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Anything but lacking

How asexuality can disrupt sex-normativity

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There remains, to this day, frequent confusion around the letter ‘A’ in the LGBTQIA2+ acronym. The A is not for ally. It stands for asexual, which, according to the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN, the largest online asexual community), describes a person who does not experience sexual attraction. This definition is purposefully vague, so as to leave a lot of space for self-identification and for the different lived experiences of asexuality. This definition recognizes that there is no one way to be asexual. The ‘Overview’ page on the AVEN website adds that “each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently.” Indeed, asexuality is a spectrum. Members of the community can also choose to identify as graysexual (or gray-asexual) if they occasionally experience sexual attraction, or as demisexual if they sometimes experience sexual attraction but only after a strong emotional bond has been formed between them and another person.

An important distinction must also be made between sexual and romantic orientations. Acknowledging the existence of asexuality as a spectrum means recognizing that not all people experience sexual attraction, and that not all people experience a lack of sexual attraction in the same way. This acknowledgment opens the door to understanding that attraction can mean different things to different people. For example, some individuals experience romantic attraction toward others, and can choose to identify with a romantic orientation which may or may not coincide with their sexual orientation. Folks who do not experience romantic attraction can choose to identify as aromantic. Although aromanticism is not specifically the subject of this piece, I encourage readers to inform themselves on the subject and include aromanticism in conversations. For example, the Aromantic FAQ on the AVEN wiki provides useful definitions, vocabulary, resources, and related blogs. Aromantics are important members of our community and are very often invalidated and silenced.

Today, online communities such as AVEN are at the core of asexual activism and spreading public awareness. It was only after David Jay founded AVEN in 2001 that asexuality began to gain growing acceptance and visibility, and that asexuals could meet and connect on a larger scale. Because there are very few queer resources, events, and spaces that are inclusive of asexuality, asexuals will often start identifying as such only after being in contact with other members of the asexual community. In my case, I started using that word to describe myself only after discovering AVEN and relating to other people’s experiences on the site’s forums and on other online communities. These asexual communities gave me the vocabulary, information, and support that queer communities and sexual education platforms had not offered.

Locating asexuality in western history

Although asexuality as a queer sexual orientation received very little visibility until the beginning of the 21st century, there are many different western understandings of asexuality in history that still shape the way we approach the identity today. The meaning of asexuality has been politically and culturally contingent; perceptions have shifted over time, while being embedded in conceptions of race, class, and gender. In her essay “Asexuality and the Feminist Politics of ‘Not Doing It,'” Ela Przybylo argues that around the beginning of the 20th century, the general understanding of women’s sexuality gradually shifted from the idea of passionlessness (where female sexuality was seen as a threat to the status quo, and was considered passive as opposed to active male desires), to a focus on female desire and pleasure as natural and necessary. Though in contrast to the female passivity posited by psychoanalysis, these new ideas concerning the innate nature of sexual desires similarly excluded the experiences of working class and immigrant populations, women of colour, as well as queer, trans, and non-binary individuals. Many of these marginalized groups were depicted as hypersexual in dominant narratives; their sexualities were perceived as already immoral and deviant. This left many communities without a space to voice their own unique experiences of (a)sexuality. These conversations equally eliminated the possibility for individuals assigned male at birth to express their asexuality, as they were largely seen as the ‘active,’ sexually demanding elements in a binary and patriarchal conception of heteronormative partnered relationships.

Until recently, historical discussions of female (a)sexuality were therefore limited to the experiences of cisgender, heterosexual white women, often from middle and upper classes. In her essay, Przybylo explains that the 1920s and 1930s in North America and Europe were characterized by growing socio-cultural anxieties about the visibility of women in the public realm and their presence in the workforce. Efforts were made to ensure women’s subordination to male authority and return them to the private realm of the household, where successful marriage and motherhood became imperatives. These imperatives were dependent on women engaging frequently and willfully in heterosexual intercourse. Female sexuality was seen as innate and natural, and any divergence from this norm was perceived as threatening and pathological.

