IVY: Swankivy DJ: David Jay ZNO: Authority Smashers Host Zeno
[Emma Goldman, anarchist]
I’m delighted to be back in the United States, my hunting ground of thirty-five years, the country where I had my innings in the social and economic struggle, and where I decided to devote myself to the presentation of anarchism, a social philosophy which aids in the emancipation--economic, social, political, and spiritual--of the human race.
ZNO: Hellooo, wage slaves! This is Zeno, and this is the Authority Smashing! Hour, your daily anarchist radio show on the Internet, bringing you radical analysis of news and politics, bringing you news from the front lines of the struggle. And on tonight’s show, the Authority Smashing! Hour will be covering asexuality. And joining me as tonight’s guests are two actual asexuals! David Jay is from the group Asexual Visibility and Education Network, and our second guest is a webmistress extraordinaire and someone I am proud to call my friend, Ivy, AKA swankivy. She’s a writer of novels, short stories, poetry, rants, songs, and essays, as well as an artist of a webcomic. She is also a singer and maker of the Youtube video series The Asexuality Top 10 and Letters To An Asexual. And, welcome to the show guys!
DJ: Thanks for having us on!
IVY: Thanks for having us here!
DJ: And Ivy, I’m so glad we get to finally talk. I feel like we’ve never actually had a conversation, and we get to on this show, I believe. I’m really excited about that.
ZNO: Yeah, I understand you know each other.
IVY: Yeah, we talked actually once, like a long time ago, on the phone.
DJ: Oh, that’s right!
IVY: What was it, 2002 or something?
DJ: Yeah, a long time ago.
IVY: Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s 2010, so probably about eight years ago.
DJ: Yeah. Oh my god, wow.
IVY: Yeah. But, y’know, since we’re Facebook friends, that means we’re real-life friends.
DJ: I think we are real-life friends!
IVY: Yeah. [laughs] There you go! Um…
ZNO: Okay, so I’m going to let you both know that I am sprinkling in some devil’s advocate questions in here, that maybe other people may be wondering about on this subject, and the ins and outs of asexuality, and asexual community, and um… Well, for the first question I guess, to get this out of the way, would be “what does asexual mean, and what does it mean not to be sexual?” ’Kay, I’m going to ask David first?
DJ: Okay. Um, so I would say that an asexual person is someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction. And… it’s different than someone who doesn’t experience any sexuality at all. A lot of asexual people still experience sexual arousal; we just don’t have the desire to act it out in our relationships. So the way that most people, y’know, either the moment you see someone, or when you’re in a close relationship with them, want to jump in bed with them and have sex, we just don’t feel that inclination. But that being said, it’s also a spectrum, so we don’t feel it or we don’t feel it strongly. D’you have anything you want to add to that, Ivy?
IVY: I would say yeah, that’s the primary definition, that pretty much is agreed in the community, that it’s sexual attraction that defines a person as an asexual. There are grey areas, people that say they used to be sexual and became asexual, some people say that they’re usually asexual but occasionally will very rarely experience sexual attraction, and some of them call themselves like grey-A, or sometimes demisexual or something like that. But it gets a little complicated when you’re somewhere in the middle of anything, so if you’re talking about the actual endpoint of the continuum of sexuality, the zero of sexual attraction there is what you’d call an asexual person.
ZNO: Is the definition different from person to person, or is that pretty much the widest part that most people can agree upon?
DJ: I think that’s the widest part and then it varies a lot from person to person. ’Cause it’s not—one of the things I like to say when I’m talking to people that don’t know very much about asexuality is that asexuality is a tool, not a label. So it’s not like it’s a sticker that you put on you that tells you what you are. It’s a tool that you pick up and you use to figure yourself out. And you use it however you want to use it and you use it for as long as it makes sense to use it. And so as different asexual people have used this tool to figure themselves out we’ve come up with really, really different understandings. And there’s a whole world of subcategories of asexual people. These kind of other words that asexual people use to describe the particular nuances of, like, “I’m asexual and I still really experience romantic relationships, but I don’t really like kissing.” Or “I’m asexual and I like touching and kissing, touching and kissing just not sex, but my primary source of intimacy is communities, not relationships with partners.” So it, you know, it varies a lot from person to person.
ZNO: So, should it be regarded as a sexual orientation?
DJ: Ivy, you want to take that one?
IVY: I think so. Some people would say that asexuality is not a sexual orientation because it isn’t an active orientation, kind of like baldness as a hair color or atheism as a religion, but… it is a way of relating to that concept, I suppose. I wouldn’t say that really, asexuality means that you are sexual in any way. I would say that asexuality is a sexual orientation of no, just like some people would say, “Well, what color is your hair?” “I’m bald.” You know, you wouldn’t all be making a statement that you have hair, but you are making a statement about hair. Which, very similarly to asexuality, most people assume you have one. Y’know, so… [laughs] You know, it is a way of framing that dialogue, I suppose.
