In this episode, Peter McGraw speaks to David Jay, an asexuality activist, about what it means to be asexual. They discuss the prevalence of asexuality in the population, as well as their shared perspective about the importance of being connected to a wide array of people. If you stick around to the end, they recap by defining terms that are often overlooked when talking about people’s sexual and romantic preferences. Note: Peter is still in the desert and dealing with less than ideal equipment. Please be patient with the sound quality.
Listen to Episode #30 here
As always, please rate, review and tell fellow Solos about this. If you want to get an email about forthcoming live Zoom calls, please sign up on the Solo podcast page at PeterMcGraw.org. I appreciate your support. In this episode, I speak to an asexuality activist about what it means to be asexual. We discussed the prevalence of asexuality in the population, as well as our shared perspective about the importance of being connected to a wide array of people. If you stick around to the end, we recapped by defining terms that are often overlooked when talking about people’s sexual and romantic preferences. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
My guest is David Jay. He is the Founder of Asexuality.org. An asexual activist, he’s been featured in the documentary, (A)sexual. He’s helped lead the team, which fought to delist asexuality as a mental disorder. He currently chairs the board at Asexuality.org. Welcome, David.
Thanks so much for having me on. I’m excited to talk about this topic.
I’d like you to start by defining asexuality and telling us how you got here. Why have I found you of all people to talk about this topic?
It’s been quite a journey, I have to say. An asexual person like me is someone who experiences literally no sexual attraction. I still have a desire to form close emotional relationships, just not to make sexuality a part of them. There’s a bunch of different ways that asexuality shows up. Some people still have a strong romantic attraction. They might identify as homoromantic or heteroromantic. They still date people. They still want romantic long-term partnership. I, along with a lot of asexual people, identify as aromantic. I tend to form close committed friendships. I would call them aromantic partnerships, rather than romantic relationships.
Sometimes they’ll involve cuddling and things, but I don’t compel to have them involve sexuality. There’s this strange way in which I’m both very single and I’ve always been, or very solo and I’ve always been solo. I have had maybe one serious romantic relationship to a way in which I’ve never been solo because to me all of my relationships count. I’ve had a life of figuring out how to be surrounded by all of these incredibly powerful forms of intimacy. Ace is a slang term phrase of asexual. I, like many ace people, have struggled with this fear of being alone for my life. This fear of, “I’m destined to never get in a real relationship.” This sense of liberation of looking around me and saying like, “I’m surrounded by relationships,” and how do I name that and make that more powerful.
We’ll get back into how I tracked you down, but a couple of observations is I believe that naming things is important. It’s one of the few things I feel like I’ve done well in my life. I named my Humor Research Lab HURL. It’s gotten me a lot of usefulness in the role of the media. I pondered a lot over the title of this. I think Solo is well-named. I love the idea of ace. It’s a positive term. It does have a slight singleness, a connotation but only slight, but it’s positive. I wanted to talk to someone about asexuality because of its potential connection to singleness, but I think that there are an inkling and one of the principles or ideas that I have between living a remarkable life that you embodied, which is the importance of being interconnected.
I often talk about having a team, a group of professional and personal connections to help you live life at its best. I came across one of your talks. In that talk, you start with this dyad of some person, David, who might be connected romantically or sexually to some other person potentially that seems to be the most important relationship structure in the world. It’s like the status quo, it’s the norm. What you do in this talk, which I liked a lot, was you started to add dots and add connections to these other relationships that aren’t romantic necessarily or aren’t sexual necessarily. I think that the average person might call them a friend. I think you tell a story about how you sat down with one of these friends to talk about the relationship. What does it mean? Defining it, the DTR? I’m being cheeky, but that’s the way I heard it.
This is a real journey that I went on. One of the things you were alluding to about the story of why you’re talking to me that I’ll shoehorn into this story about how I learned to do intentional intimacy. Not only do I identify as asexual, I founded a website called Asexuality.org, which has become the gathering place for these people. I should go ahead and say that ace also doesn’t just refer to asexual people. There are people who are identified as gray-A on a spectrum between sexual and asexual. There are people that identify as demisexual. They experienced sexual attraction only when they have a close emotional connection to someone.
They can’t be attracted to someone on a first date. There’s a whole spectrum of identity and ace is an umbrella term. I remember being in my early twenties, as I was in college, getting out of college. The ace community was young at that point. It was like a few thousand people. We were getting together on a website. We started realizing that we weren’t alone for the first time, which was powerful and starting to talk to one another. One of the things we talked about the most was intimacy. What it means to form relationships.
Most of us, like me, had this real desire to be connecting deeply and powerful with other people. Most of us, like me, saw the dating was the script for doing that. When people said, “Are you in a relationship with someone?” They meant, “Are you playing out this very specific script of what a relationship can look like?” That relationship involves sexuality, intimacy and commitment, but all of those things are part of this one package and it was a package that we can have access to.
