The asexual community has been around for a little more than a decade. For a long time, the asexual community has been outreaching to the public, wanting to explain the asexual experience. They called it “the fourth sexual orientation”.
But is asexuality really a sexual orientation? In order to address this important question, there are two terms that need extra clarifying: “sexual orientation” and “asexuality”.
1. Sexual Orientation
The common usage of the term “sexual orientation” asks us one question: people of which biological sex do you find sexually attractive? Categories of sexual orientation are divided according to one’s answer. For example, if my answer to this question is “people of the female sex”, I would be categorized as Lesbian.
This division isn’t as innocent as it seems. The term “sexual orientation” does not relate solely to sexual attraction, but has gone to accommodate many assumptions on behavior and intent. In order to fully understand the common usage of the term “sexual orientation”, we need to examine what people assume when they categorize the world through orientations:
1. The first and most important sexual identity
Assumingly, if you’ve figured out people of which biological sex you’re sexually attracted to, your job of understanding your sexuality is done.
The obvious question to follow is of the content of on’es sexual activities. Is the sexuality of a gay man who is into BDSM more similar to another gay man or to another BDSM person? Where should we draw the lines of identification – by subject of attraction, by desired activity, by desired frequency? What differs one sexuality from another? Which difference is more important?
2. Desired sexual activity
It is expected from people of same sexual orientation to desire similar sexual activities.
For example, discussions about homosexuality tend to concentrate on anal sex. You’ll be given options, of course – active, passive or versatile – but non-penetrative sex is hardly ever brought up as an option for gay men. And if a gay man is to admit not liking anal sex altogether, not as active and not as passive, he might be perceived as a “broken homo”, even if in fact he finds other homoerotic activities appealing.
3. Sexual essentialism
Or in other words: “I was born this way…”.
Many would agree that we don’t have much control over our sexual desires. However, common discourse jumps to the conclusion that the only explanation for our uncontrollable sexual desires is that our sexuality is unambiguous, everlasting and never-changing. An essential and permanent part of our humanity.
A gay man will always be attracted to men, end of story. But what if that guy would happen to find throughout life one single woman sexually attractive? What does that mean? Is he bisexual? But he doesn’t find women attractive, he finds this one woman attractive. And what about someone who found mostly women attractive in an early age, but in an older age is almost exclusively attracted to men? Was he always gay in denial?
Truth be told, common discourse, using sexual orientations, doesn’t allow these sorts of shifts in human sexuality. Common discourse puts an emphasis on the most recent and decisive answer to the leading question – people of which biological sex do you find sexually attractive?
4. The main factor in significant relationships
Though sexual orientation asks about sexual attraction, there is a misconception that we are to be emotionally attracted to the exact group of people we find sexually attractive. Which means – if I find men sexually attractive, I’m obviously also interested in an intimate and romantic relationship with a man.
Those of you from the asexual community reading this probably know that sexuality and romance don’t always go hand in hand… But for those of you who are unfamiliar with the asexual discourse, a full explanation will follow in the asexual identity section.
You can see that this discourse is very limiting. Think about it – the sexual identity that is perceived most important in one’s life (that is supposed to affect not only his sexual relationships but all of his most intimate and meaningful relationships) is set by an answer to a single question – people of which biological sex do you find sexually attractive?
2. The Asexual identity
Throughout the past decade, the asexual community has tried to define asexuality. This is a long and complicated discussion. Identities tend to set clear boundaries, and the asexual community has always striven to be open minded and accepting. But we still needed a main idea to gather around, a title to help explain our experience. AVEN has defined asexuality as a lack of sexual attraction, which I feel is the most common and accepted description for what unites the asexual experience.
But if I look at the discussions held in the community (at least in the Israeli community – I must admit I hardly read in English speaking forums), I find three main areas of similarity in how different people describe the asexual experience:
1. The low part of the sexual spectrum
If we were to draw a scale of sexual attraction, asexuality would be the lower part of it. It’s not an “off” button to sexuality, but a range of lower-than-normative amount of attraction.
2. Asexual essentialism
Such as categories of sexual orientation, asexuals usually claim a feeling of essentialism – we’ve always been asexual and probably always will be. It’s a part of who we are.