DJ: Yeah, I would agree, I think—
DJ: Oh, go ahead.
ZNO: I was going to get into, what kind of asexual relationships would exist if—I think you’ve mentioned that there’s quite a difference of parameters of levels of association and contact—like touching and kissing—but what kind of relationships would they break down into?
IVY: I think that it’s kind of nice that we actually have a—David, you’re a romantic asexual, right?
DJ: No, I’m aromantic.
IVY: You’re aromantic? You don’t want to have any romantic relationships?
DJ: I mean, I’m kind of romantic. I’m a little bit romantic. I’m mostly community-based.
IVY: I see. Yeah, actually, if you notice we just had that little exchange there. It’s interesting that for an asexual, we really separate sexuality from romanticism, like for a sexual person romanticism and sexuality would be very linked, they would kind of go hand in hand or that one would flow from the other, but for us it’s a lot more separate when we talk about it, so that some people actually talk about having a romantic drive, or a romantic orientation completely separate from a sexual one.
So, I personally am completely aromantic, and I don’t want any kind of life partner or anything, whereas a lot of people do want some romantic focus in their lives. And they may or may not want to be married, they may or may not want to have any kind of relationship, possibly with more than one person. Families, children… it’s pretty much there are so many ways to be asexual just like there are so many ways to be sexual. It’s really the only thing that we all have in common is that we all don’t have the sexual attraction. Which some people have a hard time processing it, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t compromise to have sex with your partner. Some people do do that if they’re okay with it. But it doesn’t define behavior, it doesn’t define what we have done or would do, it just defines what we are experiencing.
DJ: And if I can add something to the attraction piece that you were just saying, that the relationship piece that you were just saying, one interesting thing I have seen in the asexual community—it isn’t completely true, but it’s somewhat true. One interesting thing I’ve found in the asexuality community is that the word “single” gets used a lot less because people who aren’t in romantic relationships aren’t seen as lacking something in our lives.
DJ: There isn’t a sense that in order for you to have an intimate relationship that counts, you need to be in a romantic relationship with a partner. There’s this sense that intimacy works differently for different people at different times in their lives. And the important thing isn’t to find a romantic relationship with a partner, because that’s not what everyone’s into, the important thing is to find intimacy in whatever terms make sense to you. So kind of like you were saying about the romantic asexuals and aromantic asexuals, I’ve got my own little system for thinking about how asexual people pursue intimacy. There is intimacy with partners, intimacy with self, and intimacy with communities.
Uh, so some asexual people primarily focus on diving deeply into one relationship with one person. And that can either be a romantic relationship or it can be a relationship that looks like a friendship. But it’s really about focusing on that one person and kind of having a really deep, meaningful connection.
Other asexual people focus on their relationship with themselves. And this sounds maybe like egotistical [laughs], but it’s not, it’s more kind of introspective and spiritual. So there’s some asexual people I know who love to travel around the world and they love to experience new things and they love to really take time to reflect and understand themselves and that—their primary relationship, their primary source of intimacy and fulfillment in their life is doing that, even if they’re very social people.
And then finally there’s asexual people like me who are community-based, where instead of focusing on one romantic relationship, we focus on all of the relationships in our lives holistically, and look at, okay, how can I get all of my relationships together to add up to something bigger? And how can I get those people to connect with one another into a community? And we tend to sort of get emotionally fulfilled by building communities, which is cool because then we won’t, um, then have kind of a—it’s a hub of a community that we’re part of, and communities are something the world needs more of.
IVY: Mmm. I like the way you put that together, because I think that there seems to be almost this idea of the monopoly on what is most important to a person has to always be their significant other, and that’s not always true even for traditionally sexual people. So—
IVY: What was that?
ZNO: I guess it’s the idea of the soulmate, that, that, uh…
ZNO: That you’re not whole.
IVY: Yeah, that there’s someone out there for you, that there has to be someone out there for you, and all they can see is when they see a person is, by the traditional definition, quote “single”, is a person who is by definition looking to be otherwise. They have no context for a single person except for a person who is looking and that those two, being unattached romantically and being looking, are completely different things. And that is exacerbated, I think, when you, when you look at asexual people, especially if they’re aromantic. There’s this tendency to assume that we are sad or empty or lacking or have a void in our lives if we’re not experiencing this or we aren’t finding this. They have no other way to understand this except how they personally feel when they don’t have significant others, and that’s what they project that onto us. But it’s not there!
ZNO: A very good argument for a asexuality here is that for self-actualization, that it’s... very, very healthy, and I find that very interesting, and that applies to just about any social relationships among humans, that that’s a very good thing.
DJ: And since this is an anarchist program, I’d also say that I think it’s something we share in common with at least a lot of my anarchist friends. Where the anarchist communities I know have a much, kind of a stronger than normal focus on relationships with community and really reflective of oneself–those are just as important to be paying attention to as finding someone to date.