I have the saying with my friends, this is the more mundane way that says that it’s the genital heart connection. I have a friend, she meets some guy, she’s attracted to him. She has a certain type that she likes and the sex is great. She starts to get feelings for him, even though at the very beginning we said, “Is he a good partner for you? Would he be a good boyfriend? What do you think?” She’d be like, “No, I just want to roll in the hay.” She starts having sex with him, they start spending more time together. These feelings start to develop. I recognize that even it’s not a set-out path that you want to build to intimacy with someone, that sex can be an easy way. It’s not for everyone, but it can often happen. If you’re in a world where you’re not inclined to be intimate with someone sexually, then that may preclude some of those types of connections, good or bad.
The thing for me, it was never like, “Those connections aren’t valid.” I think it’s great that people have sex and they enjoy having sex. As many aces are, I’m a sex-positive person, for people who want it. For me it was like, “I like to dance. I like to have a partner in dancing.” If I meet someone on the dance floor and we have a good connection on the dance floor. After the dance, we start talking and we realized we have a lot of common, that connection is not seen as sacred and verified and powerful in the same way as if we’d done a different thing with our bodies and not with a conversation. It’s not like I want the sex to be less intimate or less powerful. Sex that doesn’t result in relationships is great too, but it’s that all the other intimacy feels like they’re smushed out.
They’re not seen, they’re not celebrated and recognized. The thing that I was struggling with was saying, “If I’m not following this script for creating a Relationship, then how do I still get 98% of the things on that script that I want?” I still want to touch with people, I still want a deep emotional connection. I still want trust. I still want to have kids and now I’m in a place where I do have a kid that I’m co-raising with some aromantic partners of mine. Maybe I’m non-solo. I don’t know how that qualifies me.
You don’t have to be solo to be a guest. You don’t have to be a solo to be a reader.
I remember spending a lot of time thinking about this script. When my friends have a romantic partner, they talk about the relationship. They talk about where it’s headed and what they want out of it. If the relationship persists, there’s a path that needs to follow that you need somewhere or, “The relationship doesn’t work to me.” Whereas my friendships, I would show up and we’d have time together that’s incredible. We feel strong things about one another. There was a sense that you’ve got to keep doing that. You keep doing that for as long as you need to keep doing that and then you stop. I wanted something in between, something that didn’t have that sense of inevitable progress to a destination, but still could have that degree of intentionality.
When I was in my twenties, plenty of other ace people did this. Ace people aren’t the only people who do this. My practice of intimacy became finding people I was friends with and after about a year, usually of that becoming an important part of one another’s lives. Giving them a heads up two weeks in advance and saying, “This relationship, my connection with you has become an important part of my life. I would like to have a long conversation about what this connection means to both of us. It’s not because I wanted to date you. It’s not because I’m secretly in love with you and secretly want the script that we’re not doing because I don’t want the script. It’s that you matter to me. I would like to share the experience of how we matter to one another,” and those conversations some people would knockdown.
Some people were intimidated by that because they were only used to be in that romantic relationships and their brains couldn’t process the emotion of that kind of relationship in this context. Some people liked it. I found that we would go on these long walks. We would name what we already were doing together that we liked. Where did we fit at the ecology of one another’s lives? Coming out of those conversations, we were able to commit to doing the things that worked more. If we happen to hang out every Monday to have a conversation, it will be okay now that’s a ritual. Now we are committing to hanging out every Monday and if something changes in our lives, we’re going to talk about it.
I have so many thoughts going through my head, but the two quick ones are besides the fact that it’s off-script, I think that there is something that’s parallel to that DTR, as I like to joke about, Defining the Relationship talk. It’s how intimidating that is because what you do when you have your DTR or you have this intentional intimacy talk is you’re in some ways asking for what you want. There’s some chance of rejection. There’s some chance of incompatibility there and that’s scary to people. You end up in these don’t ask, don’t tell relationships where you’re just acting on behavior, there’s never any conversation about it. That’s my first reaction.
The second one is this is something that I’m super aware of with my non-intimate relationships, whether it be with women friends who were not romantic or sexually intimate and my guy friends. I’m heterosexual. With my male friends, I have been working to tell them that I love them to explicitly say, “I love you,” because that’s something that men don’t do very well. Even using language like a brother expresses that as a connection that helps say, “You are very important to me,” in that sense. I attract friends who are comfortable with that and appreciative of it and often respond and in turn. I appreciate how thoughtful you were. You were in your twenties when you were doing this.
That’s when I started figuring it out. Part of that was because I didn’t have another choice. A lot of other aces, it was like, “This or I’m left in the dust when all my friends form romantic relationships.”
That’s always scary and it’s always a concern where you have a good friend, they meet someone, and then they disappear and you joke, “They’ll be back when the breakup happens or the divorce happens,” or whatever that might happen there. I’ve always worked very hard, when I do have a steady relationship, to not have that happen because I’ve so often been on the other side of it. I could see how it could be even more threatening if you’re thinking, “This may not happen to me.”
