No longer a term applied merely to cells or laboratory experiments, “asexual” is finally being used to describe the most complex organisms on this earth. An asexual person, as described by the “Asexual Visibility and Education Network” (AVEN), is “someone who does not experience sexual attraction.” Asexuals make the point that they do not practice celibacy — the active choice to resist sexual urges — but that they simply do not have these urges at all.
Many asexuals describe the discovery of their asexuality in much the same way that homosexuals describe the discovery of their homosexuality. They describe how, as they joined their classmates in the awkward journey through puberty, and as they matured physically, they did not develop the same sexual feelings that their friends did. Confused and often times depressed, some of them took many years to realize their unusual orientation.
Asexuals insist that they have just as many close relationships as sexual people but that, of course, sex isn’t involved. They say that besides the sex, they are involved in relationships for all the same reasons — “communication, closeness, fun, humor, excitement and trust” — as anyone else.
The most commonly cited statistic on asexuals, taken from a 1994 British AIDS survey of more than 18,000 where respondents were asked about their sexual attraction, puts the number at about one percent of the population. When viewed in light of homosexuals, who are commonly believed to be somewhere from three to five percent of the general population, and who have maintained a high level of visibility within our society, it’s a little surprising that most people are not aware of the asexual community.
AVEN, which describes itself at “the world’s largest online asexual community as well as a large archive of resources on asexuality,” was created to fill this void and raise awareness. Founded in 2001 by a college student named David Jay, the website’s forum now boasts more than 12,000 members from all over the world. The website explicitly states its goals of “creating public acceptance and discussion and facilitating the growth of an asexual community,” a task which it accomplishes through its online forum, a bi-monthly publication, and a store which sells a variety of apparel with slogans branded on them such as “man delights not me,” and “asexuals have other things on their minds.”
To browse through the AVEN forums is to find a group of people where many aren’t even sure if they are members of the community or not. Personal stories abound of people unsure about whether or not they are asexual, from people who can find other people attractive but do not want to have sex with them, to people who are sexually attracted to things but not people, and even to people who had sexual desires and were sexually active in the past but do not have those same feelings anymore.
Adding to the confusion is the debate over what causes asexuality. In a strictly medical sense, it is viewed as a sexual dysfunction stemming from environmental and/or biological abnormalities. Treatment is available for “Inhibited Sexual Desire,” as the determining feature of asexuality is commonly called, both through drugs and therapy. It’s easy to draw parallels (and many asexuals do), between the medical view towards asexuality now and the medical view towards homosexuality just more than three decades ago when homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder and many gays and lesbians were advised to seek treatment. Despite these obstacles, many asexuals say they live fulfilling and busy lives and they have accepted asexuality as part of who they are.
It is, as a 19-year-old male, very hard to imagine life without sexual attraction. It’s hard to imagine going through not just a day, or a month, but through a whole life never feeling lust or sexual desire. Even without these biological cues we are bombarded non-stop by messages from the media encouraging sexuality and promiscuity. Even at Harvard, a place that is open to an enormous variety of orientations, religions, and beliefs, most messages we receive, though not always encouraging sex, never seem to even consider that maybe some people would not be interested in sex at all.
Rationally, we should have no trouble recognizing and accepting asexuals. If we have no trouble with the concept of someone addicted to sex, shouldn’t we be able to imagine someone at the opposite end of the spectrum? Someone who just isn’t into sex at all? Even within our own lives and our groups of friends we witness people with a huge range of sexual drives. It’s not hard to name that friend who goes out every night “looking for some ass,” or that other friend who could certainly have many sexual partners but doesn’t.
In fact, even to the narrow-minded, accepting asexuality certainly has it benefits. Grossed out by the thought that your parents have sex? Don’t worry, they might be asexual. Can’t fathom the social life of that never-married, plump, English teacher in her golden years? Solved. She’s probably asexual. That girl all over you at the party isn’t very attractive? Just tell her you’re asexual. Even if she doesn’t believe you she will probably be weirded out enough by you that you’ll be rid of her for good.
It’s easy to make light of the issue, but the mainstream acceptance of acceptance of asexuality is critical. If we as a society can understand asexuality as a fact of life and not a phenomemon relegated to a very small proportion of the population, I think it will make our entire sexual culture healthier. Perhaps a wider acceptance of people who do not have sex at all will lower the pressure on young people to start having sex early, for old people to keep having sex, and for everyone else to have as much of it as they can. Not only do asexuals deserve to be accepted and understood members of our society, but I think we ourselves should to be challenged to think about the role that sex plays in our lives.
Joseph Jampel ’11 (jmjampel@fas) is a plump English teacher in his golden years.