Understanding Asexuality from the Outside
A friend who rarely mentions sex has not had any in at least a decade. It has always seemed odd to me, but he is someone I really care for, and I accept him as he is.
When I discovered the AVEN board, I put two and two together and got asexuality. I did not want to confront my friend over something he might not be comfortable talking about, but I did want to let him know that I was asexual-friendly.
Unable to concoct a better plan, I sent a FYI e-mail to a dozen friends, letting them know that I was reading very interesting threads on the AVEN board. I even sent links to some of my favorites. My e-mail was not for the other eleven; it went to them so my friend would not think I was singling him out.
He wrote back a few days later, saying he had looked over the board and found it fascinating. He also said he wished he had been born asexual, as that would have made his life easier.
O.K., he is not asexual.
Two days later I received e-mail from a different friend, one of the eleven. He said he had always suspected he was asexual.
I was floored. Friend number two goes on and on about crushes on TV personalities, and I had long ago chalked him up as a typical heterosexual male. Of course, now that I understand asexuality, I know that asexuals may or may not be romantically oriented and may or may not fantasize about fictional characters. I should have known better than to stereotype.
I am really embarrassed to admit this, but my stereotyping goes further. My friend is a very good looking guy, and I suppose I assumed that guys who look like that have a harem of women at their beck and call. And here I pride myself on being a male feminist... Shame on me! And double shame on me for assuming that a handsome man could not be asexual, as physical appearance and asexuality have nothing to do with each other. If handsome men are by definition sexual, then what does that make asexual men? Triple shame on me.
My stereotype says a lot about my values as a sexual despite my efforts not to overvalue physical appearance. Logically speaking, why is it impossible for a Tyra Banks or a Brad Pitt to be asexual? To deny the possibility is to deny the worth of asexuals, to say that sexuality and beauty alone define who a person is.
And here, having reached the semi-ripe old age of 41, I thought myself wise. I clearly have a lot to learn, and the AVEN board is a good place to start.
THE FIRST PREMISE
So, what premise should a sexual who wants to understand asexuality start with? Here is a suggestion: Being asexual instead of sexual is like being left-handed instead of right-handed. It's not the way most people are, but it is no better or worse than being anything else. In a classroom with movable one-arm desks, a right-handed person can sit anywhere; a left-handed person can either sit in discomfort at a desk made for the right-handed or locate a left-handed desk and be as comfortable as everyone else. It takes a little more effort for the left-handed person to fit in, but that is because culture is dominated by the right-handed, not because a left-handed person is biologically inferior.
In the past, left-handed people were thought to be evil: On Judgment Day the damned stand on Christ's left side. Teachers once used physical punishment to force lefties to write with their right hands. Today we know better--and we further realize that some people are ambidextrous (neither left- nor right-handed). "Infinite diversity in infinite combinations," says the Vulcan IDIC.
Accepting equality on an intellectual level is one thing, but how can we sexuals know on an emotional level what being asexual is like? We cannot. Since I am not asexual, I cannot say with certainty what it is to be asexual--just as I cannot say with certainty what it is to be a lesbian, a woman, an aspie, an African American, a Hungarian, a Korean, or a senior citizen. Despite my limitations, however, I can still gain some understanding, and I can use analogies to put myself in asexual shoes; moreover, I can use simple human love and understanding to rejoice in difference and treat others as I wish to be treated.
THE WORLD OF EYEBROWS
Let us now imagine ourselves on another planet, perhaps Alpha Centuari, where the dominant culture is based on eyebrow beauty. In fact, males of the species are said to think about a raised eyebrow every 17.3672 seconds. The Centauri film industry is dominated by eyebrow flicks, once considered too obscene to be shown in public. Touching another's eyebrow is, well, something you still do behind closed doors. Licking another's eyebrow... That is supposed to be reserved for marriage, although there are plenty of teens who slurp in parked cars, far from the eyes of prudish parents. Some teens' grades are bad because they cannot concentrate on academics; all they ever think about is eyebrows, especially big bushy ones.
"What on Earth (or Alpha Centauri) is this eyebrow thing?" you ask. You are aware of eyebrows' existence, and you are perfectly capable of admiring a nice set aesthetically, but who would devote such a large chunk of mental energy and waking hours to... eyebrows? It just does not make sense. You certainly do not want every damn conversation to focus on whose eyebrows warrant a good lick.
Do you see where I am taking this? You have never denied having eyebrows, and you can wax 'em, pluck 'em, or dye 'em with the best of them. But come on, eyebrows?!? There are more important things in life.Now substitute "sex" for "eyebrows," and you are close to passing Asexuality 101.
BOMBARDED BY SEXUALITY
Back to the real world... In our sexual culture, asexuals are bombarded by sexuality that is foreign to them, made to feel as if they must have sexual prowess to hotrod with the cool clique and not be relegated to the geek squad. We never ask if they are interested in sex; we assume they are. Why wouldn't they be? Sex is great. Sex is the ultimate. Sex is da bomb.
