An open letter in response to Matty Silver’s article in the SMH: ‘Asexuality: Don’t be too hasty with labels.’
Dear Ms Silver,
As an asexual person and an asexual activist, I am always happy to see asexuality featured in public discourse. As a sexual orientation, asexuality is woefully under-studied, under-discussed and under-represented in the media and in everyday discussions of sexuality. As a result, it took me a long time to figure out that I was asexual. Like David Jay, I was nineteen before I realised that is was even possible to not feel sexual attraction to anyone, to not feel sexual desire towards other people.
Being asexual is a source of pride for me. It is a part of who I am, a label I am proud to wear, a subject I am happy to talk about. I don’t know if you noticed, but the photo included in your article is of a group of asexuals in a pride parade: it would seem that they too see asexuality as an important part of their identity. So it will perhaps not surprise you when I say that I found your article incredibly disappointing. Because what the asexual community needs, at its core, is acceptance and support, not disbelief and condemnation.
There are many points in your article that show that you have at least done some cursory research into asexuality. As you point out, there has not been much academic research into asexuality overall. But many researchers have taken up the subject in recent years, including Antony Bogaert, Lori Brotto* and others (an up-to-date bibliography can be found here), and I anticipate that asexuality will only continue to expand as a subject of research. It is worth pointing out that I have yet to come across a piece of academic writing that discredits or disbelieves asexuality, as you do. On the contrary, these researchers are finding that asexuality needs to be taken seriously as a sexual orientation rather than a problem; that it needs more research, more public engagement, more acceptance (see for example Bogaert 2006, 2008; Brotto et al. 2010; Emens, 2014; Gressgård 2013; Sherrer 2008 – I could go on).
Speaking of research on sexuality: as several commenters on your article have already pointed out, it is interesting that you refer to Kinsey’s research without mentioning that Kinsey himself realised that a small proportion of people didn’t report sexual attraction to either gender. He called this group ‘X’ although he didn’t go on to study it further. Still, already in the 40s and 50s, Kinsey realised that hetero- and homosexual (and somewhere in-between) were not the only options for humans.
So the research your article cites seems to make the opposite point to the one you want to make: that we in the asexual community have somehow got it wrong, and that others who are questioning their identity should not just adopt it willy-nilly (more on the inaccuracy of this idea later).
Let’s look at the first of your arguments in more detail.
The literal definition of asexuality means “without sexuality” but it is not possible to be without sexuality. We are all sexual beings from the day we are born until the day we die and whether or not we act on this is a choice.
However what is important is, why someone wants to identify as asexual – I believe people who claim to be asexual should explore a full range of possibilities that may affect their sexual desire. A number of things could be going on, but a person’s sexuality will always be present.
‘Literal’ definitions aside, the most widely accepted definition of asexual is ‘someone who does not experience sexual attraction.’ (Whether sexual attraction is the same as sexuality is a debate for another day.) But I completely disagree with your statement that we are all sexual being from the day we are born to the day we die. Unfortunately, your statement isn’t exactly a new idea. It’s one that I’ve had thrown at me on many occasions, especially when talking to the media, and many other asexual people I know have heard the same.
The idea that we are all sexual (and that those of us who aren’t are just repressed and scared and miserable) is an endless chorus that is, frankly, outdated and inaccurate, as is the idea that asexuality is just a choice to not have sex. Unfortunately, it’s a powerful one, and asexuality has a history of being pathologised. But so does homosexuality. Once upon a time, we thought that gay and lesbian people were sick, a problem. Thankfully, we now see homosexuality as a legitimate sexual orientation, not something that needs fixing. Surely it would not be that hard to see asexuality the same way: a legitimate expression of one’s sexual orientation, which just happens to mean not being attracted to anyone.
