It’s a bit difficult to determine what percentage of the population is asexual, as we tend to be a rather under studied group; we are everywhere, but largely invisible, tacked on as an afterthought in trendy acronyms, but not actually included, except on rare occasions. One relatively recent study pegged the number at about one percent of the general population.
Many people are not very curious about what life is like among the one percent. In fact, most have an imperfect understanding of what asexuality even means and may be too afraid, or too indifferent, to ask. Despite efforts to increase asexual visibility, the asexual community sits very much outside other communities active in the social justice and activism communities, and many of us who are asexual tend not to address that particular aspect of our identities if we are active in the social justice community. Every time I talk about asexuality, asexual people creep out of the woodwork, reminding me of how many of us there are, here, and how silent we are about ourselves.
What this leads to is a number of artificial divides and a lack of understanding when it comes to bridging the gap between sexual and asexual people, a particularly important matter for people concerned with topics like intersections between sexuality, reproductive rights, and social justice. And that’s what today’s post is about; a glimpse into what asexuality is all about, in the hopes that it will pique your interest and make you want to seek out more resources and information. A reminder that asexuals are all around you, and you should be thinking about us when you’re exploring topics of sexuality, orientation, and identity.
Asexuality is often defined as a lack of sexual attraction. Defining something as what it’s not is inherently less than ideal, but at least it’s a good start at a working definition. Asexual people do not, generally, experience sexual attraction. This differentiates us from people choosing celibacy for religious, cultural, personal, or other reasons. Celibate people do experience sexual attraction, although it may wax and wane over time. We do not, necessarily, although that is also something that can shift.
Some asexuals are fond of saying that people should use the identity as long as they find it useful, and abandon it when it is not. This fluidity and relaxation around asexual identities is one many sexual people find confusing, especially in environments where identities are thought of as fixed and set. The idea that asexuals can label themselves on the basis of a personal definition of the label, rather than one imposed by society, is also alien to some people. We, ourselves, debate the nature of asexual identities and what fits under this umbrella, while taking care to avoid the creation of exclusionary litmus tests.
Asexuality is not a pathology; it is not the result of trauma, it is not the result of fear or hatred of sex, it is not the result of medications that suppress libido. Asexual people can and do experience all of these things, but this does not constitute a causal relationship. They can play a complex and intersecting role in an asexual identity, but they are not its sole facet.
Speaking of intersections, while one percent is a good statistic for the general population, there are some communities that appear to have a higher rate of asexuality. Around four percent of the transgender community identifies as asexual, and I know that I am not the only asexual transgender person active in the social justice community right now. As the rich array of writing at the Spectral Amoebas Blog Carnival recently demonstrated, there are a lot of intersections between asexuality and disability. Kaz explores some of the intersections between asexuality and disability, and the problems with common social assumptions about both, in more detail here, and I would highly recommend reading that post if you want more information.
Many of us believe that asexuality is a sexual orientation in its own right, and it is important to be aware that it is a very diverse one; to be asexual is as diverse as being lesbian or heterosexual, with room for many facets of identity under that broad label. Some asexuals are very interested in sex, and may consume, make, and discuss pornography, ranging from erotic stories to films. The interest in expressions of sexuality can be rooted in a lot of different things, depending on the asexual person doing the creation or consumption. Many of us are interested in sex on a cultural level if not a personal one, or derive pleasure from specific genres of erotica and porn (just as some of us masturbate). Others may enjoy the experience of creating erotic work for partners or others; some asexuals are very active in the erotic fanfiction community, for example. The absence of sexual attraction does not necessarily equate to a lack of interest in sex as a cultural and social phenomenon. As The Asexual Sexologist can attest, we can be so interested in sex that we turn it into a professional career! Some of us also have sex, for a variety of reasons; asexuality doesn’t mean you never have sex, and you are not cast out of the cool kids club for having it.
Some asexual people orient themselves along a spectrum of romanticism and aromanticism, describing the natural of the attractions they feel; being asexual doesn’t mean you are not attracted to people, only that you do not experience sexual attraction. Nor does it mean that the nature of those attractions is inherently weaker because sex is not involved.
Some asexuals may be involved in romantic relationships, including polyamorous relationships involving a variety of people who experience different levels of attraction for each other. It is possible to be asexual and queer, as I am, to be asexual and deeply in love with someone, as others are. Many people seem surprised to learn about these aspects of life among the one percent, just as they are surprised to learn that some asexual people are kinky, that some of us may go to sex clubs or attend Folsom Street Fair or work in sex shops.
The asexual community is vibrant and complex. We develop a common language to compensate for the lack that our native languages have when it comes to describing aspects of asexuality and our lives; to address, for example, the fact that the very term ‘asexual’ is often misused to describe people who do not have sex, regardless of the reasons why, or to make derisive comments about people who do not want to have sex with you.
Sometimes the jargon can be confusing and alienating. Just as people who enter feminist and social justice spaces find themselves at sea in new words, or old words used in new ways, people dipping their toes into asexuality often encounter things that confuse them as we try to define our identities and carve out a space in a society that values sexual relationships more than others, consequently devaluing people who do not have them.
To take just one example of the need for asexual visibility and broader inclusion of asexual people in ongoing conversations within social justice and feminist communities, including asexuality in conversations about sexuality is critical. Asexuals are poorly understood by sexual people and we can become targets of abuse, especially in the case of asexuals who experience intersections with other identities like disability. Some people believe that asexual people need ‘correction’ so we can be ‘cured,’ and asexual people can experience tremendous pressure to have sex, sometimes leading to rape and sexual assault. We may have imperfect language to describe these experiences in no small part because the community talking about rape and sexual assault is focusing on sexual people and does not think about what these experiences might be like when you are asexual.
It is critical to not just pay lip service to asexuality, but to actively learn about it; by talking to asexual people, by exploring resources we design for ourselves, by including us in discussions to take advantage of the experience we can bring to the table. As Take Back the Night events unfold all over the world this month, as April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, as I see reporting from the End Violence Against Women Conference in Chicago, asexuality weighs heavily on my mind. In order to be an elephant in the room, you must be visible.