Around this time, Freud and other psychiatrists were theorizing the concept of ‘frigidity,’ a word used to medicalize female asexuality as an inability to achieve vaginal orgasm. Frigidity was seen not as a complete lack of sexual desire, but as an incapacity to conform to male-defined notions of sexual pleasure. It was necessary to engage in heterosexual intercourse for one’s sexuality to be considered non- pathological. Asexuality was seen as deviant: an incomplete and repressed way of experiencing sexuality, not unlike other queer identities perceived as sites of necessary medical intervention by psychoanalysts and sexologists alike.

The meaning of asexuality has been politically and culturally contingent; its perception has shifted over time, while being embedded in conceptions of race, class, and gender.

Przybylo adds that the second half of the 20th century saw another shift in the understanding of (a)sexuality. Once again, this shift was largely focused on the experiences of cisgender, heterosexual, middle class white women. The so-called ‘sexual revolution’ of the 50s and 60s sought to liberate women in their sexual desires and pleasures. Many feminists saw the clitoris as a site of female agency in sexual pleasure, as opposed to the vagina, which had been considered the place of male-defined, hetero-coitus. The clitoris became the symbol of sexual autonomy in contexts where sexual freedom was often equated with general freedom. Frigidity was perceived by many as a patriarchal tool for gendered oppression, originating in false assumptions about female anatomy. These concerns are clearly problematic in the way that they define femininity in physical, biological terms. The movement for sexual liberation largely excluded the experiences of non-binary and trans femmes, and failed to account for the plurality of lived experiences of femininity. Asexuality was relegated to the sphere of conservatism and gendered oppression.

During this period, feminists like Dana Densmore and Valerie Solanas rejected the idea of sex altogether and proposed radical celibacy as a way to undo patriarchal institutions, such as the family, which were seen as violent and oppressive. However, these discussions positioned a lack of sexuality as a political choice and not as a legitimate queer sexual orientation. This conceptualization of asexuality as a political stance contributed to the continued perception of sexuality and sexual attraction as natural to humans. Indeed, some kind of sexual feeling would be necessary to precede the choice to challenge or reject it. Encouraging radical celibacy did offer an interesting counterpoint to discourses of sexual liberation and opened up conversations about the empowering potential of not engaging in sexual acts. However, it did not challenge gender binary and heteronormative conceptions of sex, remained limited to the privileged decisions of largely white middle and upper class women, and did not account for the plurality of lived experiences of femininity and asexuality.

To summarize the past centuries, asexuality has mostly been excluded from historical understandings of sexuality, except where it was seen as a disorder or a political decision. Asexuality as a non-pathological, mostly lifelong characteristic was reserved to the study of plants and animals, and only started to appear in studies on humans in the 1980s, albeit minimally. According to Przybylo, discourses on sexuality remain saturated by the sexual imperative and the heterocoital cluster. The sexual imperative refers to the ways in which “sex is privileged above other ways of relating,” and the ways in which sexuality and the self are understood to be fused. In other words, the sexual imperative encourages us to understand sexuality as inherent to being human, so that sexual intimacy is perceived to be superior to other forms of closeness. Przybylo adds that “sex is configured as ëhealthyí (in particular, culturally designated contexts).” See the many studies and articles detailing the benefits of sex, from supposedly clearer skin and happier moods to reduced risks of cancer and lower blood pressure. Finally, she writes that “sex remains genital, orgasmic, ejaculatory, and in the case of heterosex, coital.” Here she is referring to the heterocoital cluster, which defines what types of sex are ‘appropriate’ and ‘acceptable.’ More specifically, heterosexual coital sex in which the orgasm is an imperative. Sex is seen as the evidence and enactment of pleasure and health, in specific contexts which fit into dominant discourses around acceptable sexualities.

From narratives of female passionlessness and passivity to a reclaiming of sexual desires and pleasure as natural and empowering, asexuality has been largely overlooked in western history and mostly considered pathological or political. The absence of asexuality as a sexual orientation in dominant discourses of the last centuries shapes the ways in which we accept the sexual imperative today and still fail to challenge its implications.

