Jim Fleming: For all its power, sex is not the sole defining feature of romance. In fact, for about 1% of people, sex is not a factor in romantic relationships at all. David Jay is the founder of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. Anne Strainchamps asked him what it was like to be an asexual teen in our hyper sexual culture.
David Jay: It was really confusing and really scary. I remember all of my peers all around me, and all of my adults all around me expected sexuality to be this thing that I was gonna be going through, this thing that was completely reshaping who I was and how I connected with other people in every element of my life.
Anne Strainchamps: They expected you to have crushes on girls and stuff like that?
Jay: Yeah, expected me to have crushes on girls and expected me to be really, really nervous about how I was gonna you know, get to explore my sexuality in really early ways. I remember hanging out with my friends and everyone would have conversations about who in our class we thought was cute, what movie stars we thought were cute. And I didn't have a way to answer that question.
And I kind of also had this awareness that answering that question, figuring that out was supposed to be a really important part of who I was, how I connected with other people. And that made it scary. That made it really scary.
Strainchamps: Were you afraid something was wrong with you?
Jay: Yeah, I was really afraid that, I think like a lot of asexual people, that I was broken.
Strainchamps: So how did you come across the notion of asexuality as an identity?
Jay: I remember being about 13 or 14 and kind of plucked the word asexual out of thin air, and started using it to describe myself. And it wasn't until maybe five, six years of really struggling with whether that was okay that I came to the realization that it's like a sexual orientation. That it's not a choice, it's not a problem, it's just the way that I am.
When I was 18 I started an organization called the asexual Visibility Education Network. And that organization has grown to have about 70,000 members across the globe.
Strainchamps: 70,000, so obviously this is not that uncommon. What does it mean to you and to others to be asexual?
Jay: An asexual person is someone who doesn't experience sexual attraction. So most people feel a desire to make sex a part of how they connect with others. Asexual people don't have that desire, but other than that we have the same need for connection that everyone else has.
Strainchamps: What are some of the common misperceptions?
Jay: So they just did a study where they talked about perceptions of asexual people. And the study found that the words associated, wrongly associated with sexuality the most were “inhuman” and “mechanistic.” It's really, really important to understand is that we have the same desire to connect. We laugh with people just as much. We get hurt just as much and we have all of the richness, complexity and difficulty of human relationships without this one tiny little activity that many people consider really important, but we don't. I can still look at someone and be very attracted to them, and because I'm attracted to them I want to get in a conversation with them. I want to spend time with them and I want to connect with them. And that attraction is so strong that there are people in the asexual community who identify as homo-romantic or bi-romantic or hetero-romantic because they are still attracted, romantically attracted to people, it's just not about sexuality.
Strainchamps: So this is about decoupling sexual desire from the desire for intimacy or the desire for connection.
Jay: Exactly, we really have this challenge walking around in a sexual world where most people assume that deep intimacy and sexuality go together in some way. And we've had to un-Velcro those two concepts. And that's been really hard. We have to reinvent a lot of the language about how we talk about intimacy. For someone to be single implies that if they're not in a romantic, sexual relationship they don't really have connection in their lives. And for us, every intimate relationship you form counts. If it's romantic, if it's not romantic, if it involves physical touch, if it doesn't involve physical touch...every single person who I connect with is a part of my community and a part of how I have intimacy in my life. And each one of those relationships is worthy of respect.
Strainchamps: Would you say your whole life is made up of various forms of friendship or do you also still have romantic relationships?
Jay: So like many asexual people I have really close friendships and really close romantic relationships. I have a romantic partner who lives in Brooklyn. We met about a year and a half ago, and we both felt an energy towards one another that we never felt for anyone before in our lives. She's also asexual.
I remember walking away from that experience feeling like there was a new different powerful kind of intimacy that I never felt before that I wanted to explore. So to me romance is almost about a spike of adrenaline that I feel at the beginning of a relationship. There's this sense of longing, and fear and a desire to just spend lots and lots of time, and lots and lots of my emotional energy with one person. And that's different then how I get close with my friends.
I get close with my friends because we find ways to be together that are richly, richly empowering and then we just build on that, and build on that and build on that. I think they're kind of different paths to the same feeling of connection.
Strainchamps: Can you be asexual and still want physical intimacy? Like was your romantic partner, somebody you fall in love with, do you still want to hug, curl up together?
