As promised last month on AVEN, here’s the outline of the material Mech and I presented for the workshop “Asexuality 101” at Pervers/Cité on August 7th. For anyone planning to do something similar, feel free to use anything you find here in your own presentations. :cake:
Icebreaker: Who are you, what are you doing here, and what is your favourite kind of cake? (Also, make it clear from the start that people can interject and ask questions. The workshop is much better as an interactive presentation than as a lecture.)
Who here has heard of asexuality? Do you know any asexuals? Are there any asexuals here?
An asexual is “a person who does not experience sexual attraction.” When we say this the question then becomes: “So, what is sexual attraction?” For which there isn’t really an easy answer… I would define sexual attraction as “the desire to engage in sexual activity with someone in particular: in other words, directed sexual desire.” The cause of asexuality, like the “cause” of homosexuality, is unknown.
A food metaphor sometimes help to clarify the concepts above. So, someone puts cake in front of you. Let sexual attraction be the desire to eat the cake. Asexuality is the lack of the desire to do so at all, as regards any cake. In contrast, celibacy is like choosing not to eat it despite the possible desire to do so, for instance due to being on a diet. Also, this is different from someone who likes cake but just doesn’t want that particular cake: most (i.e. non-asexual) people are indeed like this. So there are people who don’t like cake, period, or in other words there are people who just aren’t interested in sex.
In defining sexual attraction we have necessarily separated it from romantic attraction, which also has its own spectrum – heteroromantic, homoromantic, bi, pan, etc. Many asexuals are still very much capable of romantic attraction, even if they don’t experience sexual attraction.
We’ve said that sexual and romantic attraction are different things, and that asexuals are people who can experience the latter but not the former. Aromantics are a subset of asexuals who don’t experience romantic attraction either.
Then we have demisexuals, or gray-A’s (though these two terms aren’t always considered synonymous), who experience sexual attraction only after they have formed an emotional connection with someone. Another way to talk about demisexuality is to first talk about primary versus secondary sexual attraction. Primary sexual attraction is based on someone’s phenotype (appearance). Secondary sexual attraction is based on one’s relationship with another person. So, demisexuals experience only secondary sexual attraction, and asexuals experience neither. The reason we mention demisexuality together with asexuality is that demisexuals tend to find the experience of their sexuality more like that of asexuals than non-asexuals.
Asexuals can also experience aesthetic attraction. In other words, asexuals can tell whether someone is good looking. This has often been talked about in the same way someone will look at a painting and say, “that’s beautiful.”
As is the case of other sexual orientations like homosexuality and heterosexuality, the concept of asexuality is modern even though it can be roughly applied to people from the past. The modern concept has antecedents in the work of early sexologists such as Alfred Kinsey, whose study of human sexuality involved the use of a 7-point scale where 0 represented total heterosexuality, 6 total homosexuality, and 1-5 various degrees of bisexuality. “Asexuals” were indicated with an X instead of a number, although there was little discussion of them. Likewise, other sexologists also mentioned asexuality in their classifications of human sexual orientation, but generally without going into much detail. Beginning in the late 1970’s there began to be psychological studies specifically on the topic of asexuality, and within the last decade or so there have been a relatively large number of psychological and also sociological studies on asexuality.
The appearance of the latter is telling because it is result of the appearance of asexuals as a self-identified group, something which has only happened on a relatively large scale within the past decade or so. The reason for this is probably the spread of the Internet. While studies such as those above suggest that asexuals could make up as much as 1% of the population, this is not actually a measure of self-identified asexuals but rather of people classified as asexual by researchers and surveyors. Within this population, the number of people who are even aware of the possibility of self-identifying as asexual is probably much smaller. However, the Internet has made it much easier to spread unfamiliar ideas, making it easier for people to encounter the concept of asexuality and the fact that asexual people do indeed exist, and in particular it has helped many of us to better understand who we are and come to an asexual identity. The Internet has also made it much easier for self-identified asexuals to organize into a community. For instance, there is an asexual meetup group in this city, but without the Internet it would have been very difficult for us to find each other!