DJ: If not more important.
IVY: Yeah, and I mean I hope it’s not too much of a digression for me to say so, but I think that part of the reason that a lot of marriages or close relationships fall apart is that thing that we all see where a person becomes obsessed and, just very focused on their significant other. They expect to get all their needs met by this one other person in their lives and then, when they’ve come down from the infatuation, they realize that they’ve either lost all their friends or they have nothing else in their lives, and then they wonder what happened.
IVY: And they need these things too. Everyone probably needs these things to some extent, needs more than just one other person to quote “complete them.” So. [laughs]
ZNO: Yes, and one question I’ve seen that I haven’t really seen a definitive answer on that goes with what we’re also talking about is that, um, how can someone who masturbates not be sexual? And I think the answer to half of this or part of this question but I’d like to ask about masturbation? Is there sexuality in masturbation?
DJ: It’s funny. I do visibility work all the time, and one of the best ways to tell if someone talking to me is asexual or sexual—sexual people always ask about masturbation. Asexual people never ask about masturbation.
IVY: [laughs] Yes.
DJ: Uh. So… sex with yourself is really different than sex with a partner. Sex—the desire to integrate sex into a relationship makes that sex a lot more complicated and a lot more nuanced and a lot more emotionally significant. And it requires that you be sexually attracted to someone. If you… just… if you masturbate, if you’re just sexual with yourself, it’s just kind of a steam valve. That’s releasing.
DJ: Right, it’s unconnected with your life, it’s unconnected with anything else. And, and it’s a very different experience. And that’s how I describe how asexual people, how some asexual people, can masturbate without experiencing sexual attraction or desire to be sexual with a partner.
IVY: Yeah, I would agree with what you’re saying there because I have described it before as if you’re an asexual person who masturbates, you… by and large you’re going to be doing that like “oh, there’s a button there, that feels good when you press it.” You know, it doesn’t have anything to do with sex. Little kids play with themselves as soon as they’re out of diapers a lot of the time. So and is that baby being sexual? Probably not. [laughs]
ZNO: That’s a good point, that’s a good way to look at that. So on a similar line of thinking, where would orgasms fit in? I guess that’s just expression.
IVY: I’m not sure!
DJ: Yeah. I think it’s a similar thing, it’s a bodily function. And it gets into, also, how… Our society takes a lot of stuff—certain kinds of relationships, certain emotions, certain things that happen in your body, certain kinds of power—and draws a bubble around them and calls that sexuality. And assumes that all those things have to do with one another. But they don’t necessarily all have to do with one another, and they don’t necessarily all go together. And you can have, you know, some of the stuff and—for instance, a significant portion of what we categorize as human sexual arousal can happen while someone is playing soccer. Does that mean that soccer is an intrinsically sexual activity? No! It means that certain parts of your body turn on during sex but also turn on during other times. So the barrier between sexuality and non-sexuality is a complicated one. And a really fuzzy one. And especially, when you get into asexual people, it’s kind of hard to look at what’s happening in an asexual person’s body and make assumptions about activity they want to engage in or don’t.
ZNO: And a question I have for both of you is, “why are you both so outspoken on your asexuality? What inspired you?”
IVY: Go for it!
DJ: Ivy, you go first. No, no, you go first.
IVY: Oh, I have to go first? Okay. Well, I’ve been, I guess, um… I have been—this is a hard word to use for me—I almost feel like I’ve been blessed to not be hung up on this, like a lot of people have. Since discovering that there were other asexuals in the world, once I found out that there were other people described their experiences the same as I did, I found that I was one of the very few people who I knew who had always been okay with it. Like, I had never felt “Oh my god, what’s wrong with me? Gee, am I gay?” I never went through any of those doubting myself, or maybe worrying I wasn’t normal or trying to fit in or anything like that, like so many people did. But when I discovered that there were so many people who basically had their lives very close to ruined by this misconception that all people must be sexual, or else they’re not normal or they’re sick, um. I felt like, well, I need to be somebody who states this in a positive way, who is self-confident, who has a way of putting things into words—because I like to write in other contexts, and I usually do a pretty decent job rendering my ideas into language that other people can process.
So I wanted to explain to people, “Hey. I feel this way, and then I wrote an essay about it, a pretty big, gigantic essay, in I guess it was 1998? it went onto the Internet and I got so much email from other people who said, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m not the only one!” And that kind of inspired me to think there must be so many people out there who are being told by their parents, their coworkers, their friends that they’re not normal, there’s something wrong with them, they need to get themselves fixed, and they have nobody who says, “Well, actually, you’re probably fine, unless you have other, like, either medical problems that go along with lack of sexual arousal or lack of sexual interest, or you have some other psychological issue. This by itself does not need to be medicalized, this is not a sign that you are sick or in need of therapy. So, um, y’know… I felt like it was important to me to be able to reach those people so that they could have a reference point to talk back to the people who were telling them, “you’re not qualified to describe your own feelings.” So. They are. They are qualified. And I wanted to tell them that. So that’s why I bother with this much outreach and make Youtube videos talking about not-sex on the Internet.