So are eyebrows.
People question why asexuals need to come out, but in a society where sexual desire is assumed and many asexuals find they are forced to lie to be accepted, why would they not need to come out? It has nothing to do with asexual psychology and everything to do with the way we sexuals enforce sexual conformity. Asexuals need to confide in other asexuals, and those seeking romantic non-sexual relationships need to find others seeking the same. Painful self-examination and growing self-awareness cannot be endured in isolation. In addition, an asexual's experience in a sexually crass world may be so painful that self-abuse or even substance abuse may be real problems.
The irony is that sexuals ought to understand where asexuals are coming from. Heterosexual women and gay men sport a sort of asexual sentiment toward women, for example. They may desire them as warm friends, enjoy spending time with them, laugh or cry with them, admire their physical beauty... But it just is not sexual. Similarly, heterosexual men and lesbians have no sexual desire for men, but that does not mean men play no role in their lives.
Now here's the key point: Unless it is part of horsing around that all parties are comfortable with, a sexual advance from outside one's sexual orientation is usually not welcome. A heterosexual male does not want to be hit on by a gay male, and a gay male does not want to be hit on by a heterosexual woman. Asexuality is a valid sexual orientation, and asexuals do not want to be hit on by anyone. When we sexuals claim that asexuality is not normal, we are actually projecting our biological wiring and aspirations onto them. We are hearing our own voices, not theirs.
This is a childishly simplistic definition of sexuality, I realize, and it does not take the full sexual spectrum into account. I am not attempting to define all sexual possibilities here, and I certainly do not wish to alienate bisexuals or people with primary attraction to one sex and low, incidental attraction to the other. They, too, face unjust discrimination and have the right to be who they are. But, I am afraid, this article would be three times its size if I attempted to include all shades of sexual variation in it.
WHY NOT GET "FIXED"?
Back to asexuality. Now that its nature is a bit clearer, we should address the other question many sexuals ask: Why are asexuals reluctant to get "fixed" in therapy or by taking medication? The most important answer is that a number have gone that route, and it does not work. After all, why should it work? If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
If you, a sexual pondering this question, had no interest in heavy duty sexual bondage and domination, would you want to take a pill that would turn you on to it? Would you be willing to go to a therapist to explore what childhood traumas supposedly left you unwilling to wield a whip? Would you feel as if you were missing out on being submissive while tied up and splayed over the coffee table? Those who love these sex games feel that non-practitioners miss out on a lot. They would also feel that something had been stolen from them if they were no longer able to express their sexuality in this way. You, however, are unaware of missing anything. You can live a happy, productive life without heavy duty bondage. Or golden showers. Or rubber fantasies.
That is how asexuals view sexuality. They do not crave it, and they do not want to crave it.
WHAT ARE SEXUALS REALLY SAYING?
That last sentence is so hard for sexuals, myself included, to accept emotionally even though we may accept it intellectually. Much of human history is in fact the history of sex, and many great works of art--whether paintings or sculpture or music or literature--are very, very sexual, even if clandestinely. Many people have had to fight for free expression of sexuality, and in many societies sexuality remains restricted or denied. Even today some societies perform ritualized clitorectomies, imprison or even execute gay people, insist that sex be between a married couple and only in the missionary position. Foreign films that are clearly not pornographic must be strictly edited to avoid an X rating in the United States. Several episodes of the Canadian series Degrassi: The Next Generation, particularly the ones about abortion, have not been aired in the U.S. Mind you, Degrassi is about teenagers in high school and is hardly Sex and the City. (The latter show, like Queer as Folk, is only for Cable, not network TV.)
Tell people they cannot have something and they want it even more. People get very touchy about any encroachment on their sexual expression, yet they retain their predecessors' sexual squeamishness and condemn anything seen as sexual deviation. Despite our sexual liberation, we are still products of older generations' prejudices, older religious thought, and contemporary backroom humor. Sex is everywhere, yet it is taboo--and outright dirty.
Here lies the problem. We believe that asexuals are not like "us," so "they" must have something wrong with them. They seem to shove their sexuality (actually, their asexuality) in our faces, and that offends whatever Victorian morality still haunts us. Even worse, if an asexual dares not show "proper" sexual interest in us, we are furious. We want to get laid; who the hell are they to say no? How very sad.
Is sex truly the be-all and end-all of love? For a sexual, it is a key part of bonding, but is it the only possible expression of physical love? What of hugging, kissing, caressing lightly, snuggling, cuddling, and giving an arm in support? Is sex the only thing that cements a relationship? What of empathy, understanding, affection, patience, steadfastness, loyalty, honor, companionship, and shared wisdom?
If we forget so much else and define human relations by sex alone, then what does that say about us?