Note: This interview from a few months ago is being republished in honor of Asexuality Awareness Week, which is October 23-29.
SEX+STL will be hosting a free screening of the documentary Asexuality: The Making of a Movement Tuesday, October 18, 7pm at a private home theater in South City St. Louis. Please RSVP to me at kendra@ thebeautifulkind.com for the address.
Want to learn about asexuality? Let’s ask the Asexual Sexologist!
Kendra Holliday: What is asexuality?
The Asexual Sexologist: First, I’d like to start off with a disclaimer. I’m just one person, so I can only answer these questions based on the following: 1) My personal experience 2) My relatively limited interaction with other people who identify as asexual and 3) A survey that I distributed last summer that got 30 responses (I had a short window for collecting results) and had a self-selection bias. While I believe that what I’m saying is true, it shouldn’t be taken as gospel truth or be considered applicable to all people who identify as asexual.
KH: OK, I understand. So what is asexuality?
AS: The simplest answer is that it’s an orientation label used to describe people who aren’t sexually attracted to other people. That definition does not mean that they are necessarily sexually attracted to anything else.
I can be turned on by certain activities (watching or participating) but arousal, for me, never leads to sex, my brain just doesn’t make a connection between arousal and sex, I find intercourse a total turn off- oddly enough.
If someone tells you they are asexual and you’re going to make an assumption, just assume that they aren’t sexually attracted to anyone or anything unless they say otherwise.
KH: Is there an asexual spectrum?
AS: Definitely. The way I picture it is that at one end you have the asexuals who are not only not interested in having sex, they aren’t interested in anything close to it, giving or receiving, maybe not even talking about it and avoiding the subject as much as possible, clear through a spectrum of indifference with varying levels of sex negative to sex positive attitudes and ending somewhere on the other side with asexuals who are open to mutual masturbation, oral sex, or outright sex with a partner if it’s important to their partner and the relationship is important to them (of the people who took my survey half of them said that they were open to having sex with a partner if it would be important to the relationship).
KH: When did you realize you were asexual?
AS: Well, I started hiding the fact that I wasn’t interested in sex at about 13 or 14, when I was scolded by a friend for not wanting to have sex with the front man of our favorite band. At the time (yes, at 13) I knew I was kinky but you can’t go to the middle school cafeteria and start a conversation with “I’m into power exchange, how about you guys?” so a lot of my early relationships were long distance with other teens who were exploring their interest in kink (oh, and pedophiles) so it was pretty easy to gauge the level of interest in sex that other people had and fake that my level of interest matched theirs.
When I had my first local boyfriend at 16 I kind of panicked that I was so not interested in sex, I had just been assuming that I was a “late bloomer” or something – I got pretty far with that boyfriend but between my lack of genuine interest and his lack of skill it wasn’t anything amazing. I used different labels through high school and college: straight (the only option in my childhood home), lesbian (well if I wasn’t interested in boys….), bi (oh… well I find some men and women equally attractive even if I don’t want to have sex with them…) and eventually queer (the reason for which was twofold: meeting my first friends who were transgender and realizing that trying to turn everything into a binary was kind of limiting and also a feeling of “fuck it, I don’t know!”) I still identify generically as queer when I don’t want to have in-depth conversations about the subject of asexuality.
It wasn’t until my Sophomore or Junior year of college that I first met someone who identified as asexual (when I first heard the word) and then it wasn’t until my Junior or Senior year of college that David Jay (founder of AVEN) came to campus to speak as part of an event that my student group cosponsored.
At some point during my Senior year, after looking in to it more closely I realized how much I related to the term asexual. Once I realized that was an option and that I wasn’t just totally broken in some way (and that I could just be upfront with partners about not being interested in sex instead of dancing around the subject) it was a huge relief!
KH: What are some common misconceptions about asexuality?
AS: Maybe the biggest one is that we all must be the same (you know, just like all sexuals must be the same). One of the questions I get asked the most (and one that totally fascinated me when I started to wonder where I fit in the grand scheme of asexuality) was if asexuals masturbate.
Of the small survey I did (with 30 responses), almost all of the men, and half of the people who responded as any of the other gender option said that they do (which I believe is pretty close to the statistics of the general population). I’ve also heard that asexuals are just scared of having sex (which I think is only valid if your position is also that straight men just don’t have sex with other men because they’re afraid of it).
When I was telling one person about my survey results they concluded that if someone is masturbating then that must mean that they want to have sex and it’s probably just a mental issue of some sort. Masturbating and having sex are two totally different acts, also, my survey didn’t ask people what they fantasize about when they masturbate (I suppose some may not fantasize at all but as far as I know masturbation is most frequently accompanied by some form of fantasizing) but they may not be fantasizing about sex.
