Asexuality, Identity and ‘Scratching an Itch’

It’s pretty great when you stumble across people discussing your work on the internet. All the more so when they ask thought-provoking questions which make you reconsider arguments you’ve made in the past and encourage you to explore their limitations:

Asexual elitism is an elitist attitude where some asexuals don’t consider other people to be asexual because they participate in an activity that the asexual elitist thinks falls outside of the realm of asexuality. What the activity is, be it masturbation, kissing, or sex, varies between asexual elitists (gbrd143). AVEN rejects asexual elitism by defining asexuality on its website homepage as ‘A person who does not experience sexual attraction’ (The Asexual Visibility and Education Network). This definition allows an asexual to engage in any type or amount of sexual behaviour; their identity only relies on the fact that they are not sexually attracted.

I think it’s important to qualify what the article says about me only describing sex-aversion and sex-neutrality. In the paper I published before this I actually list four terms: sex-positive, sex-neutral, sex-averse and anti-sex (Carrigan 2011: 468).  I discuss sex-aversion and sex-neutrality in more detail in this paper but that’s because almost everyone who took part in the research (with the qualifier that the open-response format of the questionnaires meant I couldn’t tell in some cases) seemed to fit clearly into one of those two categories. I hadn’t realised the categories I was talking about had narrowed in this way between the two pieces of work and retrospectively I certainly regret this. The broader point made in this article still stands though and it’s an important one:

Carrigan claims that asexuals exist who specifically want to have sex, but the explanation for this is that they have sex for the intimacy it offers. In all these articulations, the asexual who wants to have sex because it feels good is absent.

A person who wants to have sex, but is not sexually attracted to anyone, is a type of asexual that is largely ignored or, as shown in Carrigan’s explanation, written away as wanting to have sex for a reason other than the act itself. This kind of asexual is so absent from conversations about asexuality that we might be led to believe that they don’t exist or are impossible.

– Talia in AVENues issue #25

I guess there’s been a case of theoretical blindness on my part here. I’ve made the argument that what leads someone to come to identify as asexual is that certain attribute(s) of themselves are rendered problematic by the implicit and explicit judgements they encounter from significant others. Exactly what these attribute(s) are is a complex question and, in many ways, one which I think can’t be answered sociologically. But given the diversity within the asexual community, the heterogeneity underneath the umbrella definition, it seems obvious to me that this is not one attribute that all people who come to identify as asexual share. In an important sense I’m a constructivist about ‘asexuality’ but a realist about the processes which lead concrete individuals to come to identify as asexualI think ‘asexuality’ is a cultural label, with its own history and a shifting politics attached to it, which has been the focal point for the elaboration of a rich web of terms and concepts. But just because the network of individuals who are both elaborating this terminology and using it to navigate their everyday lives (the two cannot ultimately be separated) are converging on the same label doesn’t mean they’re doing so for the same reasons or that they’re applying it to the same attributes.

In this sense, the model I’m offering has no difficulty in accepting the existence of “asexuals that have sex because they orgasm, it feels good, and they actually want to”. But it’s never occurred to me because (a) there was no sign of them in my data (b) I didn’t knowingly encounter any when I did the internet phase of my research which was almost five years ago now (c) my model does struggle to make sense of why people like this come to identify asexual because I’ve understood this biographical process in terms of the individual coming to recognise certain attribute(s) of themselves as amounting in practice to ‘not being sexual enough’ or ‘not being sexual in the right way’ as a result of the stigmatising and/or pathologising judgements of significant others. In other words, I’ve been arguing that people come to identify as asexual because ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’ is rendered problematic by those around them. Just to be clear, I’m saying the problem here is with my model – I’m writing this post because I found the article in AVENues very thought provoking and I want to understand this issue better than I do at present:

I have often described sex-favourable asexuals as having an itch they want to scratch. They cannot find the right tools for the job, but they’ll use whatever is available because it really itches and they don’t mind the tools at their disposal. They’ve accepted that there is no ‘right tool’ and they will never get the job done the typical way […] the sex is of a different kind, but not ruined. Another type of sex-favourable asexuals could have no metaphorical itch or sexual libido. They might enjoy sex simply because, like jogging, it feels good. If something feels good, why not do it?

