It may seem odd to look to an asexual for any insight on sex -- but sometimes the absence of something can tell you a surprising amount about the thing itself. Besides, few people have spent as much time thinking critically about the subject as David Jay.
The 29-year-old star of "(A)sexual," a documentary currently making the film festival rounds, has never desired sex, so he's spent most of his life looking at the act with the scientific curiosity of an outsider. He's largely responsible for staging asexuality's coming-out party over the past decade, having founded in 2001 the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). Ever since then he's done TV, radio and print interviews, tirelessly fielding the same questions, bad jokes and weird looks. The mention of asexuality is typically met with blank, disbelieving stares.
Many react to the idea of someone having zero interest in sex as offensive. It goes against everything we understand about what makes the world go 'round, so it's an inherently confrontational concept. With this disbelief often come attempts to write asexuality off as a result of repression or sexual trauma (as of now there's no evidence of that). It becomes even more complicated for people to understand when they discover all the variation within the asexual community. Jay tells me by phone, "There are asexual people who are dating, falling in love, getting married" -- they just don't have sex, although many do take pleasure in cuddling and kissing. Then there's the category of "gray-A's" -- those who have very minimal interest in sex -- which the documentary leaves out entirely to avoid confusing viewers...
When you step into asexuality land, suddenly up isn't down -- it's more like up, down and sideways all at once. It also brings up broader questions about desire and intimacy in general. As Angela Tucker, the documentary director, told me by phone, "I think these issues really tie to people who don't identify as asexual." She was inspired to make the film after stumbling across a Salon article about asexuality in 2005 -- it struck her as as great way to look at sexuality "through a different lens." She laughs, "When you talk about asexuality you have to talk about what you're not doing, right?"
As for how they define what they're not doing, Jay says, "There's no official line that we draw. It's really about an individual subjective experience. There are things that I do, and that I love doing, that other people would call sexual." He likes to cuddle, for instance, and he's "learned" to sometimes enjoy kissing -- but he says that as soon as "things get around my own genitals, they stop making sense to my body." He describes it as "neural white noise" -- which, understandably, he doesn't find particularly erotic. "What I've found the few times that I've been physical with another asexual person, there's sort of this sense that gravity turned off."
That's just the physicality of sex -- things get real murky when you talk about desire. Author Stephen Elliott is known for his writings about BDSM, for example in "The Adderall Diaries" and "My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up," but for more than 10 years now he's wrestled with whether the "asexual" label applies to him. In one of his emails to subscribers of his Daily Rumpus, he wrote of how a girlfriend -- a professional dominatrix who would tie him up and pierce him -- suggested that he might be asexual. "And I thought, If I have all this desire, how can I be asexual?" That's the thing: he has no shortage of erotic longing, just a disinterest in sexual intercourse. "It's hard to put it together, if you desire someone so much you want to inhale them, and if sex is self-defining, or if what I mean by sex is not what you mean by sex ... " he writes, trailing off.
Many asexual people masturbate -- in fact, one study found that asexual people masturbate as often as everyone else. Jay says some asexuals fantasize while pleasuring themselves, while others simply view it as a strictly physical thing (or as a researcher referred to it in the documentary, "cleaning the pipes"). Ironically enough, Jay says he finds that his talking about asexuality often makes people with low sex drives feel more sexual. "There's something about really getting into talking about the experience of not being sexual that makes people see themselves as sexual in a way they never have before." Like I said, the lack of a sexual appetite can highlight the nuances of desire.
It can also make you reconsider how we define our connections with other people. If it isn't sex that makes a romantic relationship different from a friendship, then what does? "The language that we use to talk about intimacy in our culture is deeply, deeply sexualized," Jay tells me. "For a lot of sexual people, especially straight people, there's this image of what intimacy should look like and how you're supposed to connect with other people. A lot of that is based around the idea that you're supposed to form a really intimate connection with one person that lasts for your entire life and involves sex." For asexual people, "rather than getting blasted with all of this noise about what intimacy is supposed to look like, we get a blank slate," he says. "We get nothing."
That can be terrifying, but it can also be exhilarating. "One of the most fascinating things to me has been seeing the evolution within the abstinence community of a radical new set of ideas for understanding what intimacy is, what human connection is, and how you build that," Jay says. This has proved such a struggle that he's come up with a strategy for evaluating and building relationships known as "the three Ts": time (the amount of time you dedicate to a person), touch (physical or verbal expressions of feelings) and talk (clearly communicating expectations for the relationship). He writes on his blog, The Asexual Underground, that you see these things at work even just with successful dates: You go out together (that's the time), you tell your date that you had fun (touch) and say you should hang out again soon (talk). It's a rather dispassionate accounting of human relationships, but for him and many asexuals it's a useful formula. Without the tie of sex, he says, it can be difficult to cement an intimate long-term relationship.
In fact, at the end of the documentary, following some romantic fallout, Jay seems to conclude that he'll need to start putting out to maintain the sort of lifelong intimacy that he wants. He seems close to tears just talking about the prospect. After filming wrapped, he eventually did have sex with a woman and described the experience to The Rumpus as "fascinating" but said "words like desire, release and pleasure were not involved." Since then, he's regained some of his resolve. "When used correctly, nonsexuality can be a more effective tactic to create intimacy than sexuality," he writes on his blog. "Sex is a blunt instrument, a way to monitor and control the intimacy that people create without really delving into the reality of what makes that intimacy happen. But the power that sex has is also fundamentally fragile." He might overstate his case, but even as a "sexual," I can see truth here: We do use sex as a shortcut to intimacy, and often very ineffectively.
Jay's quick to point out that he doesn't think asexuality is any better or worse than sexuality. He also acknowledges that he's missed out on sexual experiences "that are incredible and deeply valuable." It's true -- as much as the purity of his focus on emotional connection seems like a healthy nudge for the sex-crazed, it can also come as a reminder of the tremendous power of good sex. Of course we all have very personal ideas of what good sex is, but for many of us it's very best when it comes along with Jay's own three T's.
Asexuality, along with its many permutations, shows just how broad the sexual spectrum really is, and how much of it is ambiguous. "I actually think that gray area exists for all of us," Tucker says. "We just don't talk about it."