[31 August 2009]
One day, while seeking to view photos of my cousin’s vacation posted to a certain social networking site, I was confronted instead with the opportunity to troll for sexless love.
It was one of those search engine optimization tricks that seek to squeeze every last drop of potential marketing even out of a misspelling, like rendering even a pig’s nasty parts into some kind of fried meat. I’d seen a few of those domains before, even visited a few in my overzealous clicking. On a handful of rare occasions, the misspelled sites turned out to be more interesting than the originals. In many ways, this was one such occasion.
The site in question is called Acebook, and it is described as “a unique dating and social networking site for asexual people.” Having wasted a bit too much time on the site I’d originally sought (do I need to even mention it by name?) I was delighted to stumble upon something that was different from all the usual stuff. And certainly, it didn’t take very long for me to become intrigued.
While as dating sites go, Acebook appears to be fairly standard in its features, profiles, and protocols, its particular demographic was a pure mystery to me. I was vaguely familiar with asexuality as a sexual non-preference, but I soon became aware of the scope of my ignorance.
Acebook, it seems, was just the tip of the iceberg —asexuality has begun to be embraced as a true sexual orientation, with various educational, dating, and support Web sites dedicated to this lifestyle. On one such website, a young woman describes “coming out of the closet” as an asexual: “I was 21 when I found out I was asexual, and it changed everything in my life – my perception of myself, my expectations for the future, my understanding of the world.” Based on such accounts, it seems that asexual identity is something intuited from an early age (perhaps it’s discovered through childhood asexual experimentation? Your guess is as good as mine).
Among famous people, asexuality has been attributed to Michael Jackson, inventor Nikola Tesla, and even to the cartoon character SpongeBob Square Pants (marine sponges are, in fact, hermaphroditic and mostly reproduce asexually). Apparently, there has even been an asexual pride parade, held by the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, and a documentary produced on the subject, Asexuality: the Making of a Movement.
In the interest of total honesty, I have to confess to that I’m not sure I’ve ever fully believed in asexuality: to me, it seemed about as feasible as Santa Claus (who, ironically, I actually prefer to think of as asexual). I suppose that I assumed that, on some level, everyone has some sort of sexuality, whether vague or strong or misdirected or repressed. But according to much of the information out there about asexuality, such thinking is presumptuous and erroneous. According to an educational link provided on a Web site called Asexual Explorations, asexuality is an intrinsic lack of interest in sex, distinct from celibacy, which is a choice. According to this article, asexual individuals (also known as “aces”) may still experience attraction, but this attraction doesn’t need to be realized in any sexual manner.
The more I read about this, the more it began to seem feasible to me. After all, sex in many modern societies has become much more than a private, intimate experience – it has become a tool of advertising and commerce. Particularly in the sex-crazed American society in which I live, the expectation to have a healthy, active sex life rivals that of having a stable job, two cars, and a well-kept lawn. And I’ve found that where there are expectations, there are lies: who knows how many couples exaggerate their sexual appetites in order to appear “normal”? Who knows how skewed the so-called norm is, if normal people feel sheepish about admitting the truth?
So I could see the case for there being an underground contingent of people who aren’t interested in sex. But as I delved further into the wide variety of characteristics and behaviors that still fit under the asexual umbrella, I felt my skepticism returning.
According to the AVEN article, asexual attraction is often described as “romantic, aesthetic, or platonic” attraction, and seems almost akin to artistic appreciation. Additionally (and this was a bit confusing to me) asexual people do sometimes experience arousal and may masturbate. The distinguishing factor here, according to article, is that such a person still has no desire for partnered sex. Often, however, asexual people will also identify with a particular sexual orientation, minus the sexual aspect, and may define themselves as heteroromantic, homoromantic, biromantic, transromantic or panromantic.
Confused yet? You’re not alone; I was (and still am) under the impression that masturbation is a sexual act. Moreover, unlike sex with a partner, which may sometimes be an obligatory and half-hearted attempt to please another, masturbation is generally more of an act of self-indulgence, an id-driven pursuit of pleasure. People generally don’t masturbate out of obligation or politeness; it can therefore be assumed that they do it because they want to. And if they want to, I have to wonder, how asexual can they be?
