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."