Friday, December 10, 2010

A brief history of antisexuality

One of the major motivations of homophobia is disgust.  Many people feel disgusted at the idea of having sex with someone of the same sex.  This personal disgust leads to disgust with anyone having same-sex sex.  And then it's assumed that anything they find disgusting must be immoral.

Some asexuals (but not all) feel disgusted at the idea of having any sex.  This occasionally leads to the belief that sex is bad, and non-procreative sex should be reduced as much as possible.  This belief is known as antisexuality.

The historical relationship between the asexual community and antisexuality is an interesting one.  It's the story of how a community shifted from antisexuality to sex-positivity.  Let's jump back to 2001, before the founding of AVEN, the major asexual community of today.

Asexuality on LiveJournal

One of the pre-AVEN communities was a LiveJournal community called "Asexuals".  This was the group's description:
This is a community for folks who think sex is terribly overrated and pointless unless of course it has meaning. Come to think of it, there are tons of reasons why you might be ASEXUAL. Sex is constantly shoved down our throats by the media. What once was a beautiful and powerful thing, is now cheapened because some brilliant demon thought it would be smart to use it to sell their product. Because of this, nobody takes it seriously. Sex is no longer about expressing anything. Fight back.
It's difficult for me to contain my negative reaction to this description.  For one thing, they are conflating asexuality (lack of sexual attraction) with celibacy (not having sex) and with antisexuality.  But remember, this is back in 2001.  Currently, "asexual" is defined as "a person who does not experience sexual attraction".  But back in 2001, this definition had not been established!  Back then, the "asexual" community was a mix of celibates, antisexuals, and people who personally did not like sex.

But that meant that there was little space for people who did not personally like sex, but had no problems with sex in general.  There was also little space for people with partially sexual experiences.

But 2002 saw the founding of what are now the two biggest asexual communities.  AVEN was founded by David Jay, and the "Asexuality" LiveJournal group was founded by Nat, aka Paranoid Gynandroid.

Nat originally came to the concept of asexuality through a genderqueer/third gender mailing list.  A lot of newcomers tended to confuse androgyny with asexuality, so the topic came up often.  Nat related to asexuality, so they (using singular "they" for Nat) tried to find an asexual community.  What they found instead was the Asexuals LJ group.  So they founded the Asexuality LJ group as a reaction to it:
I've just created this community because I saw a gap which needed filling. The asexuals community is a good place for celibate people to discuss the difficulty of living in a society which continually pushes sexual images into our faces, but as such it is usually full of posts attacking sexual activities of others.

Personally I am sex positive, I think people should have as much or as little sex as they like with whoever they're attracted to. As long as sex is consentual I think it's a positive pleasurable thing and that people should be allowed to enjoy it if they wish to. Sex doesn't have to have meaning if those involved decide it doesn't. I'm not against sex as 'casual' or 'trivial'.
Nat was also in contact with David Jay, and wrote AVEN's FAQ page.  Here's a sample of the FAQ as originally written:
I enjoy being sexual with my loving partner but I've never really felt driven to have sex with anyone else, could I be asexual?
Most asexual people are capable of having sex, as with masturbation some asexuals find the experience of sex pleasurable. If you use sex as an expression of romantic or emotional attraction (love) rather than because you are driven to do so by a sex drive, then that need not contradict an asexual identity. [...]

I don't have crushes on people, I'm perfectly happy just having close friends, that means I'm very asexual doesn't it?
Yes it means you're asexual but I question the idea of 'very asexual'. There is no hierarchy of asexuality. [...]

Are asexual people more [sensible/clever/etc.] than sexual people?
Asexuals are just as diverse as sexual people. Some of us may be sensible and intellectual, some of us are less so. [...]
Nat wrote this with the intention of building a more inclusive and sex-positive asexuality.  Based on responses, it was apparent that there were many people who felt the need to censor their experiences in the previous antisexual environment of the asexual community.

But around 2004, Nat stepped back from the community.  They decided not to be a visible asexual activist because they were afraid public would confuse asexuality and their genderqueer identity.  Contrast with David Jay, who is a young white attractive cis-male.  These qualities made David Jay an ideal asexual spokesperson, though for reasons he acknowledges are messed-up.  Because Nat stepped back, Nat became one of the lesser known heroes of the asexual community.