So, a number of asexual communities in many languages have appeared on the Internet within the past decade, the largest and nearly-oldest being AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, founded by David Jay in 2001. The definition of “asexual” we introduced at the start of this talk is the one used by AVEN in fact; it should be noted that I don’t think people like Kinsey were using entirely identical definitions. However, it is the AVEN definition which has come to define the asexual community: people who self-identify as asexual are likely to be doing so on the basis of this definition or one related to it.
Besides AVEN, there are now many other online asexual communities, blogs, writing circles, etc.
Of course, our very presence here shows that the asexual community isn’t confined to the Internet, and to gain greater societal recognition of asexuality we seek to make our presence known offline too. One of the main ways in which this has happened has been through the queer movement. Pride parades may often now feature a small asexual contingent, and asexuals may even give workshops with campus queer groups and at awesome grassroots queer festivals. We’ll talk more about asexuality and queer issues later, but for now let’s move on.
Symbols – cake, black ring, flag/colours (black, grey, white, purple), ace (and “ace” as asexual), triangle, etc…
What asexuality is not
So, despite the fact that the asexual orientation isn’t well known, it remains that people may have certain misconceptions about asexuality when they hear the term, for instance if someone comes out to them as asexual. We’ll discuss a few of these misconceptions now. (At this point we passed out some of those coming out as asexual bingo cards.)
Firstly, asexuality is not antisexuality: asexuals are not by definition against sex, just not personally interested.
Secondly, asexuality isn’t the same thing as celibacy either: it’s a sexual orientation, not a lifestyle choice. Strictly speaking, asexuality is in fact independent of celibacy. Most asexuals seem to be celibate, but that isn’t necessary to their definition as asexuals. For instance, there are some asexuals in relationships with non-asexuals who do have sex for their partners’ sakes.
It should also go without saying that, when applied to humans, asexuality is not a form of reproduction. Although that would be kind of awesome…
Asexuality is also not a mental/physical/social disorder, or the result of sexual dysfunction. It is not repressed homosexuality or somesuch, for the reasons of attraction we mentioned already – asexuals are just as aware of to whom they are attracted as anyone else. It’s not a response to trauma. It’s also not a synonym for intersex or androgyny. Of course, none of this is to say that there aren’t asexuals who, for example, have experienced sexually traumatic events. Our point is simply that this isn’t what defines asexuality or informs the experience of most asexuals.
Asexuality is also not simply a phase preceding heterosexual maturity. Unlike asexuals, few would tell self-described straight men, for instance, that they ought to give gay sex a fair try before declaring themselves to be straight. The difference is simply that heterosexuality is more familiar than asexuality, being normative in our society. Similarly, while the queer movement has made gains, it still happens that, for instance, lesbians are told they should try having sex with men before being so sure about their being lesbian (i.e. that they’re just going through a phase preceding their maturation into heterosexuals). While more familiar than that of asexuals, their experience too is not normative, and so they are more likely to also receive this sort of response.
Asexuality and queer
This brings us to the subject of the relationship between the queer and asexual communities. Of course, people both within and without the asexual and queer communities have at times questioned our involvement in the latter. At this point it might be appropriate to discuss our goals and what we have in common. Starting with the latter, we should get out of the way the obvious point that asexuals may already be queer in ways having nothing to do with asexuality: the legality of gay marriage is, for instance, a potential personal concern for homoromantic asexuals, and the perhaps relatively large proportion of trans individuals in the asexual community can make trans issues a common concern as well. At the same time though, asexuality in its own right has a place because, like the queer movement in general, it poses a challenge to heteronormativity. We’ll next discuss how this is so.
