Today is the first day of Asexuality Awareness Week. That’s right, I said “Asexuality Awareness Week.” What’s the first thing you think of when I say “asexuality?” Amoebas? Frigid librarians? Gays in the closet? Me too, until I met my friend and colleague Sara Beth Brooks.
Brooks and I met while taking part in various Camps Courage across the state during the beginning of post-Prop 8 California. We subsequently took a class together with the legendary organizer Marshall Ganz, and worked with two other women to introduce new LGBT activists to other progressive movements in our state. She was one of fifteen Californians to write an Op-Ed for our What’s Next for Equality California series. For Brooks, her LGBT organizing led her to a more advanced self-understanding: she’s asexual.
If asexuality isn’t about single-cell organisms or loneliness or self-deception, what is it? In her 2010 series on asexuality for the national LGBT blog Bilerico Project, Brooks describes “asexuality” as an identity in which people who do not experience sexual attraction. “Unlike celibacy, — a choice — asexuality is an orientation,” she writes.
Let’s be honest: these days, the last thing most gay men want to associate themselves with is something that’s the opposite of sex. Men of all orientations are like that, I think, as well as many women and other people across the spectrum of gender. But gay men, we like to think of ourselves as the kings—or queens, perhaps—of sex. If it’s true that men think about sex frequently, and gay culture is based around men interacting with other men—then sex is going to be rather paramount, methinks.
Feeling like I’m on the forefront on sexual expression is one of the things I love about being gay. “Gay” neighborhoods, movies, music, and subcultures revolve around thinking about sex, finding sex, being sexy. There’s an honesty about the importance of sex that I find refreshing in a world where others seem to deny this very human fixation. Even “gay” politics are sexy: literally, when we’re fighting for our ability to express ourselves freely, and metaphorically, when non-LGBTs join our movement because it’s cool.
Since gay liberation in the 1970s, gay men’s “sex forwardness” has been the source of concern. From our own leaders trying to save us from AIDS to religious zealots who seek to oppress us—have been alarmed by our intense focus on sex and sexuality. Generally, I’m proud when gay men and our allies find ways to address the dangers of sex—the real ones, at least—in a sex-positive manner.
Author Eric Allenbaugh once said, “what you focus on determines what you miss.” What if our preoccupation with sex, and our confidence that everyone wants it, results in stifling the lives of others? In her series, Brooks touches on our society’s extreme perspective regarding sex.
Sex sells. In a capitalist society, that means sex is everywhere. Mass media teaches that having sex is the key to happiness just as much as it teaches that being thin is the key to beauty. Men — of all orientations — are judged by their sexual prowess. Women — of all orientations — are judged based on their sexual attractiveness. Society teaches that sexuality is the only option.
What happens when some people don’t prize sex over most other of life’s gifts? Is it possible that our Sexual Orientation—as opposed to our sexual orientations—is preventing others from achieving their authentic selves? And what if asexuals have something to teach us about intimacy itself? Is it possible that, in our extreme focus on sexual intimacy, that we are willfully blind to the myriad other ways in which we are intimate?
“No One Wants to Be Told They Don’t Exist.”
In “Asexuality Exists”(September 20, 2010), Brooks recalls that her activist work in post-Prop 8 California that led to her realization that she was asexual: “It had taken me five years to find the word for what I had been experiencing,” she writes. “When I started using the word asexual in the LGBT community, most people didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. There were unintentional hurtful comments made. My favorite response? “’Oh, that doesn’t exist.’
“No one wants to be told they don’t exist,” writes Brooks. “So I told everyone I was bisexual. Saying bisexual was easier than the whole story, and it was enough of the truth. ‘Bisexual’ was understood and accepted even though it wasn’t entirely accurate (I hope bisexual activists will see the irony in this).”
Brooks reports that when she did talk about asexuality, she found that many LGBT people rejected the concept because they had never heard of it before. “The same series of questions always follows,” she writes. “You don’t have sex? Are you a virgin? Shouldn’t you see someone about that? Do you ever feel horny? Do you masturbate? Aren’t you lonely? What can you do to fix it? These questions are considered as rude to asexuals as questions about genitalia are to trans people. Would you ask about masturbation habits in any other polite conversation?”
Sound familiar? Oh yeah, those are some of the things straight people still say about us queers. Who are we to know what we want? We must be broken, or sick, or inexperienced. C’mon, people: there is nothing less cool that an LGBT person dismissing another sexual minority simply because they’re expressing who she/he/they/ze are. Gay men might be the Queens of Sex, but we don’t own sex.