I don’t have that. I don’t have access to the thing that a friend is doing at this moment. There was a powerful moment for me when I started forgetting to have these conversations. There was a lesbian woman who I become very close with and we became intentional. She asked me to be the godparent of her child. We’re still close.
Is she in the documentary?
Yes, she is.
I watched the documentary and that was good.
It’s great. It’s on Amazon now.
The reason it was so good is it’s so different. We’re just not having this conversation. I’ll get back to you about your friend. Aces are a surprisingly large percentage of people.
A quick aside on that was the best research we’ve had was a study done in the UK that shows about 1%. We’ve had some surveys of incoming students within the University of California system that have shown even higher than that. It varies because the number of people who don’t experience sexual attraction and the number of people who use the word asexual to identify are different. It’s depending on how you count and how you think about it. You wind up with different numbers.
Even 1% is a large number. If you think about how easy it is for that number to get bigger, for example, someone may not be asexual through their entire adult development. There are circumstantial contextual effects.
Within the aces community, that’s a thing that’s been important to us is that this is not a scratch and sniff label. It’s not like you rub it off and then either you’re like truly asexual or truly not. We grew up in a society that told us that we were going to be alone forever. They told us to be ashamed because we weren’t for in relationships according to the script. We pushed back against that and said, “We think part of sexual liberation is recognizing that some people understood it in sexuality and can be intimate however we want or don’t want regardless of that.” That discussion where we say, “Being asexual isn’t something that people should be ashamed about.”
Being not sexual and something people should be ashamed about. If someone shifts from over the course of their life from being sexual to not being sexual, they shouldn’t feel like they’re failing their intimacy and failing their sexuality. They should be like, “My body wants a different intimacy right now. Let me explore and learn how that works for me. Enjoy that just as much as I was enjoying the sex.” Whereas right now, there’s this sense that if you were not hypersexuality, if you’re not performing to particular kinds of sexuality, you are failing in intimacy and there’s a lot of shame associated with that.
Some people say having a healthy libido. By using the term healthy, it suggests that there’s some correct level of libido. You go too high, that’s a problem. You go too low, that’s a problem. First of all, this is an undertalked and understudied topic, but I also think that’s one of the things that is in parallel to just solo living in general. Having a positive view of solo living and having a positive view of asexuality is even the fact that you have to think about it or talk about it that way because there’s this norm. There’s this large group of people, there’s this perspective that pervades the media that is a focus of government, education and science. When you deviate from it, the natural question is, “What’s wrong you?” and “That’ll change.” Even at the very least, a bit of curiosity that doesn’t always feel good. That’s there. Even if it may be well-intentioned, but just because it’s stepping away from what is so common.
This is part of why, for me and for a lot of the ace community, we see ourselves as very tied up in queerness. Many of us identify with the queer community, identify and show up for queer struggles because there’s a system of shame that says, “If you’re not normal in how you do relationship, intimacy and gender, there’s something wrong with you and you need to be ashamed of. You need to be corrected.” That doesn’t just impact queer people, that impacts everyone, but that’s what I think of when I hear you talking about that.
It’s something I haven’t articulated yet, but I have thought about it, is that when I think about single people living remarkable lives, it’s often the gay and lesbian community that I feel like has this much better figured out in some ways than heterosexuals. In part because marriage wasn’t an option for a long time and still isn’t in some places. Even the notion of pride, it’s something that I haven’t thought completely through. In some ways, when I think about remarkable singles, there are oftentimes disproportionately gay or lesbian.
This is a little bit hazardous. Sometimes when I formed a relationship with people, it’s like the people who were to go to a restaurant. They’re like, “I’m used to looking at a menu, there being a certain set of choices and I choose the relationship I want and then that’s what I get.” We’re sitting down, they’re like, “What kind of relationship are we going to have from the menu?” There are some people when I form relationships with them, where they’re used to cooking, they’re like, “We want a relationship. What do you want it to taste like? We’ll take some of this ingredient. We’ll put them together this way.” They have that skillset. I find that I know many straight people who deeply have that skillset, but I know almost no queer people who don’t have it because you’re forced to.
To me, this is not a project that’s designed to couple people up. A lot of single-focused resources, books, and almost every other podcast I’ve come across that is focused on singles is about either, “What’s wrong with you? You need to stop being in this state. We’re going to help you get there,” versus, “This is completely acceptable, as I say, for now, or forever.” I could see why that affiliation with the queer community would work so well for the reasons that we’re talking about. I had interrupted you before. You were telling a story about something.
We were talking about this passive intentionality and the experience of having a non-romantic relationship that is left to the side when a romantic relationship happens. There’s almost this expectation that like, you should be happy for your friend, you should graciously step to the side and make space for this more important relationship. Part of me doesn’t deeply disagree with that. I think that I want the people in my life to have the relationships that they want to be happy. I don’t want to stand in the way of other people’s connection and intimacy.
