Now that he's raised awareness of his lifestyle, David Jay, founder of AVEN, is working to change mainstream beliefs about sex drives.
David Jay was in middle school when everyone around him grew suddenly obsessed with the same all-consuming impulse. It wasn't sex per se, but it was its nascent beginnings. While his classmates talked non-stop about which movie stars they thought were hot, eyed each other in the hallway, and made their first, awkward attempts at dating, Jay was left feeling distinctly out of the loop.
"I just didn't get it," he recalls. "I didn't have a reference point to understand what they were going through. And that's really terrifying, because everyone assumes that's what should be happening for you. Sexuality is a really big deal for almost everyone, from middle school on. It's a really central part of a lot of people's lives."
But sex was not a central part of David Jay's life: not in middle school, not in high school, and not now. That's because, like approximately one percent of the population, Jay identifies as asexual. Not only that, he is America's best known asexual person, serving as the emergent sexual orientation's attractive, articulate spokesperson on everything from The View, to MTV, to France 24.
Jay launched the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), an online community dedicated to raising awareness of asexuality and providing support to people who identify as asexual, in 2001, when he was 18 and a college freshman. "I had spent the past four years struggling to realize that I was okay, and I didn't want other asexual people to have the realize the same thing," he says. The website soon became a rallying cry: first for hundreds, then thousands, and later tens of thousands of people who felt alienated from the sexual stories and imagery that dominate our culture.
If we stop defining our significant relationships only as those that are romantic or sexual, being single will take on new meaning.
At its most basic, asexuality is defined by an absence of sexual attraction. Some asexual people are in romantic relationships, others aren't. Some are outgoing, others are shy. Some are sexually active for the sake of their partners or social pressure, some have never so much as kissed another person. Some think sex is disgusting, some are indifferent, and some think it's great for other people but have no wish to "go there" themselves.
But what all asexual people have in common -- and what defines asexuality as an orientation -- is that, while they may have a desire to connect with other people, asexuals have no desire to connect with them sexually. Asexual people are not the same as celibate people: it's not that they are purposefully or unintentionally abstaining from sex they would otherwise like to have, but rather that they have no interest in it.
There have always been people who didn't want or seek out sex, and there have long been people who have described themselves (even if only in the recesses of their own minds) as asexual. It's just that before Google came along, they couldn't find each other. David Jay didn't invent asexuality. But his website did arrive right at the critical moment at which a person typing that word into a search engine could stumble upon a relevant community -- rather than, say, an article about the reproductive systems of sea stars.
But although the Internet provided the technology for people to start talking about asexuality, it was not the only -- or even the most important -- condition necessary for that conversation, says Mark Carrigan, a researcher at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. "There had to be something about [asexual people's] experience that led them to want to have those conversations in the first place," he says.
That something is the sense of not just difference, but of defect, that Jay alludes to in his memories of middle and high school. "For a couple of years I just assumed that I was broken," he says.
And that feeling of being broken is more than just a matter of individual neurosis. It is illustrative of how deeply what Carrigan calls "the sexual assumption" is embedded in our society -- "the idea that everyone has sexual attraction, that it's this powerful force inside of you, and that it is experienced the same way by every person," Carrigan explains.
History shows that this was not always the case. Sex has long been considered a matter of great importance in Western culture, from the Ancient Greeks' fixation on moderation, to the asceticism of the early Christians.
But the particular ways in which sex was considered important changed significantly throughout the 20th century, as we stumbled awkwardly from a culture that prized sexual restraint to one that celebrated free expression -- or at least the outward appearance of it. At the same time, the rise of sexology, sexperts, and lifestyle journalism meant that we started talking about sex more than ever before: as a health issue, a relationship issue, and an identity issue. Increasingly, sex was expected to hold our relationships together, boost our self-esteem, and dissolve our discontent.
Says Carrigan: "These assumptions about sex are so ingrained, that if you're sexual you don't notice them. But asexual people do notice them, because their experiences don't fit." And over the past couple of decades especially, people who didn't fit those particular expectations stood out.
In other words, in order to become a point of identification, not being interested in sex had to first be considered a problem -- or at the very least something worth commenting on. Asexuality exists as we know it in part because of the assumption that, unless otherwise stated, everyone is either having regular, passionate sex or seeking it out. It also exists because of the assumption that, if you're not doing that, there is something medically or psychologically wrong with you.
