So I was contacted by a student at Drake University who is doing a piece on asexuality for DragMag, I’ve included my answers below (they’re ridiculously wordy, as usual). I have also forwarded her questions to several other researchers, medical professionals and sexologists who I thought would be good people to ask (we don’t need more professional quotes like the one in the HerCampus.com article, am I right?). Whether she will choose to use my answers or go with one of the more prestigious people I recommended is yet to be seen, either way I don’t think my answers are the only important answers and, for the article, I think the more input from people who identify as asexual as well as those who study it the better so please feel free to chime in via the comments or to use the form at the bottom of the post, the responses from which I will forward to the student writing the article.
1.What is your advice for a young person who thinks they may be asexual?
My advice for all young people (or really, people of any age) who are contemplating their orientation(s) is pretty much the same: There may be times when what you’re feeling changes and there may be times when you just realize that the word you’re using to describe what you’re feeling changes.
When I say that feelings or labels may change over time I absolutely do not mean “you’re young so you’re just going through a phase!” The way we think about ourselves and the way we think about labels and the way we feel about people can change during a life time and that’s natural. There are young people who identify as asexual and then decide that isn’t the right label for them but there are also people who grew up identifying as gay, straight, bisexual etc and finally realized that asexual was the word they’d been looking for all along! Some people figure out the labels that describe them best when you’re young and never feel like those labels no longer fit, others experience a little more fluidity, neither experience is more valid than the other.
The long and short of it is this: Labels don’t define you, they describe you. If you feel like a label describes what you’re feeling right now – and if that’s what you’re trying to convey via your orientation label(s) – then use it. I do believe that, at least in theory, everyone is capable of experience both romantic and sexual attraction to individuals of any demographic – it just happens more often for some than others. But if everyone ran around identifying as pansexual… well then, what would be the point of using labels? That would make labels even more useless than they already are.
2. What are common misconceptions about asexuality?
That all asexuals are women, that we’re really just prudes, that we’re all going through a phase, that we must have just gotten out of a terrible relationship, that we must have a hormone imbalance, that we were sexually abused as children, that we must not ever masturbate, that we must masturbate a lot, that that we must be sex negative, that we must be virgins, the list goes on. Two things stick out at me when I hear most misconceptions about asexuality, first, that they are mostly arguments that have been used to disprove the legitimacy of other orientations and gender identities (which is part of the reason I’m always so surprised to hear members of the LGBT community use them without a hint of irony); second, these misconceptions depend pretty heavily on all people who identify as asexual being pretty much the same (young women who are sex negative virgins who were probably sexually abused, apparently*[edit below]) when both research and anecdotal evidence from just about anyone who has been involved with the larger asexual community suggests that we are as heterogeneous as most other groups – men and women of all ages, people who have chosen not to make sex part of their relationships and people with children, people who are sex negative and people who are sex positive, people who were abused and people who weren’t, people who do have hormone imbalances and people who don’t, people with very high sex drives, people with very low sex drives and everywhere in between, very much like in other demographics. There are people of all orientations who have been abused, but to deny them the right to self-identify because of it seems particularly cruel. There are people of all orientations who have hormone imbalances, who are not neuro -typical, who have any other number of non-normative qualities, none of that negates their right to self identify and to have their identity respected.
