Yesterday I was at a lecture on asexuality, given by two representatives of AVEN
(Asexuality Visibility and Education Network), David (who's the founder) and Cole, a friend of mine. This is not something I've talked about a whole lot and so I figured this would be a great time to go over some of the stuff they mentioned in the lecture.
First of all, it really struck me how familiar the content sounded even though I don't think I've ever heard or read much about asexuality in itself. A lot of ideas are very similar to the ones I've encountered doing anti-homophobia/heterosexism work, though, and with reason: heterosexism assumes "natural" (hetero) sexual desire (at least from males) and the asexual community has very much grown from the LGBT movement and they're big on the idea of inclusion. Which is awesome.
So for starters. An asexual person is "a person who does not experience sexual attraction". In the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the closest term to asexuality is "hypoactive sexual desire disorder". What I find interesting is that the DSM qualifies it a disorder if it's a source of distress
(whether personal or in a relationship). So there is absolutely room for healthy, happy asexuals there, and the asexual community is not looking to change the DSM per se.
Basically, asexuals don't feel the need to make sex part of their relationships.
There was a big emphasis on the idea that "asexual" is a word and an identity that you decide to use for yourself; no one is qualified to decide whether someone else is asexual, or if someone else is not asexual enough, or any of that. "If it's a word that makes sense, you use it. Otherwise, you don't."
Asexuality is very different from celibacy. Celibacy is the choice
not to have sex, whereas asexuals are simply not interested in sex. Even though David and Cole didn't go into a lot of details about the relationship that asexuality has to the religious and conservative right, they did say that the asexual community feels uneasy about abstinence-only education (and find it unhelpful). David also talked about being very sex-positive (personally sex-neutral but politically sex-positive, I liked that), and Cole about the fact that they talk about sex a lot on the forums - so asexuals don't necessarily shy away from sex and are not afraid of it. It's just not part of the way they conceptualize their relationships.
What they brought up is that we basically have very few models for intimate non-sexual relationships, so it is up to asexuals to determine what that looks like, which is great because it gives you much freedom to fit something that works for you
. This refashioning around understanding relationships can also be very helpful to sexual people who can then broaden their understanding of what makes a relationship. What is intimacy without sex? What does an asexual relationship look like? Nobody knows, and that's the beauty of it.
David and Cole also went to great lengths to explain that the asexual community is diverse even in identities. Some asexual people seek out romantic relationships (bi-, hetero-, homo-, pan-romantic are all options, of course), others don't. David defines himself as having "community-based relationships", and I'm just going to copy/paste the little blurb from their FAQ:
"Some asexuals, instead of establishing one-on-one romantic relationships, prefer to connect with the people around them in a community-based intimacy framework, establishing emotional intimacy with other people (including sexuals) without forming expectations of sexual or emotional exclusivity. For asexuals who are comfortable with this setup, it can alleviate the biggest source of tension in a standard mixed relationship (because the sexual person can have their sexual needs met elsewhere)."
Note that this is different from open and
polyamorous relationships which both assume you have primary partner(s).
Oh! And I liked that Cole and David both had problems with the word "virgin" because it's so multi-faceted, and also David made the point that it had connotation of being pure, and innocent and not having had sex yet
, all of which are problematic and he certainly doesn't feel 'innocent' applies to him. ;)
Also, I like the difference that they made being sexual arousal and sexual desire: just because your body is aroused doesn't mean you want sex or you should have sex, which has very important consequences on understanding consent and desire for intimacy. There's also the whole "why don't you just try it" thing, which is so fascinating: why would you want to force something to do something if they don't feel like doing it? It's like the gay/bi/straight thing, do you really need to have sex with a man to know you're attracted to them? Of course not.
For the record, about 1% of the population is asexual (I'm pretty sure that number applies to people who don't feel sexual desire, not to people who actually use the identity asexual, since that's VERY new).
So there you go. A little space given to asexual visibility here, too. :) The AVEN website is a great resource if you want to learn more. ( And now just a quick personal write-up )