The conceptual difficulty emerges because I’d imagine either of these conditions (having sex because of an ‘itch’ that needs to be ‘scratched or simply because ‘it feels good’ in the way that sport or exercise does) is true for the majority of sexual people at least some of the time. People have sex with those they’re not sexually attracted to. People have sex when they’re ‘not in the mood’. People have sex because of intrinsic physical pleasures in a way which renders the specificity of the sexual partner wholly or partly redundant. So from my point of view, as someone who researches asexuality, there are two questions which stand out for me here. Firstly, how should  ‘sex-favourable asexuals’ be conceptually distinguished from Gray-A’s* on the one hand and the variable centrality of sexual attraction to the sexual experience of non-asexuals on the other? Secondly, how do ‘sex-favourable asexuals’ come to identify as asexual and what ‘work’ does this identification do biographically? Is it just a convenient label for them? Does the label help ‘solve’ any problems they face in everyday life as a result of not experiencing sexual attraction? Are there particular difficulties they face (over and above the politics of ‘asexual elitism’ which sparked the AVENues article) specifically in virtue of not experiencing sexual attraction yet still having sex? How frequently do people in this category have sex? Does the absence of sexual attraction actually play a positive role in shaping sexual behaviour?

*Which I guess is where I would have ‘placed’ these experiences if I’d thought more directly about it. This post has already taken me longer than I expected to write but I might come back to this point at a later date.

9 responses to “Asexuality, Identity and ‘Scratching an Itch’”

  1. There’s currently a trend to emphasize the existence of asexuals who like sex (I discuss this here), but it’s relatively recent, and is much more noticeable in some asexual communities than in others. And there tend not to be very many first-person accounts, because asexuals who like sex aren’t actually that common, and most of them don’t like speaking up. (Note that Talia’s is a third-person account.)

    Given these limitations, it’s not surprising that academic researchers hardly seem aware of asexuals who like sex for itself. But it *is* one of the striking differences between academic discourse and asexual discourse.

    I suspect that many, but not all, sex-favorable aces identify as gray-A or demisexual (the AAW2011 survey backs me up here). We’re non-judgmental about other people’s preferred labels, so we think it’s okay for other people to identify as asexual even if they like sex. But when it comes to oneself, the label dissonance can be too much, combined with other factors. At least, this is part of why I identify as gray-A.

  2. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I’m going to try and answer your questions as best I can from my personal experiences. I differentiate myself from gray-a’s or sexual’s by the lack of any sexual attraction at all. Although I must be honest, I sometimes have doubts, was that sexual attraction I just felt or just arousal? etc. But I think doubt seems to be common to all, or most anyway, asexuals, unfortunately.
    I came to the label via aromanticism, actually. When I originally encountered the concept of asexual I thought no, that can’t be me, I like sex too much. Later I came across aromantic, and angsted for a while over whether or not it fit me. In the process I put more active research into both labels, and eventually concluded that both fit me.
    Finding the label has helped me to understand myself better than i did previously. I finally understood why I always felt alienated when all my friends would talk about which celebrities were hot, or what have you.
    I do think there are unique problems faced by asexuals like myself that perhaps other asexuals wouldn’t face. Asexual elitism is certainly amongst these. I often feel like I don’t fit in in the asexual community, which also happens to be where you can find most of the aromantic community. Something I frequently feel the need for support from.
    It’s also difficult to imagine how I’m going to find a sexual partner, because I do want one. I’m not attracted to anyone, so I don’t have that to guide my efforts. I wouldn’t be comfortable with one night stands, I need to know the person well enough to trust them. But I’m also not going to be in any romantic relationships, which is where you usually expect to find sexual ones… Ideally i’d like one or more friends who are ok with the occasional romp, but it seems like that’s just not something that actually happens in the real world. :/

  3. Hello Mark!

    I don’t know if you remember me, we met at WorldPride and the Conference the day after, I’m the Italian one =P

    Your reply to Talia is interesting. I was thinking that there may be asexual people who identify as asexual for the reasons you’ve said (“not being ‘sexual enough’” and alike), maybe even virgin, but later try sex and find they like it just as much as masturbation. They know they’re asexual, they know they don’t find their partner attractive and that sex is just a tool to scratch an itch.

    I’ve recently read something about this in a status update on AVEN, a member saying she wanted sex. Someone else replied asking “Wait, weren’t you asexual?” and she replied that she was “horny” and she liked sex even though she was asexual.

    It’d be interesting to see some surveys/research on this topic!

    Keep up with your great work!

    Lea, aka ithaca

  4. For what it’s worth, my experience has been that I was asexual first, and by identifying as asexual was then able to hypothesize comfortably about when I could find sex enjoyable (mostly basic conditions like feeling comfortable, having some kind of empathetic connection, and the other person enjoying it). The key is that the main reason I have for sometimes enjoying sex is because of the fact I enjoy it when other people have positive emotions. I don’t know if that is what you are thinking of when you consider asexuals who enjoy sex.

