Asexuality in history, popular culture, psychiatry, and everyday life.
Posted Jul 18, 2020
“You don’t like skydiving, and I don’t like sex: Why we need to talk about asexuality.” That’s the title of a thoughtful article on asexuality at The Correspondent, written by Viola Stefanello. I see it as a next-level discussion of asexuality, one that goes beyond the basics of just telling readers that such a thing exists.
That, in itself, is a welcome development. No longer do you have to be an obscure academic toiling in an ivory tower, or one of a smattering of enlightened individuals, to have heard about asexuality.
If you are new to the concept, or just want a quick review, my go-to place is AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. At the top of the AVEN homepage is this definition: “An asexual person is a person who does not experience sexual attraction.”
Elsewhere on the site, you can read more about what asexuality means, and how asexuals differ from people such as aromantics, graysexuals, or demisexuals. Around the web, “Asexuality 101” kinds of articles are commonplace.
Viola Stefanello has a lot more to say. Here I will share some quotes and insights from her article. Then I will add a few of my thoughts about why the topic of asexuality is relevant to single life and to the experiences of all sorts of people who challenge the usual ways of thinking and living.
Asexuality Seems Like Something New
“It’s only this century, in 2001, that activist David Jay founded the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, the first community for asexuals,” Stefanello notes. It took even longer for asexuals to get more than an occasional mention in the popular press. Even now, many people remain unfamiliar with the term asexuality. But that doesn’t mean that it is a new concept.
Asexuality Is Not New
“References to people who felt no sexual desire toward others appeared in a German sexologist’s pamphlet in 1896,” Stefanello reports. “A number of historical figures are now believed to have been asexual: Emily Brontë, Salvador Dalí, Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, just to name a few.”
“Asexuality isn’t a new concept in fiction either,” she adds. “Remedios the Beauty, in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, is utterly uninterested in sex and relationships. So too is Sherlock Holmes, in all his adventures penned by Arthur Conan Doyle. A protagonist in the Netflix series, BoJack Horseman, makes no mystery of it — seasons four and five reveal Todd discovering this side of himself.”
The American Psychiatric Association Stopped Categorizing Asexuality as a Mental Disorder in 2013
When I first wrote about asexuality here at Living Single in 2009, the first person to comment suggested, essentially, that asexuals are just depressed. That sort of dismissiveness was not unusual. In fact, as Stefanello noted, it wasn’t until 2013 that the American Psychiatric Association acknowledged that asexuality did not belong in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Level of sexual interest or desire is relevant to a few disorders, but asexuality is not a disease and it is not pathological; it is a sexual orientation.
Asexuals Continue to Be Stigmatized
The official guide to mental disorders has stopped stigmatizing asexuals, but plenty of people have not. Those who openly identify as asexual are still subject to ridicule.
The most frequent reactions vary from “you hate men” to “you must have a hormone problem” or “you must be religious." And, predictably: “You never had me in bed."
We no longer need to rely solely on anecdotes as evidence. The biases against asexuals have been documented in a systematic program of research. I described the findings previously here at Living Single.
It’s Time to Topple the Relationship Hierarchy
In the conventional way of thinking about the people in our lives, there is a hierarchy of relationships, and romantic relationships sit at the top. That’s a hierarchy that needs to be toppled. As Stefanello points out, "Friends can be as important as romantic partners, if not more. Romantic relationships don’t have to end in sex.”
Recognizing that there are bigger, broader ways of thinking about relationships, family, and love is fundamental to a positive psychology of single life.
The Biggest Threat Posed by Asexuals Goes Way Beyond Sex
“The fact that we feel this way makes people very upset. It puts their worldview into question. By saying that it’s not mandatory to have sex to be in a healthy, happy relationship, that you can exist without feeling attracted to people, we’re challenging their notion of what it means to be human.”
That’s what Estance Delclaux-Hammon, one of the founders of the French Association for Asexual Visibility, told Stefanello over the course of a long conversation. The fundamental threat posed by asexuals is the challenge to other people’s worldview, their way of thinking about the world and their fellow humans.
I learned the same lesson in my study of people who are happily single, especially those I call “single at heart.” They choose single life because it is their best life; they are not just stuck with being single. The idea that some people can embrace single life and thrive as single people is a challenge to the worldview that is the ideology of marriage and family. That’s the set of beliefs that holds that just about everyone wants to marry and that only by marrying can you be truly happy. As several studies have shown, single people who choose to be single are disparaged more than single people who wish they were coupled. The sad single people are towing the ideological line. They are no threat. They get a pass.
People who are single at heart are bit more likely to be asexual than those who are not single at heart. That’s one reason I’m interested in asexuality. Perhaps more importantly, I’m interested in asexuality as an example of an important challenge to the usual way of thinking about things — the prevailing worldview. For the same reason, I’m interested in other LGBTQ+ identities and experiences, too.
I spent several years studying the many different ways that people are living now that households comprised of married parents and their children account for fewer than 20 percent of all households in the United States. Just about everyone else is living in ways that redefine home and family; in the process, they are challenging the usual ways of thinking.
What I’m really after are wide open minds and hearts, in just about every domain of personal life. It shouldn’t be so hard to follow a road less traveled.
Facebook image: Koldunova Anna/Shutterstock