Asexual lives: social relationships and intimate encounters

Asexual lives: social relationships and intimate encounters

Susie Scott, Liz McDonnell  and Matt Dawson, Universities of Sussex and Glasgow

‘Asexuality’ describes a lack or low level of sexual desire and/or attraction towards others. This negative interpretation – defining something in terms of what it is not – is indicative of the way asexuality is regarded more generally within contemporary western societies. Sex is a dominant theme, the mass media fuelling endless debates about which sexual behaviours are ‘normal’, or whose sexual identities are deviant. Meanwhile, there is an established cultural scene of sexual identity politics, whereby those who identify with LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or queer) minority groups can find a platform to campaign for greater visibility.

Against this backdrop, asexuality appears curious, standing outside the sexual realm entirely. To have a minority status or engage in less common practices is one thing, but to not be a sexual person at all is quite another. Because it challenges social norms, expectations and cultural assumptions, asexuality is often viewed as a problem, a failure, or even a sickness. But is this an accurate portrayal? How do people experience asexuality themselves, and how does it affect their social lives?

These questions lie at the heart of a project we are conducting at the University of Sussex, exploring asexual identities and intimate relationships. Our research team is three sociologists – Dr Susie Scott, Dr Liz McDonnell and Dr Matt Dawson – who study the ‘micro’ level issues of self-identity, social interaction and everyday life. Taking a Symbolic Interactionist perspective, we are challenging the idea that asexuality is a fixed and stable attribute, arguing instead that it is a fluid and changeable social identity. Asexuality means different things to different people and unfolds in diverse ways, depending on their particular experiences over the life course: key relationships, chance encounters, memorable events and critical turning points, combine to create identity paths or ‘trajectories’ that are unique to each person. The second strand of our project concerns the notion of intimacy, asking what this means in the absence of sex, and how it is demonstrated by asexual people to partners, friends or ‘significant others’. To explore these two questions, we conducted interviews with 50 self-defined asexual people, 27 of whom also kept two-week diaries; in the latter, they documented occasions and episodes of everyday social life when their asexuality had been relevant.

“Asexuality isn’t who I am”

One of the most surprising findings was that asexuality is not necessarily an identity. Unlike being lesbian, gay, or other LGBTQ categories, asexuality is not a clear and tangible ‘thing’, nor a source of positive identification. Our participant Ed (a pseudonym) spoke for many when he said, “It’s a part of who I am, but it’s in with all the other parts, so it doesn’t rule my life.” This is because asexuality is negatively defined, as an absence, lack or difference from sexual norms, so it is hard to formulate a coherent sense of self around this. Another participant, Josie, explained: “because it’s a lack of a thing and not a thing in itself, it’s not that important to me. So it doesn’t define who I am… I have no reason to seek out more people like me.

Many participants described asexuality as an irrelevance or “non-issue”, citing work, family, hobbies or other factors as being more centrally defining aspects of their identities. Freya said, “the main thing about me isn’t that I have this sexual orientation; the main thing about me is that I’m a geek for TV series and history – that’s me.” Indeed, to form a self-identity around a peripheral, insignificant or even absent attribute seemed bizarrely irrelevant. Trevor drew the comparison, “I don’t need to go on at people that I really, really like pizza!”

Asexuality is a label, however, and as such it has a pragmatic, communicative function. Many participants found it useful as a concise shorthand term to explain something complex about themselves that was difficult for other people to understand (“So if you’re not gay or bi, then what are you?”) – but it had little personal significance beyond this. Relatively few people adopt the asexual label to describe their self-identity compared to other orientations within the LGBTQ array. We could say that asexuality is just a discursive construct: a product of social discourses and interaction. It does not exist as an essential state, but rather comes into being through the actions of others, who question or challenge the person and make them account for their difference. As Martha said, “I can’t figure out how I would become aware of my asexuality aside from someone bringing it up or hounding me about whether or not someone is hot.”

Community and (dis)association

Related to this, asexual people are less likely to socialise together and develop a collective identity than those in other LGBTQ communities. There is some debate about whether asexuality should be included beneath this umbrella (making it LGBTQA), or whether it stands outside the spectrum of sexual orientations altogether. Although some asexual people engage in political activism through groups such as AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, asserting the positive identity ‘ACE’, this only represents one demographic: mostly young, white, college-educated, middle class people.

