Guest Blogger

Asexuality exists

Filed By Guest Blogger | September 20, 2010 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: asexuality, bisexual, Sara Beth Brooks

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Sara Beth Brooks recently completed the Leadership, Organizing, and Action: Leading Change program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is pursuing a degree in Peace and Conflict Studies and lives in Sacramento, CA. Sara Beth is publishing a weeklong series on asexuality this week.

sb-bilerico.jpgI was waist deep in the trenches of post-Prop 8 California when I realized that I was asexual. It had taken me five years to find the word for what I had been experiencing. When I started using the word asexual in the LGBT community, most people didn't have any idea what I was talking about. There were unintentional hurtful comments made. My favorite response? "Oh, that doesn't exist."

No one wants to be told they don't exist. So I told everyone I was bisexual.

Saying bisexual was easier than the whole story, and it was enough of the truth. Bisexual was understood and accepted even though it wasn't entirely accurate (I hope bisexual activists will see the irony in this).

If I did talk about asexuality, I found that many LGBT people rejected the concept because they had never heard of it before. My close friends were understanding and accepting. They had watched me struggle for years to figure out what was going on with me. Some LGBT people were understanding too, or fascinated; others outright denied the existence of asexuality.

Asexuality describes people who do not experience sexual attraction. Unlike celibacy, -- a choice -- asexuality is an orientation. People commonly confuse asexuality with androgyny, which is about gender identity, not attraction. Asexuals have a community and share pride in being ace (common slang for an asexual person). Many asexuals consider themselves outside of the hetero-normative realm and identify with the LGBT community. Some even march at Pride.

Even in the most enlightened circles, it is rare that I meet someone who knew what asexuality was before they met me. The same series of questions always follows. You don't have sex? Are you a virgin? Shouldn't you see someone about that? Do you ever feel horny? Do you masturbate? Aren't you lonely? What can you do to fix it? These questions are considered as rude to asexuals as questions about genitalia are to trans people. Would you ask about masturbation habits in any other polite conversation?

Everyone is always curious about the sexual habits of the asexual. Some asexuals experience sexual arousal, masturbate, and even have sex. Others don't, and that's fine too. Asexuals form relationships with people, date, and even fall in love. Many asexuals date sexual people and within those relationships negotiate their sex lives the same as any other couple. Asexuality describes attraction, not behavior.

There is almost always an assumption that asexuality is negative and therefore should be pitied. I am frequently offered a condescending, "Don't worry, you just haven't met the right person yet." This is, by the way, the equivalent of telling a lesbian not to worry, because she'll find the man of her dreams someday.

From a sex-centric worldview not having sex is akin to emotional death, but asexuals just don't see it that way. Most aces are fiercely sex-positive. We think it's really great that you sexual people are having so much fun with all your gettin' it on! We'd just rather be doing something else.

There was a time, not too long ago, when the words lesbian, gay, and bisexual were unknown in our vocabulary. Now they are universally understood. The word transgender is just now starting to cross that threshold of understanding. A major goal of the asexual community is to help add our definition of asexuality to the common vocabulary, similar to the way that the words lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender have come to be understood as concepts with specific meanings.

The crossover between the LGBT community and the asexual community is huge. Asexuals often experience a feeling of being different in puberty and have a coming-out process similar to the LGBT one. We talk about our relationships outside of the hetero-normative scope. Our parents reject us for being asexual. The queer community doesn't even know that we exist.

But we do exist. Asexuals have built a sex-positive community that is teeming with LGBT allies. We work on marriage equality campaigns and phone bank our Senators on ENDA. Some of us are romantically attracted to guys, some of us to girls, and some to both. Our community is full of trans and gender non-conforming people, primarily youth.

Most asexuals are well versed in LGBT struggles and have fought for them -- however the LGBT community knows virtually nothing about us. That's why I'd like to offer the next several posts as a primer to the asexual community. We're here, some of us are queer, and we are already your allies (you just don't know it yet).


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Thank you so much, Sara Beth, bringing visability to a people so overlooked and misunderstood. I look forward to your future posts.

Asexual people, like trans people, remain pathologized by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The consequential stigma of mental illness and sexual deviance imposes an unfair burden on asexual people to continually demonstrate their competence.

The Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders work group for the pending Fifth Edition of the DSM is led by Dr. Kenneth Zucker of the Toronto Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), abhorred by many in the transcommunity for his intolerant views of gender diversity and practice of gender-reparative psychotherapies on children. Tragically, Zucker's work group has proposed not to delete the category of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder but rather to subsume it under a new diagnosis, called Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder.