Asexuality in queer and feminist spaces

Today, we must prevent the continued exclusion of asexuality in narratives about human sexuality if we want to effectively question the sexual imperative and its harmful effects. This means consciously including asexuality in conversations about queerness, feminism, and disability, so that asexuality may be accepted as a legitimate queer sexual orientation — non-pathological and not equal to celibacy.

Feminists and members of the queer community seek to challenge the heteronormative and gender binary implications of the sexual imperative and heterocoital cluster. I argue that in order to effectively dismantle these dominant narratives, asexuality must be included in discussions about queerness, sex-positivity, and consent, if said discussions want to be inclusive of all experiences related to sexuality, and not foster harmful sex-normative representations of human relationships and intimacy.

When coming out to friends as asexual and panromantic, I have often been met with disbelief and suggestions on how to live my queerness in a ‘more fulfilling way.’ Well-intentioned folks have suggested that I ‘experiment’ more before restricting myself to identifying as asexual. Intimate and sexual partners have asked me what they could do so that I would enjoy sexual contact with them, as though I was awaiting their skilled hands to ‘cure me’ of my lack of sex drive and absence of sexual pleasure. These reactions invalidate asexuality as a sexual orientation and present it as a phase defined by unfulfilled or immature sexuality. While some people who identify as asexual for some time may later change this label, the queer community must accept anyone who finds the word asexual useful to describe themselves for any period of time. Asexuality is not a condition to be cured nor a phase to be gotten over. It is a legitimate sexual orientation. Queer and feminist spaces claim to respect and validate varied sexual experiences and not shame anyone for their sexual behaviour. Accepting asexual people who do not engage in sexual acts should be recognized as a vital part of this sex-positive mandate.

When coming out to friends as asexual and panromantic, I have often been met with disbelief and suggestions on how to live my queerness in a ‘more fulfilling way.’

There is a widespread idea that to be radical and queer, one must be ‘sexually liberated,’ i.e. that bodily agency and sexual empowerment go hand in hand with engaging in sexual acts confidently and frequently. This idea often centres conversations on consent around what giving consent looks like, and how important it is to receive and formulate consent. Although these discussions are extremely important, I argue that we should also focus on what not giving consent looks like, and how empowering it can be to (be able to) say ‘no.’

Folks who identify as asexual are often pressured into giving consent because they are made to feel like consenting to sexual acts is the only way to be seen as ‘valuable’ and ‘normal.’ Societal expectations of sexuality delegitimize the experiences and needs of asexual people, making us especially vulnerable to situations in which we may verbally give consent, but sex remains unwanted, and is therefore non-consensual. Consent requires that both parties negotiating the consent have equal power; in a society defined by the sexual imperative, in which not wanting sex is seen as deviant by many, asexual folks are often made to feel powerless when offered sex. I have in the past given consent reluctantly because it was easier than having to come out to my sexual partner; than having a potentially draining and alienating conversation; than possibly offending them and making them feel guilty about my lack of attraction towards them.

Folks who identify as asexual are often pressured into giving consent, because they are made to feel like consenting to sexual acts is the only way to be seen as ‘valuable’ and ‘normal.’

Acknowledging asexuality in conversations on consent means not expecting to hear ‘yes’ every time when asking for consent. It must not be a routine formality. It must be a conscious, mindful conversation where partners feel comfortable saying ‘no’ and are validated in their need to set boundaries, without being made to feel guilt or shame. Not feeling sexual attraction does not mean being repressed or conservative. It is not linked to political affiliations, religious feelings, or a denial of natural desires. Asexuals do not need to be corrected or liberated in order to be accepted within the queer community. In our fight against the harmful effects of heteronormativity, patriarchy and imposed gender binaries, we must not forget that sex-positivity does not mean sex-normativity. While sex-positivity can be beneficial and empowering, sex-normativity (and the sexual imperative) are harmful in the ways they exclude and silence the asexual community.

