Nerve Classics

The Story of No

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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.

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 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.”

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

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.

This article was originally appeared in Nerve’s Personal Essays in 2003.