DJ: Yeah, I have a similar thing. I wasn’t lucky enough to always be okay with it. I really struggled when I was younger to come to terms with the fact that I was asexual. Even though I grew up in a really accepting environment where gay people were out and celebrated and all that, I got a lot of messages telling me that I needed sex to be happy, and that not wanting sex was beyond not being okay, just not a possibility. And I put together this website called asexuality.org really as a way to reach out to other asexual people and try to find people to talk to. And try to build a space where we could figure ourselves out. Because the whole—I mean, all my sexual friends were getting together to figure out how to do relationships, getting to figure out how relate to their bodies, getting to figure out their emotions and how to connect with people. And I just didn’t have a way to do that. And I really wanted a place to do that. And, I kind of… this public advocacy is because I really want to create that discussion. I want to create it for asexual people, but I also want to create it for everyone else. Because I think that the fact that asexuality isn’t talked about reinforces some assumptions that hurt everybody.
IVY: Yes. [clears throat] Yeah, I like that you said that about it’s not just for the asexuals out there. Because that is true, and part of the reason I wanted to have my messages out there as well is not just so that the asexuals would know what to say and that they’re not alone, but also so that there would be this dialogue, so that they would understand how to relate to their asexual friends and family and they would understand. Instead of reacting with “oh, what? No, impossible! We need to get you into therapy,” they would react to it with more of a response of “Oh, I’ve heard of that,” maybe ask some questions, more respectful kinds of questions, rather than from the standpoint that they have to convince this other person that they’re not okay. So yeah, that’s very important.
ZNO: I would like to ask David more about the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. For instance, what are the social and political goals of the asexual community?
DJ: Uh. Well, I can speak for AVEN, I don’t know if I can speak for the asexual community as a whole. But AVEN has two goals: to create open, honest, public dialogue about asexuality, and to create a safe space for asexual people to explore themselves. And it’s interesting that… so the LGBT community’s big buzzword is pride, right? That’s a community which has been told for a long time that they should be ashamed of how they are, so they counter shame with pride. And in the asexual community, that same word is visibility. We’re not a community which has been told to be ashamed of ourselves, we’re a community that has been told that we’re invisible. And we’re trying to kind of speak up and be seen and be discussed in the world.
And I think it’s a little bit telling, too, that the social agenda we want to create, which… that I personally want to push, my own personal asexual politics, that in the face of sexuality, non-sexual things tend to get ignored. So, if you have a… if you meet up with someone, and you hit it off with them, and you go back to your room and you have a really deep conversation where you evaluate each other’s lives and you figure out things you never understood about one another before, and both your lives are off in a better direction because of that, and you go out of the room in the morning, your friends are going to be like “Did you hook up? What happened?” And… there’s a focus on sexuality. Kind of to the exclusion of nonsexuality, which I think has people miss some of the important stuff in life. And it’s not that sex is bad, I think sex is great! But it should be celebrated along with all the other nonsexual things that make human connection work.
ZNO: Absolutely! And that kind of led into my next question, which was “How are asexuals marginalized in this society?”
DJ: Do you want to take a shot at this one first, Ivy?
IVY: Oh, yeah. Oh, absolutely. I actually have a lot to say about that, because I can bounce off what David just said regarding visibility. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you put it in those terms but it makes perfect sense, because one of the questions that I actually get a lot is—well, I guess both of us have gotten this a lot—explicitly, “why are we talking about this,” because if you’re not having sex, then why do you need to talk about not having sex? What’s the big deal? I think that the problem is you are marginalized when you’re told you don’t exist. I mean… that’s the definition of oppression, basically. In some ways, it is just because you’re not getting beat up over it, like you hear about gay-bashing and all that stuff, no one is probably going to beat you up in the parking lot because you’re asexual. Unless they’re maybe a homophobe and they misread that as being gay.
But there are other ways of being oppressed in this world besides being killed and having violence against you because of it. There are a lot of people in the world who feel like, when they’re repeatedly told by the people who are supposed to love them most and understand them most, told, out of supposed ‘concern’ for their wellbeing, that they cannot be this way, that they cannot feel this way. Or else they must be sick. There is no third option here. So when you’re repeatedly told by the people that you trust that you don’t or can’t feel the way that you do, it starts to really make you feel invisible to yourself. And there are few ways to make a person feel less confident than to tell them that they can’t trust their feelings or that they are betraying themselves or are destroying their own possibility for happiness. When in actuality, a lot of the time the only issue that a lot of asexuals have about being asexual is that fact that other people don’t believe them.
