Today we're having story time, so let's all sit down on our metaphorical carpets and use our imaginations. Not so long ago and not so far away there were three people growing up in the Midwest of the United States (That's where the story's author is from and that's where he currently lives.) Their names were Adam, Brad, and Cynthia, and none of them experiences sexual attraction.
Adam grew up in a home with fairly liberal views, including their views of human sexuality, and his friends had backgrounds similar to his own. Beginning in middle school, Adam’s friends began to take an interest in girls and would talk about them—who they liked, who they thought was hot, who they wanted to go out with, etc. Beginning in high school, some of these friends started to become sexually active and talked with friends about their sexual exploits. Adam did not develop these interests. For a little while he suspected he might be gay because he was not interested in girls the way his friends were. However, he eventually decided that he wasn’t because he was not attracted to guys either.
His friends talked about masturbation enough that Adam was able to pick up from them that for them masturbation was strongly connected with their sexual desires—they seemed to think about sexual things they would like to do or about girls they liked or girls on TV or movies, or some of them would watch porn, which Adam had no interest in at all. However, Adam was an asexual with a sex-drive, and he did masturbate. However, his masturbatory experiences had nothing to do with the concept of sexuality that he learned from his friends, TV, movies, etc. Consequently, he felt that for him, masturbation was not a sexual activity because it had nothing to do with anyone he liked or any sexual activity he would like to do with anyone. Adam decided that since he had gone through puberty several years earlier but he never developed sexual attraction to anyone, he must not be a sexual person. So he made up the term asexual to describe himself. When he told this to people, sometimes they asked him if that meant celibate. He said no because celibacy assumes you have sexual desires that you aren’t acting on, but he is asexual because he doesn’t have those desires.
Brad, by contrast, grew up as an Evangelical Protestant. The primary things he learned about human sexuality at home were basic biological facts about male and female anatomy and physiology and how fertilization occurs. Most of his values and beliefs about sexuality were learned at church and youth group—the point that was emphasized the most is that God created sexuality to be enjoyed but only in the context of marriage. Warnings against premarital sex were numerous; other than that, sex-education was not given. Masturbation was rarely mentioned, but when it was, it was said to be wrong.
His main friends were those from school, but most of them, like Brad, were much less interested in dating than many of the other students. Sexual jokes were made, but they had little or nothing to do with any activities Brad or his friends actually did. Brad is an asexual without a sex drive and has never masturbated or desired to do so. Because his friends never talk about it, he is unaware of the fact that it is something the majority of males his age do, so he does not think it strange that it is something he does not do. Furthermore, Brad finds the very idea of having sex unappealing—it’s something that he really would rather not do. He is heteroromantic and occasionally gets crushes on girls, unaware of the fact that there is no sexual attraction in these. He assumes that he will get married some day, at which point he will start having sex, which everyone tells him is really great, so he assumes he will learn to like it. But he is glad that that will not be for a long time. Brad has accepted the model of sexuality that is given to him at school and at church, and although he is aware that his sexuality is different from others, he does not disidentify with sexuality and does not think of himself as asexual. He is, however, confused by the differences between his sexuality and that of his peers.
Cynthia came from a conservative Catholic family. She is an aromantic asexual but she did masturbate sometimes. The messages about sexuality that she learned from her family and her church were that the primary purpose of sex is procreation within the context of marriage. Her friends at school generally did not date very much—this is largely because she felt excluded by the girls who spent a large amount of their time talking about what boys they liked and who was dating whom. Because she was taught that masturbation is sinful, Cynthia felt very guilty about it, and because none of her friends ever talked about it, she did not learn to attach any connection between it and a means forming relationships intimately tied to this thing called sexuality. Rather, it was sexual because it involved sex-organs and pleasure, and it was sinful because it was a non-procreative sexual act.
Cynthia was aware of the fact that her never getting crushes on people was atypical, but rather than viewing it as strange, she thought of it as being the gift of celibacy and decided to become a nun. As a nun, she occasionally explained her vow of celibacy by saying, “I’ve decided to become asexual.”
All three of these individuals are asexual in the way the term is now defined—they do not experience sexual attraction. However, only two of them think of themselves as asexual because they have disidentified with the constructs of sexuality that they have learned—but these are different constructs of sexuality so that in one case asexuality is contrasted with celibacy, but in the other, it is indistinguishable from it. The other individual, who has no desire for either partnered or solitary sexual activity does not think of himself as asexual because not only has he not disidentified with sexuality, to some extent, he better conforms to the understanding of sexuality that he has learned than do his sexually active peers—unlike them, he is not engaging in any sexual acts outside of the context of marriage. We can easily imagine all three of these individuals as coming from the same city—possibly even the same neighborhood—at around the same time. Yet they have all learned very different ideas of what sexuality is, and have different ideas of what it means to be sexual, and, thus, what it would mean not to be sexual.
Given how this variation in understandings of sexuality is possible in a small area, we must ask the question if it is even meaningful to apply ideas of what it is to be sexual (or not-sexual) with any precision to other cultures at other times. Undoubtedly they have beliefs associated with reproduction, acts involving sexual arousal, genital contact, the sorts of relationships in which these should or should not be involved, etc. that can be compared and contrasted, but the question arises, “If all people in all cultures are sexual, in what sense do we mean this and does it many any sense?” Does it simply ignore or treat as invalid their beliefs and values about sexuality and hegemonically impose ours?
Next time, I want to further develop the ideas that are raised by the story of the three asexuals.