I have been a long time admirer of your work but your February 3, 2011 column disappointed me. I recognize that asexuality is a rather new concept and that the asexual experience is not one that is widely understood so I hope that it is misinformation and lack of understanding that led to your response to NSNA.
Terming individuals who are not asexual and who experience a sex drive that is on par with the majority of individuals as “normally sexual” individuals and those who fall in the asexual or gray-a (in-between asexual and sexual, similar to NSNA’s description of their experience) spectrum as “abnormally sexual” is unhelpful and pathologizes those individuals. As a member of the LGBT community yourself, I am sure that you have had the experience of your sexual identity being labeled as “abnormal” and you realize how this feels and recognize the effect that this sort of labeling can have on a sexual minority when done on a large scale.
I'm going to break in here for a second.
I didn't describe anyone as "abnormally sexual" in my response to NSNA, and it was NSNA who, after describing himself as "minimally sexual," used the phrase "normally sexual" to describe folks with an average/normative interest in sexual activity. I did use "normally sexual" in my response, echoing NSNA, but I never "termed" anyone "abnormally sexual." So, like, what's with the quotation marks?
As for my own sexuality, I'm willing concede that my thing for tall, shaggy-haired guys is non-normative, because, like, my desire to make out with TSHGs is hardly the norm for members of my sex. (It's hardly the norm for my fellow homos.) But I wouldn't describe my own sexuality as "abnormal"—nor would I describe yours as abnormal, dear reader, because the dictionary defines "abnormal" as "deviating from what is normal or usual, typically in a way that is undesirable." For the record: I don't believe there's anything undesirable about either my sex drive or your lack of same—so long, of course, as you're upfront about it and don't enter into a relationship with a
normally averagely sexual person without disclosing the fuck out of your lack-o-interest in fucking. Just as I shouldn't marry a woman without first letting her know I wasn't that into her, an asexual shouldn't marry a sexual without telling him she isn't that into it.
Back to your letter...
On a related note, when reading the column I could not help but think of the questioning, asexual, gray-a, or differently sexual youths who might read your column and will believe your statement that being in a relationship with someone whose sexual identity is not 100% compatible would be harmful, vindictive, selfish, or destructive of them. When you look at the history of the LGBT community and the guilt and self hatred that marked many of its members’ existence when they believed that their identity was abnormal, deleterious, and that being in a relationship with someone (whether they were compatible in terms of orientation and sex drive or not) would be a hardship or harmful to the other person involved, you can see that asexuals are already set up for a similar, though certainly smaller scale, path of self-hatred and shame. This is particularly true if someone were to take to heart your suggestion that any asexual/gray-a would “take a perverse pleasure in depriving someone else of sex, constantly rejecting that person’s advances, and ultimately destroying their [partner’s] confidence.”
Perfect compatibility is not required—I've never suggested that. No one ever finds a perfect match, no one gets anywhere near 100% of what they want. I have no beef with asexuals having relationships, or having relationships with sexuals—so long as the sexual was informed in advance of making any serious commitment. An asexual who discloses has nothing to be ashamed of, just as a gay man who enters into a companionate marriage with a woman who 1. knows he's gay and 2. wants to marry him anyway has nothing to be ashamed of.
Anyone involved in the asexual community is aware of the difficulty of asexual/gray-a individuals finding asexual/gray-a boyfriends/girlfriends/partners. A quick glance at Acebook (the asexual dating website) tells you that most asexual individuals prefer asexual partners but simply can not find them. According to a recent British survey, 1% of the population is asexual. Factor in the lack of asexual visibility and education (which leads to people not discovering their asexual identity until later in life, if at all), the percentage of that percentage of individuals who fall under an individual’s gender/age preference, geographic location, religious/political compatibility, let alone the questions of attraction to their personality, and you have a very small amount of people, if any at all, who are potential, compatible partners. Finding an asexual partner is possible, but rather difficult. Also, people tend to fall in love with people whether they are compatible or not. And if their incompatible partner decides to pursue a relationship with them, both recognize that compromise must be negotiated.
Thankfully we live at a time of rising awareness of asexuality. There may not be that many asexuals out there to choose from, dear reader, and asexuals who crave intimacy and companionship may have to look to sexuals for potential partners. Asexuals who are aware that they're asexual should, again, disclose before making a commitment and, when possible, hammer out a compromise that works. Asexuals who discover their asexuality later in life should come out as asexual and allow their sexual partners to decide whether they wish to stay in the relationship at all.
