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.
When Alfred Kinsey studied human sexuality, he really broke the mold. Never before had modern society been offered such a scientific explanation for our carnal desires. Kinsey broke down the binary of sex and built the academic foundation for what we now refer to as the spectrum of sexuality. This spectrum helps dispel the myth that humans fit entirely into any one box or another, sparking a discussion about binaries that is still in full swing today.
Kinsey's respondents included people who had "no socio-sexual contacts or reactions". We did not have a name and Kinsey was not interested in us, so he called us category X and set us aside. In 1977, the term "asexual" became attached with Kinsey's category X. It was noted that asexuals were "oppressed by a consensus that they are nonexistent," yet continued to appear as 1% of the population in academic data. Throughout the '80s and '90s, intermittent studies on sexuality continued to support the existence of Kinsey's category X, including a massive 1994 British study administered in the wake of the AIDS crisis.
Network (AVEN) was created in 2001 that the asexual community began to self-identify and organize. AVEN has become the world's largest asexual community with satellite communities in 16 different languages. The safe space there is often the first glimmer of acceptance for asexuals who are just realizing that there is a word for what they're feeling.
AVEN is where I found out about asexuality. Feeling lost and alone, I had spent years agonizing over a search for my missing sex drive. I had experienced trouble with relationships and was actively trying to fix something I felt was broken. Therapy and hormone therapies couldn't jump start my sex drive. Finding AVEN was a relief -- finally, I understood that I was not the only one.
In the LGBT community, we use the phrase "coming out to myself" to describe the period of time from when we knew that we were LGBT ourselves, and when we allowed ourselves to accept it and embrace it. In the asexual community, we describe a similar process as "realizing" we were asexual. Often we stumble by accident across the word asexual and realize that we are not the only ones who feel like we do. That's what happened to me -- I thought I was defective somehow before I found AVEN. Many other asexual people share my story of not knowing that there was a word for what we were experiencing, much less a community.
The term asexual is a broad umbrella that includes many sub-identities. The two most common asexual orientations are romantic and aromantic. Romantic asexuals experience emotional attraction to people. We commonly use hetero-, homo-, bi-, and pan- in front of the word romantic to describe how we experience emotional attraction; the meanings of these prefixes are identical. In contrast, aromantic asexuals don't experience emotional attraction to people or find it necessary to. Both romantic and aromantic asexuals build relationships of all varieties.
I identify as a panromantic asexual, meaning I experience emotional attraction to people of any gender and seek out intimate relationships. Sometimes romance plays a part in the relationship, but most of the time it does not. In the asexual community I'm affectionately called an asexual slut, meaning that I seek out lots of these relationships. These relationships sometimes take complex form, like communities, and other times take the form of long term one-on-one relationships. Everyone has their need for intimacy met, and everyone's happy. I build all different types of intimacy with the various people I know. Each relationship pushes me to be a better person and is deeply rewarding in its own way. Not one of these relationships is based on sex.
From the aces (common slang for asexual people) who met in Dallas in February we've built a small group of LGBT/asexual activists. We understand the layers of overlap between these two communities. We share similar experiences of coming out and of feeling separate or different from our peers. We share similar aspirations of breaking the binaries that restrict our lives. We share a common desire to feel accepted. There is so much that asexuals and the LGBT community have in common.
This overlap is powerful and untapped. The vast majority of asexuals do not yet know that there is a name for what they are feeling. They will never find the asexual community if we remain invisible. Unlike the words gay, lesbian, or bisexual, which are commonly understood, the word asexual is still confused with plant reproduction (and don't get me started on amoeba jokes, or references to cloning). Our transgender friends might understand when we say "I have to explain myself every time I come out." Until the word asexual is widely understood to mean "one who does not experience sexual attraction", our community cannot help our own.
Who knows how many aces are out there, dis-empowered by their lack of knowledge about the community that exists. Studies back as far as Kinsey put asexuality at 1% of the population (the 1% figure has held up across 40 years of academic studies). If 1% of the world is asexual, then we've got 59 million people to empower, and 3 million of them live right here in the US.
Asexuals have accomplished a lot in the almost 10 years we have been organizing ourselves. From the creation of AVEN, to ace-identifying characters in young adult literature, to Pride parades around the world, asexuals are starting to be out and proud. Every day, new people flood into the asexual communities all over the internet expressing their relief at the realization that they aren't alone.
Still, our numbers aren't even close to what multiple studies over 40 years say our numbers should be. Our chief problem remains invisibility. We believe that once the word asexual is understood as a sexual orientation, the asexual-identifying population will grow exponentially.