Sara Beth Brooks | September 20, 2010 2:33 PM

Kelley,

It's true -- Asexuality is still pathologized by the DSM-IV. The asexual community actually formed a committee that lobbied for removal of Hypo-active Sexuality Desire Disorder (HSDD) from the DSM (and I'm going to talk about it a little bit on Friday). Unfortunately, as you've noted, we're not seeing the results we hoped for. Hopefully with more awareness and visibility, asexuals can stop being pathologized and start being out and open about their awesome aceness.

Thanks for reading!
Sara Beth

If it helps, they put the requirement that distress must be present back in, by the time the DSM revisions were posted last April.

This was something I was watching for, because I do have a couple friends who identify as asexual, and had pointed me to some info last year that the work group was calling for its removal and was previewing it as such.

I know that's no consolation, when in practical application doctors and other folks will still be pointing to HSDD to undermine you, but at least it gives you a basis to stand up and refuse the classification.

I think there is a form or cause of asexuality that I hope you will not exclude from the discussion: lack of sexual interest due to old age. And sometimes, because of disease of either the mind or body. (I am not trying to imply that asexuality is always a disease or a symptom of same --- but I think you will agree that it can be sometimes.)

I have known several men with AIDS for which the disease progressed to the point that, even though they were still able to physically, they had no interest in sexual activity whatsoever. I've also known elderly people, both gay and straight, whose sexual interest ebbs until it is non-existant.

Regarding healthier examples, I also think that some very intellectual people (men and women, but it is most noticeable in males) are occasionally naturally asexual. They are simply so interested in other things that they don't have time or energy left for sexual matters. We might imagine, for instance, that for an intensely-focused research scientist, asexuality might be a welcome happenstance.

Sara Beth Brooks | September 20, 2010 8:37 PM

Hey, AJ,

You know, I can't speak to the experience you're talking about because I've never faced that problem. I do know that there are asexuals like that in our community, though because we are primarily based online it is a smaller portion of us.

One of the things I'm hoping to help people understand this week is just _how many people_ are asexual and don't know it. We hear it all the time in the asexual community. "I just thought I was alone!" and "I didn't know there were others!" Simply by talking about it we provide people with more than the sexual array of options -- and that's essential if we're going to grow our community and reach those people who aren't connected to the internet.

I'm looking forward to chatting with you this week! :)

Sara Beth

Or maybe I have already stuck my foot in my mouth?

I guess my first (stupid) question ought to be: Is there a difference between asexuality ("not experienc[ing] sexual attraction") and absence of libido (that is, no interest in sexual matters)? Can there be sex drive without sexual attraction, and vice versa --- or does CW say that one requires the other?

Sara Beth Brooks | September 21, 2010 12:12 AM

I guess my first (stupid) question ought to be: Is there a difference between asexuality ("not experienc[ing] sexual attraction") and absence of libido (that is, no interest in sexual matters)? Can there be sex drive without sexual attraction, and vice versa --- or does CW say that one requires the other?


Commonly held theory in the asexual community is that arousal and attraction are distinct, different entities. Attraction is an internal force, guiding your decision making process. Arousal is a physical function of the body. Every person's physical functions are different.

So, there are asexuals who's physical functions turn out to be working just fine (that was me, as tomorrow's post will talk about). "Checking hormones" is sometimes seen as a "prove it" challenge in the asexual community, as though we have to chemically prove that we are the way we are (the irony is that most of us physically function just fine, because attraction isn't about physical functionality).

Does that help? :)

SB

I'm looking forward to your series this week, Sara Beth. I think it'll be an interesting Asexuality 101 for Projectors.

Sara Beth Brooks | September 21, 2010 4:08 PM

Thank you, Bil, for running this article and being generally amazing. :)

Joe-Allen Doty | September 21, 2010 1:20 AM

I haven't made an issue of it; but, I considered asexuality a sexual orientation (which is actually the lack of one) as normal for a long time.

Sara Beth Brooks | September 21, 2010 3:52 AM

Commonly held theory in the asexual community is that arousal and attraction are distinct, different entities. Attraction is an internal force, guiding your decision making process. Arousal is a physical function of the body. Every person's physical functions are different.

"Checking hormones" is sometimes seen as a "prove it" challenge in the asexual community, as though we have to chemically prove that we are the way we are (the irony is that most of us physically function just fine, because attraction isn't about physical functionality).

Does that help? :)

SB

skeptical sally | September 21, 2010 8:32 AM

Can you explain to us how you and others in your asexual community are oppressed? Does DADT or ENDA or any of these issues affect you? Are there stats on the levels of violence against asexuals and are they similar to those perhaps of trans people? Do asexuals get discriminated as children and what can the school system do about it? Are there cross cultural studies of asexuals in other parts of the world or in history? Finally, what on earth is the connection with LBGT? Many claim the common bond between the LBGT is a common enemy who beats all with the same fist. Does that fist bash asexuals also? Frankly, not wanting sex seems to me like people who don't eat much -- not dieters but some people just do not eat much food while most others overindulge. Are those little eaters a community? Or are you perhaps trying to belong somewhere and using as thin a connection as possible to be a member of a set of oppressed groups? Why seek out being oppressed when it does not exist?!?

