These days, lust feels so ubiquitous that it's genuinely refreshing to hear about people who just aren't into sex. Our Fifty Shades fatigue may actually have an upside if the sex-averse and sex-indifferent start getting more media coverage and balancing out the lusty, sexy mainstream.
In a recent piece at Wired, Kat McGowan goes to a campus outreach center at UT Knoxville in Tennessee and talks to a group of people who identify as asexual (meaning not into sex) or demisexual (meaning rarely, but sometimes, into sex). Though such people represent, according to McGowan, anywhere from 1 to 6 percent of the population, the fact of not being DTF is still a barely understood orientation, often mocked and frequently considered abnormal or dysfunctional. These students identify by a variety of unofficial terms coined from collaborative efforts online, such as aromantic asexual, heteroromantic demisexual, panromantic gray-asexual. McGowan notes that these are not "fixed identities," but rather, "beacons."
Not sure what these terms mean? You're not alone. The definitions are still in flux, but most people who describe themselves as demisexual say they only rarely feel desire, and only in the context of a close relationship. Gray-asexuals (or gray-aces) roam the gray area between absolute asexuality and a more typical level of interest. Then there are the host of qualifiers that describe how much romantic attraction you might feel toward other people: Genevieve says she could theoretically develop a nonsexual crush on just about any type of person, so she is "panromantic"; Sean is drawn to women, so he calls himself "heteroromantic."
Such designations may sound strange to anyone charting themselves on a fairly "normal"—that is to say, culturally reinforced and gender-aligned—lust spectrum. Even within this spectrum, there are so many questions and variances. How much do other people inspire lust in you, and what people, and in what way, and how quickly, and does it line up with what you were taught you should feel, and how comfortable are you with that? We may be growing accustomed to dealing in these categories, but less so when the category is lust-free.
And, reading McGowan's piece, what is refreshing about asexual status is that its proponents are so much more fluid about the terminology of their own desire, and much more open to the notion that their feelings today may or may not be their feelings tomorrow. "Every single asexual I've met embraces fluidity—I might be gray or asexual or demisexual," 24-year-old student Claudia told McGowan.
The idea that a sexual identity could fundamentally be fluid is an idea that often inspires anger in others. Bisexual people know all too well the implication that they should just "pick a side." But for many asexuals, any final question is unanswerable. And I would argue that sexuality is fluid for many people—many more people than admit as much, or even understand as much after a lifetime of conditioning. The ability to embrace that ambiguity comfortably can signify the opposite of dysfunction: being deeply attuned to yourself. Being aware of your own complicated response to lust in a world where everyone else's appears far more straightforward and predictable takes a certain bravery.
But try telling that to the friends and family members of asexuals, who often stigmatize their loved ones when they wonder—as McGowan notes—whether these orientations are simply the result of a phase, closeted homosexuality, hormone trouble, or trauma. Many of McGowan's interview subjects insist to her that they are not simply shy prudes. Some of them, like one Genevieve, dream more of talking on the phone and handholding then intercourse (she was called a cold fish growing up). It took her three years before she felt interested in sex with her boyfriend, James, who waited patiently. They are now married.
But regardless of the stigma, the number of identified asexuals is growing, if the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) and its some 80,000 registered users are any indication. In a 2012 piece by Rachel Hills at The Atlantic interviewing the site's founder, David Jay, he tells a common story among asexual identifiers—of a desire and drive for sex that never hit, while his peers became consumed, one by one, with the impulse.
"I just didn't get it," he recalls. "I didn't have a reference point to understand what they were going through. And that's really terrifying, because everyone assumes that's what should be happening for you. Sexuality is a really big deal for almost everyone, from middle school on. It's a really central part of a lot of people's lives."
Hills clarifies some important things about asexuals—namely, that it's the absence of sexual attraction that defines it, not romantic attraction. So asexual people are not anti-social or isolated per se or not into hanging out and going steady. They want to connect with others, just not always physically, or to varying degrees. Hill writes:
Some asexual people are in romantic relationships, others aren't. Some are outgoing, others are shy. Some are sexually active for the sake of their partners or social pressure, some have never so much as kissed another person. Some think sex is disgusting, some are indifferent, and some think it's great for other people but have no wish to "go there" themselves.
Back at the Wired piece, McGowan sums it up thusly:
For a demisexual, there is no moment of glimpsing a stranger across the room and being hit with a wave of lust. "I've only ever been sexually attracted to three people in my whole life," wrote one self-described demisexual, Olivia, a few years ago. "My partner is sexually attracted to that many people during particularly sexy bus rides."
One interesting variation: A demisexual McGowan spoke said he had plenty of lust emanating from within, it just didn't actually match to a person:
"I want to have lots of crazy, kinky sex, just not with anyone," says Mike, a 27-year-old Canadian who works in a factory. "If someone tried to initiate something, I'd throw my hands in the air and run out of the room screaming."
If this initially all seemed very fringe to me, it soon became more relatable than I anticipated. Lust doesn't leap out of all of us in the same way simply because it should on paper. My own desire fluctuates drastically depending on the person and the situation, the fantasy or the reality, the weather, the connection, the time of month. Yours probably does too.
And we all have to negotiate differing libidos with partners. Most of us have known the feeling of not being turned on at all, or being turned on but not necessarily wanting a person to satisfy it. Each of us is forever subject to our own highly complex and personal feelings about sex on a day to day basis. No one knows this better than psychologists, who don't dismiss this arena of sexuality as the result of disorder. McGowan writes:
But the few psychologists who have explored asexuality concur: People who don't want to have sex aren't necessarily suffering from a disorder. "It's a concept that is so foreign to most people that they believe there must be some pathological explanation," says Lori Brotto, a psychologist and associate professor of gynecology at the University of British Columbia. Although there's no definitive proof that hormones have nothing to do with it, most asexuals go through puberty normally and don't seem to have hormonal or physiological problems. In one of Brotto's studies, asexual women's physical arousal responses were no different from other women's.
This, Brotto notes, is different from a loss of libido when one was experienced normally before.
It often feels like one of the main purposes of the internet is perversity. To paraphrase Rilke in the most blasphemous way possible, there is no pornographic place that does not see us. And we barely even notice the extremities of lust anymore.
Which is why, finally, indifference can be far more interesting than the often joyless prurience that passes for sexuality these days. If nothing else, it's worth imagining how much time asexuality must free up. You realize how much your relationship to sex (or grooming, or eating) occupies your every waking moment, and if you could just take a break, you'd get a lot more done in a day.
The more coverage asexuality gets in the media, the closer we will come to accepting that fixed and binary systems for understanding gender and sexuality are limiting and inaccurate. We've come closer to understanding female sexuality this way: that not wanting sex doesn't necessarily mean dysfunction, but rather that how we desire is multifaceted and complex, unpredictable, and perhaps on some level, always unknowable. There should be space in the world to lust as we want, which means to not lust at all. As McGowan notes, we treat lust and gratification as nonnegotiables, while "the idea of freedom from sexuality is still radical." But it shouldn't be.
Image by Tara Jacoby