What Does it Mean to Be Asexual in the Age of Queer Politics?

“I’ve always felt a little bit different, but I worked hard to push that feeling away…” Alex’s account of coming to terms with her sexuality begins like many coming out stories. But unlike tales of learning to embrace taboo desire, Alex’s is one of allowing herself to accept a lack of desire.

A slight, soft-spoken 24-year-old journalist based in the U.K., Alex started identifying as on the asexual spectrum about a year ago. “I’d never heard of the term asexuality,” Alex told me over Skype, “but it was one of those things that I knew I would have to google at some point. I didn’t want it to become concrete, so I just pretended it wasn’t there, that it wasn’t a thing.” Naming something, particularly something within yourself, often has a daunting, determinative tenor.

Asexuality is one of the least understood and most misrepresented sexual orientations – dismissed as a final frontier of sexual identity politics. The idea that someone may not desire or even require sex remains a bewildering topic for many. Even in the most “progressive” circles, asexuality remains a subject dismissed in hushed, confessional tones –  “But is it really a thing?” Asexuality has yet to be declared “valuable” by neoliberal capitalism (it is, after all, definitively unsexy, and we all know sex sells). It has yet to be, unlike other marginalized identities, superficially invested with social and cultural capital, forced to tread the fine line between representation and fetishization, visibility and objectification. But this doesn’t mean that asexuality is somehow inherently transgressive, rather that asexual people are underrepresented in the extreme.

People who identify as ace – as existing somewhere on the asexuality spectrum – make up an estimated 1% of the population. The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) describes those on the asexual spectrum as people who do “not experience sexual attraction – they are not drawn to people sexually and do not desire to act upon attraction to others in a sexual way.” If asexual people “have a libido or experience arousal,” – and some do – “they do not feel needs are unmet by a lack of sexual activity.” In other words, for aces, arousal isn’t a state that needs “correcting” or intensifying through intimacy or orgasm – it just is. AVEN goes on to note that asexuality is not about choosing to renounce sex (as with celibacy), but rather, like all other sexual orientations, being ace “is an intrinsic part of who we are.”

Identifying as ace doesn’t mean you’ve never been sexually attracted to anyone or been sexually active, just as identifying as a lesbian doesn’t mean you’ve never been with (or been attracted to) men. That sexuality is massively diverse and deeply subjective is made clear in the range of possible definitions of asexuality. “There are people on the spectrum who really enjoy having sex and have strong libidos but just aren’t sexually attracted to people,” Alex says, “and then there are people who are completely sex repulsed and can’t imagine themselves ever having sex with anyone, or who are very romantic but have never felt the desire to be sexual, or who are sexual but only in very specific contexts.” The list of potential iterations of asexuality feels infinite, and, at times, excessive to the point of redundancy, but the myriad identifications also speak to a demand for a more nuanced understanding of sexuality. “Asexuality is complex and varied, the same way that sexuality is complex and varied,” Alex points out, “there are a million ways of being sexual, and there are a million ways of being ace.”

Alex identifies as demisexual, which is one of the least understood notches on the asexuality spectrum. AVEN describes demisexuals as people who do not “experience sexual attraction unless they form an emotional connection.” At first glance, this can smack of an archaic conception of female sexuality – that women need to love someone in order to want to sleep with them. But being demisexual is an intrinsic, internal state, not a socially constructed idea (it is also unrelated to gender). “I never look at someone and think ooh, yeah, I could have sex with you just because you look sexy,” Alex tells me. “Sexual attraction outside of a very specific emotional bond just doesn’t exist for me.” This doesn’t mean she’s immune or somehow blind to beauty: “I can tell people are ‘objectively’ attractive, but it’s not invoking anything in me, it doesn’t make me want to kiss them or be physically close to them.”

The last time Alex felt the kind of emotional bond requisite for sexual desire, she thought she had been “cured” of asexuality. “When I met K, I immediately felt really close to him, and we had a lot of sex.” After they broke up, Alex’s old feelings of difference rose to the surface. K didn’t “cure” her, and her attraction to him turned out to be the exception, not the rule. But she was finally ready to name it – to identify. “I was in New York, and I was feeling really safe – I had a support system that was close – and I remember I went to a cafe and sat there and finally googled asexuality.” Reading other people’s accounts of self-discovery were particularly influential. “I’m not sure what I was expecting or why I was necessarily so scared of being ‘one of them’ – but reading all these people’s stories really helped,” she tells me. “It made me aware of how many different experiences there are of asexuality, and that I don’t have to be any specific way – that I can make my own little demisexual peace.”