AVEN and the Nonlibidoism Society

AVEN is the other major asexual community, started in 2002 by David Jay.  Like Nat, David also had a vision of a sex-positive asexuality.  AVEN adopted and popularized the current definition of asexual, "a person who does not experience sexual attraction".

But early on, AVEN had a rival community. The Official Asexual Society had a definition of asexuality which was very incompatible with AVEN's definition.  In 2004, after AVEN's big media successes, the Official Asexual Society changed its name to the Official Nonlibidoism Society, because the word "asexual" had been tainted.

What was the definition advocated by the Nonlibidoism Society?  A nonlibidoist was someone who has not had a sex drive ever.  It was emphasized that nonlibidoists did not masturbate, and that it was a life-long thing.  It was also an unwritten rule that nonlibidoists had to be repulsed by sex, and have antisexual views.

This exclusive definition was enforced by an application test.  You had to answer a bunch of questions, and send it to the administrator, Miss Geri, for her personal review.  You could only have membership and access to the forums if Miss Geri accepted you.

Another bizarre thing about the Nonlibidoism Society was the unicorn and Hindu imagery all over the website.  My research didn't turn up any explanation for that.  In 2007, the website disappeared for reasons unknown to me, and all I have is the internet archive.

Upon the dissolution of the Nonlibidoism Society, many of its members moved to the AVEN forums.  Here is a personal account by Dargon, an AVEN member at the time:
They were better than sexuals, better than AVEN asexuals, just plain better. They didn't have those desires of the flesh ruling over their bodies. They were more rational, and could feel more purely since their emotions weren't clouded by sex. They were perhaps the biggest group of egotistical douchebags I have ever encountered.

When they polluted AVEN, they frequently used terms such as "real" or "pure" asexuals, as though thinking sex was okay made you impure. People would show up and mention that they tried sex before and really didn't care for it, only to be berated for even thinking they might be asexual, as a "real asexual" would never even try sex. Long established members would become constant targets of attack, supported by the masses. Discussions on sexuality other than "sex is icky" would be drowned out in those very juvenile lamentations.
Thankfully, this drama is long over by now (otherwise I wouldn't have felt welcome on AVEN myself).

Nowadays, "nonlibidoist" simply refers to someone without sex drive (ie doesn't masturbate), without all the exclusivity and elitism attached.  Nonetheless, I discourage heavy use of the term, because it's just about the silliest identity distinction you could make.  It's useful to show that some asexuals masturbate and some don't, but otherwise there isn't any major difference between the two groups.  Also, not many people are interested in adopting an identity which places emphasis on the details of their private life.

The current state of antisexuality

Antisexual communities still exist, of course.  The Russian-based Antisexual Stronghold comes to mind.  But I don't know much about any of these communities, because they are completely separated from the English-speaking asexual community, and nobody talks about them.  (Update: Many years later, I finally learned more about the Russian antisexual community, and they have some very different things going on.)

Which is not to say that there are no antisexuals in the asexual community.  The asexual community is such that there is a constant flux of newcomers, and there will always be some newcomers who are antisexual.  Often, it's because they're reacting against a society that alienates and ignores them.  This often gets compounded by a personal feeling of disgust with sexual activity.  Then they find the asexual community, where they can finally vent all their frustrations.

The vast majority eventually shift to a more reasonable view, in a process I've heard called "detoxing".  Society may have done messed up things to them, but that's no reason to hate everyone and what they do.  They may feel personal disgust at sex, but it would be inappropriate to generalize this experience to everyone else, or to derive moral rules from it.

It will forever be a subject of debate on how to best deal with these people. We need to aid the detoxing process.  We need to make sure they don't get pushed away from the community just because of a bad start.  We need to make sure that they don't push other people away.  There are still other concerns about how such people hurt visibility efforts, but I don't agree with this.  There are much less self-destructive ways to improve asexual visibility than chasing people away (eg blogging).

But for all the fuss about it, I think the asexual community has it pretty good.  I mean, look at the straight community!  Homophobia is organized and rampant!

