May 15, 2009

The Asexual Continuum

Adrienne Rich famously wrote of the "Lesbian Continuum." Sexuality is not just a binary between straight and gay, she contended, and pretended lesbians were just a few completely separate fringe chicks most of us didn't know was both inaccurate and a way of propping up patriarchy by pretending that a system where women need and want men is the only natural one. Decades later, I think we need to go back to the idea of continuums to enfranchise a very disenfranchised group - asexual people.

My gender studies grad student friends and I were at Gordon's wine bar, the oldest wine bar in London, a week ago, drinking, gabbing and just generally procrastinating when it came to studying for exams. The conversation turned to asexuals. I mentioned how many asexuals report feeling very disenfranchised and Othered. Gay marriage and gay rights are gaining ground in much of the world, but still, we seem to have replaced that idea that every many needs a woman with everyone needs a romantic partner (just one. Polygamists are disenfranchised too, but in a different way) of some sort and should commit his/her life legally to them. Besides the obvious biases our society seems to have to monogamy and marriage as the signifiers of legitimate love and responsible adulthood, discourses of love and couplehood also disenfranchise people who don't want these things at all. Yes, I'm talking people who don't like sex, who don't have it, and probably never will.

One grad student friend, when she heard of asexuals, said, "That's so said. These people must have something wrong with them. They need help." Hmm. Isn't that what we used to say about gay people 30 years ago? Just send them to therapy and everything will be okay? The truth is, if there are some people who are sex addicts (which are society seems to accept), doesn't it make sense that there would be people on the other side of the spectrum, who don't like sex at all? Should we Other them and assume they were fucked up as kids? Should our default response be to try to fix them? I think not.

First off, it's not like these people who don't have sex or romantic love can never experience love at all. There are many different types of love, and it's a mystery to me why we so privilege romantic monogamous love (especially when it fails so often and results in HUGE bills to the divorce lawyer). Friends, siblings, cousins, parents grandparents and countless others can all love you without sex and often do. When we have sex, many of us do it for love. Because we want to feel loved and needed, but if you can feel loved other ways, why do you need sex? Some of us just do sex for pleasure, but if you personally don't find sex pleasurable, then why would you do it if you didn't need it to feel loved? Not only that, but sexual romantic love often ends in heartbreak and break-ups, so perhaps asexual people even experience slightly less pain overall in life? I don't know, but that's a possibility too.

Rather than Othering them, however, as a wholly separate group, I contend there is a continuum of asexuality, just like lesbianism. I think most people I know would admit they've had moments of asexuality. Just take a gander at the blogosphere, and you'll find lots of posts by new moms who have no interest in sex for the first six months of their babies life, and then, mysteriously, get the desire again. Not just that, but there are times when I myself, for no reason whatsoever that I can see (I have no mewling infants in sight) just don't want to have sex. There are times when the thought to me is terrible and draining. This doesn't happen often. I usually think sex sounds like lots of fun (provided it's with someone I like and it's safe), but asexuality is a capability certainly lurking inside of me. An asexual person, I imagine, would just not feel like having sex decidedly more often than I'm not in the mood.

So, feminists, let's not assume asexuals are just confused. Let's accept such individuals as they are and realize they're not so completely different from people who like to get it on.

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