For instance, I have favorite bondage erotica and bondage films that I like but the part that gets me off is everything before the sex, once they get to the sex part I can’t really relate as well, but I can totally relate to the power dynamic and the sensations and the emotions that precede the sex.
The idea that asexual people are anti-social, passionless, or prefer being single makes a lot of assumptions, primarily that all asexual people are the same. Are some asexual people anti-social, passionless, and have a preference for being single? Sure; just like some people who aren’t asexual are anti-social, passionless and have a preference for being single.
The idea that asexual people just haven’t met the right person yet I think is presumptuous. I know people who identified one way their whole life and then met and fell in love with someone who made them re-evaluate the labels they used so I think of sexuality as something that’s pretty fluid and has the prospect to surprise us!
Just the same, if everyone identified as pansexual because everyone has the potential to maybe one day meet anyone of any gender identity and fall in love with them and have sex with them then that label wouldn’t be very useful. We use labels to try and help us and others figure out what we’re looking for and I think the label we use can only ever be our best guess based on past experiences.
Could I one day meet someone that I feel compelled to jump into bed with? Of course I could, but I don’t think it’s very likely, so why identify any other way? I haven’t said “I’m asexual, I will never be interested in sex” as if I get to make that decision, I’m just saying “I’m asexual, I haven’t been interested in the past and I’m not actively looking to attract someone who isn’t going to be okay with that.”
To the people who say that those who self-identify as asexual are just secretly gay: What makes you think it is any easier to identify as asexual than to identify as gay?? In my experience, in this culture, at this time, you get treated much more like a freak for not being interested in sex with anyone than for being interested in sex with people of the same gender (that’s why I identify as queer when I don’t want to give a serious answer because people assume I’m gay and that’s easier for them to accept!)
KH: So you’re into BDSM? Can someone practice BDSM non-sexually?
AS: Yes, and apparently! My endorphins work just like everyone else! Mostly I’m into D/s, but B/D and S/M do play roles in most of my relationships (and masturbation material). I’m confident that people can practice BDSM non-sexually, whether or not the way I practice BDSM is entirely non-sexual is up for debate I suppose.
I include “kinky” as one of the descriptive terms for my sexuality because it can turn me on (which for me does not mean that it makes me want to have sex) and I can find it very satisfying (whether or not there’s an orgasm involved). My casual play was always pretty much non-sexual though in my relationships (which in the past have mostly been with men who were not asexual) fellatio was sometimes involved with play because my partners had needs and because I get off on pleasing my partner and that was a compromise I was willing to make… so I suppose there were sexual components but never anything other than fellatio, because that would be a real mood killer for me.
For people who are kinky and asexual there is a group on Fetlife.com called “Asexual and Kinky” which has some great discussions (and almost 200 members). There are definitely people out there who like BDSM but aren’t looking to mix it with sex.
KH: Do people sometimes realize they are asexual years later than expected? For instance, do asexuals get married, have kids, and then turn asexual, or are they always that way and just try and go through the motions and act like society expects them to?
AS: There are many examples of gay men and lesbian women going through the motions and marrying someone of the opposite gender and having kids because that’s what they think they’re supposed to do (particularly in the past when there was less information and less acceptance of gays and lesbians but it is still surprisingly common today).
When this happens to people who realize that their relationship isn’t working out because they’re more attracted to their own gender rather than to the gender of their partner, at least they’ve got an idea about why their relationship isn’t working out.
Imagine never being sexually attracted to anyone and thinking that either everyone else feels the same way and they all just stick it out because it’s what they’re supposed to do, or feeling like you’re the only one who isn’t sexually attracted to your spouse and feeling like a total freak (as so many people do when it comes to the quirks of their sexuality, whatever they might be).
Just like the gay men and lesbians who married and had children because of societal pressures or confusion were always gay (or perhaps bi) even when they were married to the person of the opposite gender, so too are asexual people always asexual, whether or not they recognize that there’s a word for it.
If a person one day realized that the problem was that they actually hadn’t ever had a desire for sex and had just been going through the motions because they thought they should and thought things would change or get better then I wouldn’t be too concerned about them, medically.
However, if a person were to lose their interest in sex that may be cause for concern. A loss of interest in sex could be due to trauma, side effects of medication, or other mental of physical health issues. Often doctors will hear that a person has no interest in sex and assume that it is a symptom because it doesn’t occur to most doctors that the person never had an interest in sex.
