Trigger warning: This post contains potential references to rape and abuse.
I want to draw attention to a piece in the most recent issue (#25) of AVENues (download links are here), a bimonthly newsletter that the asexual community of AVEN produces.
In the July/August 2013 issue of AVENues, user Talia wrote a piece called “Asexual Elitism is Alive and Well,” in which they discuss a very prevalent manifestation of asexual elitism that is not often recognized as such. Talia introduces the subject:
AVEN rejects asexual elitism by defining asexuality on its website homepage as “A person who does not experience sexual attraction” (The Asexual Visibility and Education Network). This definition allows an asexual to engage in any type or amount of sexual behavior; their identity only relies on the fact that they are not sexually attracted. On the AVEN forums, gbird143 expands on this by writing, “In theory, a person could even earn their living as a prostitute and still be a perfectly valid asexual” (gbrd143). While it might seem like we have exposed and challenged asexual elitism, I will argue that, in fact, we have only changed its superficial appearance.
Inherent to nearly all conversations about asexuality, on AVEN and in scholarly journals, is the assumption that asexuals either do not want to have sex or will have sex if it is the most convenient option. One example of this is gbird143’s claim that a person is still asexual if they have sex under “extenuating circumstances.” These circumstances are described as possible of being “less than a death threat” and potentially as small as “the path of least resistance which will avoid an argument” (gbird143). This is echoed in Mark Carrigan’s article, “How do you know you don’t like it if you haven’t tried it?”, when he describes asexuals as either sex-averse or sex-neutral. There are only two categories. Carrigan claims that asexuals exist who specifically want to have sex, but the explanation for this is that they have sex for the intimacy it offers (14). In all of these articulations, the asexual who wants to have sex because it feels good is absent.
I am one such asexual person who has struggled with the sex-averse/sex-neutral dichotomy because of the times when I sought out sexual pleasure from another person because it felt good. I refer to the partnered sexual activity I have had as “assisted masturbation” because for me, that was what it was. I had an itch that needed scratching, that required a second person to do it. There was no intimacy in the act, and the person did not have any kind of partner-relationship with me, nor did I want them to. (I have particularly struggled with whether or not “sex averse” describes me, because it only describes me if sex is defined as exclusively related to genitals. The sexual activity I have had did not involve any genital activity, but it was unquestionably sexual activity.)
Talia goes on to argue that much of asexual discourse and visibility efforts neglects to mention the category of asexuals who enjoy sex because it feels good because of the residual asexual elitism in the asexual community. While the asexual community has largely rejected the elitist idea that having sex means a person must be experiencing sexual attraction, the asexual community largely has not taken notice of that it is also elitist to believe that wanting sex because it physically feels good is incompatible with asexual identity. Talia postulates that the reluctance to identify that kind of asexual elitism is grounded in that the asexual community has stigmatized asexual elitism to the point where we are reluctant to critically examine our own beliefs to find out if we are actually being asexual elitists. Talia goes on to conjecture that in addition to the sex-averse and sex-neutral asexuals that Mark Carrigan has defined in his academic papers, there are also sex-favorable asexuals.
While I take the position that the categories of sex-averse, sex-neutral and sex-favorable are still inadequate (I don’t think either category describes me very well, because “sex” to me is not “sex” in most people’s opinions), I agree with the bulk of Talia’s argument that asexual elitism still thrives in the asexual community in the form of conflating sexual attraction and wanting sex and being unwilling to acknowledge the erroneous reasoning in it. Sexual attraction may be one form of wanting sex, but wanting sex for the reason that it physically feels good is not sexual attraction–sexual attraction means that you are attracted to a person, not to an activity. Masturbating because it physically feels good does not imply you are sexually attracted to yourself; why should having sex because it feels good imply that you’re sexually attracted to the other person?
I also agree with Talia’s cautioning us against being too aggressive about challenging this manifestation of asexual elitism. The goal is not to guilt people but to encourage them to be more willing to critically examine their beliefs. Stigmatizing asexual elitism in this form will only serve to make people unwilling to become aware of their own asexual elitisms, in whatever form they will take in the future.