ZNO: Yeah. It is often dismissed like it’s a phase. How do you respond to such dismissal?
DJ: And I think… It’s interesting why that happens. There are people that really, really like chocolate. Right. There are people that would say they couldn’t live without chocolate. But if you tell that person that someone else doesn’t like chocolate, they don’t, like, question that person’s humanity.
DJ: Seriously. And I think that it speaks to what sex represents in our culture. That—I think that there’s this idea that unless you have sex with people, unless you’re in a sexual relationship, you can’t really fully emotionally connect with another person. And… if I tell someone that I can’t eat chocolate, then—that I don’t like chocolate, they’ll be like “Whoa, you’re missing out! Chocolate’s great! But there’s other tasty foods out there, so I guess you’re okay.” But if I tell someone I can’t fundamentally connect with another person, then I get the kind of response that asexuality gets. Someone would say, “No, that’s impossible. You have to be able to fundamentally connect with another person. If you can’t connect with other people you’re not fully human, you’re missing out part of life, and I don’t understand how that’s possible.” And so I think that to me the reaction that asexual people get is really about this very strong link between sexuality and intimacy. And part of what is most powerful about the asexual community is all of the ways we’re exploring intimacy outside of that link.
ZNO: And I mean, that makes sense! These things aren’t inherently sexual. Can’t reach it out, it just really illustrates some of the misguided and oversexualised focus we put on things that just don’t need it.
ZNO: I was just wondering, too, it’s like David was, how receptive has the mainstream media been to your message?
DJ: Uh… they’ve actually been… they did pretty great. Not because they’re always respectful, but because they’re very easy to manipulate. If there’s one thing about mainstream media it’s that you can manipulate them without a lot of difficulty. So… what tends to happen is that they—the mainstream media approaches asexuality and tries to sensationalize us. And almost tries to attack us. Whenever I’ve been on shows in the mainstream media, they’ll usually drag out someone that attacks asexual people, and kind of says we’re not human, and that we have a problem.
ZNO: Very similar to the attacks on atheists.
IVY: Yes, it is.
DJ: Yeah. But the good thing is that those attacks are so predictable that it’s easy for us to counter them. It’s easy for us to have a sound bite at the ready and be like, “Oh, you say that we’re not… we’re problematic for this way, but we’re just another aspect of human sexual diversity. Look at all these asexual people and they’re happy and in happy relationships, and what’s your basis for saying that we fundamentally have a problem? Y’know, that our lives are fundamentally harder than sexual peoples’ lives, when sexual peoples’ lives are laborious and difficult, too.
DJ: And so the result of that has been that we’ve gotten a fair amount of press and most of that press has wound up been positive, at least we’ve known how to spin it positively.
IVY: Yeah. I like what you said about predictability. [laughs]
ZNO: Do you guys have any plans for countering the portrayals of sexualnormativity with any campaigns or further outreach or…?
DJ: We do a couple of things. We have a media team that passively responds to media requests. When reporters get in touch with us, we send them someone who’s been trained to speak to the press. And that helps to make sure that the stories get spun the way that we want them to get spun. We don’t proactively go out and earn press right now. We’re not like doing actions and getting stories because that’s… A, we’re not organized enough yet, and B, we’re getting enough media interest coming our way that we don’t need to proactively reach out for it. We’re also really engaging the sex-positive community and the LGBT community, because that’s where a lot of the mechanisms of sex education are thriving and it’s also where a lot of people are… a lot of the most advanced and complicated discussion and thought leadership about sexuality are taking place. So if we can engage those people and get them to really integrate asexuality into what sex positivism means and what queer politics means, then that’ll trickle out into a broader public discussion what of those things mean in a really positive way.
ZNO: Okay, you were saying, Ivy? I’m sorry.
ZNO: I, uh, interrupted you. What were you going to say? Were you going to add on to that, or…?
IVY: No, I just made a comment that I thought it was amusing that David said that the mainstream media is easy to manipulate. But that is true, because… Actually, you mentioned when you were introducing me that I have this Youtube series called The Asexuality Top Ten. I can ping those ten things people are always going to pull out of their pocket to throw at me. They may have three or four things to say. They think this is possibly an idea I’ve never heard before, something revolutionary I’ve never considered about my sexuality! And, you know, I have the answer right there because I’ve been asked about it sixty times! So… you know exactly what circles their brains are turning in when they’re asking you these questions. And what really seems to drive them crazy is when they throw a few of ’em at me, you pull out a few more. “Aren’t you going to ask me if I’m really a lesbian? Aren’t you going to ask me if I just got out of a terrible relationship?”