Discourses on asexuality and disability

It is also essential to include asexuality in conversations about disability. In an episode of the television newsmagazine 20/20, a sexologist tells a group of interviewed asexuals, “And your saying you don’t miss [sex] is like someone in a sense who’s colour-blind is saying, ‘I don’t miss colour’ — of course you don’t miss what you’ve never had.” Speaking from an able-bodied perspective, the therapist uses an analogy with disability to invalidate people’s experiences of asexuality, assuming both to be abnormal conditions linked to a lack of an important component of life, which must be medically cured.

Today, folks with disabilities are often denied sexual feeling and perceived as lacking sexual potency. In her essay, “Asexuality in Disability Narratives,” Eunjung Kim explains that in some contexts “asexuality is not only an assumption, but also a moral imperative: disabled people ought be asexual.” This can be seen in violent efforts to desexualize folks with disabilities. Desexualization is a process which seeks to separate sexuality from bodies with disabilities, and it can affect people at any stage of life through objectification and dehumanization. For example, Kim explains that children with disabilities are often excused from sexual education classes, as they are deemed ‘unnecessary.’ It is clear that the people making this decision are assuming that disabled children will not (or cannot) engage in sexual activities. Adolescents may see their social encounters closely monitored by professionals and family members, and may be denied access to health care services such as family planning. Adults with disabilities are often infantilized and seen as deviant or shameful if they engage in sexual acts.

In conversations about disability, we must challenge the dominant idea that all people with disabilities are asexual, and fight against desexualizing practices. However, we must also respond positively to people with disabilities coming out as asexual.

In some cases, desexualization can take the form of reproductive control and forced sterilization, as was the case in the highly controversial operations imposed on Ashley X. Born with static encephalopathy (a brain impairment which means she is assumed to remain at infant level mentally and physically), she underwent growth attenuation operations including hysterectomy and breast bud removal to prevent menstruation and development of secondary sexual characteristics, even though she was unable to consent to these medical interventions. This forced desexualization was understood to make her disability less distressing to her family and caretakers. The case of Ashley X demonstrates the very material ways in which disability and sexuality are made to be incompatible.

In response to the enforced asexuality of people with disabilities, disability activists have done important work to reclaim the sexual feelings and experiences of people with disabilities. According to Kim, “disability activists in sex-positive movements often attack the stereotype of disabled people as asexual.” Although this seeks to enable systematically desexualized people to enjoy the current sexual culture, and to challenge the myth that all people with disabilities are asexual, it sometimes dismisses all asexual orientations themselves as myth. This leads asexual people with disabilities to be understood as the “products of an oppressive society,” who have internalized these myths and have accepted sexual oppression. In conversations about disability, we must challenge the dominant idea that all people with disabilities are asexual, and fight against desexualizing practices. However, we must also respond positively to people with disabilities coming out as asexual, and validate their sexual orientation, if asexuality is to stop being perceived as pathological and curable, or as the result of internalized oppression.

Toward new definitions of asexuality

Beyond including asexuality in conversations around feminism, queerness, and disability, I believe that we must reflect critically upon the widely accepted definition of asexuality itself, and the ways in which the asexual community presents itself today. Of course, these opinions are my own and do not reflect those of the whole asexual community. I also draw largely on the work of CJ Deluzio Chasin in their essay “Reconsidering Asexuality and its Radical Potential,” to argue that we should challenge the concept of asexuality as an ‘absence,’ and the current image of the ‘real asexual.’

