When asexuality is introduced in writing, at the beginning of the discussion, two main points are stressed. 1.) Asexuality is a sexual orientation. People don’t choose to be asexual, it’s just the way they are. 2.) Asexuality is different than celibacy. Unlike asexuality, celibacy is a choice. Most celibate people aren’t asexual (that is, they do experience sexual attraction), and some asexuals aren’t celibate (that is, they have sex.) I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone spell out the reasons for this, as though they are simply obvious ones that don’t need to be stated and this is nothing more than a little bit of helpful information to help readers understand asexuality. Yet this twofold approach of insisting on viewing asexuality as a sexual orientation and on separating asexuality and celibacy are clearly parts of asexuality’s self-legitimation strategy. There are three parts of this strategy: the claim that asexuality is a sexual orientation, the insistence that people don’t choose to be asexual, and the construction of an image of celibacy to function as a foil to asexuality.
‘Sexual orientation’ is a loaded term. Many have been persecuted and discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. Many see protecting people against this as an important part of social justice. Anti-discrimination laws have been passed protecting people on the basis of it, especially in employment and housing. Current US jurisprudence interprets the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment as requiring laws making distinctions based on sexual orientation to at least pass the rationality test (which one Colorado law failed.) If asexuality is seen as a sexual orientation, asexuals become deserving, in the eyes of many, protection against discrimination on the basis of their asexuality. While this does not generally happen in employment and housing, it is not unheard of by doctors and therapists. This is especially important because many organizations for doctors and therapists have policies requiring practitioners to respect their patient/client’s sexual orientation.
Most anti-discrimination statements about sexual orientation do not include asexuality—if sexual orientation is defined, it is defined as being “heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual.” An exception to this is the state of New York’s “Sexual Orientation and Non-Discrimination Act,” which includes asexuality. In the world of psychiatry, the current attitude is somewhat schizophrenic. The word “asexual” appeared in the DSM-III (1980), and was explicitly called a “sexual orientation” in the DSM-III-R (1987). The word ‘asexual’ has since been replaced, and the current language gives the following specifications for sexual orientation: “sexually attracted to males, sexually attracted to females, sexually attracted to both, sexually attracted to neither.” There are clearly four rather than the traditional three. Does this mean that the DSM recognizes four sexual orientations? Not really. It only has this in the section of Gender Identity Disorder (GID) when dealing with those past puberty. In the current version of the DSM (DSM-IV-TR, 2000) sexual orientation is said to refer to being “sexually attracted to males, sexually attracted to females, or sexually attracted to both.” So only people with GID can have ‘asexual’ as their sexual orientation. The rest of the population can’t. But for the general population, it is possible to have the life-long subtype of hypoactive sexual desire disorder, which is mentioned only a few pages after sexual orientation is defined that excludes asexuality and not many pages before sexual orientation is redefined to include asexuality.
If people come to see asexuality as a sexual orientation, for many this requires that they be accepting of people’s claims of asexuality rather than assuming that such claims must really be (fill in the blank with your favorite way to dismiss asexuality). It may also mean that respecting people’s asexuality may become required in ethics guidelines and ethics training, and would be protected by law with respect to employment and housing, though I’m not aware of any discrimination in employment or housing on the basis of asexuality.
For many, insisting that their sexual orientation is unchosen functions as an important part of the rhetoric to legitimate that sexual orientation. It is used by their allies as well for the same purpose. The idea is that people cannot be held responsible for things they didn’t choose; they didn’t choose to be (fill in the blank with sexual orientation of choice); therefore it must be okay to be that sexual orientation. This line of reasoning is not without its critics. One the one hand are those unconvinced by it, and on the other are those who think it concedes too much. The former note that while desires and feelings may not be chosen, what one chooses to do with those desires and feeling are. In the case of the latter objection are those who think that it makes too much of the legitimating of non-heterosexual orientations dependent on the fact that these are unchosen. Saying that if people don’t choose to be gay means it’s okay to be gay does not mean that if they did choose to be gay it wouldn’t be ok (as this is confusing conditional and biconditional statements,) but this objection does make some sense. Many people believe that as long as sexual behavior is between consenting adults, no one is being harmed, and people are being responsible with respect to possible consequences, then it’s fine. If this framework is adopted, the question of if someone chose to be a lesbian or not is irrelevant. If there’s nothing wrong with being gay, then there’s nothing wrong with being gay even if it were a choice.
In asexuality’s striving for legitimacy, a similar approach is taken. Insisting that people don’t choose to be asexual has been adopted as a core part of asexual self-legitimation. But it has its own twist. Rather than aiming to convince those with traditional views of sexual morality, this claim primarily functions to convince those using the same argument to convince people with traditional views of sexual morality. The intended audience is different. Moreover, there is a self-conscious attempt at distancing asexuality from more traditional views of sexual ethics. There is a fear that asexuality will be associated with things like abstinence only sex education and mandatory clerical celibacy. For the parts of the population that may be persuaded by claims of sexual orientation, there are few groups that it would be worse for asexuals to be associated with. A good many asexuals are opposed to these things as anyone else.