In this piece, Brooks draws the first of several connections between asexuals and LGBTs: “There was a time, not too long ago, when the words ‘lesbian,’ ‘gay,’ and ‘bisexual’ were unknown in our vocabulary. Now they are universally understood,” she writes. The word ‘transgender’ is just now starting to cross that threshold of understanding. A major goal of the asexual community is to help add our definition of asexuality to the common vocabulary, similar to the way that the words lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender have come to be understood as concepts with specific meanings.”
Like the LGBT experience, there’s not just one way to be asexual: “Some asexuals experience sexual arousal, masturbate, and even have sex. Others don’t, and that’s fine too,” Brooks writes. “Asexuals form relationships with people, date, and even fall in love. Many asexuals date sexual people and within those relationships negotiate their sex lives the same as any other couple. Asexuality describes attraction, not behavior.”
“The crossover between the LGBT community and the asexual community is huge,” Brooks writes. “Asexuals often experience a feeling of being different in puberty and have a coming-out process similar to the LGBT one. We talk about our relationships outside of the hetero-normative scope. Our parents reject us for being asexual. The queer community doesn’t even know that we exist.”
“But we do exist,” she writes. “Asexuals have built a sex-positive community that is teeming with LGBT allies. We work on marriage equality campaigns and phone bank our Senators on ENDA. Some of us are romantically attracted to guys, some of us to girls, and some to both. Our community is full of trans and gender non-conforming people, primarily youth.”
In her series, Brooks describes more “layers of overlap” between the LGBT and asexual communities. “We share similar experiences of coming out and of feeling separate or different from our peers,” she writes. “We share similar aspirations of breaking the binaries that restrict our lives. We share a common desire to feel accepted. There is so much that asexuals and the LGBT community have in common.”
It’s important to understand that we can open our minds to asexuality without retreating to the sexual oppression of past decades. An assumption that many LGBTs make about “aces” (common slang among many self-identified asexuals) is that asexuality is negative and anti-sex. Not true, Brooks writes: “From a sex-centric worldview, not having sex is akin to emotional death, but asexuals just don’t see it that way. Most aces are fiercely sex-positive. We think it’s really great that you sexual people are having so much fun with all your gettin’ it on! We’d just rather be doing something else.”
Brooks’ series is well-written and intriguing for anyone who’s interested in understanding human sexuality. But this is about more than reading a titillating study about a sexual minority. We LGBTs need to open up our minds to what Brooks and other aces are up to. Asexuals experience the same lonely search for identity as most of us LGBTs. Further, she delves into the ways that we’re ALL asexual: after all, most people don’t have sex with every person we know. But the #1 reason to read Sara Beth’s Brooks’ series is that she calls on us to redefine our common understanding of intimacy. The potential in this idea—for us LGBTs and also for the rest—is astonishing.
Embracing a Radically Inclusive Attitude
In “Becoming Queer” (September 21, 2010), Brooks writes that her conception of “queer” evolved during her intense work within the marriage equality movement in San Diego. “I used to think that ‘queer’ was merely an all-encompassing term for LGBT. That’s incomplete, I’ve learned. Queerness is about challenging societal norms by embracing a radically inclusive attitude of evolving self-identification and self-expression. Often times LGBT falls into that definition, but I no longer use the two interchangeably.”
She recalls realizing, upon attending the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force’s Creating Change conference in February 2010, that there was no mention of asexuality anywhere in the five-day program. When she held her own independent session, (“Asexuality Q&A”) she was amazed to be joined by other asexuals. “…we went down the path of sharing our common experiences. Each time one of us shared an experience, the others would start nodding vehemently.”
“Meeting other LGBT asexuals — people who also thought that they were the only LGBT and asexual activists around — taught me that there’s a job we have to do as members of the first generation of asexual-identified people,” writes Brooks. “That’s when I decided that I’m not going to put my community on the back-burner anymore. It’s our responsibility to educate, to be out, to be active, and to be proud, so that others can find our community and realize that they are not alone either.”
In “The X Factor” (September 22, 2010), Brooks notes that, while Alfred Kinsey discovered asexual people during his groundbreaking studies of human sexuality, he was disinterested in studying them further. Others noted that asexuals were “oppressed by a consensus that they are nonexistent,” yet continued to appear as 1% of the population in academic data.
She credits the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) with teaching her more formally about asexuality: “Feeling lost and alone, I had spent years agonizing over a search for my missing sex drive. I had experienced trouble with relationships and was actively trying to fix something I felt was broken. Therapy and hormone therapies couldn’t jump-start my sex drive. Finding AVEN was a relief — finally, I understood that I was not the only one.”
“The term asexual is a broad umbrella that includes many sub-identities,” she writes. “The two most common asexual orientations are romantic and aromantic. Romantic asexuals experience emotional attraction to people. We commonly use hetero-, homo-, bi-, and pan- in front of the word romantic to describe how we experience emotional attraction; the meanings of these prefixes are identical. In contrast, aromantic asexuals don’t experience emotional attraction to people or find it necessary to. Both romantic and aromantic asexuals build relationships of all varieties.”