Disclaimer: This is by no means an attempt to give an academic historical account, but rather, an attempt to tell this history to a wider audience.  For a more serious and in-depth look, please instead see my sources listed below:

1. History discussion on Apositive (this is my major source)
2. Asexuality: The History of a Definition
3. Internet archive: the original Asexuality LiveJournal group
4. Internet archive: the original AVEN BigFAQ (compare to current FAQ)
5. Internet archive: The Official Nonlibidoism Society

15 comments:

SlightlyMetaphysical said...

"But for all the fuss about it, I think the asexual community has it pretty good. I mean, look at the straight community! Homophobia is organized and rampant!"

Brilliant line. I don't think I've heard the comparison between homophobia and antisexuality before, but it could be a nice one to explain to people. It doesn't justify either, but it shows how antisexuality can sometimes lead naturally out of repulsion with sex, without implying that repulsed people are in some way set up to become antisexual. Because that implies by inference that all straight people are homophobic.

ACH said...

I find fascinating the connection between sexuality and disgust, as it seems so widespread. People often find disgusting sexual practices that they themselves are not interested in--some recognize that this is much more a matter of their subjective reaction than about something objectively disgusting about whatever sexual activity is under consideration. (To make this distinction clear, some talk about being squicked out by something.)

My understanding is that it's not at all uncommon for some gay men to find the idea of heterosexual coitus disgusting (though they don't typically ascribe that to something inherently disgusting about it.) I also find it interesting the almost universal disgust felt towards the idea of one's parents having sex (despite knowing fully well the relationship between their parents having sex and their parents being their parents.) And I've found this sense of disgust among people with grown children towards activities that are by anyone's definition "normal."

36 said...

The blog post alludes to this, but recent research shows that disgust directly affects severity of moral judgements: http://psp.sagepub.com/content/34/8/1096.abstract http://www.thinkatheist.com/group/atheistmorality/forum/topics/how-disgust-affects-our-moral

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this! I feel more educated now.

Teo said...

Antisexual here, but I think it's just my way of life, but not the right thing to do, meaning I don't try to show that my way is right, it's just what I like...
And I don't get pushed away from society, many friends know about this, and it is ok, some of them encourage me... I don't know in what society you live in, maybe there is different. And antisexuality has nothing to do with society :D
Russian antisexual community also has an english speaking section there...

Teo said...

One more thing, dunno if I am right, but for me the difference between asexuality and antisexuality, is that antisexual people have sexual desire, but they fight it. Its not really fighting sexuality in our society and going against it...

miller said...

Sometimes I just don't understand what is meant when people identify as "antisexual", and yours is another case, Teo. I described antisexuality as moral disgust with other people having sex, and that appears inconsistent with the idea of being antisexual as a personal way of life, without believing that it is right for anyone else. That is, unless you mean it like someone who is vegetarian because they believe it is morally wrong to hurt animals, but doesn't push this belief on anyone for social and pragmatic reasons.

But if by antisexual you mean "someone who has sexual desire, but fights against it", that basically bears no relation to my definition of antisexuality.

Teo said...

miller, I was thinking the same, that the term "antisexual" is a little to "anti" to describe my ideea :D But there is no other definition )So what I am, a Hybrid ? :D

miller said...

I think the mainstream opinion of the english-speaking asexual community is that the proper term is "celibate". But I can understand why some people might resist using calling themselves celibate, since it has a lot of other associations.

Ettina said...

"Nonetheless, I discourage heavy use of the term, because it's just about the silliest identity distinction you could make. It's useful to show that some asexuals masturbate and some don't, but otherwise there isn't any major difference between the two groups."

I disagree. I'm thinking of calling myself nonlibidoist instead of just asexual, and it *is* an important distinction to me. Not because of what I happen to do or not do in my private time (and I have, in fact, masturbated, it just wasn't enjoyable).

Take the analogy of a 'legally blind' person as opposed to a totally blind person. A legally blind person can see, but their vision is so poor that they function like they're blind. This may be like some asexuals, who have sexual drive, but not strong enough for them to actually want to have sex.

In contrast, a totally blind person has no vision at all. If they were born totally blind, they may not even know what seeing *is*. That's what kind of asexual I am.

