Reflections on a year spent studying asexuality

I was a little confused when I first encountered the term asexual. The person who used the term defined as asexual and yet, living with him at the time, I knew he had sex. Or at the very least that he sometimes brought people home who then spent the night. In common with most people, my initial sense of the term was some half-remembered throwback from secondary school Biology. So it was a little confusing to me that he apparently slept with people. It was the questions raised by this situation that fostered my initial interest in asexuality and, as I got answers, I found myself confronted by more questions which only amplified my newfound curiosity about the subject. By the start of 2009 I had resolved to satisfy my curiosity (in the process putting some of my training in social research to good use) and in the somewhat ephemeral space of time precariously lodged between my personal life and my PhD, I began a research project exploring asexuality and what it meant to asexual individuals.

As well as the asexual individuals I already knew, I found participants through the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) and the Asexuality Live Journal. The front page of the AVEN website defines an asexual as ‘someone who does not experience sexual attraction’ and due to the popularity of the site this definition has been highly influential. However as I soon found out, it was not exhaustive. Behind this ‘umbrella term’ lay a wide variety of people who related in a whole host of different ways to sex and romance. Some asexuals are indifferent to sex and, in the context of a relationship, are happy to have it because they know it’s important to their partners. Others find the prospect abhorrent and are utterly averse to the prospect of sex (although I heard many sad tales of people subjecting themselves to an experience they hated because at that point they didn’t feel it was ok to say they didn’t want to). Some asexuals are ardent romantics and want nothing more than to find someone special to share their life with. Others prefer to find companionship through friends and family, with no interest  in finding a partner. What unites them is a common experience of feeling alienated from a society which, particularly for young people, places a great burden on sexual experience as a sign of self exploration and growing up. For a lot of asexuals this left them feeling “broken” (this was a common phrase used) and abnormal. At least it did until they discovered the asexuality community and for the first time began to feel that their orientation was ok.

Overall the research has been an enormously positive experience for me, at least apart from my partner’s initial fears that the whole thing was a convoluted preliminary to coming out as asexual myself (apparently this used to happen with some frequency in the early days of modern sexuality studies). The idea that romantic attraction and sexual attraction are distinct (though for many people related) things has clarified a lot in my personal life. It’s also helped me understand the confusing encounters which too often plagued my adolescence. I’m much more comfortable with the fact that sex is something which only really makes sense for me within the context of a committed relationship (whereas I’d previously felt shy at expressing this thought around some of my more libertine friends). I’ve also been left with the strong conviction that the recognition of asexuality is not just important for asexuals but for everyone else as well.

For instance consider the impact that the struggle for gay rights has had on society and culture more widely. At its worst the increased awareness and visibility has produced phenomena such as the mock-lesbian Nuts-style porn shoots and the meterosexual cliché. At best though it has worked to make the world a safer and more humane place in which to live: more tolerant of sexual diversity, more aware of sexual choice and more open to sexual difference.

So why did the fight for gay liberation have this impact? At least in part it was down to the ideas which it established in the popular consciousness. For instance it wasn’t until people started calling themselves homosexual that it made sense for other people to call themselves heterosexual. Up until that point, it had simply been taken for granted and, as such, escaped scrutiny either by individuals or by society more widely.  As adjectives both homosexual and heterosexual were coined in 1892, in an English translation of work by the early sexologist Kraftt-Ebing. However, as a noun heterosexual didn’t enter common usage until the 1960s.

Similarly I think that a wider recognition of asexuality would inevitably give rise to a much deeper understanding of what it is to be sexual. Despite the pervasiveness with which the importance of sex is affirmed within our culture, we’re often profoundly inarticulate about the role that sex plays in our lives and why it is important to us. At least in terms of the younger generation, we’re far more likely to discuss sex (good sex, bad sex, weird sex ) then we are the place we presume it ought to occupy in our lives. We’re so prone to seeing sexuality as a marker of personal fulfilment that we rarely stop and ask ourselves where we, as individuals, stand in relation to it and what importance it genuinely holds in our lives. Crucially some of us don’t feel particularly free to say that, while we may want sex, it holds no great importance in our lives (at least not relative to other things like friends, romance and love).

Nowadays most people know someone from the LGBT community and, in many cases, this acquaintance forces them (at least fleetingly) to think about their own sexuality and what it means to them. What would happen if most people knew someone from the asexual community? I think, or at least hope, it would lead the rest of us to think more deeply about sex and in the process clarify where it stands for us in relation to romance and love. In short it would help us all to be a bit clearer about what matters to us and why. Perhaps then we’d all see that there’s more to life than sex and, more to the point, we’d be a lot clearer about what that ‘more’ is.

Originally posted on The Most Cake