IVY: And, you know, where’s the question about whether I’ve ever gotten my hormones checked, or whether I’m a man-hater? I mean, they’re all things you’ll get around to asking me sooner or later! I mean, you don’t want to attack them back. You just want to be ready for these questions. And it’s also true that the sex-positive community, as David was saying—LGBT and the sex-positive community—they seem a little more educated about sexuality in general and a little more open-minded even though, of course, they are on the sexual side of it. And it’s really refreshing to talk to someone who has a little more knowledge about the whole community and all the studies that are out there. Because, to have an unrelated but sort of similar digression here, if you talk to someone who really knows a lot about world religion, they may have a religion picked out, but they will understand freedom of religion including the freedom to have none. And so if you talk to someone who knows a lot about sexuality, they usually will be at least somewhat more open than the general population to the possibility that sexuality is not necessarily a necessary ingredient of the human condition.
ZNO: Well, what do you guys think of the accepted notion of all human beings being sexual beings?
IVY: Um… I think—thumbs down! It’s not necessarily true, I don’t think. Who made that?
DJ: Yeah, I agree. I think it depends on how you define sexuality, really. I would say that if… I’d say that it’s not a helpful statement. I know people who are sex positive who are like “When I wake up in the morning, and I make my scrambled eggs with feta cheese and basil, there is sexuality in each scent that I smell from it.” But… sexuality is in every feeling that they feel in their life, because it’s such an all-encompassing thing for them. And that’s great; they’ve defined sexuality where it’s in everything. From their world—from that definition, if everything you do and feel involves sexuality, then I as an asexual person do and feel things that involve sexuality. But it’s not a practical definition. I would say that the way that our society draws a bubble that says that some things are sexual and other things are nonsexual. And there’s a big difference between those two categories. And that definition matters, right? It matters a lot whether a relationship is sexual or nonsexual. It matters a lot whether touch is sexual or nonsexual. And I think that using that bubble as the definition, not all humans like to go in that bubble.
ZNO: Of course.
IVY: Well then.
ZNO: And you did mention before, David, that you were involved in radical queer communities, back when you started the asexual community. And one thing that I don’t know if I’ve seen this in some of the pride marches and things, but is there this model of asexuality, even in the mainstream LGBTQ community and in the movement?
DJ: Is there acknowledgement?
ZNO: I mean, is there acknowledgement, has that been accepted well?
DJ: Ah. There is… beginning to be. There’s a little bit of an acknowledgement. We’re just beginning to get to the point where some organizers or organizations are beginning to include asexuality in things that they do, or acknowledging that we exist. But the area of LGBT movement that’s really leading the charge there is campus organizations, I’ve found. The student groups are more eager and more willing to talk about asexuality and include us and… you know. And teach each other… [unintelligible]
ZNO: Oh, sorry.
DJ: The other large organizations coming out. And the other large group that’s really willing to engage us is the trans community. Because there’s a lot of overlap between the asexual community and the trans community. And also because as kind of a more marginalized aspect of the LGBT community, they’re more eager to kind of ally with us.
ZNO: And people who are LGBT can exist within the definition of asexuals, if that’s how they see their lives, right?
DJ: Mmhm. Yeah.
ZNO: I wasn’t sure how that’s accepted. I had seen some things where the asexuals are kind of getting the back-of-the-bus treatment in some marches and some places where individual activists are concerned, I think maybe some are taken aback at the notion of asexualism being part of the spectrum of sexuality.
DJ: We have had a lot of that pushback, yeah.
IVY: It’s still very much … because a gay person is a sexual person, it’s still just as surprising to a lot of them, although they can sometimes sympathize more with us for being misunderstood or maybe marginalized by family, friends, society, whatever. So even if they can relate to that kind of experience, they don’t necessarily relate to the concept of asexuality any better than any other sexual person would. You find when you talk about asexuality, one of the things people do ask you frequently is “Well, are you sure you’re not just gay?” People are so much more willing to understand and accept the idea of being gay—the idea of it, even if they’re not accepting of the person or the concept or think it’s right, they can at least understand it a little easier.
ZNO: That’s ironic.
IVY: That’s probably at least part of the reason we have similar problems, even if just from a distance you would think we wouldn’t.
ZNO: Yeah, I just don’t get what the response back and this antagonism towards asexuality. It’s interesting that we’ve gone to this point of I guess you could call it progress where homosexuality is accepted but somehow asexual is abnormal or something.
IVY: Well, it’s a very different concept, though. It really is. It is outside the realm of sexuality in people’s minds. It is still very hard for people to imagine, even though people can imagine a homosexual, they can imagine being bi, or even—I think that’s probably as David was saying why lot of the transsexual people have alliances with us. Not only are some people who are trans and feel asexual when they feel that they’re in the wrong body. That’s where some of the overlap comes from. But there are people who’ve always been—there’s cisgender where they think of themselves as female because they were born as female and they can’t imagine having a female body but a male brain. It’s very difficult to get that across to people if you’re a trans person. Trying to explain to someone, “it’s not that I just want to be a boy, it’s that I am a boy, but I have the wrong body.” Something like that. It’s a foreign sensation to process for people who don’t feel that way, unless they’ve done some reading or are more sympathetic or open-minded. And it’s similar for asexuals, I think.