3. How has the medical community’s opinion of asexuality changed over the course of your career?
As I have not completed my degree I don’t have a sexological “career” to speak of but I have been involved with sex education for about eight years and when asexuality comes up I’m not usually surprised by the questions or responses I get from people not involved with sexology who I don’t expect to be familiar with the concept or the community, but I have been surprised that the more I pay attention to where people are getting misinformation the more I find out it is from other sexological professionals. I have a very short list of professionals to whom I refer people who identify as asexual who would like to see a sexual health professional because I’ve found that, in regards to asexuality, many professionals treat it the way homosexuality was once treated by medical health professionals – that it is unnatural, that it needs to be cured, that if we could just figure out what’s wrong with us we would realize we were really some other orientation – which is terrifying. Every misconception I mentioned above is something that I have heard other sexual health professionals say in a public forum, and that’s scary. I’ve heard the argument that there’s just not enough research on asexuality (which doesn’t stop people from making things up, apparently) but I think that’s also kind of the beauty of the existing research on asexuality, you could spend a weekend reading all the available studies and be pretty well versed in the research (though it would take a little longer to learn about the asexual community, since we are more than just study participants) – it isn’t like homosexuality where there’s tomes of papers and bookstores full of books that you would have to read to get a decent perspective of homosexuality. You have a week to write this article and through your school you probably have access to all of the journals in which asexuality research has been published (and if you don’t, I’ve made excerpts available on my website, let me know if you’d like me to point you in the right direction for finding them). I guess the short answer, if there is one, is that I haven’t really noticed a change at all – there are some people who are asexual-positive, some people who aren’t familiar with asexuality and so don’t take a position (or learn about it as needed) and some people who are not familiar with asexuality but choose to pathologize it anyway. I can only hope that the distribution of people in those groups starts shifting toward the positive.
4. What are some things a college community could do to help accommodate asexuals?
Being a sex-positive campus, I think, is one of the best things any campus (or community) can be (no surprise from the sexological student, right?). Being sex-positive doesn’t just mean promoting sex as awesome, it means respecting people’s right to self-identify, to respecting people’s decisions about their personal sex lives, about making sure that resources are available for people who need help or guidance without using that as a way to try and change them into what you think they should be, it means making the campus a safe place for people to be honest. These are qualities that benefit people of all orientations and gender identities. To ensure that a campus is a safe place for asexuals, of course, doing education and out reach with students and staff is always helpful – including asexuality in SafeZones and staff training, screening the (A)Sexuality documentary, bringing in speakers, including “asexual” (or at the very least “other”) on forms where typically only “gay,” “straight,” and “bisexual” are listed as options. Ideally asexuality would be taken into consideration in these aspects the same way that, I hope, other LGBT and trans* issues are already being included in campus dialog.
5. What are some problem faced by the asexual community, and what is your advice for coping with these?
Many people who identify as asexual do not have people that they can be out to safely (or at least that is how they feel- and there are certainly a lot of negative coming out stories to justify concern) and not being out – particularly if you’re concerned that you wouldn’t be accepted if you were – can be a terrible feeling. Navigating relationships can seem daunting, if not impossible and I hear from a lot of people who identify as asexual who are afraid that they’re going to be alone forever. I think the best thing I can say is that they are not the only ones going through this, and while their own path won’t be identical to anyone else’s path they don’t have to entirely reinvent the wheel! There is a thriving community of asexuals who share how they came out to family and friends – what worked and what didn’t work, how they navigate their relationship(s) and how they deal with constant claims that their orientation must mean something terrible is wrong with them (and when you hear that often enough sometimes you start to believe it). Finding people who you can be open with is critical and in addition to on-line communities some larger cities in both the United States and Europe have social clubs where asexuals can get together without worrying about all the things you worry about when you’re around people to whom you’re not out (which are mostly the same things that everyone who is closeted worry about). Even if you don’t have a specifically asexual social group you can probably find a group in your area that specifically states that they welcome asexual members (LGBT orgs, BDSM groups, etc) and finding people you can be comfortable around to build up your confidence and comfort for being out can be a really great experience and help alleviate a lot of the fears that can be part of realizing you’re asexual.
*I saw a comment on line critiquing an unspecified post and while I don’t know if they were talking about this post, I felt like they could have been talking about this post and so I wanted to make a clarification: When I dispute that all asexuals are virgins it is not because I think it is bad to not be sexually active with a partner, it is because it is part of the same mentality that is used to disparage being gay, too. That lesbians are only lesbians because they haven’t had sex with men yet and how can gay men know they are gay if they’ve never had sex with women? But we know there are many gay men who have had sex with women and lesbians who have had sex with men AND YET they still manage to continue to be gay, sadly their partner did not have magical genitals to turn them straight. Likewise, some aces are or have been sexually active without it changing their orientation. I absolutely do not think people have to be sexually active to identify as not feeling compelled to have partnered sex and I absolutely don’t look down on people who do not experiment with partnered sex (just remember to seek out some good resources before experimenting if you choose to, that’s all I ask!)