I remember with this friend who I had an intentional conversation with. It was the first time someone got into a new relationship with a new partner where they were as full of new relationship energy. They sat me down and said, “I have this new relationship. Let’s talk about what that means for our friendship. Let’s plan out how to be in integrity while I go through this instead of peacing out.” That was a huge moment of transition for me because it felt like that moment of my relationship mattering.
My relationships that weren’t romantic, that weren’t sexual, that wasn’t part of the script, being able to be intentionally talked about in the same way that these romantic ones were. I think that as I got richer in my skill of doing intimacy that way, I was able to learn a lot more about how to balance the intimate, the romantic relationships to people’s lives, sexual relationships to people’s lives, none of which you do ever. There’s no romantic sexual relationship that does happen. There’s always space. I was able to figure out how to compliment the relationships in people’s lives in a way that also met my needs for all needs of other people. I got good, almost like, “I meet one person. They’d have a partner who was also cool. I then become friends with their partner and that wound up becoming a stable arrangement.”
I love this model. The fact that you’re so intentional about it. I’ve always done it not as explicitly in terms of talking to people about it, but when I was younger, I was a late bloomer when it came to relationships. I wanted to fall in love and I wanted to have sex and I wanted those things and I wasn’t good at it, as a lot of young men tend to not be good at it. Even when I got better at it, I always knew I wasn’t on track to be married with children deep down. If you gave me a lie detector test, it never was something that I wanted. I got into my late 30s and then I was like, “I don’t want kids.” Once you don’t want kids, then marriage seems often superfluous. What I always did especially because I had some family challenges that I was off on my own a lot.
I didn’t have much of a cushion. I didn’t have a financial cushion. I have a friend who, like the pandemic kid, moved back in his parents’ basement as a 40-year-old. That was never a possibility for me. I always leaned so heavily on my friendships. I took a lot. I gave a lot. I held these people up to a very high standard. I held myself to that high standard. I thought about it a lot. The figure that you had in your talk, which is you have lots of different people. They serve different purposes. You do different things with them and sometimes they come and sometimes they go. Oftentimes they’re very long-lasting like years. That’s neat to be able to talk about it. This is my first time hearing about it being done in this way and that’s great.
It’s interesting what comes to mind, hearing about the way that it’s felt powerful, like a friendship that showed up in your life. I can’t remember where this was found, but there was someone who was saying this. There’s a metaphor of relationship as chemistry. You have an Adam, there’s particular kind of other Adam, they connect and then they’re done. They’re together and it’s big and it’s energetic and inspiring. This can be expressed as a simple equation. To me, the scientific metaphor of relationship is much more like an ecology. My life is an ecosystem. There are all these things already in it. There are niches that are open in it. When I approached someone else, their ecosystem has stuff in it and has niches opening it. How do we fit into niches in one other’s life and then see what grows and see what evolves that fits the ecology we’re in. It’s not as simple.
That metaphor is a lot like the romantic Jane Austen metaphor. Mr. Darcy, there’s just this attraction that can’t be stopped by family, by circumstance. I agree with you. My friendships, they’re not whirlwind relationships. I’ve had sexual whirlwind and relationships, but my friendships are almost never like that. It’s this, “Maybe I’ll invite Steven to this thing. I think he’ll fit in.” I’m like, “Let’s see how Steven does.”
The way I experience attraction is almost like, I map out my own life. I go through this practice maybe once a year. I try to draw all the relationships that matter to me and what I do with them. Note like, “What do I have now? Where are the relationships that I’m doing something and I want to do more? Where are there gaps where I don’t have a relationship with on a relationship?” I try to get a mental picture of that. When I see someone and realize that they fit an openness that I have in my life, that’s the core of attraction to them. There’s something about the way this person is, there is a way that I want to be around that and achieve. I know exactly how to approach them and constantly invite them into this niche in my life that is open and ready for someone like them. It’s not that I want everything else to go away and then to be only what matters, but there’s a clear place.
You’ve got a plot of land and you can grow something. I think that’s cool. It’s so funny because singles are better at doing this than partnered people typically. This norm of that atomic bond in many ways works against couples. There’s so much pressure on that relationship for them to be everything to each other that it can create distress rather than the fact that you might be willing and able to lean on other folks. Same or opposite sex, whatever, in ways that are non-threatening to that relationship. I had Bella DePaulo on here. She does research on the science of single living. She says that married people have the one, single people have the ones. That interconnection that’s good. I want to step back. You’ve become an activist. At some point in your life, you recognized this about you and figured out the term was asexual or at least the way you would call it that, and then you ended up launching this website as a fairly young man.
I was about eighteen.
You don’t have a website. You have gone and now you do interviews. You’re a feature of a documentary, you’ve done activist work. How did that progress?
My high school was defined by my struggle with my aces because at that point, I’d never talked to another person like me. It was clear to me from middle school that sexuality was a thing that everyone around me was experiencing. I was expected to experience it. It was an essential part of growing up. I was fortunate in that. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. I went to a high school that had out queer kids and have popular queer kids. There wasn’t a sense of that sexual default meant straight, but it was default there. I felt like, “If I’m not feeling this, I’ve got to be broken in some way. There’s got to be something wrong with me.”
