DISPATCHES








One night last year in a dorm at Wesleyan University, David Jay's friend dropped the gauntlet. So you say you're asexual, she said. Let me kiss you, and we'll see about that. On campus, David was well known for publicly avowing his disinterest in sex with women or men. His challenger, a female friend, was seeking points in a debate about David's repressed desires — and some nookie as a bonus.

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    No mood music was applied; no clothes were removed. The kiss — David's first — lasted less than ten seconds. Today, he refers to it an experiment. "It just tasted funny," he says. "I didn't realize it's like ninety percent hugging."
    As a self-declared asexual — someone who doesn't want to have sex, doesn't plan to, and doesn't see anything particularly wrong with that — David is part of a small-but-distinct community that has begun to mobilize online. On websites and mailing lists, they discuss the unique challenges asexual men and women face in a hypersexual culture. Chief among them: getting people to understand their point of view. "I'm not disgusted by sex," says Dave, a fifty-three-year old editor from Falls Church, Virginia. "It's just

"You are one fucked-up dude," wrote sex columnist Dan Savage to an asexual student who wrote him.

not something I want to do with someone else." Dave sought support online; he eventually became a mentor on Aven, a two-year-old asexuality website that has attracted 500 members and more than 17,000 message posts. "I've always known I was this way," he says. "Now I know what to call it."
    In a world in which BDSM last seemed "daring" ten years ago and gay TV characters have transitioned from advertiser anathema to Must See TV — that is to say, a world in which most sexual variations have been accepted and commodified — could asexuals be one of the last disenfranchised sexual minorities? After talking with asexual men and women, it's not difficult to think that asexuality is where homosexuality was five decades ago: fundamentally misunderstood, and the target of scientific attempts to explain it away.
    The medical community is ambivalent: is lack of desire a condition to be treated or a sexual orientation? Ray Sahelian, a California family practicioner who treats sexual dysfunction, says that he rarely encounters a patient who has no attraction to others. Performance is the more common issue, he says, not desire. For patients concerned about a low sex drive, Sahelian prescribes androgen treatments. But Eli Coleman, the director of the human sexuality program at the University of Minnesota, says that many nonsexual people lack a physiological problem such as hormonal imbalance or depression. They're not, he says, abnormal in any sense. "There are basic needs for intimacy and closeness," says Coleman. "But for some people, that is satisfied without genital contact."
     In our hypersexual culture, that's is a radical notion, one that's not readily accepted even by the most liberal of minds. Last May, Andrew, a gay twenty-three-year-old, wrote a letter to the sex columnist Dan Savage, expressing his interest in finding a "meaningful, long-term, monogamous relationship that's intimate but nonsexual." The columnist lit into him. "You are one fucked-up dude," wrote Savage, who suggested counseling. "Unless you can meet a guy who got his balls shot off in the War on Terror, Andrew, you're unlikely to ever meet a guy who will settle for the screwed-up non-sex life you're proposing."
    But the asexuals I spoke with don't view themselves as "settling," and they resist the idea that they need to be fixed. After reading Savage's comments, Kate, a nineteen-year-old student at Maryland's Goucher College, says she felt marginalized. "Being asexual means that you experience no sexual attraction to either gender," she wrote in a letter Savage published. "It is very possible to experience romantic attraction but not sexual attraction."

"All around, you see messages saying you need to be sexual to be happy — or even to be normal."

