What about Asexuality?

First published at 365gay.com on May 28, 2010

I hesitate to write another column about Elena Kagan, President Obama’s nominee to replace Justice Stevens, and someone whose putative sexuality has been discussed ad nauseam by people (like me) who aren’t in a position to know the first thing about it.

It’s true that when people enter public life, they must forgo some realm of privacy. But c’mon. It’s not as if Kagan is picking up chicks at the Dinah Shore Golf Weekend. For that matter, it doesn’t appear that she’s doing much romantically with men, either—at least not in any public way. Despite relentless media efforts to make it so, Kagan’s sexuality is just not a particularly visible feature of her life.

So let’s not have another column about Kagan—at least not directly. Let’s instead bring up Kagan only as a springboard to something else.

In the discussions surrounding Kagan, various parties aimed to produce evidence that she was either gay, straight, or bi. She plays softball, smokes cigars, and doesn’t have a man in her life (which apparently suggests that she’s gay); she dated Eliot Spitzer’s male friends in college (which apparently suggests that she’s straight); she never dated Spitzer (which suggests that she has taste).

What no one seems to have considered is a fourth option: perhaps Kagan is neither gay, straight, nor bi. Perhaps she is asexual.

Asexuality is an unusual phenomenon where people do not experience any sexual attraction. (Or perhaps it is better understood on a continuum model, where they experience vanishingly low levels of sexual attraction.)

Asexuality does not get discussed much, mainly because it challenges our tendency to put everyone into the neat boxes we’re used to. It has taken decades to accustom people to the “gay/lesbian” box, making them understand that gay people are not just perverted heterosexuals. Many people still have a hard time with the “bisexual” box. (“They’re just confused; they haven’t decided yet; there’s no such thing.”)

And some people (a minority) argue that we shouldn’t have “boxes” at all, although they can be a useful way of organizing information and building community identity.

I’ll be candid: I don’t know much about asexuality. I have at least one friend that I think it probably describes. He’s never dated either males or females and doesn’t have much interest in doing so, and as far as I know, this disinterest is not the result of some emotional or physical dysfunction. He appears to view sex the way I view having children or running marathons—I can see why other people might enjoy these things, but they’re just not for me. And I don’t need to try either one to know this.

One thing that LGBT people ought to understand is that the boxes society wants to impose don’t always fit. That’s one reason why I aim to give people the benefit of the doubt when they’re sharing their experience: generally speaking, every person gets to be the expert on his or her own feelings. And some people report feeling no sexual desire.

According to Asexuality.org, an online community of over 19,000 people:

“An asexual is someone who does not experience sexual attraction. Unlike celibacy, which people choose, asexuality is an intrinsic part of who we are. Asexuality does not make our lives any worse or any better, we just face a different set of challenges than most sexual people. There is considerable diversity among the asexual community; each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently. Asexuality is just beginning to be the subject of scientific research.”

The website goes on to explain that asexuals have the same emotional needs as everyone else and that some date and form long-term partnerships. Those who do are just as likely to date sexual people as to date each other (indeed, probably more so, since there are many more sexual people in the world).

Thus, while many asexuals are celibate, some aren’t: despite lacking sexual desire, some have sex as a way to care for non-asexual partners. (Kind of like I might go running with a partner even though I have no direct interest in running. But don’t get any ideas, Mark.) By contrast, most celibates are NOT asexual: they are people with sexual desire who choose to forgo sex for some other reason.

Some other interesting points from the website:

“Many asexual people experience attraction, but we feel no need to act out that attraction sexually….Asexual people who experience attraction will often be attracted to a particular gender, and will identify as lesbian, gay, bi, or straight.”

The website also explains that some asexual people experience sexual arousal whereas as others do not; some masturbate; others don’t. What they all have in common is a lack of desire for partnered sexual expression. Thoughtfully, the site includes this caveat:

“Note: People do not need sexual arousal to be healthy, but in a minority of cases a lack of arousal can be the symptom of a more serious medical condition. If you do not experience sexual arousal or if you suddenly lose interest in sex you should probably check with a doctor just to be safe.”

At the risk of adding more letters to the coalition of LGBTQQISS and so on, I think it’s time we take the “asexual” box seriously. Check out Asexuality.org if you want to learn more.