it's going in the wrong direction when people say that asexuals don't have a right to claim to be a part of this fringe identity. I understand, on the one hand, why people are sensitive about those who they perceive as have privileges trying to be in a space with people who feel persecuted. But asexuality can frequently be just one component of an intersectional identity that is persecuted. And while asexuality isn't always a visible orientation, that doesn't mean that people don't suffer emotionally in the closet or face discrimination or danger out of it.
But more importantly than that, the whole thing also just insinuates that a defining feature of being queer is persecution. So whether asexuals receive a "fair dose" of the persecution or not just seems a really depressing stick to measure by. I don't want part of my identity's validity to be determined by feeling discriminated against or victimized. I don't want to feel like there is a hierarchy of who is "most abused" that needs to be respected and bowed to. As long as a person is being a good person and a good ally to their fellow queer peers and working for the advancement of all marginalized individuals and groups, isn't that what matters?
What about this notion that asexuals are simply trying to be special?
I feel like that's usually one of two things: It's either run-of-the-mill hostility or an intrinsic misunderstanding of terminology and why it matters. The whole idea that all asexuals want is the right to not have sex, so why not just stay home and not have sex then and stop trying to get all this attention for the fact that you don't want sex, is reductive.
As I've made pretty clear, people who are asexual don't universally define themselves as people who don't want sex. It can be an important and meaningful life decision for asexual people that isn't uncommon to make, but it's not all we are.We're not speaking up and demanding validation for the right to just not have sex. It's so much more complex than that because asexual rights are no less varied or complex than gay ones. They're just on different issues sometimes. There are many people who are asexual who are speaking out for it to be okay to be sex neutral and sex repulsed and see that as a part of sex positivity.
But they're not just doing it for people who are asexual. The asexual culture wants to support that for people of any orientation. Asexuals also often champion the idea that the goal shouldn't be to find a way to return to being, or simply ever to become, sexually active if one doesn't want. Many want to see being sex free, even if one has had trauma or medical issues, destigmatized.
Some may want to "reclaim" a lost libido, but if one doesn't, it shouldn't be defined as a pathology. In a particularly relatable topic, asexual issues often focus on defend aromantics because people who are aromantic face a lot of stigma for being so. But so does anyone who isn't following the socially mandated script of heterosexual monogamy with children.People who are not monogamous, who don't want to marry, the childfree by choice, those with fertility issues, or those for whom decisions about biological reproduction may be affected by issues related to their gender identity, and more—these are all people who are keenly aware of the social response to not following that social script.
I think that there's this sense that asexuals are a made-up group of people who just want to feel special and move into the queer world because they're jealous of the attention. The attention to queer issues was hard-won and I understand why people feel protective of it. But I also feel that's unfortunate, because many of our "asexual issues" are really just "anyone issues." When people on the asexual spectrum are talking about sexual, reproductive, and relationship freedom, we're talking about things that people from all different orientations get marginalized for. Those of us who are queer in some way to the social norm are sometimes living with emotional burdens, stigmatization and pathologizing, and social retribution that ranges from erasure to violence.
You said the biggest hurdle you deal with is helping people understand that this is not about labeling. But in many of the reported pieces about asexuality, interviewees (and journalists) often present any number of terms they've devised to "explain" how they fit within the asexual spectrum, like gray asexual, or demisexual. How do you reconcile the aversion to labeling with the need to be able to explain yourself or identify with a like-minded group?
People often seem to express bewilderment at the tendency to coin a new "label" for everything. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say we need to spend less time labeling and more time "just being human," and yada yada yada, then I'd have, like....a lot of money.
But honestly, in my anecdotal experiences, I find that the people saying that most often are the people who also appear to already be well-represented in society. Their "labels" are already considered "normal." So when they say we should stop trying to be so different from each other and be human, what kind of human do they mean? Human like them, I think. Their version of normal.
When society isn't choosing to represent you, sometimes you end up getting people coming together to forge their own culture, lingo, descriptions, icons, in jokes, and yes, labels. Not everyone does, of course. Neither my asexual girlfriend nor my grey-ace husband feel the need to interact with labels or participate in the ace community like I do. It's an individual choice.
But people do like that kind of thing sometimes. People identify as fans of certain teams, proud former members of a sorority or fraternity, people who identify strongly with a spiritual identity or hobby. We're certainly familiar with the ideas of being a feminist, gay, or queer being important to people. Labels that make sense to people, or are common, get accepted without much question but those that seem too new or don't apply to you sometimes get the weird looks. It doesn't mean they're wrong though, it just means they're unfamiliar.
When we coin things like non-binary, neutrois, panromantic, demifemme or try to make things like skoliosexual or queeromantic fetch, you inevitably get people rolling their eyes and mumbling about "LGBT letter soup" and "snowflakes." but all that sounds like to me is what it sounds like to gay people when you say "gay marriage" and some cis-het person says "What's next? Marrying a dog??" No, and they know it's not, so why do they compare it with something ridiculous? Because it's their way of saying we are ridiculous because they find what we're saying unfamiliar.
We know we have a culture and we're coming together to find out ways and words to do that and it makes those who choose to do that feel proud. It may not be your culture and you may not know the words for it yet, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be doing it or that it's ridiculous. It just means you're not informed. Calling us snowflakes is insinuating we do what we do for your attention. We don't. We're doing it for ourselves.
And I don't really care if everyone knows one that person "who is totally doing it just to get attention though." So you know one asexual person who's being an asshole. So what?
I made a joke at the end of my piece about how if nothing else, asexuals must get a lot done with all the free time they have not caught up in the drama of a sex life. You pointed out that this was a pretty tired joke, and dehumanizing, too. Can you explain?
Well first, it just continues the misunderstanding that sexual behavior goes hand in hand with asexuality as an orientation. It's the same kind of problem you have when people insinuate that gay people prefer meaningless sex or that bisexual people are just slutty.
We understand that those are problematic generalizations that misrepresent the actual experiences of the individuals they're about but we haven't yet evolved to a place in dialogue about asexuality that people recognize that's doing the same thing to aces. Any time you have a libido conflict, there's sex life drama. I bet there's a lot of readers who can personally relate to it and who aren't asexual. Being asexual just doesn't have anything to do with it.
The dehumanizing aspect is part of the "othering" response asexuals are subjected to. People sometimes blatantly say that asexuals must not be human, don't have feelings, or are cold and robotic, and that's pretty straightforward.
But sometimes people try to say something they think are complimentary and it's like, "Asexuals must feel so much peace, not having to worry about those things." I've even seen things like "asexuals seem like they have a purer kind of existence" and "asexuals seem like they'd have such unique perspectives on humanity, since they're not swayed by the same baser human instincts as the rest of us."
When it comes to compliments, I think it's best just not to do them. I don't think of many asexuals as wanting to be complimented for their sexual orientation. I can't think of many people who want to be complimented for their personal identities or orientations. Doesn't complimenting a person on being a trans man seem kind of creepy and objectifying? Is complimenting a guy on being gay something we do a lot?
The best way to show your support for asexuality isn't in trying to think of a silver lining or a compliment, it's just in understanding what it is, correcting misconceptions, including asexuality in discussions of possible orientations, and in understanding that asexuals are just people. Just people like you and just people like everyone else. I think that's all most asexuals really want. I know that's what I want.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image by Tara Jacoby.