It must mean that I can’t love people. It must mean that I’m defective or I’m not capable of being loved. It took me a lot of personal struggle and support from friends to get to the point where I saw being asexual was okay. I made up the word for myself because I wanted a way to talk about this experience. I never talked to another person like me. When I went to undergrad, I knew enough web design that I put up a website to say like, “Is there anyone else out there experiencing this?” I happened to put it up right around the time that Google went live. This is why I don’t say I invented the word, asexual. It turns out that there were thousands of thousands of other people around the world who were going through the same struggle. We independently invented the same term to describe it and we then typed that term into Google. When you type that into AltaVista and Yahoo and Lycos, you got papers on plant biology. When you type into Google, you got my website.
That became this initial moment of us coming together that was incredibly powerful because all of us had struggled with the sense of feeling broken. All of us have struggled with feeling like we were the only ones. Being able to have the validation of other people who shared our experience was immensely powerful. I became motivated in my activism, my community building by that experience. By the sense of that, there are people out there who are struggling with shame and struggling with the sense of the broken. I wanted to create for them a way out of that feeling.
Talk about good timing.
History is the history of the lucky.
I started the website in 2001. In 2004, this study came out that showed that 1% of people in the UK identified as asexual or did not experience sexual attraction.
This was one question on a large representative survey of the population that asked about sexual preferences and there was an option that said, “I’m not sexually attracted to men or women,” or something like that.
A survey was done in the UK. It was one of the largest surveys ever done on human sexual behavior which asked about orientation as part of a battery of questions. It said, “Are you primarily sexually attracted to men, women or to no one at all?” There might’ve been another question. This was before they knew about gender non-binary folks in surveys. That was asked in the study and then a researcher from Canada went back and said, “The people who answered that are attracted to no one at all, what’s up with them?”
This is a population that’s never been talked about scientifically. He released a paper analyzing this survey, and it came out right as our community was hitting critical mass. Suddenly, there was this combination of, “Here’s this thing that seems impossible.” Who would have thought it was possible for humans to not be interested in sexuality? Here’s this community of people who can talk about the human experience of it. I was this founder who was at that point, the early twenties, conventionally attractive white dude who was supposed to be at like the peak of my hormonal sexual journey.
I was camera ready to a fault and in a way that created some problems. I think that a combination of the statistic and the community and me was exciting. Out of nowhere, I remember waking up, I was working on the 2004 election cycle with 50 media requests from all over the UK, doing interviews on the radio, on my phone. I flew out to the UK to be on television. I was in the country for twelve hours. It was this huge wave of press that asexuality existed. That eventually crossed over to the US and went from this wave of media surprise that we existed. Media was trying to investigate what our experience was like, which is where the documentary that you saw came out of. It was incredibly well done.
This perpetuates because then what happens is from my humor research, for example, my initial foray into it was a press release of tons of things. What ends up happening is you’re putting out enough content, then you’re contributing to media content. What happens is some journalists types in asexuality and something else and then your name pops up. You become the person to call, which obviously that’s how I found you. I watched your talk. I didn’t care what you look like, but I cared what you had to say. I was like, “This guy has his shit together.” You were kind enough to respond to mine. I emailed the webmaster contact form.
Which goes to me and goes to the rest of our web team.
I have a previous episode on Solos, Sex and Evolution. If I remember correctly, I could be wrong or maybe I’m making this up in my mind. I had Martie Haselton. She’s an Evolutionary Psychologist. I have to suspect around this time, Evolutionary Psychology was popping onto the scene. What’s fascinating about evolutionary psychology is what these researchers are doing is they’re looking at behavior, society, and culture now, and how it’s shaped through our ancestral past. The story of evolution is sex feels so good that we’re compelled to do it.
The benefit to humanity is we get these babies as a result of it. It perpetuates the species. As an aside, I read Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir, which is a fantastic read. It’s funny reading about him watching the baboons and talking about their sexual activity and it is connected to these concepts. In some ways, we’re not so different than our primate brothers. Asexuality seems to be a real puzzle for that world of an evolutionary psychologist.
Yes and no because the mechanism is attraction, not arousal. We have talked about this, but along with most aces, our body can still become aroused the way that any other person can. The difference is that I don’t have the same desire to engage in the activities that we would classify as sexual with someone that I’m emotionally intimate with. This is where it’s important to understand how much space there is between the protein-encoding in DNA that says like, “I have to engage in a complicated set of puppetry to get into another set of DNA with another person.” “What proteins do I encode?”
It’s a largely socially constructed category of sexuality. We call something sexual, we call other things, not sexual. We call some forms of pleasure sexual and other forms of pleasure non-sexual. We call some relationship, sexual, other forms, not sexual. We make up genders and we’re attracted to those genders and we’re attracted to particular pieces of clothes, clothing that a gender might wear. That’s got nothing to do with the way that our proteins are encoded or it’s very far removed from the way our proteins are encoded.
