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July 20, 2011 / missmarymax

Automatic Enlightment: The Myth of Asexuality as Transcendence

Man Levitating In Front of Amelie Poster
Man Levitating in Front of Amelie Poster


I’m going to crawl out on a limb here and say those of us who write about a/sexuality hear certain questions more frequently than the general populace. This one, for instance:

So, do you think asexual people are more evolved/ enlightened/ mature/ smart/ rational/ ___ than sexual people?

Like most topics related to asexuality, this question is underresearched, so I can’t offer any hard numbers on how often it’s asked. Nor can I estimate the percentage of people who — recognizing that ace folk aren’t less-than the general human population — decide they’re somehow More. But I can outline the logic I’ve seen so many members of the “yes, totally!” camp employ.

The general thesis:

Asexual people gain a significant amount of time and energy by not wasting time on sexual pursuits. Thus, even if they aren’t fundamentally purer, better people than the rest of us, they flat-out have better odds of becoming so, because of all that time and energy they don’t expend getting laid.

Now, you might think any person/ population would be stoked to be considered more-than, in which case, it will probably surprise you to hear how many ace people busily and consistently debunk this claim. When the topic crops up in ace communities, which it seems to do pretty regularly, responses vary. Still, they tend to fall more toward the headshake than the hellzyeah. Most of the people who ask me this question haven’t had the pleasure of hearing ace folk respond, so allow me to reiterate a few foundational points from Camp “Not So Much.”

Point one: Asexuality is an orientation. Thus, like homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, or heterosexuality, it describes a wide variety of people with a wide variety of personalities. Although fledgling research may one day suggest other statistically significant commonalities (say, for cat-love or Dr. Who or tweed), currently, the only consistent common ground among ace people is their aceness. Linked solely by sexuality — one complex piece of our still-more-complex identities — ace folk are no more consistently smart/ wise/ productive/ etc than any other sexual group.

They also aren’t necessarily free from sexuality’s “burdens.” While I love positive conceptions of queer identities, asexuality included, I think it’s tricky territory to say that asexual people are lucky. It reminds me of that cringeworthy straight-privilege moment: “I’m so sick of all this boy drama! I’m just going to become a lesbian!” In both cases, there’s very little critical thought expended toward the specific challenges of that experience. Individual asexuals may express sentiments along the lines of, “Egads, I’m glad I don’t have to deal with all of that” on occasion, — but that doesn’t automatically translate to feeling more evolved than their sexual counterparts.

What’s more — even those asexual people who don’t have sex or don’t have any interest in sex,  can frankly waste time with the best of ’em. Like sexual folk, ace kids surf the Internet, watch TV, and play video games. In short, any “extra time” they gain avoiding the boinkosphere does not automatically translate to curing cancer, scaling Everest, or levitating atop a hillside. Additionally, the ace community includes people (romantic asexuals, demisexuals, and gray-as for example) who do feel romantic attraction, people who do pursue capital-R Relationships, and people (even aromantic people) who expend quite a bit of energy thinking about intimacy and how to manage it. Some ace people think quite a bit about sex, intellectually or even in a context of desire. But even among those who do not, the lack of these questions does not automatically mean the lack of questions, full-stop.

Generally speaking, the challenges presumed bypassed in this perspective are not “sexual” challenges so much as human ones. They’re questions of intimacy and identity and connection, questions ace people certainly ask.  They may ask them differently or come to different conclusions, but they don’t escape the questions entirely. They may have different needs, but they don’t escape needing, and — in many ways — the needs they have can be harder to meet because society provides them less instruction, fewer scripts, etc. A metaphor care of AVENite Nleseul:

Sexual desire is like a persistent itch on your skin. It never goes away no matter how much you scratch it, but you can scratch it. You can point to the specific point on your skin where you need to scratch to get that relief. If your hand gets tired or it’s in a place you can’t reach by yourself, you can explain to another person where and how you need to be scratched, and ask for their help. It may be maddening, but it’s manageable.

What many asexuals feel, I think, is more like a weird itch somewhere on the inside of your skin. It’s a persistent feeling that’s just as hard to relieve, with the added difficulty that there’s no specific spot you can point to where you need relief and no clear way to communicate to another person how it feels or what you need.

Now, I’d prefer desire — of either sort — compared to something slightly less annoying and painful and outright “maddening” than an itch, but the overall contrast stands: Questions about sexuality, unrelated to the having of sex, can occupy a person just as relentlessly as questions of how to “get laid.”  Sometimes, they can occupy a person even more incessantly.

Thus, while the notion that asexual people occupy a higher plane of existance than sexual folk is better-intentioned than the “y’all are subhuman” narrative — it’s ultimately no less problematic. Conceptualizing an ace person as “ideal” requires roughly the same level of dehumanization as conceputalizing said ace person as “broken.”  To be considered “better than human” — or better than humanity’s current incarnation — still requires an uncomfortable separation between the one percent club and the rest of the human race.  And ultimately, while I’m pretty pro- Ace-People-As-Kickass, it unsettles me to see that narrative split off from a sense of them as human.


(What’s that you say?  I’ve totally overlooked the unsettling perceptions of sexuality upon which this narrative relies?  Stay tuned, ducklings. Stay tuned for that sweet sequel action you so crave.)



Leave a Comment
  1. slightlymetaphysical / Jul 20 2011 6:10 pm

    Can’t wait for you to tackle the idea of sexuality. I’ve noticed that the version of sexuality given to asexuals is what appears to me to be practically a downright lie- it’s represented as a hunger, and I think at least some people in the world see it instead as a passion, like one might be passionate about dance or art.

    Also, you’ve quite succinctly pointed out why I can say “I’m so glad I’m not sexual/romantic” (though I usually say it with at least some amount of self-awareness), and that doesn’t mean anything about asexuals having it easy or being enlightened.

  2. Ily / Jul 20 2011 6:19 pm

    Good God, how I hate this stereotype! When people say stuff like, “well, you’re lucky you don’t have to deal with relationship drama,” I just want to scream. It is a MAJOR source of drama in my life that while I don’t want to have sex with anyone, it’s extremely difficult to attain real emotional intimacy with anyone when you’re always stuck in a “just friends” role. The dominant relationship structures of our society are constantly working against my desire for human connection. I feel constantly left behind as most other people marry or get into committed romantic relationships.

    When you have a problem, it matters how many other people have that problem. If you’re asexual, most people can’t relate to your particular struggles and that makes it even harder.

    Even worse is when people say, “I wish I could be asexual” in order to escape some uncomfortable relationship-related emotions. It’s like they’re saying that asexuals are incapable of feeling. No, I don’t feel romantic love, but I experience equally strong emotions in other areas. I could write forever about these issues.

    Also, I waste time like a champ.

  3. sui solitaire / Jul 20 2011 6:26 pm

    urgh, mary! I want to read the rest!!! double this wouldn’t have been too long! RAWR.


  1. The Sexual Swine: How the “Enlightened Ace” Trope Devalues Sex « Miss Mary Max

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