Equally common in our sample were those who were older, less socially networked or otherwise lacking the resources needed to make the personal political. Lisa, in her late thirties, had always felt she was ‘different’ from her peers but dismissed this an individual quirk and focused instead on her career. Like many others, she had not heard of the term ‘asexual’ until well into adulthood, by which time she had built an identity around other things. She enjoyed a fairly solitary lifestyle amidst close friends and family, and did not wish to associate with other asexual people: “It’s never been discussed and I would never bring it up so it’s not an explicit feature of my life at all… the identity I would put out in public is much more as a scientist.”

Those who do build an asexual identity do this relationally, through social interaction. Some participants described coming to an understanding of themselves as asexual by comparing their situation to that of their friends, family and colleagues. Often there was a gradual process of talking to certain significant others and ‘testing the water’ until they were ready to ‘come out’ publicly. Others recalled ‘feeling different’ when growing up and ‘researching’ this difference through Internet searches. Groups such as AVEN were helpful in providing a set of tools to articulate their specific desires and orientations (for example, the lexicon of asexual subcategories including Grey-A, Demi and Hetero/Homo/Bi-romantic) as well as to manage the social consequences of stigma and prejudice. Many participants described moments of epiphany that consolidated their sense of ‘becoming’ asexual, for example reading a news article about asexuality or hearing someone else use the term. Iris recalled the relief she felt upon “figuring out that asexuality was a thing. It’s not just me being weird” and Lisa agreed, “when it got a name it felt better.”

Everyday intimacy

Intimacy is as important to asexual people as it is to anyone else; participants voiced frustration at the assumption that being asexual was synonymous with being anti-social or unemotional. Many described themselves as ‘Romantic’ asexuals, meaning that they wanted to have emotionally but not physically intimate relationships, while ‘Demi’ asexuals felt they had the potential to desire sex, but only under certain conditions, such as in the context of a ‘serious’ committed relationship. Some valued friendship above all else, craving regular and intense contact with friends, while others felt closest to siblings. Moments of tension and conflict surrounded the need to negotiate with others different preferred types and levels of intimacy. Awkwardness arose from misunderstandings, such as ignorant questions, insensitive comments (“You just haven’t found the right one yet”) and unwanted flirtation.

In everyday life, the vast majority of our participants enjoyed indulging in non-sexual ‘practices of intimacy’, such as platonic kissing, hugging and cuddling with special people, having fun with colleagues, talking to close friends and other emotional self-disclosure. Iris wrote in her diary about eating ice cream in bed with her boyfriend while watching Doctor Who as being a highly intimate practice. Those in relationships reported much negotiation and discussion, sometimes formalised in explicit practical arrangements. Iris felt this communication was vital to ensure that both partners were “on the same wavelength”. She would ‘check in with’ her boyfriend every morning to establish how they were each feeling and what they wanted to do together that day:  “It’s just figuring out what both of us want to do that day – if its sexual, if it’s not, if it’s something completely different.”

These platonic practices are of course also enjoyed by non-asexual people, as has been shown in studies of long term relationships, families, and friendships, where they are vital to the day-to-day endurance of intimate bonds. Conversely, some asexual participants said that they engaged in sexual activity to satisfy their partners, despite not enjoying it themselves, regarding it an act of altruistic love. This blurring of boundaries and classifications challenges the idea that there are distinctly asexual practices of intimacy that are separate from sexual practices. Perhaps it even raises the question of whether ‘asexual people’ exist as a minority group who are essentially different from the presumed sexual majority. Could asexuality just be a way of relating to others and negotiating intimacy, which can be practised by anyone? 

Further reading and information:  (AVEN)

Carrigan, M. (2011) ‘There’s More to Life than Sex? Difference and Commonality within the Asexual Community’, Sexualities, 14:4, 462-478.

Gabb, J. (2008) Researching Intimacy in Families. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jamieson, L, Simpson, R. and Lewis, R. (eds) (2012) Researching Families and Relationships. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Scott, S. and Dawson, M. (2014) ‘Rethinking Asexuality: A Symbolic Interactionist Account.’ Sexualities (in press)

Smart, C. (2007) Personal Life: New Directions in Sociological Thinking. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Susie Scott is Reader in Sociology and Liz McDonnell is Research Fellow at the University of Sussex. Matt Dawson is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow. “A qualitative exploration of asexual identities and practices of intimacy” was funded by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2012-575) and runs from 2013-2015.