I would say that I still have this deep desire to connect with people. I still personally have a desire for touching people. I still have pretty much all the things that my proteins are encoding me to do, and I still have the desire to have kids. I have a kid who’s not genetically related to me, but legally I’m a parent of. I think that it’s a vast oversimplification to imagine that from the standpoint of a strand of DNA, what is wanted is sex or what is wanted is something our social construction of heteronormativity.
I’ll try to put this in my language, which is let’s take our baboon brothers. They have sex and babies. It follows a particular pattern with regard to hierarchies and the likelihood that the female can get pregnant when they’re most attractive. It’s this pretty simple-ish script.
I question how simple it is.
I’m saying relative to the human one, to Homo sapiens. The parallel to that in my world, the world of humor, is the things that make baboons laugh is rather limited. It’s like play fighting and tickling and physical comedy type of stuff. What ends up happening though when you add all this other stuff, language, norms, culture, etc., the things that can create laughter become limitless. You have wordplay, you have satire, you have irony, you have romcoms, and you have all this kind of stuff. In the same way, that’s the things that can be sexualized, arousing and exciting can start to go beyond just climb aboard. I’m thinking about it in a slightly different way, but the complexity starts to become limitless.
I’ve seen very limited research about this. It is not uncommon for something like aceness to exist in the animal world. When I think about a baboon society or a bonobo society, there are a lot of kinds of intimacy going on there. We, as humans, take the word sexuality and we apply them to some things those primates do, but they don’t have that word. They don’t make that distinction. They lived the experience of doing a sexual thing versus doing anything that we deem non-sexual may not be that different. That’s part of how I tend to want to blow up the category of sexuality into the larger category of intimacy. To blow off the category of sexuality, the larger category of touch in part because that makes room for me. Also, because it can be helpful to say, what happens if you think about this bigger range of human activity instead of this narrow one that tends to have a lot of scripts part of it?
By the way, in that book, it was interesting the way Sapolsky talked about grooming and all these other things and these connections, these pairings that would happen that were intimate even if they weren’t sexual. I always think about sex and love. They can be connected, but they can also be independent. They don’t have to go hand in hand as the normal Cinderella script tends to be played out. I want to ask you a few questions. When I learned about asexuality, I was not at all surprised by it. As a scientist, I tend to think there are so many things that exist in this normal distribution.
During my first semester in graduate school, I’m taking these hardcore statistics courses which are talking about normal distributions. Maybe most people sit close to the middle, but as you get out on the tails, you have people very high and very low on whatever dimension that it is. What I know about sexuality, I know that there are people who are way out on one tail. It’s not surprising that there might be people way out on the other tail. To me, that’s not surprising. What’s surprising is of course that it’s not being talked about or covered in the sciences and beyond until lately. One of the things I had mentioned in pride and within the gay and lesbian community, the rainbow flag as being a symbol of pride. There’s a pride symbol for the ace community too, yes?
There are a few of them. It used to be a slice of cake. Now, we have our own flag. It’s purple, white, gray and black, which is also a great color scheme, I think. It used to be a slice of cake. The reason is if you went to an asexuality’s meetup, there would be cake getting served. People make earrings with little cakes on them. The reason is that in the early days of the community, there was this huge sense of validation when someone arrived and realized they weren’t alone. People, when they would show up on the website on Asexuality.org and post their stories and say, “Here’s what I’ve been struggling with my entire life. Can people relate to this?” People would respond with little emoji of a slice of cake and say, “You’re welcome here.” That became the symbol of welcome. That became a symbol of the ace community.
Why the cake?
The symbolism of it is powerful because a cake is a dish almost exclusively for celebration in the community.
Another thing and this connects to the queer community a lot, is this notion of coming out as asexual. I think that was in the documentary. This can be a rather important moment for an ace member.
This is something that we think and talk about. It’s shifted a lot over the years. In the early days, compared to my gay friends who were coming out, they could come out and say, “I’m gay.” I had to come out and give a 40-minute lecture because no one knew what this thing was. Maybe they had a lot of questions. It broke everyone’s assumptions about how humans work and how sexuality works and I had to deal with that. There were times when I stopped coming out because I didn’t want to be educating all the time. Now, things are better, especially within the younger culture. There’s widespread understanding in many parts of the world about aceness and people can talk about it more casually.
There’s also beginning to be a better standard by ace intimacy. For a long time, coming out meant there’s this real fear that you’re going to torpedo, any potential relationships you might form, especially for romantic people. I think we’ll be getting to get to a place, that’s still a fear. There’s more of an understanding of what are the possibilities of ace intimacy, what are the possibilities of ace romantic intimacy, both with other aces and with non-aces, and people are exploring that.
I’m curious. You’re the second most famous asexual person that I know of.
I don’t know if I can count as number two.
