Submitted by Adair (09/03/11)
Last night’s meeting got me thinking about my own sexual identity again. I don’t quite fit in anywhere, which is okay with me–it means I have to listen to people rather than labels. But I thought I’d write a post about why I identify with the asexual community even though I do sometimes experience sexual attraction.
Most prominently, I’m not a typical sexual, either. I would call myself an atypical sexual or a graysexual, depending on when you ask me.
It’s important to realize that there are other possible definitions for “asexual” than “not experiencing sexual attraction.” Nonlibidoism is one; you could further restrict the definition to exclude romantic asexuals by reasoning that sexual orientation is usually defined to include components like emotional or spiritual attraction. This very strict definition is what many people might think when they hear the word “asexual” before being educated about the community.
On the other hand, you could go with a much broader definition along the lines of “Many people identify as asexual because they do not experience or identify with some component of sexuality or sexuality in general.” The definition’s agnostic about whether people identify as asexual for other reasons, and doesn’t specify which component of sexuality–libido, attraction, desire to act on attraction, enjoyment of sex, behavior, or other–an asexual lacks. I included “or identify with” because someone might experience, say, a sexual response to certain stimuli but have no reaction beyond noticing that feeling–it doesn’t have to motivate them to change their behavior, wants, or identity.
I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with the AVEN definition of asexuality. Clearly it’s helped a lot of people. But don’t forget that it privileges some experiences over others by placing prime importance on one aspect of sexuality. If someone doesn’t experience that as an important or the most important part of their (a)sexuality, they might feel very conflicted about the label.
In addition to excluding people (most explicitly celibates) from the label, the sexual-attraction definition also includes people who would consider themselves sexual. For instance, some people are turned on by the emotional and situational dynamics of a BDSM scene but not by the other people involved. Others relate to sexuality through a solo sex life, or enjoy partnered sex despite not feeling sexual attraction. Some such people identify as asexual, but others might not. AVEN emphasizes self-identification, but that leaves the problem of having a concept that draws a red circle around one component of sexuality and asks, “Yes or no?” It’s further confusing that a lot of people (me included!) aren’t exactly sure what sexual attraction is.
Gray-asexual and related terms have become safe harbors for all the people who might be covered by a broader definition of asexual, as well as those who experience low-intensity or infrequent “sexuality” (or just aren’t entirely sure whether or not something they’ve experienced is sexual attraction).
Personally, I experience sexual attraction infrequently relative to your average sexual, typically to a few people a couple of times a year. And most of those attractions are ambiguous, not clearly sexual, low-intensity, and fleeting. I’ve had one relationship driven in significant part by my sexual desire for the other person, and that definitely surprised me. I feel awkward and “too sexual” compared to gray-As who had a fleeting attraction once fifteen years ago, but my more rational side thinks my level of sexual attraction does qualify as “gray”.
But sexual attraction isn’t the whole story of my gray tendencies. I also experience low-to-nonexistent levels of other components of sexuality–arousal, desire to have sexual partners, and especially sexual pleasure. Many of the same sexual narratives that tick off my asexual-activist side by asserting that everyone wants sex further frustrate and invalidate me by talking up the intense pleasure of sex. I’d describe my solo and good partnered sexual experiences as neutral when it comes to pleasure–a lot like brushing my teeth. I’ve had one orgasm more intense than feeling pressure one moment and disinterest the next, and my closest comparison to that experience is the time I got hit by a (thankfully slow-moving!) pick-up truck. I held on through the pain that threw every other thought from my mind except desperate anticipation of its end.
Beyond the qualities of my own sexual feelings, I’m attached to the asexual community for its disruption of certain norms, ideals, and ideologies that can grab hold of people’s heads when asexuals are invisible.
The concept of romantic as distinct from sexual gives words to a lot of people, both asexual and sexual, to understand and describe something important about themselves. Someone can be any combination of sexual and romantic orientation, or can have relationships that are sexual, romantic, both, or neither. For me, this means that I can better distinguish between desires for emotional, social, intellectual, or physical contact and sexual desire, and figure out what I really want (or what range of things I might come to want) when I have a strong impulse to associate with someone. This knowledge, and growing up, also allowed me to realize that I used to want that strong urge for connection as the basis for a “real” friendship–when in reality many strong, important friendships don’t start with a squish.
Asexuality also disavows the notion that everyone needs sexual relationships–and that sexual relationships should be the most important in someone’s life (bar parenting, which is very different than chosen relationships between adults). Close friendships, romantic or not, are very important to me. I’m often willing to engage in occasional sexual or sexual-ish behavior with a close friend, but having a commitment to fulfill someone else’s sexual needs over the course of a relationships sounds like a nightmare to me. Yet mainstream culture presents that type of monogamous, sexual, romantic, ideally economically-interdependent relationship as the only way to structure one’s adult life. The asexual community and other queer groups made it clear to me that I can pick and choose what sort of relationships I want.
And because I don’t need to seek out a type of relationship I don’t want, I don’t have to make decisions about my appearance and behavior calculated to increase my chances of finding a mate. I’m freed from a lot of norms about gender and what’s attractive that felt so much like a prison when I was a teenager.
I identify, first and foremost, with the complexity of human sexuality and the rough edges of definitions. What I am remains in the rough areas between concepts, but asexuality validates some of the most important things I want from life, and expresses many things I feel toward sexuals and portrayals of sexuality.
Just as importantly, I support full asexuals in the fight to increase visibility and understanding of their experiences even where they differ from mine–because among people who don’t know much about asexuality, and for kids growing up asexual without a word, being ace is very much one of those rough edges, and I know how that can hurt.