I think a lot of people have similar questions, to be honest. I know I do.

Don't worry Sally - you're still a shoo-in to win the gold in the Oppression Olympics no matter how badly those darn asexuals are erased and disrespected by our culture!

Sara Beth Brooks | September 21, 2010 4:00 PM

Sure. That's a lot of questions.

Largely, we're not an "oppressed" people, unless you count oppression by invisibility. I do. In that way, most of the asexual community is still out there, unknown to themselves that there are other people like them. They go through the motions of sexual-normative lives while feeling out of place, confused, even broken. No one else is talking about not having sex, so they feel like the only broken person on the planet. The more we increase awareness of the existence of asexuality, the less people will live their lives in this state.

DADT and ENDA don't affect asexuals unless the asexual person also identifes as LGBT in some way. Some asexuals do, and others don't. Largely, we are allies of the repeal of DADT and the passage of ENDA even though they won't affect us personally.

Because of our invisibility, there aren't any documented cases (that I know of) of violence against asexual people. I, personally, don't think that violence must happen for a culture to be ignored or invalidated by society at large. The atrocities faced by the trans community specifically are numerous. I'm assuming that your point is that we don't have such a list -- you're right, we don't. That doesn't make our interest in societal acceptance less important.

The primary way that asexuals are discriminated against as children is by being kept completely in the dark about the existence of asexuality. One asexual said recently, "The only choices for me were gay, straight, or celibate Catholic nun." By not talking about asexuality as a viable orientation, we silence asexuals who aren't gay or straight, but don't have another term for what they are.

On the schools/children question, as well: many asexuals tell stories of their childhoods being teased, beaten up, or otherwise targeted because they were different. Some didn't have interest in dating. Some (especially the men) are mistaken for gay and are targets of gay-related hate crimes because of it. If they do come out, they're told that asexuality doesn't exist. IMO, we should strive for fully inclusive sex ed that includes sexual and gender diversities (including asexuality).

There is relatively little academic study on asexuality. It does appear often in the animal kingdom, and has been the study of about a half-dozen scientific surveys over the last 70 years. One of the more recent studies focused on the British population (that was 1994). As the first generation of asexuals and allies are in grad school right now, there are many studies planned.

WRT other parts of the world: the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) community exists in 16 languages on 5 continents. There are active, regular asexual meetups in many major world cities (including SF, NY, Boston, London, Sydney, Tokyo, and others).

The connection with the LGBT is this:

- Asexuals and LGBT experience similar psychological coming out processes.
- Asexual youth often live in fear of coming out to their parents; some parents have rejected, disowned, or tried to "cure" their child's asexuality.
- Asexuals fall largely outside the hetero-normative relationship structure
- Many asexuals also identify as LGBT, creating a cross-over community that isn't being addressed at all
- Even of those asexuals who don't identify as LGBT, most are strong supporters of the LGBT movement as allies.

Finally, I want to point out that "Or are you perhaps trying to belong somewhere and using as thin a connection as possible to be a member of a set of oppressed groups?" this sentence here reads as disrespectful. As you can see, I'm happy to respond to any and all questions, but I'd appreciate it if you'd use a respectful tone.

Asexuals already have a community. A community is created when two or more people who share common interests or ideas spend dedicated time together exploring those ideas and making continued commitments to explore those ideas together. Asexuals already have that. We're not trying to "fit in" to the LGBT community. My goal is for the LGBT community to know that we're out here so that more discussion is generated about us, therefore helping with the chief problem of our community: invisibility.

I hope this helps answer your questions.

Sara Beth

skeptical sally | September 21, 2010 6:23 PM

I find this completely offensive and bogus. You are creating an identity out of nothing. You don't like sex -- so what. Most people go through that phase on and off all their lives! Some give it up when older and some of us just never were that into it. But an identity on par with gays and lesbians! Comparing the "invisibility" and "silencing" of asexual children to the horror of being a homo child is offensive and disgusting. To compare not being into sex with the nightmare of transition as a trans person in this world is outrageously self-obsessed. You will use the language of oppression to put my comment down -- and you have done you homework -- but I am feeling that you are a clever Christian playing a very Onion blog joke on the people at bilerico.

ps Megan above -- no Oppression Olympics needed -- this is elevating personal habit and individual psychology into an opppressed group and it stinks to me of juvenilia, self-indulgence and mockery.