I’ve had two particularly interesting reactions to women that I’ve come out to. One woman told me (I’m paraphrasing) “no women are interested in sex, it’s just one of the things you do for the marriage and to have children” (it made me very sad that she felt that way but of course I can’t say if the woman was asexual or if she just had issues, maybe a little of both) and another woman told me that maybe she was asexual, too, because if it weren’t for alcohol she’d still be a virgin because she never really craved sex and, though she didn’t dislike sex, she always needed to be coerced into it.
Neither of those women identify as asexual, so I wouldn’t presume to say that they, are but I find it very interesting how eager some women are to admit that they don’t enjoy sex as much as they pretend to (obviously not all women are pretending!).
I think I should also say that there are people who identify as asexual who do have a partner (or partners) of some sort with whom they may or may not have sex or may or may not have children with everyone in-the-know about the situation. If you’re asexual but you’ve got a strong maternal or paternal instinct to have kids then you only have so many options.
Also, if you want to be in a monogamous relationship with someone who isn’t asexual then you’re probably going to have to make some compromises in the sex department. I don’t think such an arrangement is entirely different from a vanilla partner who lets their kinky partner tie them up and spank them on occasion and maybe they even get wrapped up in the enjoyment their partner gets out of it but it isn’t ever really their “thing” and if they left and were with a new totally vanilla partner they’d be able to live without ever doing it again (as opposed to someone who is kinky and will continue to seek that out as an important part of their sex life).
KH: When I see someone walking down the street I find sexy, I get interested and turned on. I might start fantasizing about them. What is this scenario like for you?
AS: Honestly, this never happens to me. I can definitely see people walking down the street and think “wow, they are attractive!” but that’s just an aesthetic appraisal, not a sexual one. Sometimes a person’s demeanor or voice will turn me on a little but I have never been able to fantasize about real people, all my fantasy characters are compilations of person A’s demeanor and person B’s voice and person C’s rope skills etc.
The vast majority of the time anything sex-related doesn’t cross my mind, but since I enjoy D/s and bondage I do sometimes see things that can get me fantasizing a bit but it isn’t very common for me, and for other asexuals my impression is that it doesn’t happen at all (some seem literally to not be aroused by anything).
KH: When I’m watching a movie and a hot sex scene comes on, I get turned on and feel squirmy. What is it like for you when you watch porn or see sex acts?
AS: Most vanilla sex scenes might as well be sleeping pills for me, it just doesn’t do anything for me. When I watch bondage porn I can get turned on by the power dynamics and the bondage scenes. If I’m masturbating to bondage porn it all goes pretty smoothly until I get to the part where the players start having sex and then I half tune it out until they get back around to an activity that I find more interesting.
I watched a lot of porn before going to grad school and the program I’m in now requires the viewing of a lot of videos of couples (and groups) of various gender pairings having sex (specifically to expose people to more realistic depictions of various types of sexual activities than they may have seen in porns) and as much as I can appreciate how much the participants are enjoying what they’re doing, I’ve never had any real physical response while watching.
KH: What resources do you recommend for those wanting to learn about asexuality?
AS: As far as books there’s only one good book I know of for parents that even mentions asexuality, which is “There’s More! A Parent’s Guide to Alternative Sexualities.” by Dr. Amy Marsh. There isn’t a lot of information about asexuality but the information it does have is good and I’m impressed that it even mentions to parents that they should consider that their children could be asexual.
Other alternative sexualities covered in the book include interests in BDSM, Object Sexuality, Polyamory/non-monogamy, and Omnisexuality. This book seems to be a supplement to all the other parenting books that claim to be about teenage sexuality but don’t cover these topics. You can buy the book here or read a review here.
One great place for information is the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) website. AVEN is a particularly great place for people who are, or think they might be, asexual because there are a lot of great forums.
A good resource for people who are curious or critical about asexuality would be the video series “Letters to an Asexual”. Another good YouTube video series is Hot Pieces of Ace, created by people who self identify as asexual.
Recently there were 2 articles in Good Vibrations magazine, “Sex-Positivity and Asexuality: Bringing Them Together” by Dr. Glickman and “Asexuality is not Antisexuality” by Swank Ivy. I also recommend Ivy’s Essay “Asexuality Top 10“.
And of course there was a great interview on TheBeautifulKind.com
I’m also working on my new website: The Asexual Sexologist. I’m compiling lists of asexual blogs, articles about asexuality, video clips, research findings, etc., and soon I’ll be posting another, more in-depth survey to help me with my research for my Masters in Human Sexuality.