You probably don’t, but that just shows you the lack of competition and that exists in the world. I may even be misremembering this. That person is Janeane Garofalo.
I was like, “Are you going to say, Tim Gunn or Morrissey?”
Morrissey is another one.
Janeane Garofalo used the word asexual in comedy sketches. There’s this interesting phenomenon where within the community, we use the word asexual. There’s the definition and we have a shared understanding of what it means. When I or most people in our community use the word, we’re under the same umbrella. When Morrissey used it, it was before the community existed.
For the reader, Morrissey is a musician from the ‘80s, ‘90s with very sad, dark music. He was the lead singer for The Smiths.
I haven’t looked at it as too much because I’m not into ace celebrity-ness. When Janeane Garofalo uses it, it’s unclear if that’s because she has seen our community, seen our definition and naming this as an orientation. If it’s a bit that she wants it to play out. If this is her describing an experience, like having a particular time in her life, but she doesn’t mean it in the way that I would mean it as something like an orientation. All of which are valid uses. I don’t want to own the single definition of the word, but I also don’t want to claim that my experience maps onto her experience or Morrissey’s experience because I don’t know what’s behind their choice of word.
I get it. When I was contemplating doing this, I pay more attention to comedy and I like my music a little more upbeat than Morrissey’s music. Although he has a song that I quite liked called The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get. It’s a super catchy, very Morrissey song.
Ace history now is endless in our community. They are curious about Tesla, curious about Newton. There’s a whole number of historical figures who could be read as ace, but I think it can be dangerous to do that too aggressively.
I went down this path at one point in time because I was looking for notable solos throughout history. I stopped doing it. It’s a fairly impossible task in part because getting married was such the norm that the person who didn’t want to get married still got married like Abe Lincoln. He still gets married even though he knows he didn’t want to be married. There are people who are solo, like da Vinci, for example. There are always debates about da Vinci’s sexual orientation and maybe that’s why he didn’t get married. It’s not a useful exercise because the world was a different and frankly unfair and unwelcoming place if you wanted something different than that.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the term Boston marriage. There were women who defy the mandate that they needed to get married by moving in with one another and living their entire lives together or were living for a huge chunk of their life together. This can be read depending on how you read it as a solo, ace, or lesbian act. Probably, it’s a mix of all of those things, but importantly, it’s a moment of resistance. It’s a moment of possibility outside of this heteronormative romantic imperative and that seems to me. It’s not like, “Were these people feeling my body feelings or this or your body feelings at this moment?” In history, it’s like there’s a lineage to a lot of the struggle that I’ve had in my life around shame about not being sexual enough, not being partnered in the right ways. It’s good to know the history of that.
There’s this used bookstore here close to me that has very limited hours. I’ve been frequenting it a lot because it’s the cheapest bookstore I’ve ever been to. I roll the dice on lots and lots of books. One of the books that I picked off the shelf, which is not a book I would ever have read if I wasn’t doing this project is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote Eat, Pray, Love. It made her a famous author. At the end of Eat, Pray, Love, she meets this man that she falls for. He’s a Brazilian man of Australian nationality and they’re having a relationship. At some point in time, he’s trying to come into the country with her and he was stopped at the border and not allowed to come in.
The book is the process of her becoming “committed.” They have to get married for them to continue their relationship. The book is basically about that experience about her taking a look at marriage through this lens of needing to get married to be able to still be with this man, at least in this part of the world. After I finished the book, I googled it. They’re no longer together anymore, anyways, but it’s heteronormative. It’s fascinating. I was thinking about that and it’s easy to make fun of Elizabeth Gilbert, but you think about it as that’s the only way she’s able to continue this relationship in the United States. How limiting that is? For example, if you don’t want to marry the person or at a period of time where you couldn’t marry the person. This standard still is so strong. It’s 800-pound gorilla to continue with our primate conversation.
It reminds me of when I was going through the process of adopting my daughter and interacting with family court, recognizing how I’m someone who has a significant amount of privilege in the world. I am relatively well-off. I work in tech. I’m white. I’m cis. I’m male.
You live in a place that’s more accepting than most other places.
True, of queerness, in San Francisco, California. I remember seeing like, “Here I am interacting with the legal infrastructure of family.” When we think about these stories of family, we think about the scripts of relationship and they’re set up for people in positions of privilege. For a lot of folks who were trying to navigate the immigration system who have loved ones for reasons of gender. These scripts become as much about how we interact with the state and how you signal to the state that your relationship is worth respecting as they are about like the norms of how you date and how you think about intimacy. It becomes an institutional performance. That’s important to recognize too, when talking about it.
I have a couple more things for you. I feel like the reader’s heads might be swimming a little bit when it comes to terminology. I’m going to ask you to go through and redefine some of these terms and concepts. I’m also going to ask about a couple other I stumbled over and you can feel free to dismiss them if they’re not relevant. This notion of tadpoles and amoebas. Can we go through about asexuality being aromantic, demisexual and so on?