    For others, that confidence is difficult to maintain. "My conviction that nothing's wrong with me is very fragile," says Stephanie, a twenty-year-old college student in Los Angeles. "Some of us do see ourselves as dysfunctional," adds Dave, the Virginia editor, who contemplated the sexual side effects of his alcoholism and restrictive Catholic upbringing before accepting himself as a "gaysexual bear."
     "I really feel like shit right now," wrote one man on an asexuality bulletin board last May, after coming out to friends. "I don't want to hear people who I respect and trust telling me that they don't believe me and that they think there's a fundamental human connection that I'm going to have to get over my asexuality to access. I don't want to have to beat them in an argument to prove myself and reclaim their respect."
    Making that declaration early can lead to a different kind of adolescent angst. At least when you go through puberty or come out of the closet, you aren't alone. Stephanie recalls "waiting and waiting and waiting" for herself to share her high school friends' attraction to boys — or to anyone. "I felt like a freak," she says. Her lowest moment, she says, came in sex ed, when a teacher began a lesson with a seemingly uncontroversial statement. "She got up there and said, 'Everybody experiences sexual attraction.' I was sitting in the back and wanted to bury myself in my hands." Pro-sex alienation comes from every direction, says Kate. "All around you see messages saying you need to be sexual to be happy — or even to be normal."
    "I'll come home from college and a couple of my relatives will be like, 'So are there any hot girls out there — you getting any?'" says Mark Maynard, an asexual twenty-year-old college student in Kentucky. "I just sort of mumble and don't really respond at all." While some asexuals find support in gay groups, others say they're harassed by queer individuals who claim they're repressing a sexual identity. "In this culture you have to be gay or straight — there's no other option," says Kate, who admits wishing she could be sexually attracted to someone. "It would be so much easier to fit into the culture — as much as I don't want to betray the community, so to speak."
    That community incorporates sites like AVEN or Asexual we Are which host happy asexuals, sad asexuals, completely sexless asexuals and asexuals who masturbate. Some, like Andrew Owens, a twenty-five-year-old Australian media professional, have little trouble attracting sexual interest from others. (Andrew says he's "literally fighting off invitations.") Others openly discourage it: When asked for her gender by email, a Canadian AVEN regular who calls herself "Gorax Mog" professes that she usually "says[s] 'neither' when people ask, and then laugh at the odd look that appears on their face."
    "I find having a nonexistent sex drive reduces life's problems by fifty percent," she says. "I hate sex, but I'm fairly open minded. I think sexuality is just like religion: to each their own."
    Among asexual men and women, romantic difficulties are as commonplace as feelings of alienation. Holly, a thirty-one-year-old freelance artist in Southern California, says she never developed sexual urges at puberty, and her low libido ruined a ten-year marriage. "I just wasn't at all aware that sex is a part of daily life for most people," says Holly, who is separated from her husband. "He wants to have sex no less than two times a week and wants me to enjoy it — and let me tell you, it's not going to happen." "Nobody would ever dream she would have this problem," Holly's mother says of her daughter, a 1987 Miss California runner-up with long black hair. Yet Holly says her sexual orientation runs in the family: "My maternal grandmother was quoted as saying she'd rather scrub floors than have sex," says Holly, adding that her other grandmother is "absolutely frigid."

"I don't equate a lack of sexuality with a lack of intimacy," says Jay, who considers himself a bisexual asexual.

     Add gender-identity issues to the mix, and things get even more complicated. Elizabeth, a transgendered British software engineer with a "strong romantic drive," told me about a relationship she had a few years ago with a young woman. Although the woman was in love with the then-male Elizabeth, the relationship dissolved because Elizabeth felt no sexual attraction. "We tried everything: outfits, cross-dressing, BDSM," Elizabeth says today. "I couldn't feel more guilt." A few years later, says Elizabeth, she underwent a sex change, "consummating my asexuality."
    Among asexual men and women, comfort with physical contact runs the gamut. On one hand, says Geraldin Rich Jones, a British comic who has developed a stand-up routine about asexuality, "if you don't know what you are missing, you can't miss it." Others don't shy away from physicality. Jay, who calls himself a bisexual asexual — oriented toward both genders but sexually attracted to neither — enjoys giving and receiving massages and often shares his bed. "I don't equate a lack of sexuality with a lack of intimacy," he explains. I ask him about masturbation: if you don't desire anyone, what do you visualize when you get off? "It's usually something that's sexual but not explicitly sexual, like some scene from a book," says Jay. "It's not really connected to anybody. I'll physically ejaculate, but it's not even pleasurable."
    The low visibility of the asexual movement hasn't prevented its members from talking, if not quite organizing, politically. "The gay-rights movement has grown, and I hope there would be a place for us like that," says Jones. Activists associated with Aven have printed T-shirts as part of a visibility campaign. The shirts read Nobody knows I'm asexual and have a basic definition of asexuality on the back. Mark, the Kentucky student, occasionally wore the shirt around campus last year. "Most people [at school] thought it was a joke," says Mark. Kate's published rebuttal to Dan Savage included the web address for Aven, and traffic on the site briefly skyrocketed.
    But the men and women I spoke with say they're more concerned with navigating future relationships than preaching the asexual gospel. Holly, the former beauty queen, isn't particularly hopeful. "The [asexuals] I've talked to are planning on going through life alone," she says. "I'm at peace with my lack of sexual attraction, but I'm not at peace with the idea that I'm going to live for the rest of my life without someone."
    Elizabeth recently met a man who seems to like her. "He has no physical attraction to me," she adds, hopefully. "All I've ever dreamed of is meeting someone who's looking to get to know someone."
    When you know you're looking for sex and/or relationships, it's hard enough to figure out what you want. But when the sexual continuum leaves you no place, self-assurance is all you have, and that can be equally liberating and lonely. Writing on the AVEN site in May, Kamikola, a twenty-one-year-old from New Jersey, illustrated this conflict between desires of a different kind. I met the perfect guy, she reminisced:

He said he loved me. I believe he really truly did. He was everything I would ever imagine in Mister Perfect, and still I didn't feel a thing. And I left him, broke his heart and mine. It hurt me badly hurting him. And I never explained to him why I went away. I didn't know myself . . . I DON'T NEED A GUY TO BE HAPPY. I AM HAPPY BY MYSELF. I DON'T HAVE TO BE LIKE EVERYONE ELSE. I just wish others could understand.  






ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
©2003 Eli Kintisch and Nerve.com

Commentarium (29 Comments)

Sep 15 03 - 1:44pm
pp

uh...what? I'm sorry, but sexuality IS a part of life. It's how human beings have carried on. Being "asexual" obviously means you have serious issues- hormone imbalances, past trauma, etc. Get help!

Sep 15 03 - 2:09pm
YNS

You can't just say 'there's something wrong with them', that's been used to marginalize homosexuals, bisexuals, fetishists, and pretty much anyone who doesn't only want to have sex in the missionary position with someone of the opposite gender. Try a little harder not to sound so ignorant.

Sep 16 03 - 2:15am
c

I'm glad this article was published. It shed light on my own situation. I think being asexual is a difficult concept for many people to understand. Here's an analogy I use: when some people starve, they do whatever it takes to get food in their hands. A small percentage of people prefer to starve to death, not because they're not hungry, but for other reasons. I think it is the "other reasons" that are of interest.

Sep 16 03 - 10:37am
imp

I don't think starving is such a good analogy. It makes sense, but it's misleading because
but not having sex isn't going to kill you, or produce another equally dire consequence, and refreainign from sex is not a means to an end like starving yourself to death. The negativity and image of starving to death will speak to people who think asexuality is wrong/a lack/a problem more than the idea. Maybe a better analogy is someone who is a vegetarian, because they just don't like meat. And there are perfectly good ways to be a healthy vegetarian.

Sep 16 03 - 1:20pm
m.s.

i wonder if it's possible to be very sexual and then become asexual.... i'm feeling so lately, although in love.

Sep 16 03 - 7:56pm
LAS

This article pwns. Thank you.

Sep 16 03 - 9:42pm
mjf

I've been feeling asexual ever since I started prozac. Maybe asexuals have some sort of chemical problem?

Sep 17 03 - 11:07am
mnp

"I've been feeling asexual ever since I started prozac. Maybe asexuals have some sort of chemical problem?"

Personally, I can't speak for all asexuals, but I was apparently born this way. I've lived a perfectly normal (indeed, rather boringly normal) life, and the only medication I've ever been on was antibiotics and allergy stuff, LOL...

Sep 17 03 - 8:27pm
ASK

There is nothing novel about asexuality. As far as anybody can figure out, both Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Isaac Newton were asexual. It happens. Fairly obviously, it's not a major survival skill in the genetic sweepstakes, but it happens.

Less obviously, it can be changed. Any number of sexual hormones, or drugs affecting hormonal levels, can modify sexual desires.

There are fascinating ethical dilemmas here. Is someone who is contentedly asexual appropriately treated with such drugs? We will treat the mentally ill against their will...arguing, correctly, that they are resisting treatment because a symptom of their illness is their refusal to accept their illness. Those without sexual desire plausibly see the rest of us as meat puppets with our strings pulled by our hormones and want no part of it...are they right or are we? Does the question have meaning?

In the only real test, admittedly an accidental one, we have discovered that people treated for depression with SSRIs will not willingly give them up even if the drugs destroy their sex drives. Maybe the asexuals are the only sensible people we have.

Sep 18 03 - 10:20am

note to the editor/writer: uninterested, not disinterested. disinterested is if you are unbiased or don't have any self-interest in a particular situation. e.g., a disinterested party to a lawsuit.

Sep 19 03 - 12:50am
-hb

From m-w.com:

Main Entry: disinterest
Function: noun
Date: 1658
1 : DISINTERESTEDNESS
2 : lack of interest : INDIFFERENCE

Sep 19 03 - 5:16am
JCG

Yeah, Where's the fucking Savage Love Column about the gay asexual guy? A) Who does Dan Savage not light into, when given the opportunity to respond to some whining drivel-monger's pathetic excuse of a question about their own boring sexual issues? B) Not remembering this particular case (which I think I would have), I looked into the archives of Dan Savage's column and could not find it anywhere. C) Just incidentally, who the fuck is this "Andrew" character? Most of Dan's letter writers are signed in with anonymous acronyms that spell something silly. Well, I guess we'd have to just read the damn article in order to know, now wouldn't we.
Stupid Cunts.