Naming oneself – identifying – is particularly important for the asexual community, many of whom struggle with explaining their relationship to desire to others. Identity is rarely defined in terms of negation – and the difficulty many asexual people experience in articulating their identity is tied to this ontological concern. As Johanna, an asexual woman whom Alex interviewed for a short documentary on asexuality, notes: “It’s really hard to recognize when you’re not feeling something.” Often asexual people attribute their lack of desire to being gay, and then eventually realize that what they are feeling (or not feeling) is unrelated to gender. “You often see asexual people struggle to explain their identity,” Alex explains, “and people listening take that as an opportunity to dismiss you – they say, oh, you just haven’t found the right person yet.”

Movements for sexual liberation have historically been about the freedom to desire. The work of undoing, resisting, and subverting restrictions on “deviant” desire (gay, lesbian, bi, female, etc.) is monumental and nowhere near finished. The freedom not to desire (as in asexuality) is often seen to be at odds with these movements, perhaps because the oppression of queer and feminine desire has involved forcing people to suppress or negate their desires. But asexuality is not at odds with other forces for sexual liberation. “Asexuality isn’t about reverting back to repressing certain kinds of desire,” Alex notes, adding: “Accepting someone’s lack of desire is just as important as accepting desire – whatever shape it takes. Asexuality is a continuation of the movement for sexual liberation and sex positivity: it’s about claiming the freedom to live your sexuality in whatever way feels right.”

That some asexual people consider their asexuality to be a form of “queerness” has been a point of contention within the LGBTQ+ community. Queerness has been defined predominantly in relation to desire, specifically: to the experience of a kind of desire that deviates from a heterosexual norm. As such, that those who experience little-to-no desire should define themselves as “queer” – even if they identify as hetero-romantic, for example –  can seem like a definitional loosening to the point of meaninglessness. Those preoccupied with erecting (and policing) borders around something as intangible and diversely-constituted as being queer are perhaps threatened by the asexual community’s similarly diverse and fluid constituents.

The point of contention (for the militantly-definitional) is this: If even ostensibly straight people can define themselves as queer, what does the term even mean? Are we all queer, and therefore no one is? (Honestly, probably). And since identification is related inextricably to power, why should people who do not (and have not, historically, had to) face the same kind of political and legislative oppression as gay folk, for example, be able “take up space” within the queer community?

On the other hand, it’s hypocritical – and detrimental to the project of queer inclusivity – to police identifications. Why shouldn’t someone who experiences desire “differently” than the norm be able to consider themselves queer? Moreover, there are limitations to identifying or defining identity solely in terms of oppression, not least because oppression is difficult to quantify. “I haven’t met a single ace who denies that LGBT people in particular have had (and still have) to fight incredibly hard to be recognized as human beings,” Alex asserts, “But saying that asexual people don’t face oppression at all is wrong, too. We’re the laughing stock of society, seen as a problem that needs fixing, aliens, inhuman…” In fact, the idea that identity is fixed and therefore can be measured against a certain standard (that a person can be deemed “not gay enough” or “not black enough” etc.) is an issue that goes to the core of identity politics.

There is no single, ultimate way to be asexual, just as there is no single, ultimate way to be queer or straight. The way each of us relates to desire is deeply subjective – even as it’s informed by power dynamics. There is no such thing as a “normal” sexuality that all else is defined in relation to. There is always, however, a norm. It was only in 2013 that asexuality was taken off the list of mental disorders in the DSM-5. Asexual people are forced to justify their identity in the face of denial on a regular basis. Alex adds that “at the root of all of these misconceptions and misunderstandings is a lack of visibility.” The double bind of identification through naming – that it is limiting and constrictive, but also a powerful act of recognition – is at stake here, but a better understanding of asexuality can only be a good thing. “What brings asexuals together – other than a lack of sexual desire – is the experience of not feeling ‘normal’ and wanting to be understood,” Alex says. At risk of ending on a blood-curdlingly cheesy note – isn’t that what we all feel, what we all want?