At age 14, Julie Sondra Decker found herself delivering the cliché line “It’s not you, it’s me.” Only, really, she meant it. She wasn’t attracted to her first boyfriend but kissed him anyway “because I was expected to,” she says. People told her, “One day you’ll like it" -- and she believed them.
But by age 16, nothing had changed. “I simply had a complete lack of interest in sex and anything related," she writes. "I’d just never been sexually attracted to another person. Not my boyfriend, not the hottest people in school, not the heartthrob movies stars. I wasn’t interested. Period.” Her high school boyfriend nicknamed her "Miss Non-Hormone" and she began referring to herself as “nonsexual.” That's when people started offering their opinions -- things like, “That’s not normal. You need to get checked out," "You're going to die alone with a houseful of cats" and “Shut up and admit you’re gay.”
Shortly after Decker graduated from college, David Jay founded the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network in 2001 and media attention soon followed. "I started describing myself as 'asexual' instead of 'nonsexual' to connect myself with the awareness efforts," explains Decker, a 36-year-old author living in Tampa, Florida. Now she's taken it a step further, writing a book, "The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality," to demystify the overlooked orientation. She spoke with Salon about our hypersexualized culture, masturbation and what non-asexuals have to learn from asexuals about love ...
Let’s start with the most basic thing here: How do you personally define asexuality?
Asexuality, most broadly, is a lack of sexual attraction. However, it’s a pretty diverse spectrum, and some people prefer to say they aren’t interested in sex, don’t like sex or feel that sex isn’t intrinsically rewarding. Many asexual people, including me, will describe it as nobody seeming sexy to them or nothing happening in reaction to someone being sexy.
When did you discover that you were asexual?
I was about 15 years old when I first started calling myself “nonsexual.” That was in the mid-1990s, before there were Internet-based asexual communities — well, really before there was much of an Internet. For me it was almost a joke term at first; everybody else I knew found sex intriguing and had their own complicated relationship with it, but to me it seemed like a complete non-issue. I could tell if people were physically attractive in a normative way, but that didn’t inspire any reaction for me or any desire to be closer to them, possess them somehow or touch them. I had no fantasies that involved sex or physical intimacy, no dreams that I could recall on the subject, and certainly didn’t enjoy the overtures others made toward me in that regard. So I used the “nonsexual” term with the full understanding that I was fairly young and with an expectation that I would grow and change. I did grow and change. But that part of me didn’t.
Have you had romantic relationships?
Just a couple, both in high school. I dated two boys —one in ninth grade, one in 11th. The first boy was basically an experiment, I guess, because I’d never been asked out before and I figured I’d see what it was like, but all I found out was that we didn’t have much in common and I didn’t like French kissing. The second boy, who was older, pursued me relentlessly for a year or so before I finally agreed to date him — my naive little 16-year-old heart thought letting him date me might boost the poor guy’s self-esteem — but he turned out to be the type who thought he could change me and believed it was his own failure when he couldn’t. Dating him involved some unpleasant experiments that he more or less pressured me into, and I went through with more physical intimacy than I was comfortable with, though we did not have sex. I -- again, naively -- thought “keeping an open mind” would only require trying something once and then he’d have to leave me alone since I’d given it a shot.
I learned through that experience that no amount of entertaining others’ expectations is actually enough unless I change. They’ll always say I didn’t give it a chance, or ruined it by expecting to hate it, or didn’t try with the right person, or with the right gender, or at the right time. I decided since then to trust myself as the arbiter of what’s “enough” and have turned down plenty of offers since, and because I have yet to feel any sexual attraction to anyone, I have never allowed anyone else to talk me into anything I know I don’t desire. I think I’d recognize it if it happened to me. Most other people find it unmistakable. If a food smells delicious to everyone else but bland or bad to me, I don’t owe anyone the demonstration of actually eating it before I’m “allowed” to say I don’t want to eat the dish.
Was there a coming out process?
Not really. I tell people I’m asexual all the time, so I suppose each of those has been a mini coming-out, and sometimes people have a slew of questions that I’m usually happy to answer if they’re presented in an appropriate context. But everybody who knew me when I was dating in high school knew I wasn’t into it, and everybody who’s known me since has seen me demonstrating my happiness with my situation even when I didn’t have anything to call it, so there was never any kind of official “coming out” to close people in my family and friend groups. I know plenty of asexual people who have had coming-out experiences, though.
I know many asexuals masturbate, correct? How do you differentiate between sexual desire and the desire for physical release?
