Justin Li


Asexuality

2013-11-15

Author's note: Sunday's post will be delayed due to climbing.

Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way: I'm asexual.

Or at least, I would consider myself practically asexual, in the same way that I'm practically atheist, since you can't prove a negative (meaning I'm technically agnostic, but that word is already taken). I originally wanted to put "I identify as asexual", but I didn't quite know what "identify" means. I also considered "I think I am asexual", but in the end I decided to keep it simple, stupid.

Maybe I should backtrack and say what it means to be asexual. As a point in the spectrum/space of sexuality, it has a different meaning from the biological sense of the word (eg. "asexual reproduction"). Here, I'm taking an asexual to mean someone who does not feel sexual attraction. Again, as with atheism, having a group defined around a negative means that the members will have a lot of other differences. There is a distinction, for example, between someone's sexual orientation and their romantic orientation; many people on r/asexuality, for example, are also aromantic (that is, they don't feel romantic attraction), although I remain heteromantic (contrary to what I wrote several days ago). There are also divides between people who will and will not have sex, people who find sex disgusting, and so on. Note that this definition of asexuality is silent on sexual arousal and libido. We can argue whether these things are independent, but here I assume they are separate phenomena.

I don't remember when I first learned about asexuality - it probably wasn't more than two years ago - but I do remember that for a long time I didn't have a good understanding of what it is. Not that I would say my understanding is good now, but at the time, the diversity in the people who identify as asexual confused me. It's ironic that the definition of asexuality is the least useful to those who are asexual; after all, if you've never experienced sexual attraction, how do you know you're missing it? It doesn't help that the separation of sexual arousal from sexual attraction is not intuitive; it's unclear to me how you can be aroused by porn but not feel sexual attraction. The relationship between attraction, arousal, and libido still eludes me.

It was only earlier this year when I really started thinking about what asexuality meant, and whether it was a label I'd apply to myself. In hindsight, this questioning period didn't feel that long. Looking over my journal, within a space of two months, I had almost entirely accepted "asexual" as a generally accurate description of myself. I still had various doubts, of course, if not due to the negative-proof thing, then due to the possibility of demisexuality, where sexual attraction only occurs after establishing emotional connection. (Tailsteak, of Leftover Soup, comments that this suggests the theoretical position of anti-demisexuality, where someone is only attracted to people they have no emotional connection with. Symmetry for the win!).

Even before this year, before I heard of asexuality, I've noticed that my calibrations of feelings for people might be off. Robert Sternberg has a triangular theory of love, where the legs of the triangle are passion, intimacy, and commitment; the passion component had always bothered me, since I have never felt myself as worked up as other people seem to be. I had never thought of people as "hot", even though I've heard it often enough to know what it means. The biggest clue, though, was probably that whenever I think about sex, I have to remind myself that to other people, sex is not just an activity to maintain/increase intimacy in a relationship, but also one which people engage in for physical pleasure. While I can intellectually understand the sentiment, it's not something I've ever felt. The whole hook-up culture has, therefore, always felt foreign to me. Rather than saying that I realized I'm asexual, it might be more accurate to say that I discovered the asexual label, and found that it applied to me.

Since recognizing myself as an asexual, I have often wondered how much this trait has (unconsciously) influenced my thinking. For example, my quibble with objectification (here and here) probably stems from my lack of sexual attraction. More than just a thought experiment, it's a way for me to explore how sexuals see and classify the world. Fundamentally, it's about whether and why someone's physical assets (which I'm not attracted to, at least sexually) is treated differently from someone's mental assets (which I am attracted to). My philosophical nature, of course, plays a part as well, but I suspect that if I were not asexual the question would not occupy as much of my spare time.

Another train of thought in which I could identify the influences of asexuality is the boundary be friendships and relationships. Perhaps this should not be as difficult a question for me, given that I'm heteromantic, and therefore have this distinction at least between men and women. And partially this may be due to me being male, meaning that, according to legend, I treat all women as potential partners, while women have a much cleaner distinction between the two. Regardless, given the central role that sex plays in people's definitions of romantic relationships (and I've had conversations with multiple people about this), I was curious how they imagined this would change for asexuals. I have yet to hear a good answer, although almost everyone agrees there is something aside from sex that distinguishes the two.

A final question, which came out of a conversation with a friend. When I asked her to explain the importance of sex to an asexual, she paused, then suggested that sexual attraction may be a sensory dimension by itself. This was a hypothesis I could not immediately dismiss. I don't think sexual attraction is as central as one of the five senses, since we don't have the organ to detect it, as eyes do for sight. I don't even think it's as central as one of the other, less-well-known ones. Still, my friend may have a point. The best analogy I know comes from Raymond Smullyan's The Tao is Silent, where he compared the Tao to melodies:

Suppose two people, one a musician and the other extremely unmusical, are listening to a theme. The unmusical one admits frankly, "I hear the notes, but I don't hear the melody"... The true Taoists... directly perceive that which they call the Tao (or which others call God, Nature, the Absolute, Cosmic Consciousness) just as the musical directly perceives the melody. The musician... obviously has a direct experience of the melody itself. And once the melody is heard, it is impossible ever again to doubt it.

Who's to say that sexual attraction is not some similar sense, more of an inability to recognize a pattern than the inability to receive a signal? The analogy is not perfect; I can recognize the pattern of what people are sexually attracted to, it's just that the same pattern doesn't elicit any response from me. Still, if the difference between sexuals and asexuals runs this deep into physiology, then I'm not sure the experiences between the two can ever be fully described.

In the end, I consider "asexual" as merely a convenient label for the psychological phenomena (or lack thereof) that I experience. I haven't felt relieve, or conversely, any stress, from this new understanding of myself. If I run with the idea of sexual attraction as a sense, then maybe my experience is comparable to someone with synesthesia. And since I have asked questions of my synaesthetic friend, I suppose people should feel free to ask me questions too.

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