Sep 19 03 - 3:29pm
MRF

I guess I'm missing something (sic). I'm an older man and I continue masturbating, something
I've done since I was 8 years old through two marriages, including the present successful one.
How come no one mentions masturbation as an active and fulfilling part of being sexual?
It certainly can't be considered being "asexual." The drive and the pleasure resulting from it
are too strong for that, tell me where I've gone wrong about the word definition, or in any other
way that can be reasonably easily articulated.

Sep 20 03 - 5:13pm
NM

Thank you for your comments, ASK.
and, great article; well reported.

Sep 20 03 - 9:36pm
eva

couldn't find the Savage letter mentioned either. Interesting article, but the credibility is severly damaged when the author refers to bogus sources. Completely unnecessary too. Why don't the author get back to us on this one?

Sep 21 03 - 7:35am
ELM

Not everyone who claims to be asexual is though- if you masturbate you're not asexual even if you don't want to be with others. And then there's a lot of people like me- in a long term relationship, my desire has dwindled for a while. Pretty normal, and it's NOT evidence of asexuality because I now have a new 'friend' and I really really want to fuck him... but that would be cheating. This relates to the interview that's in the screening room at the moment by the way 'Is Monogamy Screwed'. As for true asexuals I feel like they are practising self delusion saying that they don't WANT to feel desire. It's just so good... but it can, like relationships, make you unhappy. And that is something we ALL need to be brave about before we can be comfortable with sexuality.

Sep 21 03 - 6:18pm
-cnn

Hey EVA and JCG - I found the article the author is referring to in 10 seconds, by Google-ing the terms "Dan Savage" and "nonsexual" together. You can view Andrew's letter at http://www.gay.com/health/sexuality/qanda.html?sernum=865. The next time you're tempted to open your traps, some helpful suggestions: a) stop and think for a sec; b) learn to use a research tool every 12-year-old is familiar with.

Sep 22 03 - 1:36pm
rym

In ten years, I'd like to see a follow up article with these asexual twenty year olds. How many have happy, stable relationships? how many have kids? how many how many are serial rapists? you know, stuff like that.

Sep 23 03 - 3:41am
HV

For more than seven years now, I'm together with my girl who has a low sex drive. We love each other like crazy and we hug and kiss all the time. My girl's very romantic and loves me a lot but she doesn't feel the need for genital sex. Her love makes me feel loved, but sometimes it gets extremely difficult for me.

Sep 23 03 - 4:21am
cejj

these kids are probably really hot

Sep 23 03 - 10:32am
HG

Special thanks and recognition to Eli Kintisch for his groundbreaking story on what is commonly termed "Asexuality" (although also implicit in that word is the ability to reproduce asexually, so it may not be the best term.) Asexuality seems to be one of the last unspoken sexual taboos. I applaud Mr. Kintisch and Nerve for bringing this subject to the fore, and especially for the first-hand interviews with people who are Asexual. Once again, thank you for exploring this topic!

Sep 23 03 - 2:58pm
'Rax

I am asexual and I thought the article was great, especially for visibility.

Sep 25 03 - 10:25pm

"uh...what? I'm sorry, but sexuality IS a part of life. It's how human beings have carried on. Being "asexual" obviously means you have serious issues- hormone imbalances, past trauma, etc. Get help!"
You, sir, are among the 5 most ignorant, retarded fuckers I have ever met.

Oct 26 03 - 3:09pm
JB

Wow - a friend of mine has just dumped her otherwise very much loved boyfriend because of his lack of sex drive. She's feeling hurt, confused, and upset. I'll definitely send this to her.

Dec 12 03 - 6:07pm
DDP

I thought this was a rather good article. Really gets the word around. I've really sick of people going up to me telling me I'm really bi when I know who I am. Who are you to tell me who I am?

Anyway, masturbation can be a part of asexuality, because they might like the feel of it, but not necessairly the genetailia associated with it.

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Apr 22 12 - 4:29pm
den

Hey! Ignorant people saying asexuals can't masturbate, or are only asexual due to hormone problems, or who assume asexual people can't be in relationships:

I do not experience sexual attraction (the actual definition of asexuality). My hormones are just fine, exhibited by my annoyingly regular menstrual cycle. I'm in a romantic relationship with a *sexual man, whom I HAVE SEX WITH. *gasp* He knows I'm not sexually attracted to him, and he doesn't give a shit. It doesn't mean I don't love him or that I'm not attracted to him in all kinds of other ways. And omgz, I masturbate too, despite a lack of sex drive (which isn't necessary to be considered asexual). No way.

You cannot, and will not, tell us who we are. Trust me, we know far better than you. Also, asexual people who do not experience romantic attraction exist, and they have relationships of their own that are unique and awesome. Being "normal" is absolutely not necessary for our identities to be a legitimate thing, and they are legitimate with or without your approval.

Jun 02 12 - 5:59pm
mel

THANK YOU.