As mentioned already, the widespread definition of asexuality is a ‘lack of sexual attraction toward others.’ This definition is often completed by the idea that this ‘lack’ does not cause asexuals any distress. This precision is added to create a clear distinction between asexuality and Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD), which is considered a sexual dysfunction characterized by a lack of sexual desire causing distress or interpersonal difficulties, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The fact that the definition of asexuality still leaves room for HSDD diagnosis creates a “binary opposition between people who should be accepted as asexual and people who are ‘legitimate subjects’ of psychiatric intervention,” according to Chasin. The definition does not challenge either the diagnosis or the psychiatric institution governing it. Chasin adds, “If a person is upset about being asexual because [they] live in a world inhospitable to asexual people, we need to change the world, not the person.” However, HSDD diagnosis implies that we should ‘change the person’ through medical means, and the current definition of asexuality leaves room for this. When coming to terms with a lack of sexual attraction, asexuals will often be met with negative responses from others, leading them to seek some kind of diagnosis or medical solution to ‘change themselves’ before coming out and accepting themselves as asexual. Pathologizing non-conformity to sexual norms and medicalizing the distress caused by aphobia are harmful and oppressive practices. They perpetuate the idea that one should be made sexual if they can, and should be accepted as a lifelong asexual only if this attempt fails. This creates a hierarchy in which being sexual is superior and more desirable than being asexual.

Indeed, defining asexuality as a ‘lack’ implies that asexual people are ‘missing out’ on an aspect of life, and that our sexual orientation is overwhelmingly defined by the absence of something essential to others. I am not saying we should necessarily modify this definition, and I acknowledge that it is useful for many to account for the variety of experiences of asexuality, as well as to explain to non-asexual people how we feel, but I do want to encourage people to reflect critically on its implications. As Chasin explains, conceptualizing the defining characteristic of asexuality as a lack perpetuates the idea that asexual people do not have some of the experiences that sexual people do. In actuality, asexual people also have experiences that non-asexual people have never lived. Perhaps other definitions are not yet available to us because we are socialized to value sexuality and sexual intimacy above other forms of intimacy and other types of relationships, and because the language to define asexuality as anything but a lack does not yet exist. Moving toward conversations where asexuality is not perceived as an absence can help create the language needed to better understand asexual experiences.

Moving toward conversations where asexuality is not perceived as an absence can help create the language  needed  to better understand asexual experiences.

The superiority of sexuality over asexuality is unquestioned, even as awareness around asexuality spreads, and defining asexuality as a lifelong orientation that does not cause distress has implications for the visibility of certain asexual experiences over others. From this definition, Chasin discusses the image of the ‘real asexual,’ who “gets to be believed and accepted as asexual.” This person has all the normative characteristics of the ‘ideal sexual person,’ but since they have always been asexual, they must be accepted as such. This person, for example, does not have a history of abuse or mental health issues, is not overly sex-repulsed and has tried to be sexual without success, is able-bodied, happy, and outgoing. This person is also usually white, from the middle or upper class, cisgender, and heterosexual or occasionally aromantic. As asexuality occupies more space in public spheres, people outside of our community build a normative idea of what it means to be asexual, and not conforming to this image may mean being invalidated, silenced, or forced to undergo a form of ‘treatment’ or corrective violence. The pressure to conform to an idea of asexuality that does not challenge sex-normativity leads to self-censorship in order to avoid losing legitimacy as an asexual.

However, we should not have to choose between voicing our sexual orientation as we truly experience it, and public visibility and acceptance. If we want asexuality to stop being understood as a ‘lack,’ ‘less than,’ pathological, or curable, all experiences of asexuality must be heard and legitimized. Conversations must account for the many lived experiences of asexuality, which prove it should not be dismissed as an ‘absence,’ but instead understood as part of the complex ways in which we all navigate different forms of attraction and feelings for others.

It is not until every asexual has a voice regardless of their past experiences, gender identity, romantic orientation, class, race, age, or ability, that we can effectively challenge sex-normativity and the sexual imperative. This starts by questioning our definitions of asexuality and thinking critically about the way we view asexual people, as well as the normative assumptions behind these perceptions. It means including asexual voices in conversations around queerness, feminism, and disability, but also race and class. It means unlearning the hierarchies we have internalized, which place sexual intimacy and relationships above other equally fulfilling and powerful forms of closeness. Finally, it means believing and validating any and all asexual experiences, as the beginning of a larger conversation to redefine our understandings of sexual and romantic orientations.