3. Romantic spectrum
The issue of intimate relationships has been on the asexual agenda from day one. Asexuals are struggling with questions like – how can I create intimate relationships without sex? What would these relationships look like? What is intimacy and how do I mindfully create it?
In order to talk about meaningful relationships, the asexual community came up with the romantic spectrum, which is similar to the sexual orientation spectrum. Instead of asking ourselves to whom we are sexually attracted, romantic orientations ask us to whom we are romantically attracted. This means that every identity on the sexual spectrum has its twin on the romantic spectrum – hetero-romantic, homo-romantic, bi-romantic, a-romantic and so on.
The asexual orientation?
After examining what people mean by the term “sexual orientation” and examining the asexual identity, I want to address the question that we started with – is asexuality a sexual orientation?
Let’s look at the points of similarity and difference:
(V) People of which biological sex do you find sexually attractive?
The first similarity is the leading question of sexual orientations. Asexuality gives an answer to that question – we don’t find people of any biological sex sexually attractive.
(V) A/sexual essentialism
A second similarity is that asexuality as well as categories of sexual orientation is experienced as an essential part of a person’s identity, a part that has been there all along and isn’t likely to change.
Though, unlike common discourse about sexual orientation, the asexual community is less protective of the asexual label than what I’ve experienced from groups of different sexual orientations. The asexual identity is prone to that thought thanks to the spectrum of sexualities that fit under the asexual umbrella. Sexuality can shift and change and from my experience, many people fear that because they are afraid of losing their identity. The asexual community really gives people the opportunity to identify as asexual as long as they identify with the community, without forcing people into tiny boxes of sufficient answers.
(V/X) The effect of sexual identities over meaningful relationships
This is a tricky point to address, because it has some similarities between asexuality and sexual orientation, and some differences. Both categories, of sexual orientation and asexuality have an effect over meaningful relationships. However, the nature of that effect is very different: Your sexual orientation sets boundaries of potential mates for intimate relationships. Asexuality, on the other hand, says nothing about the people to potentially create meaningful relationships with. The effect asexuality may have is over the nature of those relationships.
Furthermore, the asexual discourse opens possibilities for intimate sex-less relationships for sexual people as well. By separating sexual attraction from romantic attraction, the asexual discussion allows these identities not to necessarily overlap. Some people identify with mismatching romantic and sexual orientation. For example – a man who finds men sexually attractive but wishes to form romantic relationships with women: a homosexual hetero-romantic. So the asexual discourse is actually starting to dissemble the immense power sexual orientation currently holds over our meaningful relationships, giving people the opportunity to identify their desires of intimacy regardless to their sexual desires.
(X) Desired sexual activity
The first real difference I find between sexual orientation and asexuality is the effect over our presumably desirable sexual activities. As I claimed before, identifying under a certain category of sexual orientation is expected to result in certain sexual behaviors. However, identifying as asexual says close to nothing about your sexual behavior. Some asexuals would prefer not to be sexual at all, some enjoy certain sexual activities, and others enjoy sex occasionally. Asexuality sets no boundaries to your preferred sexual activity, but supplies questions for self research that help people who experience less sexual attraction to understand what they want in terms of sexuality. The asexual identity’s emphasis is solemnly on the amount of sexual attraction, and not at all on the activities of which that attraction results in.
(X) Questions asked
The main difference that in my opinion everything revolves around is this. Sexual orientation asks us a single question – “people of which biological sex do you find sexually attractive?”. Asexuality, on the other hand, asks us a variety of questions concerning relationships, sexuality and romance. In the asexual community, we’re not satisfied with asking “who do you want to be sexual with?”, we also ask – “how much do you want to be sexual?”, “which sexual activities do you desire”, “which do you not?”, “with whom do you desire intimacy?”, “what would your intimate relationships look like?”, and so on.
This variety of questions allows people to give many different answers without losing their asexual identity. The asexual community focuses much more on the questions you ask yourself than on the answers you give.
In conclusion, as long as we use the term “sexual orientation” as part of our vocabulary, I have no doubt that asexuality is one of the categories that should be offered. However, I suggest to more critically examine a term we so obviously use and refer to as the basic element of human sexuality. I suggest examining human sexuality through a variety of questions rather than a single answer.