You find SARA's comment offensive and bogus? Seriously?! I'm not ace (I'm bi/pansexual) but I trust that it's more than a personal habit. And as someone who regularly is silenced and invisible (in addition to facing bisexual erasure, I'm FTM so I'm invisible even in much of the trans community) I know that those words do not belong in quotes. Silencing and invisibility are crippling because when anything happens to you or others who share your identity, change seems impossible because it feels like nobody is willing to listen.

Sara Beth Brooks | September 21, 2010 6:46 PM

It's your prerogative to find this offensive and bogus. All anyone can do is to share the truth of their life and ask others for acceptance and understanding.

Very interesting. Thanks for posting this series. I look forward to reading more.

Beautiful article. I especially love the last line. It's going in my list of asexy quotes.

Thanks for writing this.
~A panromantic

Sara Beth Brooks | September 21, 2010 4:28 PM

:cake: Panromantics represent! :)

To skeptical sally (it won't let me reply directly, so I'm trying it this way) -

While it is true that we are not discriminated against in the same ways you are, there is one big answer to that.
Nobody knows about us. Hard to discriminate against something when you haven't even heard of it.

But when people do hear of what I am? Wowza. Hate comments and prejudice jerks abound. People all around telling me I don't exist, I just haven't met the right person, telling me to have sex, looking at me like I'm not a real person, ect.

While there may not be *oppression* exactly - YET - there is definitely prejudice and discrimination.

And your comment is, sadly, very typical of the people we're fighting for and fighting with, allying ourselves with, while they push us away either because we don't exist or we don't face enough hate.
I find the whole thing ridiculous.

To skeptical sally (still won't let me reply directly) -

I'm starting to think you're a troll, but in the case you aren't, I'm replying anyway.

Just because our struggles are not as large as the LGBT's (something no one here seems to have denied) gives you no reason to further demean us. Your posts point out exactly what we're going through.

And I have no doubt that when asexuality finally starts to be more known, there will be plenty of instances of people being raped just because they are asexual and "that's unnatural and all they need is a good lay".

Ignoring the fact, of course, that many aces do have sex and do like it, even if there is no physical desire to have it.

And I find it completely offensive that you're commenting on this article without having read it. Asexuality is not a phase and it's not a dislike of sex.

Catherine Bergerat | September 21, 2010 9:46 PM

Very interesting, Sara Beth. I am surprised to find that a lot of people do not know about asexual people... I appreciate what you wrote. Very good. I am surprised that some parents reject their asexual children. Makes me sad :(

Miss seeing you. Let me know if you ever come to NY. Orientation next week to get involved with homeless gay teens. Cant wait. I have missed being involved with the LGTB community. There is so much to do that we must continue to work hard and fight...

Love and best to you, my friend :)

Catherine

Sorry, "Socky" but anyone who claims that physical rape will legitimize the purported oppressed status of your manufactured group and thus prove you are also one of the outcast gang is seriously ill. You all have way too much time on your hands over thinking that anyone cares if anyone else does NOT have sex! Really. No one cares. You need to get out in the world and DO something useful with all that time you are spending inventing identities out of nothing. There is something phoney and disturbing about this conflation of something as meaningless as nose blowing or not nose blowing with "identity". I think you should thank the editors of bilerico for so indulging your silly and offensive abuses of the concept Queer.

Great article. Sexuality is a spectrum, and some of us fall in the odd gray areas. It's not so bad to be gray, but my god, it seems to offend the hell out of other people sometimes. (Points at troll above.)

I can so identify with pretending to be Bisexual. That was a stance I took when starting my gender transition. It seemed an easy one to claim, but ultimately I came to see that as a fraud. I have just lost interest in sex, have no libido at all.

But it's not something you can really tell people in the same way that you announce other sexualities. For one thing, there was at the back of my head the idea that this was "a passing phase". It hasn't passed, and in many ways I think I am fighting "internalised asexuaphobia" (if there is any such thing.

Some days it just makes me despair, because people also assume that if I don't want sex, that i also don't want company.

Sara Beth Brooks | September 23, 2010 5:03 AM

"Some days it just makes me despair, because people also assume that if I don't want sex, that I also don't want company."

THIS. THIS RIGHT HERE.

This is why I've been beating the asexual drum this week. One common stereotype is that asexuals are sad, lonely, people with no social skills or ambitions. This just isn't true at all.

Thank you, Laura for making this super valid point!

SB

I'm not "justifying our oppressed status".

For one - I didn't say we were oppressed (yet).

For two - you're the one looking for justification. I thought you might be able to see the future crimes to happen when blatantly laid out for you.

For three - is there such thing as unforced rape? If I implied that I did not mean to, and I will apologize for that.

If you want to go ahead and push away your allies, go ahead. Doesn't mean we're leaving.

Also, asexuality =/= people who just don't have sex. Seriously, did you actually read the article? =\