For my first post at Queereka, I thought I’d explain a bit about what asexuality is, and what it isn’t, by addressing some common misconceptions. First off, a definition: at its most fundamental level, asexuality is the absence of sexual attraction. (The term also appears in biology, but we’ll be talking about the orientation.) Even within that definition there is room for manoeuvre, demonstrated by the increasing prominence of terms such as demisexual and grey-A. For simplicity’s sake I will refer to all of these orientations under the umbrella term of asexuality.
It’s difficult to summarise what it means to be asexual – beyond the “little or no sexual attraction” caveat there are possibilities as numerous as people (it is estimated that one percent of the population are asexual). What I hope to dispel is that all asexual people are the same, or that we’re “broken” in some way, or that we all fall into a stereotype (beyond the “asexual people love cake” stereotype, but then again, who *doesn’t* love cake?). Here are a few myths and misconceptions regarding asexuality, accompanied by my attempts at busting them.
1. Oh, so you’re celibate?
Celibacy and asexuality are two different, albeit superficially similar things. Celibacy is where a person abstains from sex either voluntarily (such as a religious vow) or involuntarily. The important thing is that they have a desire to have sex that is suppressed somehow. Asexual people have no such desire; not experiencing sexual attraction is an intrinsic part of them. Celibacy is about behaviour, while asexuality is about underlying feelings. Asexual people do not make a choice to be asexual any more than gay people make a choice to be gay and so on, and it isn’t a case of them being unable to have sex. Some people give asexual people credit for “saving themselves” or “exercising self-control”, but there’s nothing to save or control. [This section was altered to include a more accurate portrayal of celibacy thanks to commenter miller.]
2. The purpose of life is to procreate – you must be ill or damaged in some way.
This is always lovely to hear. Some people take evolutionary theory – or their religious book of choice – to extremes! Life has so many facets beyond going forth and multiplying/passing down our genes, I can’t even begin to do them justice. It’s bizarre how they’re all suddenly forgotten by those trying to make asexual people feel inadequate. (On a side note, don’t you think we have enough procreation going on already without trying to force asexual people into doing it too?)
Regarding the second point, it’s a sign of how sex is held in such high regard in our society that anyone who expresses no interest in it is seen as having a problem that needs to be fixed. (Because denoting orientations as disorders has gone so well before, amirite?) No sensible person will deny that loss of sexual desire can be a symptom of underlying problems, but being asexual is an orientation, not an illness. Think of it this way: some people are naturally more sexual than others. Why can’t that extend to having no sexual attraction at all without it becoming an illness, or a symptom of childhood abuse, or any sort of cause for concern?
3. How do you know if you’ve never tried it?
The same way straight people know they're straight without having gay sex, or gay people know they're gay without having straight sex, or any person knows they don't want sex with a certain person without actually doing it. As I mentioned before, the key thing is attraction.
This sort of question also ignores the fact that some asexual people have in fact had sex, or masturbated, or (if they're demisexual) can experience sexual attraction once an emotional connection is formed, and they haven't magically turned sexual – just like someone who identifies as, for example, a lesbian wouldn't be turned straight just by having sex with a man. (Though, word to the wise, don't randomly ask an asexual person intimate questions about their sex life – it's not that they're a prude, it's just incredibly rude.) There's a chance an asexual person might shift their identity, but generally people come to asexuality having examined themselves quite a lot, since it's a relatively invisible orientation. Even so, doubting anyone's orientation is kind of a douchey thing to do.
Conversely, if terrible movies have taught me nothing else, they've taught me that sexual people don't have to have sex to want it.
4. I met an asexual person who was in a relationship. They must have been lying about being asexual.
Relationships are more complex than simply sexual attraction. There's romantic attraction for starters – asexual people can identify as having a romantic attraction to other people (homoromantic, heteroromantic, biromantic, etc.), or not (aromantic). More importantly, there's the fact that relationships don't have to be sexual or romantic to be meaningful – friendships or familial relationships can be even more fulfilling.
Another myth is that asexual people can only form relationships amongst themselves – many asexual people enter relationships with sexual people, though the trick (as with any relationship, especially one where sex drives don't match) is communication. Some asexual people will do sexual things for their partner, or even be sexually attracted to them if they're demisexual. You have no right to know the details just because you're curious.
5. Come off it! You're just gay and in denial/straight but can't get any/too young to make that sort of statement.
I'm going to need a list-within-a-list to deal with all this fail!
a) Many asexual people grow up being misread as gay or even believing they are gay – learning about asexuality and finding you fit into it can be a real turning point. It does seem that if you're not aggressively heterosexual, you're automatically gay – and if you deny you're gay, you're repressed. Don't you think it would be easier for a closeted gay person to come out than go through constant scrutiny by identifying as asexual?
b) Asexual people are no more or less desirable than sexual people. Our orientation is not a defence mechanism. (I theorise that part of this misconception is down to the fact we engage in behaviours that traditionally attract people somewhat less since we have less desire to attract them, but that's just common sense.)
c) I won't deny that members of the asexual community seem younger on average than others. However, I think this is down at least in part to how invisible asexuality is, and how it's prominently an internet community. The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) was only founded in 2001, after all! Many gay people know they're gay from a young age and we don't try to force them back into the closet until they're "old enough" (how old is "old enough" anyway?), so don't do the same to asexual people. I would go so far as saying the younger a person can know themselves fully, the happier they'll be – they won't have to go through years of believing there's something wrong with them.
EDIT: Commenter Elizabeth made a helpful addition to this point: “I think it’s also important to recognize that there ARE plenty of older asexual people out there. It’s just that older people are less likely to find the community because they’re less likely to spend a lot of time on the internet. And they’re hidden behind their online aliases when they do, so unless they specifically point out their age, you wouldn’t know how old they are.”
d) Remember what I said about doubting someone's orientation being a douchey thing to do?
Part two of this series can be found here.
Feature image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.