Redefining Our Conception of Intimacy
In “Redefining Intimacy” (September 23, 2010), perhaps the most poignant of her five articles, Brooks explores the idea of intimacy (“the connection we all feel between one another”) and challenges us to think more broadly. “Heteronormative culture generally defines intimate relationships by one activity: sex,” she writes, “Asexual people realize that intimate relationships can be defined by so much more.”
“It’s long past time to redefine intimacy,” Brooks argues. “The word ‘intimacy’ conjures up a candle-lit room and a steamy sex scene, but I believe this definition limits greatly our intimate capacity as humans. In fact, I reject entirely the idea that intimacy should be synonymous with sex. Intimacy is tied to a much deeper set of emotions that guide every part of our lives. Intimacy feeds our humanity by connecting us with the people around us. It is the foundation for empathy, compassion, and love. Sex is one way of expressing intimacy — but intimacy should not be summed up as sex and sexual acts.”
Brooks argues that nonsexual intimacy is already all around us in the LGBT community. She posits the example of the relationship between gay men and the women of all orientations in their lives, describing the strong– yet nonsexual– ties that often develop over time: first shopping trips, then weekly brunches, then more. “This intimacy serves a purpose in the lives of both people,” writes Brooks. “They get a chance to explore something with each other that maybe they don’t explore with anyone else. … They don’t need sex for their relationship to be fulfilling; this relationship is based on something else. They feel happy spending time together and push each other to grow as people. [Perhaps] their relationship outlives sexual partners who come and go through each of their lives.”“We build similar relationships across the LGBT community all the time, and not just between gay men and women,” argues Brooks. “These relationships have clear boundaries and communication. They develop around common interests and shared experiences. Over time, these relationships push you outside of your comfort zone and you grow as a person. Intimate relationships are built on a lot of trust and commitment. For sexual people, sex is a natural step for these relationships to take. For asexual people, it’s not.”
Using activism as an example, Brooks introduces the intriguing idea that nonsexual intimacy can exist between people and communities. “Over time, activists make commitments to their community,” she writes. “As they keep those commitments, they inevitably build complex relationships with the people of that community. Activists find people within the community who have similar interests and make commitments with them to build projects together. The commitments continue to grow into a tangled web of complex relationships that contain varying levels of intimacy.”
For Brooks, community is one way she fulfills her need for intimacy. “Over time, as I’ve been involved in the movement, I have felt inspired and passionate,” she writes. “I’ve made commitments to the community and kept them, and the movement has continued to inspire my passion for equality.” But intimacy of this type isn’t just limited to activism. “It can be any community — a church, a blog, a band. What does the community make you feel during the time you spend involved in it, and how can you commit to continuing those positive feelings?”
What’s the Next Step?
In “What Asexuals Want” (September 24, 2010), Brooks outlines what the Asexual Movement seeks to achieve—hopefully with LGBT collaboration.
“Similar to the way our transgender allies are pathologized for wanting to live as the gender their brains tell them they are, we are considered “sick” for not being sexually attracted to anyone,” writes Brooks. “Instead of being introduced to an orientation and a community, asexual people are frequently diagnosed with Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD). They are treated with forms of Viagra that usually don’t work, leading to further confusion. Due to sexual stigmas in society they don’t talk about their experience and remain feeling isolated.”
Brooks wants asexuality included in existing LGBT educational projects; talked about at LGBT leadership trainings; and included in sex-ed materials that the LGBT community provides. “We want you to be our allies and help bring our community out of the closet, writes Brooks.
If we want to think of ourselves as an ethical movement, LGBTs have an obligation to understand and support asexuals. Doing so will mean we must rethink our focus on sex. Writes Brooks,
We’re told that sex is power and freedom. Asexuals are talking about having the freedom to explore sexuality on our own terms. Those of us whose kink is nonsexual intimacy have just as much need for that freedom as everyone else. How can we call it sexual freedom when it doesn’t include freedom to not have sex, and those who don’t have sex are seen as outliers? Isn’t that simply the opposite of what we had before, where chastity was praised and sexuality discouraged?
It’s a tough sell, this asexuality thing. The people that asexuals should be able to rely on most to understand the negative effects of stigmatization—us queers—are likely to see the Asexuality Movement as the antithesis of our years of work for liberation and equality. But it is those years of activism that stand to be devalued if we don’t recognize asexuality as another part of what is now called “LGBT.” We dishonor our own activism—and the bonds we have created through it—if we refuse to see that not all authentic connections are made via the flesh.