    But I guess my point is that I couldn’t enjoy sex without first identifying as asexual- because that identity helps me explain and understand when I would enjoy sex, so I can actually tailor any sexual activity I have to what I would be okay with (as opposed to just performing scripts that assume I’m doing it for sexual attraction reasons).

  5. I think you’re making asexuality into more than it is. (and entangling sexual attraction with the physical act of sex) It’s not just you. Many people do this. Many asexuals do this. I don’t necessarily have a problem with a broader conceptualization of the asexual identity as a whole sexuality viewpoint (as in a non interest in sex), but I also don’t think that should be all, or even mainly, what it is.

    For me, asexuality is about having the lack of sexual attraction to any gender. And that’s it. That’s the difference. Grey-asexuals and “sexuals”* experience sexual attraction. I do not. It’s not a matter of partaking in similar sexual actions, it’s a matter of experiencing (or not) sexual attraction.

    Sexual attraction tends to be presented in the main stream as an essential part of the human experience. (along with the physical act of sex) It’s presented as an integral way of interacting with a partner. That sex is simply better, more fulfilling, if you’re sexually attracted (and many times romantically attracted) to that person. And though that’s probably a matter of opinion simply expressed as a universal truth it doesn’t lessen the isolating feeling of being ‘less than’. That’s why I identify as asexual. Asexuality allowed me to understand that I wasn’t a pansexual with missing necessary pieces, unable connect to anyone in the “right” ways, no matter how much I enjoy sex. So, you’re idea that people come to identify as asexual because not experiencing sexual attraction is considered problematic was true for me (though it was also because pansexual didn’t actually describe my pattern on sexual attraction, and I enjoy accuracy), but possibly in a different way than it’s problematic for asexuals who aren’t interested in sex.

    *not the best way to refer to people who aren’t on the asexual spectrum

  6. Thanks everyone, I really enjoyed reading your responses, very thought provoking – I’ll try and write something more substantive in response next week 🙂

  7. It’s definitely a great feeling when you come across someone discussing your work on the internet. 😉 I really enjoyed reading your response Mark. The conceptual difficulty for your model, that the reasons for having sex I mentioned for asexuals are true for -sexual people some of the time, was what first made me so interested in the topic. The behaviour and the motivation appeared to to be the same but how the individual defined their attraction wasn’t. It led me to question what seems to me to be a binary between asexual and -sexual and I hope to further explore this myself. I really appreciated your questions about “sex-favourable asexuals” because they feel closer to revealing my own experience as an asexual than a lot of the academic work I’ve read so far on the topic. I look forward to you answering those questions and if possible participating in a study like that in the future.

    I also wanted to clarify that unlike Siggy suggested, mine is not a third person account. If it was not obvious that I am one of the ‘sex-favourable asexuals’ I was writing about in retrospect it is probably because I was carefully trying to balance my experience as an asexual person with my experience of being a university student. When I wrote the AVENues article in the summer of 2012 I was applying for a masters program where I would be researching asexuality (which I am now in) and being in that space and mindset definitely shaped how this was written. I didn’t think I could achieve the required level of distance from the subject matter if I wrote only about how I lived as a ‘sex-favourable asexual’ because being both the subject of study and the person commenting on that subject seemed to overlap in a way that might make my experiences illegitimate. I wanted my work to be both applicable to the community and to be something I could build on later when I officially entered academia. Also, as you noted, some ‘sex-favorable asexuals’ don’t like to speak up. When writing I didn’t want to write in a public forum about the sex I was or was not having and what that felt like but I still wanted to be able to provide a voice for those experiences.

    I agree with Z that there is a large pattern of unnecessarily entangling sexual attraction with the physical act of sex or behaviour. That entangling was something that provoked me to write the article I did because without untangling it, I often felt as if the legitimacy of my own asexual identity was questioned.

  8. Thanks Talia 🙂 I’ve still been thinking about the questions provoked by the article and some of the comments on here. I’m in the final stages of my Phd write up (which isn’t about asexuality) so my asex related thinking time has been fairly limited unfortunately. I guess the thing I’ve been preoccupied by is unpacking the category of ‘Gray A’ – my sense of its significance has shifted a lot as a result of these conversations. Hope your course is going well, if you ever want to chat via e-mail my address is mark AT

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