DJ: Yeah. And I think we bump up against fundamentally different assumptions in the world. Gay people bump up against the assumption that sexuality only exists and is only valid when… well, both sexuality and romance are only valid when they happen across genders. That there’s something about men and women meshing together that’s fundamental to the way that romance works.
IVY: What about the babies?
DJ: Right, you know. [laughs]
IVY: Don’t you want to have babies?
DJ: And trans people bump up against the assumption that the body that the doctor sees when you are born tells what gender you are. And that there are two genders and you have to be one of them and that determines a bunch of set things about your life. And the trans community bumps up against that assumption. And the asexual community bumps up against the assumption that relationships that involve sex are fundamentally different and more powerful in many ways to relationships that don’t involve sex. So being part of—having the experience struggling with one of those assumptions doesn’t necessarily give you insight into questioning any of the other ones, but it does give you some compassion for people who are going through that struggle.
ZNO: Well, on that thinking, what major insight drives you to think that asexuals in general can offer the general radical and social movements?
IVY: What insights?
IVY: Hm. I don’t know if I’m going in the right direction here, myself. I don’t have a lot of experience with engaging radical dialogue here, but I would say that it is a really major challenge to assumptions when you say what you’ve always taken to be the definition for, like I said, the major ingredients in the basic human condition—when you say that’s not true, it really blows people’s minds sometimes. And that’s probably part of the reason that we get this combative attitude, because they actually feel like they personally are being attacked. Or like you hear in a lot of fundamentalist religious communities, people feel like if they gay people get to get married it’s somehow attacking them, even though you can see that it’s not changing anything about them. They do feel that their whole worldview is being challenged and they really don’t like that.
And I’m not sure why it’s such a huge, difficult step or a big challenge to their existence to imagine that there are people who are happy without sex. It may be partially that they’ve always been told that there’s this assumption about humans that they are all sexual and therefore even if they might have instilled guilt about things that they do motivated by sex, they’re a little placated by this idea that everyone feels this way. When they meet someone who doesn’t, all of a sudden there’s this resistance to that idea. So I think understanding that that might happen in some people’s minds, and they’re not necessarily attacking you, they’re attacking the idea that you might be attacking them! So you don’t think you’re attacking them when you’re trying to get them to accept your personal understanding of the world, but I think it does help to deal with some of these difficult people if you understand that might be what’s going through their head.
ZNO: And what about you, David?
DJ: I would say that taken to the logical extreme, if you take them a couple steps further, a lot of what the asexual community is saying about intimacy has some really interesting radical implications that are worth diving into. For instance, we were talking earlier about intimacy, and how intimacy isn’t just something that exists in a romantic relationship. It’s something that exists with yourself, it’s something that exists with communities. And taking this broader, more holistic look at what intimacy means and what kinds of intimate relationships matter can have really radical implications.
I’ll give you an example. So, one of the fundamental building blocks of capitalist society is private property. If I can’t tell the difference between my private property and your private property, then we can’t exchange that property in a marketplace, and everything goes crazy. So—because of that, it’s really important from a legal standpoint that there be clear delineations between one person’s property and another person’s property. And there are really two major exceptions to this in our society, two times when people are allowed to share property broadly. The first exception is marriage. When people have a sexual romantic relationship and they deeply love one another and there’s a lot of intimacy, you’re legally allowed to blend that line, and two people’s private property basically becomes a single unit. And the second example of when you can share private property is a corporation. So if you and someone else want to engage in a professional relationship where you are making money together and creating profit, then you can pool your private property and it becomes this external being with its own logic called a corporation that does something. Right?
And if you start doing intimacy differently, if you start saying “I’m not just going to look at intimacy as something that happens in a marriage but I’m going to start looking at it as something in my community or something that happens in broader, more complicated contexts,” then you get these situations where people are sharing and pooling their resources but doing so not just in little contained pairs but in bigger groups. And you begin to get communities and groups of people that are pooling resources in a way that’s based on love and intimacy but there’s enough people involved and there’s resources involved that it begins to take on the scale and scope of a corporation. That’s a really really powerful thing. And that’s not an idea unique to the asexual community, right? That’s happening in work-owned co-ops, that’s happening in anarchist communes all over the place, that example is happening in economic contexts everywhere. The dialogue that the asexual community is having about what intimacy looks like in nonsexual relationships and what intimacy looks like in communities can add something really important to those kinds of radical projects that are about a lot of people sharing property and blurring those lines of private property in a radical way.