Some asexual people masturbate and some don’t. It’s about the same as in non-asexual populations. Because we don’t always have the same experiences as other orientations even when we date and have sex, we tend to pick things apart so we can analyze what we’re experiencing and what we’re not. In this case, we describe a difference between sexual arousal, sex drive and sexual attraction. Sexual arousal suggests a physiological response, sex drive suggests a desire to respond to arousal or a desire to pursue sex, and sexual attraction suggests an experience of finding someone sexually appealing. An asexual person might have a libido and be able to get aroused, but not have those experiences directed at anyone. It’s fairly common knowledge that very young children often masturbate, and they are not “thinking about sex” just because they’re enjoying touching their genitals. They don’t even know what sex is, they just know it feels good. A maturing or mature asexual person will have a more complicated understanding of masturbation if they’re engaging in it — so this is not to imply that they necessarily masturbate the same way an infant might — but I’m saying it because it’s one very obvious example of how masturbation can be “not about sex.”
In short, enjoying a physical sensation is not the same thing as finding other people sexually attractive, and it’s attraction, not behavior, that defines this orientation. We hear “But masturbation by definition is sexual!” all the time from detractors, usually followed by some pseudo-scientific twaddle about why we can’t be asexual if we “are sexual” through masturbation, but the very simple fact is that we don’t care if some of us “count as sexual” by some incredibly broad definition. It doesn’t change anything about what we’re describing as our experience.
What’s the worst thing about being asexual?
For me, the worst thing about being asexual is other people trying to fix me all the time. They develop this completely inappropriate obsession with my sexual and romantic life, which can manifest as anything from aggressively propositioning me for sex to searching for what’s “really” wrong with me through invasive questions. Some of them maintain that these attempted interventions are about my health and happiness, apparently unaware that they’re compromising both by refusing to respect my identity.
What’s the best thing?
For me, the best thing about being asexual is getting to meet other people on the asexual spectrum and offering them support while learning about how they navigate their lives.
What’s it like being asexual in such a hypersexualized culture?
Sometimes being left out of an experience that’s considered by so many to be central to life is isolating and a little lonely, but only in a sort of distant sense, because I honestly do not wish I was like everyone else. Sometimes sexually motivated advertising seems ridiculous to me -- though I understand a lot of people think so too despite not being asexual -- and if a movie or television show relies on the sexual attractiveness of its actors to magnify its audience’s appreciation, that will be lost on me. It really only gets to me when people fixate on changing me and pressure me to “try” to be something -- anything! -- else. I’ve had wannabe partners condescendingly mutter about what a waste I am or whine unattractively about how unfair it is that I won’t give them a shot — how close-minded I must be to deny myself the supposed pleasures of sexual relations with someone who’s literally as sexually attractive to me as a turtle. This preoccupation others sometimes have with “converting” me — and their belief that it would be for my own good, not their own benefit — is a symptom of a hypersexualized culture in which they literally cannot imagine a sexless or unpartnered life being fulfilling. I wish they’d just stop projecting once in a while.
Do you ever feel left out of pop culture? Do you wish to see asexuals better represented?
Asexual people are not commonly featured in media. It would definitely be nice if more celebrities frankly acknowledged their asexuality -- though you see it once in a while with folks like Janeane Garofalo or Paula Poundstone -- and it would be great if more mainstream media included asexual characters. The fact that we never see ourselves represented in the wider world is a contributing factor to our isolation and difficulty coming to terms with our identity. We need both stories that blatantly feature asexuality and its discovery — like a subplot of the New Zealand soap opera "Shortland Street," in which a biromantic asexual man found his label on the Internet and explored what it meant — as well as stories that feature asexuality incidentally, like a one-off mention of asexuality spoken by a minor character on the American drama "Huge," in which a camp counselor casually identified as asexual while watching a movie and described her aromanticism. We need “issue books” as well as asexual best friend characters and incidentally asexual romantic partners and specific but normalized inclusion of asexuality in all venues where sexual diversity would normally be discussed.
Often enough, I think people feel helplessly at the whim of their sexual desire. When you don’t have sexual desires driving you in that way, is there some other force that replaces it?
I can only speak for myself here, but I don’t see my passions as driving me “instead of” sexual desire. I think everyone chases their passions. I’m an artist, a singer, a reader and a passionate writer, but I don’t feel I do those things as a substitute for sex any more than an Olympic skier attacks those slopes “instead of” playing basketball. I’m happy to say that I’m a fulfilled and productive person, but there are plenty of asexual people with no so-called extraordinary passions or achievements, and it’s also true that non-asexual people are responsible for most of the world’s innovations and accomplishments even though they also have sexual passions that drive them. It’s really not a tradeoff.
