Saturday, November 22, 2008

Once upon a time there were three asexuals

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.


The Impossible K said...

Yay!! I love story time! :D
I'm a lot like Brad, I think. And it actually raises a question I never got an adequate answer to- that is, how a religious upbringing that encourages abstinence could affect self-identifying as an asexual. After all, you could confuse it with the "gift of celibacy", right?
Thanks for this most excellent post!! I can't wait to read part two :)

Anonymous said...

I like your idea. I've enjoyed your stories. I'd like you to continue this way.
I think that it is a good idea to develop a few stories involving some sample points in the asexual diversity.

pretzelboy said...

ImpossibleK, I've wondered a fair bit about the issue of asexual identification and religious upbringing. From the stats on AVEN (and just general impressions,) the proportions of religious to nonreligious people seems to be considerably different than in the general society. Party, this could just be who uses the internet--more young people than older ones, more middle and upper class than lower class, etc. Especially given that one of the few studies done on asexuality found that asexuals were more likely than nonasexuals to be religiously active (though no more or less likely to identify with a religion.) While this part finding might not be reliable because of sampling problems and the operational definition of asexual used, it is intriguing.

My guess is that if someone like Brad were to identify as asexual, it would probably be at a later age than someone like Adam.

Here's something else that I've wondered about with regard to asexuality and religion. When I was younger, I believed that sex was only okay in the context of heterosexual marriage. Changing this view to one that more LGBT-friendly was a long and difficult process for me. I wonder what would have happened had I not already had this change before discovering asexuality. Would I have not felt at home on AVEN? I'm pretty sure it would have definitely had a significant impact on my experience there.

pretzelboy said...

heterogen, I agree that there is a need for more stories about asexuals. There was one that you might find interesting in the March 2008 issue of AVENues, the bi-month newsletter of AVEN. Fortunately, there has also been considerable growth in the number of people writing about their own stories on the various asexual blogs that exist. This is a trend that I hope will continue.

Anonymous said...

I think that I explained poorly. I wanted to congratulate you on two different things: the stories and the idea of parallelizing them. A single sample is never representative (testis unus, testis nullus) but some samples may help to view globally. This happens for plotting curves.

Ily said...

I like story time, too! It's funny because I'm probably the most like Brad as well, even though I am NOT from a very religious background. But, most of my friends growing up were immigrants to America who were very focused on their studies, like I was. They never really talked about sex or crushes (perhaps it was more taboo in their cultures), and so I never really felt "abnormal" until I got to college (a place which was much less culturally diverse, by the way) and people were discussing these things. So I didn't really start questioning my sexuality until I was 20.
So that's my long way of saying that I find the cultural angle interesting as well.
But I'm also really fascinated by the religion angle...

pretzelboy said...

heterogen, rereading your first comment, I see what you mean.

Ily, I hadn't really thought about non-religious cultural backgrounds that exist nowadays that would have similar effects as in the examples of Brad and Cynthia, but now that you mention it, it makes perfect sense.

I'm glad to see such positive feedback to this post! It's one of my own personal favorites as well.

Anonymous said...

"...get married some day, at which point he will start having sex..." then he will realize that he is not asextual. That is what I heard from the people in my culture. We might not know if we are an asextual until we get married... don't you think so?

pretzelboy said...

There is a good deal of skepticism about asexuality, and in my culture, it seems really unpredictable who is going to accept it and who is going to think that you can't possibly be asexual (if you just knew your own feelings if you just had sex know what it's like, then you'd realize that you really are just like everyone else.)

I think that for people who identify as asexual, there is going to be some aspect of sexuality that they are expected to feel that they don't. For some people, this can give a sense of being "not sexual." For me, I didn't have a feeling of being "not sexual" as much as of not being hetero/homo/bisexual and feeling that I had a lot more in common with asexuality than anything else. Also, the idea of not experiencing sexual attraction seemed to fit with my own experience.

I've read about some asexuals whose started to feel/suspect that they were asexual (or at least somehow different) because of having sex. With all the messages that people get about how great sex is, not enjoying it or thinking it's boring or something like that can be what makes them start to question. For others, this questioning happens without ever having sex.

Also, anonymous poster, I have a totally random question for you. You wrote "asextual" twice, suggesting that in your pronunciation, there is either a "t" sound or a "ch" sound rather than the "sh" that I use. (The fricative has turned into a stop.) Which sound do you use for it. (I'm a linguist, so these things are interesting to me.)

Anonymous said...

It's confusing to me. Asextual is a noun or an adjctive? Hard to fiture it out from your writing. By the way, to me, "ch" is the right one. Sorry for being off-topic!!!

pretzelboy said...

Thanks for the clarification on the pronunciation. That makes sense (but why it makes sense in terms of articulatory phonetics would probably bore my readers, so I won't explain.)

I use the word asexual both as a noun and as an adjective. I even wrote a post about it one time titled grammar.

pretzelboy said...

There is another thing that I wanted to post in reply to the question about not finding out about being asexual until after marriage. There is an asexual blog that is no longer active that has an interesting post on this subject