People have varying degrees of sex drive, libido, sexuality – whatever you want to call it. Some people love sex, others like it occasionally, some don’t like it at all. People’s sense of sexuality can increase and decrease throughout their lives, or it can stay constant. Some choose to be celibate, which is not the same as being asexual. In short, sexuality is not the same for any two people, and this is not a ‘problem’ that needs to be fixed.
There are people in the asexual community who also have intersecting psychological and health issues (both physical and mental health), just as there are in the non-asexual community. But most often, their asexuality is not a result of these issues, but simply another factor in the equation. Ultimately, if someone doesn’t experience sexual attraction, doesn’t have a sense of sexuality, it isn’t a ‘problem’ unless the person thinks it is a problem and it causes them distress. It is a genuine experience (most likely based in a lot of thinking and agonising!), and one that should be celebrated and talked about rather than denied and pathologised.
And on your second argument, that of labels:
I don’t want to criticise the AVEN movement, but I’d like to suggest to any young person who is not quite sure, that sexuality is as normal as breathing. Do some exploring, take your time, there is no need to give yourself a label, embrace an identity or feel the necessity to join a community.
The thing about labels, as I have written before, is that not needing them is a privilege. And not everyone has that privilege. We live in a society that is heteronormative and where sexuality is compulsory. If you are straight, chances are that you have never felt the need to find a label for yourself, because you have never felt isolated, marginalised or confused about your sexuality. Many asexual people, myself included, feel excluded from the rest of society, like there is something wrong with us. Finding the asexual community can be a huge relief, a sign that there are others like us, a sign that we are not broken.
Labeling ourselves as asexual is an act of belonging, courage, and freedom. For most of us, that doesn’t come as easily as your article seems to suggest. It takes a lot of thinking, soul-searching, agonising. We are not all poor deluded souls who have snatched up the first label we have come across and used it to hide ourselves away because we are scared or repressed. We are engaged, vibrant, diverse, living, breathing people – and no, our need to breathe is not analogous with a need for sex! And hey, we don’t tell young people that they should hold off calling themselves ‘straight’ or ‘sexual’ until they’ve explored all other options, do we?
So to sum up: not everyone feels sexual attraction, has a sense of sexuality, or wants to engage in sexual behaviour. More and more people are speaking up about asexuality and their experiences. More and more research (see above) is showing that asexuality shouldn’t be seen as a problem, but a valid sexual orientation, including the research your article cites. Even sex therapists and sexologists are starting to explore asexuality in a positive, accepting way.
What the asexual community needs from sex therapists (and everyone else!) is acceptance and legitimation, not disbelief. We want people to actually listen to our experiences, not pick and choose individual quotes that suit their purposes. We want to ditch the old-fashioned idea that sexuality is what makes us human and the same for everyone, and instead help to showcase how incredibly diverse humans are. We want to expand the way we conceptualise sexuality, intimacy, relationships and identity so that less people feel excluded and isolated, like your client (whom I hope gave her permission for her personal life to be written about in public). Perhaps the actual ‘problem’ she was facing was that she lived in a society that told her that sex in relationships was non-negotiable.*
Articles like your own only contribute to the marginalisation of asexual people in a society that already upholds (hetero)sexuality as the only way to be. I think if you were to spend more time in the asexual community, your opinions on asexuality would change dramatically. We are vibrant and diverse, and not at all broken, and we have much to share.
A proud asexual.
*I feel like I should also mention here that I find it strange that you seem to use Brotto’s work on arousal in asexual women to say that women who can get aroused are clearly not asexual (which she doesn’t). Last time I checked, women’s vaginas do not control their brains or constitute their whole being. Many asexuals are capable of becoming aroused, myself included. That doesn’t mean that we are attracted to other people sexually though. That just means that we have bodies that sometimes react to things our brains don’t react to. Asexuality is dependent on orientation, not behaviour.
*And as you will know, if you have researched asexuality as much as you say you have, that many of us are in very happy, committed, fulfilling relationships where sex isn’t on the table. I know that my partner and I sure don’t need it to express our love.