Firstly, asexuals say that sexual and romantic attraction are separate things. In a sense there is already a broader recognition of this: most people are probably familiar with this idea in its inverse: sex without romance. However, asexuality goes further than this and has broader implications on the concept of orientation itself. For instance, we can for instance speak of sexual orientation and romantic orientation. If I say that so-and-so is gay then what I generally mean is that he is homosexual and homoromantic. However, once these things are separated it becomes simpler to account for such people as are, for instance, bisexual and homoromantic. Such nuance better accounts for actual human experience and the possibilities of relationships beyond “straight” and “gay.”
Asexuality also has implications as regard gender. Our society has a number of prominent albeit at times conflicting gender norms. For instance, there is the idea that “real men” must want sex. Asexual men would suggest that this isn’t necessarily the case. While there is also the idea that people must experience sexual attraction in their (cis)gendered capacity as men and women, there is at the same time an idea held by some that women aren’t actually interested in the sexual aspect of relationships. We know that this is generally false, but it can have odd implications as regards asexual women, who can have particular difficulty convincing people that they are asexual, i.e. that it is meaningful to apply this label to them in such a way as to distinguish them from other women.
As was said, by observation there seem to be a lot of trans, genderqueer, etc. asexuals. One hypothesis for why this may be so is that the concepts of sex and gender are so intertwined in our society, and in this case I do mean sexual intercourse. From the foundations of heteronormativity, there are males and there are females, which are opposites that come together to have sex. But if sex never enters into the equation, as is the case for asexuals, then why does it matter that I’m a male and that person’s a female? What do biological parts have to do with anything? That’s not to say that this would account for everyone, but it does account for some of us.
As for our specific goals as regard asexuality, our main goal is to gain broader recognition of the concept itself and acceptance of asexual individuals among the population. The lack of awareness of asexuality has the effect that we generally aren’t the target of discrimination in the same way that, for instance, gay people are. At the same time though, our experience of asexuality is real, and so its default non-recognition leads to its social erasure. This can have a number of negative effects on asexuals. For starters it can make it difficult just to talk about who we are without having to speak at treatise length and, more seriously, face the real possibility of rejection from those we’d like to trust (see also the bingo card). The relative obscurity of the concept makes it especially difficult for asexual adolescents to understand who they are at a time in their lives when this is very important. The lack of prominent asexual voices in our society means that we can’t find many role-models as regards our experience of sexuality. The lack of many actual asexual characters in fiction can make much of it hard for us to relate to, if not at times downright alienating. So it is things like these that we hope to change by gaining visibility. So, we’d like to hear from you (the workshop attendees) on how you might think we should go about it. The one thing I can say is that from the LGBT movement we’ve learnt the importance of coming out: visibility for asexuality won’t be gained so long as we as individual asexuals remain invisible.
During the final discussion there was some talk, motivated by the workshop attendees themselves, about how LGBT groups can be more accommodating of asexuals. We mentioned that LGBT groups often include asexuality in the boilerplate of their mandates, and that in a few jurisdictions where discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is prohibited, asexuality is listed as protected: we don’t have much of a problem with de iure recognition so much as de facto recognition! Someone also raised concerns about sex-positivity, saying that while it ought to be about freedom of choice in sexual matters, it often boils down into the message of “sex is good, so have lots of sex,” which tends to alienate asexuals. We might want to say something about this in future versions of this workshop, perhaps speaking about the relationship between the asexual and queer communities at the practical level (as opposed to the more theoretical level discussed above).
The only real source of difficulty we had concerned the matter of libido as something distinct from sexual attraction. We didn’t really make this distinction clear at the start (saying only that sexual attraction was directed sexual desire, but saying nothing much about the possibility of undirected sexual desire and how this relates to asexuality: our food metaphor should have mentioned the general feeling of hunger), so there were a number of questions about this from people who were trying to understand the basic concepts involved. As these concepts really are quite important, since they underlie almost everything that follows, they should be stated more clearly in the future.