I also admit that I’m not certain how, with sexuality removed from the equation, a person would even know whether they’re attracted to men, women or both. At the risk of sounding incredibly reductionist, couldn’t a person who is non-sexually attracted to both genders just be someone who likes people? As one asexual in the “Asexuality: the Making of a Movement” documentary says, “One thing about asexuality is, there’s no clear distinction between traditionally romantic relationships and traditionally non-romantic relationships, like dating, marriage, friendship, whatever. You can distinguish, but you don’t have to.”
So, to review what I’ve learned about asexuality: within the broad range of its defined parameters, an asexual person could masturbate regularly and be romantically attached to you, but as long as they don’t want to specifically have sex with you, they’re still asexual. Would it be incredibly hackneyed for me to say something along the lines of hey, that sounds a lot like marriage?
Indeed, it appears that the classification of asexuality errs on the side of inclusivity. According to some asexual organizations, it is no great tragedy if the wrong fish happen to land themselves in this widely-cast net. The Asexual Explorations blog includes an entry titled “If Someone Who Isn’t ‘Really Asexual’ Identifies as Asexual, So What?” The author of the blog states that “such identification can help to provide people a safe-space to think about their own feelings.”
And indeed, if the person is happy with their asexual identity, what’s the big deal? The most prevalent argument, it seems, is that an erroneous asexual identity may provide a sexual copout, an escapist diversion from dealing with issues of sexual conflict, fear, or confusion. In this way, a person may impede their self-actualization rather than further it. The Asexual Explorations blog addresses this by suggesting that a temporary identification as asexual may provide the security and comfort needed to contemplate such issues. It seems almost like a sheltering environment for facilitating change, a sexual cocoon, if you will.
However, some detractors would argue that asexuality is, in fact, a type of pathology. Currently, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) lists a condition called Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder as a sexual dysfunction (not that anything out of the assumed ‘norm’ hasn’t been erroneously deemed a dysfunction, before). According to one article about this condition, it may have physical or psychological causes, among them hormonal imbalance, possible medical/health problems, anxiety, mood disorders and intimacy problems.
This article goes on to state that context and culture should also be considered in defining Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder: “In some cultures, low sexual desire may be considered normal ,and high sexual desire is problematic. In others, this may be reversed. Some cultures try hard to restrain sexual desire. Others try to excite it. Concepts of “normal” levels of sexual desire are culturally dependent and rarely value-neutral.”
For its part, the asexual community seeks to distance itself from the classification of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, and in fact, makes a distinction between healthy asexuality and this condition. The Asexual Explorations blog states, “We assert that the DSM-IV-TR says that lack of interest in sex is only a disorder if it causes the person distress: since asexuals aren’t distressed about their asexuality, asexuality is not a disorder.”
In fact, far from being distressed by their sexual identities, asexual people seem to increasingly view their sexual disinterest as a source of pride and empowerment. Events such as the Asexual Pride Parade serve as further means for asexuals to celebrate their sexual ennui.
The pride parade strikes me as especially curious. While I certainly see no reason why asexual people shouldn’t be able to display their pride, I’m not sure I understand why indifference to sex—or indifference to anything—would be a source of pride. I mean, the idea is, sex is supposed to be a matter of apathy for these folks, right? They don’t care about it.
There are plenty of things I don’t care about one way or the other – like, um, font styles, shoe horns, the length in inches of a newborn baby. Those things, I am fine with or without, and that’s precisely why I would never be inspired to march in a parade to trumpet my indifference toward them. Maybe the pride is derived from having the right to not care about sex without being viewed as maladaptive. But still, the right to not care strikes me as a bit of a tepid social cause at best.
Maybe that’s what happened to me when I tried to idly and halfheartedly sign on to Facebook: I landed on Acebook, and stayed there instead, in my total indifference. Perhaps I’m forging a trailblazing new kind of apathy: I don’t even care whether I’m asexual or sexual. I don’t care whether I care, and that’s my right. Like-minded people can attend my parade tomorrow morning – or better yet, show your apathy and don’t even bother.