Claims that people didn’t choose to be asexual function to preemptively rebut certain objections. In sex-normative outlooks where it is good to say “yes” to sex, but only acceptable to say “no, not now” and “no, not with you” but not “no, and maybe never,” people can read claims of asexuality as being “sexually repression” or “sex-negativity.” Rather than attempting to make asexuality palatable to those with more traditional views of sexuality, the goal is to make asexuality more acceptable to those who believe themselves to have open-minded views on sexuality.
To further emphasize this point, asexuality is contrasted with celibacy in a self-conscious effort to insist how different they are, even though there are obvious similarities and overlap. Many who believe that sex is “natural” are suspicious of celibates—there must be something wrong with these people, they must be repressed, don’t they know what they’re missing out on? Many think celibacy must derive from “sex-negative” religious views or some kind of psychological problem. I’m wary of this insistence on how different they are for three reasons. It seems to buy into anti-celibacy prejudice too much, it ignores that many of the sex-normative beliefs that look down upon asexuality are the same beliefs that look down on celibacy, and it constructs a false image of celibacy.
Assumptions that “sex is natural” and that people who aren’t having it must be “repressed” or “inhibited” or just plain missing out devalue the experience of celibates, whether they are asexual or not. While many celibates aren’t asexual (possibly most), people have varying levels of sexual desire and likely many celibates are at the lower end of that spectrum. Undoubtedly, many people could not be happy without sex, but there are many who can be. The insistence on distancing asexuality from celibacy may buy into celibacy debasing prejudices even though it is similar prejudices that doubt the validity of asexuality.
According to the Collective Identity Model for asexuality, “Asexual people have something in common because they have all chosen to actively disidentify with sexuality, a socially dominant framework for thinking about everything from pleasure to attractiveness to intimacy.” In a real sense, celibates have also chosen to disidentify with sexuality in how they form relationships. Sex-normative beliefs that make sexual expression a fundamental part of living a happy, healthy life are just as anti-celibacy as they are anti-asexual.
Perhaps the most troubling part of the attempt to distance asexuality from celibacy is the false image of celibacy constructed as a foil for asexuality. What is celibacy? If we define it as “not having sex” then there is a large overlap between celibates and asexuals. If we define it as the choice not to have sex (and following through with that), the situation is ambiguous. If I don't I sex because I'm not acting on desire that I don't have, is it a choice, or is it more of a default? Celibacy carries with it the assumption of universal sexual desire and a sense of restraint. It is precisely this assumption asexual identity challenges.
So which is it: not having sex or the (lived out) decision not to have sex? I don’t think it’s either. In one of my previous posts, I mentioned thinking that perhaps I had the gift of celibacy, but that I didn’t want to be celibate—not so much because of the sex, but because I wanted to get married and have children. At that time, I did not consider myself celibate, but abstinent (which also carries the assumption universal sexual desire and restraint.) To be abstinent was not to have sex for a certain time (typically, choosing not to have sex before marriage, but it can also mean temporary decisions to, for whatever reason, not have sex for some set period of time.) To be celibate is a decision not to marry (and not have non-marital sex.) Celibacy and abstinence are two very different things.
In culturally dominant ideas about sexuality, sex is a fundamental part of one’s most important social relationship. Differences lie not in this assumption, but in when sex should be introduced into that relationship, with whom such relationships are acceptable, and if sex is also okay in other relationships. In some ways, both recognizing asexuality and celibacy as legitimate options equally challenge this view. I am wary of the insistence that the two be regarded as strictly separate, though there clearly are differences. Someone can have sex and still be asexual. Someone can be celibate and not be asexual.
But many asexuals—and possibly most—have never heard of asexuality, and probably many of them think of themselves not as asexual, but as celibate. For many asexuals, celibacy is the best framework they have for thinking about their own lives and how they form relationships. Some asexuals who have decided to give up attempts at forming romantic relationships could reasonably identify as celibate as well as asexual. Some won’t because of the assumption of restraining desire it carries with it. Even if we exclude asexuals from the category of celibates (something I do not think we should do), the boundary between them would still be fuzzy because the boundary between sexual and asexual is fuzzy. Some people who identify as asexual do experience sexual attraction, or have felt it in the past, but only very little and very rarely. Just as it is impossible to tell how much sexual attraction is necessary to make someone sexual rather than asexual, for someone in this gray area, it is impossible to tell if someone who is not having sex is not doing so because they are celibate or because they are asexual. For such people, I’m not even sure it make sense to try to distinguish between these.