The seemingly high rate (from your perspective) of asexual/gray-a individuals entering relationships with people in the sexual spectrum is completely understandable when you look at asexuality in context. The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (asexuality.org) was founded by David Jay in 2001. You receive letters from individuals who most likely came of age before 2001, before there was anything resembling an asexual community or before even a vocabulary with which to relate the asexual experience was even constructed. Even today, asexual visibility is low and asexual individuals are often discovering their identity late in life, if at all, and the public at large has very little awareness of it. Very frequently it is the case that asexual or gray-a individuals are unaware of their identity, orientation, and lack of sexual desire until they were put in a situation where it becomes apparent, such as a romantic relationship with a sexual individual. This means that often in the later stages of an established relationship the sexual incompatible becomes marked and recognizable as something that will not change. The suggestion that any asexual or gray-a individual would willing pursue an incompatible relationship with the intent of making their sexual partner feel bad or ashamed is unfair.
Perhaps it is. But I'm constantly hearing from the sexual partners of just-realized-it asexuals—those who only became aware of their asexual "identity, orientation, and lack of sexual desire" after, say, getting married and having kids—and many of these sexuals, rightly or wrongly, feel angry, sad, and, yes, duped. My sample is skewed, of course, because those sexual/JRI-asexual couples who've come to terms and/or hashed out a workable compromise about the sexual seeking it elsewhere (or going without) don't write in asking for my advice. Still, dear reader, you have to concede that it would suck to have your partner—your presumptive sex partner—wake up one day and realize he's asexual, just as I'm willing to concede that it must suck to have your opposite-sex partner wake up one day and realize he's a homo.
Sites such as Queer Secrets (queersecrets.tumblr.com) are full of asexual teens (male, female, trans, and gender-variant) who identify as homo-affectional, bi-affectional, pan-affectional, hetero-affectional, etc, who are depressed, suicidal, and discouraged because they believe that no one will love them, they do not deserve to be loved, etc, and that they only frustrate their partners, their partners will not believe they love them, or they were never find a compatible partner. Just recently, in the September 2010 issue of People magazine, Tim Gunn discussed his depression, suicidal history, and immense difficulties as homo-affectional man who falls within the asexual spectrum. I would like to believe that it will “get better” for these individuals. These individuals need to know that they are not abnormal, they will not necessarily destroy the lives and confidences of their current and future partners, and that it is possible to have a successful sexual/asexual relationship (as evidenced by successful relationships of members of the AVEN community), it is possible to find an asexual partner, and that they deserve to be recognized and accepted by the society in which they live. You have a great opportunity and platform from which to do this.
I certainly don't want to make anyone feel suicidal on account of their sexual orientation, dear reader, and I would hope all those asexual teens out there crowding onto Queer Secrets are smart enough to realize that they're not alone. I mean, they only have to look around at all the other asexual teens out there crowding onto Queer Secrets to realize that, right? (If they don't realize it, perhaps you could jump in there and point it out?) And if these teens want to dip into the sexual community in search of a partner, they are more than welcome to do that—so long as they disclose. No duping, no dupes.
I know that asexuality is still a very foreign concept and one that is difficult for those who are outside of the asexual/gray-a spectrum to understand but I ask you for the sake of the individuals who do live in that minority and deal with existing in a society that largely refuses to recognize or validate their existence, to please ask questions and attempt to understand this orientation and identity. I, as a member of the community, would gladly volunteer to answer any questions you may have or direct you to helpful resources that would lead to a fuller understanding of the orientation and community. I am certain that other members of the asexual community would be more than happy to do the same. The Asexual Visibility and Education Network at asexuality.org is a good starting place.
I also would like to thank you for the work you have done for the LGBT community. Growing up as a questioning youth before I figured out my asexual identity, your books and work were, and still are, an enormous source of encouragement to me and helped me in some very difficult times and I recommend them frequently. I think you have an opportunity to be that encouragement to an even larger section of youths and individuals who fall outside of the hetero-normative spectrum.
Undergraduate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
University of Kansas
Thanks for sharing, H.C.