For Some People, Sex is a Total Turn-off
Asexuals say theirs is a valid sexual orientation, not a health problem.
( THe straits times, singapore )
LONDON — Michael J. Dore is a 29-year-old mathematician doing post-doctoral research at Birmingham University who, like most men his age, enjoys music and football. Unlike most people of any age, though, he has no interest in sex with women, or with men. In fact, he has no interest in sex at all.
“I don’t experience sexual attraction at all, ever,” Michael told me. “I am likely a lifelong asexual, though one can never rule out the possibility of change. I don’t expect that to happen though.”
In London, Christine—as she simply prefers to be known—is a 22-year-old Singaporean student who has lived most of her life in Britain and the United States. Friends and family call her a “late bloomer” but she has reached a similar conclusion: like Michael, she simply has no desire for sex.
“I formed a lot of really meaningful friendships with the girls in my school but nothing sexual ever happened,” she said. When she confessed to her friends that she might be asexual, they told her that she must just be a “repressed lesbian”.
In fact, Christine and Michael are among a small group – a 1994 study in Britain put the figure at one per cent of 18,000 people surveyed there – who consider themselves asexual. Most of them are teenagers and twenty-somethings: the demographic under the most social pressure to be having and enjoying sex.
As Michael relates, “When I was in my early teens, the rest of my class – I was at an all-male school – became obsessed with women. This was something I couldn’t understand at all. I didn't talk about it much, because guys who said they didn't fancy women were usually thought to be gay. Not being interested simply wasn't thought of as a valid or possible option.”
This is what Mark Carrigan, a social theorist at Warwick University who has been researching asexuality for four years, calls “the sexual assumption”.
No one knows yet what factors, biological or environmental, play a part in determining asexuality. Some asexuals are autistic – the latter being characterised by an aversion to being touched – and a high proportion are transsexual and transgendered, but no causal link has been proven.
Generally, asexuals believe that they simply are, that asexuality isn’t a lifestyle choice. They bristle in response to criticisms that their asexuality is caused, which would mean that it could be fixed. They insist that they are not “defective” or “sexually dysfunctional”. They are not emotionally distressed by the lack of sex, as might characterise an actual disorder. And they say that unlike celibacy, asexuality has nothing to do with morality.
Dr Lori Brotto, a psychologist and an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of British Columbia, found in her studies that asexual women reacted like any other people when subjected to erotic sights and sounds.
This echoes the view by 30-year-old David Jay, an American who said in a podcast with Dan Savage last year that “the plumbing worked, it just wasn’t pointed at anything”. Asexuals say they are perfectly capable of being sexually aroused, but that it doesn’t lead to naturally to sex. Many asexuals also masturbate.
Moreover, not being attracted to sex doesn’t preclude the enjoyment of other physical intimacies such as kissing or, as David calls it, “high-energy cuddling". Equally, some are repulsed by any kind of physical affection.
David was an 18-year-old student at a liberal arts college in Connecticut in 2001 when he realised he was different from his friends. “I just didn’t have an internal reference frame to understand what sexual attraction meant,” he told me during our Skype chat. “So I spent some time waiting and eventually decided that I needed to start understanding what I was, rather than waiting to be what everyone else thought I would be, and so I made up the word ‘asexual’ to describe myself.”
That was when David started an online community called the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). “It was only later I realised that thousands of people around the world were experiencing the exact same thing. We just didn’t find one another until AVEN," he said. Today, AVEN has grown to about 36,000 members, and David has become the community’s poster boy for this coming-out party, gamely fielding awkward questions on TV talk shows, never losing his good nature despite skewed glances from incredulous hosts.
Some asexuals date non-asexuals, and have sex. Some are married and have children. Mark also related that a 22-year-old asexual he spoke to in the course of his research had told him that sex seemed an appropriate compromise to make for a relationship: “I would be doing it largely to appease the other person and to give them what they want, but not in a begrudging way."
None of that, asexuals say, makes them any less asexual, because asexuality is defined by the lack of sexual desire, not sexual behaviour. As an AVEN member posted on the forum, just as a gay person isn’t any less gay for being married to a woman or sleeping with a woman, similarly an asexual isn’t any less asexual for having sex.
Michael, however, would not give in. “I am not open to the idea of having sex in any circumstances. I like hugging and cuddling but not kissing," he said. "I think many people would find the idea of exchanging saliva a little odd if there was not the sexual and romantic element to it, a bit like kissing someone you are not into.”
Though Mark is not asexual, he finds asexuality an interesting subject to research because he thinks it has implications for the rest of society. Asexuals and sexuals can at least agree on one thing: love and sex are not necessarily the same thing. So, the big question is: if it's not sex that distinguishes a friendship from a romantic relationship, then what does?
David is still trying to figure out the difference between a romantic and an "aromantic" relationship.
The closest he comes to defining the nuance is this: “If I see someone, feel crazy about them, want to suddenly spend tons and tons of time with them and be super expressive and affectionate, and just have a sense that this person should be a huge part of my life, that's romantic.”
“If I see someone, think they're amazing, and really really want to see them again so that we can explore things, that's aromantic. It’s the feeling you get at a conference when you have an amazing conversation with someone and are really excited to follow up," he said.
This is what David’s community currently looks like: one romantic relationship (for now; he tells me they are “nonsexually nonexclusive”), a very close aromantic relationship with a non-asexual man going on four years, another aromantic relationship with a non-asexual woman who has a long-term boyfriend, and a bunch of friends spread around San Francisco, where he lives, and around the country – “artists, entrepreneurs and scientists mostly, so we hang out and talk about those three things”.
But, he hastened to add, “They’re not in a hierarchy. It's not healthy for everything to happen with one person.” Instead of a lifelong romantic partnership, what David really wants is an "intentional" community. “It becomes a lot about finding shared passions with people. You're all working together to make music or social change or something. I like social movements as a source of intimacy. Everyone's a piece of a bigger picture," he said.
It's not easy being asexual. In an interview with The Rumpus, David said, “I began to realise that when relationships involved sex and sexuality they got special social status. People were more willing to make a commitment.” He’d come to the stark realisation that to access the “intimacy” he craved, he would sometimes have to compromise on his no-sex rule.
Michael, who identifies as aromantic, feels the same. “For the most part, I’m happy with platonic friends – the only problem being that friends move on, whether it's moving jobs or cities or countries," he said. "At some point I might be open to a 'queer-platonic relationship', with an intense emotional connection going beyond platonic friendships, but without being romantic or sexual. People may plan to spend their life with their queer-platonic partner, moving with them and so on, in a similar sort of way to romantic partners.”
The largest communities of asexuals are centered in North America, Europe and Australia, and asexuality has been rationalised as a backlash to the hyper-sexualisation of culture.
For David though, asexuality is just what feels the most natural. “Sex is just not as interesting as the other things I could be doing with an interesting person,” David said—like having a really “mind-blowing” conversation.