ZNO: That is a great way of looking at it. That is a great point. And another thing I wanted to bring up, too, which is a little more academic I guess—this gets back to the idea of medicalizing everything. There’s those dismissive claims that asexuality is a pathological sexual dysfunction, et cetera, and for instance, how has the field of psychology and the DSM handled asexuality?
DJ: Ooh. We just took them on. We used to be a disorder, and now we’re a little bit less disorder. There was a disorder called Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, HSDD. And that basically said you were pathological if you met three conditions. The first condition was that you didn’t like sex enough. And that was really based on your therapist’s arbitrary personal definition of liking sex enough. The second thing was that it caused personal or partner distress. So if I don’t like sex, and I’m freaking out about it, then I’ve got the disorder. Or if I don’t like sex and I’m totally cool with it, but my partner’s freaked out about it, I have a disorder. And that created a lot of problems especially from a feminist standpoint, because one of the largest populations that got diagnosed was women whose male partners wanted more sex. And then the third condition was that it was not described by any other conditions, so for instance if I don’t like sex but I’m also anorexic, they’d be treating the anorexia, not the HSDD. And that’s changed a little bit.
It’s changed in two fundamental ways for the latest—looks like the latest edition of the DSM. The first way it’s changed is that that partner section got taken out, thank God. So, if I don’t like sex and my partner’s freaked out about it, that’s my partner’s problem, not my problem. Second of all, from a psychological standpoint, they kind of created a little bubble. And they said that people who experience lifelong generalized disinterest in sex are different from everyone else. So there’s some people who like sex, they love sex, up until last week. And all of a sudden it stopped. Or they like sex except for one particular kind of sex they don’t like, which their partner likes. And they’re wondering, “I like sex! I love sex! What is it about this one particular activity that doesn’t do it for me?” and they want to talk to their psychologist about that. That’s different from asexuality. So generalized disinterest means that you don’t like any sex at all. Lifelong means that you’ve always been that way. So they basically took people who fall under that definition, which are largely asexual people, and they kind of put us aside and said “those people need to be treated differently. Those people are a little bit more like a sexual orientation and less like a mental disorder.”
IVY: It’s not specific in there, it does not specify asexuality, but it does sort of give a nod to it and it does give an opening to get out of being diagnosed with something that’s pathological.
DJ: Yeah, exactly.
IVY: Yeah, I studied that when I was a psychology minor in college, and when that came up they introduced the concept of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder and I drew this little pink cartoon of myself with pigtails in the margin with a talk bubble saying “Since when is this a problem?” [laughs]
IVY: Very predictive of later events, I would say.
ZNO: Well, you know, another thing that relationships—a lot of this is social construct disagreements. Of how we see sexuality and everything, and that has nothing really to do with being normality or health actually of the person that’s actually experiencing these things. It’s just making pathologies where there are none.
ZNO: Is there—we have three minutes left, and is there anything else you guys want to add on the subject?
DJ: Uh—go ahead—Ivy.
IVY: What’s that?
DJ: I said, you go.
IVY: Me? I actually have one thing to add, regarding that last thing that you said, which was what you said about social. It’s largely a social construct that dictates how people are supposed to be thinking about sex. I think that part of what is happening with us being path, pathologized—whatever you want to call it. There’s a lot of sex positivity these days that maybe didn’t exist before the Sixties. There’s like, especially among feminists, there’s this taking back of… you’re not a perv just ’cause you like sex, because it used to be that women, they weren’t supposed to like sex, or if they did they weren’t supposed to talk about it. And now they’re allowed to celebrate sex, and it’s a wonderful thing.
But now a lot of—especially since women are so heavily represented in the asexual community—women are looked at as “you’re repressed, you’re a prude, something’s wrong with you, why don’t you love sex like everybody else?” And David was saying they often trot out someone to say we might have this disorder, we might have a medical problem whenever there’s a show where we get to represent asexuality. What I’ve noticed this is a lot of times a sex therapist or someone who is kind of trained to think that this is part of how you have to experience happiness. And unfortunately, there is never this questioning of… I like to eat three Popsicles a day. And I eat two chocolate Popsicles and one orange Creamsicle pretty much every day, and nobody ever says to me, “You know, that’s kind of unhealthy. Are you sure that that’s really a good idea?” You know, my health is very rarely called into question. But all of a sudden, as soon as I say something about not wanting sex, total strangers are very concerned about my health.
ZNO: And what about you, David?
DJ: I would agree with her. I think I’m more in the kind of position that asexuality—
ZNO: We have sixty seconds to go.
DJ: I would agree. I think I’ve been lucky in that I live in environments where I can tap into some respect for human sexual diversity and people are less likely to attack me. But I would agree with what Ivy just said.
ZNO: All right. Well, this has been the Authority Smashing Hour, and this has been Zeno, I was--had been joined by David Jay and Ivy, and I’d like to thank you guys for joining us, and.. thank you.
DJ: Thanks so much for having us!
IVY: It’s been a pleasure!