This doesn't just have to do with what I don't do. It has to do with what I don't feel, and have never felt. Sexuality is as incomprehensible to me as seeing is to a congenitally totally blind person. In contrast, a legally blind person has plenty of experiences of seeing, just not very well. Just like many asexuals have plenty of experience with sexual feelings, just not very strong ones.

miller said...

Ettina,
You haven't been the first to complain about that line, and I do regret my strong choice of words.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what Ettina said... And also it's was to harsh to say that "It will forever be a subject of debate on how to best deal with these people. We need to aid the detoxing process.". Following your ideea maybe all LGBT shouls also be aided to detox themself ??
So being LGBT is ok, being antisexual needs detoxing ? My opinion after you're words is that is not us who need to get detoxed, maybe just you. Go and heal your brain...

miller said...

Anonymous, you need to clarify better what you are trying to say, and explain why you believe that.

Anonymous said...

Interesting writing. Are you asexual yourself? By the way, the Russian group has long made an English language version of their site: Antisex.info has a lot of pages in English these days.

I think a clear distinction needs to be made in terms of interpretation:
- one can be personally antisexual as in experiencing sex as a negative influence to oneself, without however being prudish and judge those who enjoy sex. I would say I fit in this category.
- one can be more judgemental and judge sex as wrong alltogether: they in other words enforce their vision on others
- asexuality means that the desire to out attraction or love through sex is absent, or that the desire for sex is simply absent. I do think this is very different from antisexuality since antisexuality can include suppression of a previously present sexual interest.

I simply cannot enjoy anything sexual because the side effects make me feel bad and restless. I therefor chose not to give in to sexual feelings, which luckily isn't extremely hard as I had a low sex drive anyways. I would thus classify myself as antisexual, having chosen to abstain for personal reasons. I have struggled with erotophobia for many years until I actually felt that if a cure were available, i probably would still not consider it necessary because I find bliss in so many other things.

However, I do think sex is a very natural thing and nothing bad, and I believe it is great if someone finds a way in it to express his feelings to his/her lover. To judge this just because I enjoy it more to not have sex, would be enforcing my mindset on others, which would be wrong. This world is too prudish, and there is nothing more natural than sexuality in this world, to condemn it as wrong or sinful would be very prudish. To condemn this form of expressing love would be simply wrong, even if one chooses himself to abstain. I mean, who is anyone to consider his own judgement to be the only right approach? I personally find myself a lot more comfortable not having sex, but I think having sex is extremely normal for the average person.

I would also not want to classify as asexual since I do experience physical attraction to the opposite gender (women). When i meet a really nice girl, a certain desire can rise, but it is not a sexual desire. Just awaking in each other's arms or sharing a kiss can be an expression of affection and an energy outburst just as intense as intercourse is to many people.

In fact it is a problematic thing: you can really feel attracted to someone, but feel no temptation to express feelings through sex. It can be quite confusing to meet a girl and realise she probably either won't grasp the idea of love without sex, or that she simply won't consider it complete.

I have to add that to me, intellectual activity and creativity is the ultimate feeling of joy, a sort of very raw energy that gives you a rush, a passionate feeling for continuous discovery and creating, a feeling that fills you with joy and makes you feel so full of energy that you feel you can take on the world. that to me is the best feeling to be experience. I feel great in solitude, and my happiest moments of my life were moments of solitude. The freedom experienced can be truly a bliss. It doesn't stem from isolating yourself from other people out of fear or so, i socialise very frequently through many methods and find it highly enjoyable. But somehow I just love to be on my own and totally devote myself to creativity.

The thing can be quite confusing: sometimes you meet a really nice woman and you wonder if you cannot be together without any sex involved. At other moments, I however think i enjoy solitude too much to take socialising further than meeting friends and have a good time before going home and arrive there on my own (which is a very pleasant feeling, i can assure you! :))

miller said...

Anonymous, is that how antisexual is defined by the antisexual stronghold, or is it the definition used by some other group, or is it just how you think of the word?

The antisexual stronghold doesn't clearly define its terms anywhere, but it doesn't take much browsing to find that they clearly want to change other people's sexual behavior.

From here:

"Our ideal is the world free of lust, world of sentient beings, world, where mind, but never genitals, rule human."

I just don't understand how different self-identified antisexuals are using definitions that are so contradictory. Doesn't it bother you at all?