For David Jay, taking that feeling of defect and turning it into a positive identity was a radical act. For others who identify as asexual, it brings a sense of relief. Like Jay, Alyssa, a 19-year-old college student from California, describes feeling "broken and unavailable" as a younger teenager. Identifying as asexual, she says, has "allowed me to feel like I have a place in the grand scheme of things." Jess, a graduate student in the Midwest, had been in romantic relationships before, but had never felt the "butterflies" or the urgent desire she had been told she was supposed to.
But asexual people aren't the only ones who are hurt by the cult of great sexpectations. Think of people for whom sex is painful or difficult, or long term singles who find themselves unintentionally celibate because they opt out of the casual hook-up scene. Nor are the challenges asexuality poses to our culture's unspoken assumptions about sex, relationships, and intimacy relevant only to people who desire neither sexual intercourse nor relationships.
In an interview with The Guardian, Jay suggested that the asexual movement might be moving into a "third phase": from awareness raising and mobilization to expanding mainstream beliefs about what a "normal" sex drive and life looks like. But the disbelieving and derogatory responses that flood in whenever the subject is raised in the media would suggest, they're not quite there yet.
"People, especially sick people, can rationalize away their problems," wrote one commenter on a recent Salon article about asexuality. It was a sentiment that was shared at sex columnist Dan Savage's blog, on which one reader remarked: "The idea of there being NOTHING inside, no juice, no drives at all ... well, to my mind that is the ULTIMATE FREAKINESS, the one eternally unfathomable kink."
In a culture in which sex is believed to be central to who we are, what we care about, and how we relate to other people, a person who doesn't care about sexuality can seem like a non-person. Jay doesn't believe that it is the lack of sex that confuses people, but the perceived absence of all the things we associate with it: intimacy, passion, connection with other people.
"Freud originally defined libido as lust for life, not lust for sex," Jay says. "He talked about libido manifesting in sexual desire, but not exclusively. For a lot of people, sexuality serves as an essential metaphor for that desire to live or desire to connect." As for those who believe that asexual people are lacking in some essential life force? "They clearly haven't hung out with me and my friends," Jay quips.
Perhaps it is that fact that asexuality is, for many, so unfathomable that makes it so potentially powerful. "Asexuality draws attention to the complete fixation we have on sex, and really brings it to the surface for all to see," says Ela Przybylo, a sexual cultures researcher at York University in Canada. "Sex has become so fused with our sense of self that we can't even imagine how it might be any different. This is why asexuality is compelling, because it does imagine how it could be different."
And imagining how it could be different is something that has the potential to benefit us all. If we stop defining our significant relationships only as those that are romantic or sexual, being single will take on a whole new meaning. If we broaden our emotional focus from the person we share bodily fluids with to the sum of our friendships, acquaintances, and colleagues, our communities will grow stronger. If we stop treating penetrative sex as the be all and end all of physical intimacy, we will experience greater heights of pleasure. And if we can accept that although sex can be ecstatic and affirming and fulfilling, it is not all those things to all people all of the time, we will relieve it of some of its cultural baggage.
Ideally, says Przybylo, we would stop thinking of our sexual histories and desires as fixed and absolute, but rather as something more fluid, which can be dialed up or down, redirected entirely depending on how we feel, who we're with, and our inbuilt biological inclinations.
In other words, you might want to have sex five times this week, or you might not want to have sex at all. Your experience of desire might be intensely physical, or it might be indistinguishable from emotional attachment. You might experience next to no attraction for years, and then find yourself consumed with another person. At one point in your life, sex might be the ultimate thrill; at another, it might be boring and routine. And all of it is okay, and none of it marks the essence of who you really are.
"It's not that we talk about sex too much," Jay says. "It's that we celebrate sex in a way that is inauthentic. If we were to have a widespread, accurate discussion of sexuality -- all the things that it means and doesn't mean to people -- that would include a discussion of the fact that sex is not interesting to everyone at some points, and that's okay, and sex is not interesting to some people all the time, and that's okay. Instead, I think what we have is a dialogue that fetishizes and celebrates sexuality, and equates it with the sum of our value and relationships."