Does the asexual community have any particular political causes -- like recognition of non-traditional families or something along those lines?
Absolutely! Sorry, but this is going to get long. Some of our political causes are along the same lines as any typical LGBTQ group, since a huge percentage of asexual people are also LGB+ and/or trans or non-binary, we of course would benefit from marriage equality and broader gender recognition and protection. And even those who are cisgender and heteroromantic or aromantic may be affected negatively by heteronormative expectations. For instance, there are still some places that have consummation laws. In these places, a partner who desires sex can legally annul a marriage if the expected intercourse is not allowed or not possible, and this affects sex-repulsed and sex-reluctant asexual people, among others.
Similarly, since sex is expected for a marriage to count as “real,” it can cause problems for international couples. Invasive questions about a couple’s sex life are sometimes brought up in interviews to help determine whether a marriage is falsified to let one person stay in the country. And since some people insist that marriage must always include sex, this prejudice has even gotten in the way of adoption attempts by asexual people. In one anecdotal case, an asexual couple reported that they were adopting partly because they did not want to have sex to conceive a child themselves, and they were told they were not eligible to adopt because “if you’re asexual, you’re not fit to be married.”
Asexuality is explicitly listed as a protected orientation in New York State -- we’re protected from hate crimes, discrimination, et cetera, through this mention, and supposedly if we were wrongly fired or discriminated against because of our orientation, we could invoke this law. We would like to get asexuality listed as a protected orientation anywhere that lists sexual orientations, and we have taken steps to make this happen through our interaction with the lawmakers of ENDA — the Employee Non-Discrimination Act — which is federal legislation.
We’d also like to see better anti-rape legislation. Especially in spousal rape cases, asexual people are at a much higher risk for being coerced or forced into sex by a partner only to be told that being in a relationship or being married renders them in a constant state of consent and that they, not the assaulting partner, are “abusing” their mate if they withhold sex. Because societal expectations will often back up the more sexual partner’s desires and insist that they are deserving of sex, asexual people often feel no power to report or win cases involving their rape.
And finally, we experience discrimination from mental health professionals. This is changing somewhat since recent lobbying from our community and championing by some asexuality researchers managed to get us somewhat legitimized in the DSM-5. But mental health and even physical health practitioners are prone to assuming that asexuality is only understandable as a disorder, and vulnerable asexual people who do not have their own terms and knowledge for it yet have often been subjected to medical treatments -- testosterone supplements, for instance -- and psych professionals urging them to experiment with, embrace or tolerate sexual encounters under the mistaken assumption that no one is healthy unless they are sexually active.
Do you think there’s anything non-asexuals could stand to learn from asexuals? About sex, relationships or anything else, for that matter?
Because asexual people may feel some types of attractions but not others, we’ve created or adopted existing terminology to better describe what we are experiencing. For instance, some of us are romantically attracted to people even if we’re not sexually attracted to them, and some of us may experience sensual or aesthetic attraction, among others. We’re not the only ones who experience these things; non-asexual people generally have a romantic orientation too, but since their sexual attractions so often correspond to their romantic ones, they can just say “attracted to” and expect that phrase to stand for a whole host of feelings. We don’t have that shorthand. The result has been discussion and language that can certainly be used outside asexual circles. For instance, there have been straight people who feel very confused about the fact that they may be sexually and romantically attracted to different-gender partners but seem to also be experiencing a romantic attraction to someone of their own gender. Wondering if that means they’re therefore gay or bi, they don’t know what to call it, but with terms like heterosexual biromantic, they can have words for their feelings.
Asexual people are also more likely than non-asexual people to have what’s called a queerplatonic partner; people of any sexual orientation might have someone in their lives to whom they feel committed and close but wouldn’t call that relationship either “romantic” or “friendship.” Our distinction between sexual arousal, sex drive and sexual attraction has been useful to some, and we’ve even had some great discussions about decoupling BDSM and kink from necessarily “sexual” associations; there are kinky asexual people whose satisfaction does not depend on sexual attraction to partners, and sometimes through use of the vocabulary popularized in our communities, non-asexual people can further understand and guide their less typical fetish experiences.
And of course, if any non-asexual person would like to have a romantic relationship with an asexual person, they will learn more about compromise — notably, that compromise isn’t entirely about whether and to what extent they can get their asexual partner to tolerate or engage in sex. Along with negotiating sexual activity, some “mixed” partnerships have adopted non-monogamous lifestyles, as well as focused more on other intimate activities that make a romantic relationship the exclusive and beautiful partnership it is.