Jay: Oh, yeah, like most asexual people I still have a desire for physical touch and I really, really like it. It's a great way to explore my connection with another person, a great source of intimacy; there's a lot of places where physical touch can go. And part of what's fun for me about being asexual is getting to explore all of that.
Strainchamps: So tell me more about your relationship, your romantic relationship with the person you met through the network. How did you guys meet?
Jay: We met because a documentary came out about asexuality. During the reception afterward we sort of went back and forth and jumped into and out of conversation with one another. And then went on this walk and talked until about three in the morning. And she lives in Brooklyn and I live in San Francisco, and I spent the entire flight from Brooklyn to San Francisco just writing about this connection with this person, and what it meant and how different it was than anything I'd ever felt before.
And then we got on a phone call and confessed to one another that we both had really, really strong feelings much, much more quickly than any of us had ever felt before...and decided that we wanted to explore a relationship.
Strainchamps: So what, here you are, two people who've fallen in love from the sound of it, who are in a romantic relationship and who are both defining themselves as asexual. So what, what issues come up as you structure the relationship?
Jay: I think a lot of the discussions that we had about building our relationship are the same ones that you would have in a sexual relationship, but there's some that are different. For example, concepts like monogamy are very complicated to apply and she and I decided that we don't want to limit our ability to form close emotional connections with others. Both of us have many deep emotional connections with other people and we think that helps our relationship rather than hurting it.
So we've made a set of commitments to one another.
Strainchamps: What kinds of commitments?
Jay: Even small things like we have a commitment to talk to one another once a week. Usually we'll talk for several hours. We message one another in little ways during the day. We fly across the country and see one another about once a month. We play a central role in one another's lives as a place to process, and reflect and set intentions for where we want our lives to go.
Strainchamps: Do you consider yourselves a couple?
Jay: Yes, we call one another partners. One of the interesting things about being in an asexual relationship is there's all these scripts for what romantic relationships are supposed to be. We've already taken a kind of really big red marker and crossed out a giant part of that script. We might as well look at the rest of the script, look through it and decide which parts matter to us and which parts don't.
Strainchamps: What's in the script?
Jay: I think in the script is a certain time when you say that you love another person and a certain meaning that that has. In the script is an expectation about where that relationship will head in the long term and what it will look like for it to head there. And for us, we want to explore a lot of those things on our own terms and don't want to assume that our relationship is gonna wind up looking like other romantic relationships.
Strainchamps: It's really interesting because you seem to have this very unique perspective on the notions we have about romance, and sex and intimacy and the way those, it sounds like what you're saying is our culture has tangled those three things up together and that tangle has really shaped our social lives.
Jay: Exactly, and I think one of the things that I've faced throughout my life as I've looked at this tangle of intimacy, and sexuality and romance, and there have been things in that entanglement I wanted really, really deeply. And there have been things in that that tangle that I didn't want.
When I try to tease it out, when I try to take the intimacy that I want and the bits of romance that I want out of that knotted up ball, there's this really, really deep fear that I'm gonna lose something really, really important...that I'm going to wind up destroying the very mysterious magical thing that I'm going after.
People have come to see sex as a symbol of a connection, a symbol of a relationship moving to a newer deeper level.
Strainchamps: We've been talking a lot in the office lately about the nature of romantic love and maybe there's a kind of quiet revolution sweeping our ideas about relationships. Do you think things are changing?
Jay: Yes, I do. When I talk to young people, young asexual people and sexual people, there's this sense that the labels and the scripts of dating and of romance just aren't as relevant anymore. People are connecting with one another, connecting with one another emotionally, not necessarily sexually, more freely than they have in the past. And I think that's a really, really powerful thing.
And when I talk to young people, the decision of whether or not to label their relationship as romantic is almost seen as this unnecessarily burdensome sticker sometimes that they put on it.
What young people are experiencing is just connection and it's somewhere between romance and not romance. And once we can describe connection for its own sake then I think some of the old scripts of romance will fall away. It'll still be a really deep, powerful way that we connect with one another, but it won't be the only way that counts.
Fleming: That's David Jay, a founder of the Asexual Visibility Education Network. Like many of the interviews on this show, you can hear an unedited version of Anne's conversation with him on our website at ttbook.org. I'm Jim Fleming, it's To the Best of our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRI, Public Radio International.