I will try to tell a story that hits all the words. These stories are a good way to make sense of things.
We can end on that, so you can get back to your parenting.
When I’m in high school, I’m one of the several thousand people who invented this word and who were looking for one another. We type in the word asexual to the search engines at the time where we get our papers about it and papers are about plant biology. I wasn’t the first community-based people. I was one of the first, but the first one was called the Haven for the Human Amoeba. It was a Yahoo group with eighteen people on it. The phrase “human amoeba” got thrown around like almost as a joke because that’s what people were finding. It was stuff about amoebas. I start my site, Asexuality.org. That resonates with people. That seems to be what people are inventing and typing in. It’s a good word. It’s not a great word because it’s a negative, not a positive definition. It’s defining what we’re not, rather than defining the shared experience we have, which I would say is one of breaking out of sexual scripts, breaking out of the expectations of sexual scripts and figuring out how to do that.
I’m glad you said that because especially as a young man, I can only now reflect on this how trapped I felt by my sexuality. What an overwhelming burden it was on me in terms of wanting this thing, sex with women, and being unfulfilled in that way. Those motivations crowded out a lot of other very healthy, engaging, interesting thoughts, activities and experiences that I could have had. I liked the idea that breaking free of that has a positive element to it.
I can trust that. The image of me in high school is I have a friend. One of my friends were female, some were male, some were queer, some weren’t. I have a friend and what we do is we get on the phone and talk for hours and they talk about whatever relationship or crush they’re currently trying to process. I talk about the nature of what is asexuality. It wasn’t that like they had this burden of desire that I didn’t have. I was as confused about how to connect emotionally with people about like, “What does it mean to want to touch people if I don’t want that to happen sexually? How do I express that desire?” I was as confused and torn up and awkward about all that stuff as my sexual friends were about the sexual stuff. It’s not like I got off easy.
What I’m saying is that there is some positive element to the release of that.
I had to let go often more, but to be free of the sense that if I’m not sexual in the right way, if I’m not romantic in the right way, I will never be happy.
I completely understand that feeling in terms of there’s something different about me, and will this difference be bad for me? You were saying asexual is good enough. It describes it.
The word asexually became like this flag for everyone to rally around. The thing we started saying early on in the community is the word an asexual is a tool and not a label. If it helps you understand yourself and it helps you describe yourself to others, pick it up, and use it. If you pick it up and use it and it’s a little awkward in your hand and you want to change it to make it fit you better, do that. It doesn’t need to mean the same thing for every person. It needs to be for every person. If it ever makes sense to put it down, put it down. One of the things that were amazing about our community is that we have people who identified as asexual for a period of time then stopped using the term and still stayed on as leaders in the community.
You weren’t ostracized for that. That wasn’t the norm, but that happens. It does in all forms including sexuality. You had these people identify asexual experimenting with it, modifying the term. Other words started coming out of that experimentation as people came to the committee and said, “I resonate with what you’re saying, but I still experienced some sexuality, just not as much as anyone else around me.” People started identifying as gray-A because they were on the spectrum between sexual and bisexual. There were people who came and said, “I realized that for most of my life, I feel like asexual, but when I get in a deep relationship with someone, sometimes I’m open to sexuality. Sometimes it starts to be appealing to me, but I can’t do the thing that society wants me to do, which is going on a date with someone to know if I’m sexually attracted to them for a moment.”
They started identifying as demisexual and we had all of these terms emerging for where people felt on a spectrum of sexuality. Asexual gray, demisexual, and the word ace became an umbrella term to refer to the community holistically. Similarly, as everyone was talking about sexual orientation, people also started talking about romantic orientation. Some people said they still had crushes, they still wanted to date and they still had a real strong desire for romantic relationships. Other people like me didn’t. People started identifying as homoromantic, panromantic, biromantic, heteroromantic, and aromantic. In the community, many times people will often name themselves as having asexual orientation and aromantic orientation.
I can see why you need both of those.
People quickly went on to create dimensional hypercubes to the sky. We didn’t stop with just those two spectrums, but those are the two that stuck.
One last thing about that, why did I write down tadpoles?
I have no idea why you wrote tadpoles.
David, thank you so much for your time. I think what you’re doing is wonderful and incredibly important. I appreciate your generosity and willingness to talk to someone eager to learn and eager to support but didn’t know much, to begin with. I’m very thankful.
Thank you so much for having me on. It’s been a fun conversation.
- (A)sexual – Documentary
- Talk – David Jay – Asexuality
- Amazon – (A)sexual Documentary
- Bella DePaulo – previous episode
- Solos, Sex and Evolution – previous episode
- A Primate’s Memoir
- Eat, Pray, Love
About David Jay
David Jay is the founder of Asexuality.org. An asexual activist, he has been featured in the documentary (A)sexual, helped to lead the team which fought to de-list asexuality as a mental disorder, and currently chairs the board of Asexuality.org. He lives with his daughter and two co-parents in San Francisco, California.
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