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Sp[ace] Exploration: What Sexual People Can Learn from Asexual Communities

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Asexuality saved my sex life.

No, seriously -- I mean that.

I will declare it from the middle of a courtroom, with one hand on Our Bodies, Ourselves. Asexuality, as much as sex-positive feminism and far more than any amount of "hon, you just need to get laid already," helped me to access a confident, positive, and excited relationship with my sexual self.

This might seem counter-intuitive. Asexuality is often misunderstood as sex-negativity or repression, neither of which tends to do great things for a person's sexual well-being. If you're one of the people under this impression, the simple suggestion that asexuality could do active good in a person's sex life might be a little difficult to process. And honestly, even if you understand asexuality to be a valid orientation, you might still not understand how the words "asexual" and "sex life" could work together in the same sentence. So, let's clarify a few things before we continue:

First, I'm not asexual. I found myself immersed in the asexual community a few years ago, just a couple of years after I came out as lesbian. (So, there's a note for all the "you're not really asexual, you're probably gay" folks. I was already clear and cool with the gay part of my orientation when I began exploring asexuality. In fact, lots of ace people are.) I made fast friends there and began actively blogging on asexuality, and although I eventually answered this second "questioning" phase with a cautious, "So, I don't think this is me..." -- I remain grateful for the role of asexual space in my life, then and now.

Still, when I talk about what the asexual community has to offer, I'm speaking (more or less) as an outsider. I'm not speaking as someone who is asexual, or someone who was asexual, and I want to emphasize that asexuality -- as an identity -- is complete without any input or epilogue from the sexual side. In other words, I really don't want this to read as "why asexuality is a great first step to becoming a normal - (read: sexual) - human being." Nor do I want this to read as "why asexuality is useful and therefore worth allowing to exist." (Hint: one person's identity does not require another person's validation. My privilege does not determine your right to exist.) As a non-ace person, I don't have much to offer in a discussion of asexual identity, but I do have some knowledge of asexual communities. And I want to argue that asexual spaces -- the micro-culture of ace forums, meet-ups, and research -- can be really valuable for sexual people as well. (Provided, of course, that we can be decent allies -- and provided ace-identified folk willingly welcome us into their space.)

The definition of asexuality on AVEN -- as "a person who does not experience sexual desire" -- has not gone uncontested within the community. There are debates, for instance, about whether it's the lack of desire or the lack of attraction that constitutes asexuality. But even when AVEN's definition is accepted, it inspires some immediate and intriguing follow-up questions. Questions like - what is sexual desire (or sexual attraction)? Where does platonic desire end and 'sexual' desire begin? What combination of bodies, behaviors, or feelings are sexual? Where is this line and who draws it?

Whether or not we consciously consider these questions, we tend to hold fast to certain answers. We might assume "having sex" can only mean acts involving genital contact, acts involving penetration, or acts involving another person. Likewise, our concept of "sexual identity" might focus on sexual orientation or behavior, with less attention paid to how our athleticism, nerdiness, politics, or sense of humor relate to our experience of sex. And when we consider desire, we may include in the box of "sexual desire" only the sex we wish to actively do or have, dismissing (for instance) the sex that compels us in fantasy but not in practice.

The problem is that no matter how we define sexual identity, behavior, or desire, we very rarely define it ourselves. Instead, we inherit definitions.

We inherit sexual scripts, sexual expectations, and sexual identities. We may immerse ourselves in -- or resist -- these trappings of sexual identity, but we very rarely consider creating them ourselves.

Moreover, we inherit certain definitions of sex whether or not we authentically relate to them. We inherit family sitcoms parented almost exclusively by straight couples. We inherit religious backgrounds with strongly gendered narratives about who's meant to have sex, with whom, when, and how. Acknowledging this is not merely crooning a country song of "society, you done me wrong." Acknowledging the cultural scripts around sex allows us to recognize the ways they've influenced us and -- if we see fit -- to resist their impact.

Asexual space facilitates this process because it operates differently -- albeit in relationship to -- the dominant sexual scripts. The assumptions of sexuality can be off-putting. They tend to be based on other assumptions -- about gender and heterosexuality, for instance -- that don't sit well with many of us. (In fact, they tend to be connected to sexist, cissexist, and heterosexist messages that don't really need to sit well with us.) Still, when these definitions don't comfortably reflect our identities, they can make it that much more difficult to envision what would.

Asexuality starts with different assumptions. It presumes the absence of desire -- it centers sexuality at 0, rather than at a given but vague or unknown X-factor -- and members of the ace community define within (or against) that assumption. Although in some cases, asexual individuals feel no interest in sexual or romantic activity of any kind, in other instances, they build on the "no desire" assumption to identify specific, complex webs of interest: I'm asexual but I masturbate. I'm asexual but I feel sexual interest in specific circumstances. I'm asexual but I like to kiss.

Employing these kinds of caveats adjusts "asexuality" to fit one's specific experience of sex. The term becomes a blueprint for shaping an identity based on personal desire, rather than social scripts.

Think about all the ways you can use your body, -- the ways you can move, feel, stretch, and touch. Think about the ways your body can interact with another person's, how your toes can find another person's foot, your hand curl against a forehead, lace in another hand, rest on a hip, or wrap around a shoulder. When you think about the various things that a person can do with zir body -- or that two bodies can do together -- do some of them "qualify" as sexual while others do not? Likewise, when you consider your "identity" and your "sexual identity," do you draw a line somewhere to demarcate the two? When you consider your "desire" and your "sexual desire," do you distinguish between them?

How? -- And is this definition useful for you?

I ask because we have a right to reconsider our definitions of sexiness and sexuality. We have a right to acknowledge which parts we've defined and which parts we've inherited. We have a right to determine whether we feel comfortable embodying these definitions. If "sexuality" as we've come to understand it doesn't bring us confidence, pride, safety, and joy, we have a right to revise its terms. How might your definition of sexuality shift if you began with the blank slate of desire's absence -- and built a sexual identity defined solely and only by what you experience? How might your (sex) life be different if you had the right to define it yourself?

Because -- believe it or not -- you do. You have the right to create the identity and experience that work best for you. We all do. And we all have the right to find the sp(ace)s that help us along in that process.

written 13 Jul 2011 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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