“But sex is a basic human need, right?”
When we talk about sex, we talk about a lot of different identities, often organizing them into various categories and spectra. Of course, we then pull apart those identities and categories and spectra and discover, over and over, the endless beautiful mess that lies within any individual identity. But no matter how we approach the conversation, we often exclude or ignore asexuality.
Sure, “asexual” was probably on the list of definitions you were given in the Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender Awareness (BiLeGaTA) workshop during first-year orientation. In name, sex-positive discourse asserts the right of everyone to engage or not engage in any consensual sexual expression or activity. But in practice, the “not engage” part of that sentence often gets overrun. In all of sex-positive people’s excitement to open up the conversation we were taught was taboo, sex-positivity sometimes becomes about asserting the value of sex rather than the value of sexual freedom—the freedom to choose yes OR NO in every single scenario that may arise.
I’ll use sex education as an example: we know that sitting through outdated, reproduction-based, heteronormative sex education can be harmful for those who do not fall into the strict gender binary and heterosexual model. (Well, actually, it’s harmful for everyone, but I think you know where I’m going with this.) What about sitting through a sex-positive sex education that emphasizes the validity of many different sexual identities, orientations, and behaviors and trumpets the necessity of consent and communication when none of those things necessarily apply to your life? The exclusion of asexuality from the conversation about sexual identity and sexual orientation means that asexual individuals’ identities are not acknowledged as valid, and that sexual people are left ignorant of a lived experience outside of their own. And this occurs even within some of the most open, caring, intentionally nonjudgmental discussions out there.
I am writing this because I believe it is crucial to include asexuality in conversations about sexual identity and sex positivity. My past columns have all been clearly geared toward sexual people, and while I think that talking about having good and healthy and safer sex is essential, I refuse to contribute to the erasure of asexual folks.
However, there is a fundamental contradiction in the way I am writing about asexuality here, and I would like to acknowledge it up front. The contradiction lies in the fact that I am not fully counteracting the effects of the sexual-centric approach; this column is not primarily written for asexual readers. This is because, just as I cannot speak to an experience I do not have, I will not attempt to offer advice or new knowledge to those who do have that experience. I write this to raise awareness, and hopefully to take a step toward including asexual realities and identities in the way this campus defines its sex positivity. I will link to resources for asexual people at the end of the column because the support and information networks out there are much more useful than I am in that regard.
For awareness’ sake, then, I’ll share a few of the basics. Definitions first: An asexual person is a person who does not experience sexual attraction. Asexuality is not a choice or a behavior, like celibacy and abstinence, but rather a part of identity, and depending on who you ask, asexuality can be a sexual identity or a sexual orientation (or neither or both).
Asexuality is also seen as its own spectrum that incorporates various behaviors and feelings. This spectrum includes demisexuality, in which sexual attraction only develops in the context of strong emotional connection; aromanticism, in which one does not feel romantic attraction or feelings; “gray-asexuality” or “gray-sexuality,” which falls between sexuality and asexuality and covers a broad range of experiences, including those of people who fluctuate between sexuality and asexuality or who have sex because they want to pleasure their partners who are sexual.
Attraction, arousal, sex, and relationships are intricately knotted together in our culture, but in reality they are separate things and must be recognized as such not only to respect asexual experiences, but for healthier approaches to any or all of those four components in general.
Attraction, for example, can be aesthetic, romantic, emotional, sensual, sexual, and/or otherwise defined. Asexual people may not experience or enact their attraction sexually, but many experience attraction and, depending on who they are attracted to, may identify with particular sexual orientations or romantic orientations (heteroromantic, homoromantic, biromantic, panromantic, polyromantic, etc.). Similarly, asexual people may experience sexual arousal and simply feel no need for a sexual partner.
The distinction I think may be most important to draw, in the unfortunate clumping of attraction-arousal-sex-relationships, is the distinction between sexual needs and emotional needs. Sexual intimacy and emotional intimacy are not one and the same and, again, the fact that we have been taught to link them creates problems for many people, sexual and asexual alike. Asexual people vary in their emotional needs just like anyone else, and they form social or romantic relationships and groups in accordance with their wants and needs.
For those who want more information, probably the most comprehensive resource about asexuality is AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, which offers access both to an asexual community online and to many resources on asexuality. The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health’s “Q&A: Asexuality” is also a good explanation of the basics, and GOOD Magazine recently published a great article about asexuality called “Coming Out of Invisibility” that gives both historical and current context. I have not yet seen the 2011 documentary “(A)sexual,” but I have heard that it is a very useful resource for anyone interested in learning more.
To return to the opening question, sex is not a basic human need. Much as our uncomfortable sex education teachers and desperate-to-catch-our-attention biology teachers like to tell us humans are just like animals when it comes to sex, we are not. And asexuality, like sexuality, is complex, awesome, and varied among individuals.
Baurer is a member of the class of 2015.