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What do you do if you're a self-proclaimed asexual and you fall in love with another asexual?
You cuddle and kiss and talk a lot. You go to dinner parties, bicker over movies, sleep in the same bed. Maybe you even snuggle up and spoon, the two of you curled up in a cozy double-S.
But it does not occur to you to make the beast with two backs. Your sexual congress is permanently adjourned. You're in love, you're just not making any.
That's more or less the explanation given by Paul Cox, a 21-year-old Long Island University student. While organizing meet ups of New York asexuals last year, Cox met a young woman from the Brooklyn group and started spending a lot of time with her. All his time, actually, and for months, until she pointed out that their friendship had blossomed into a romance. Cox didn't even realize what was happening. "She's the one who dragged it out of me and drilled it into my head," he says, still sounding a little baffled.
Sounds like normal male-female relations. Cox says everything about them is normal. "It's kind of amazing how little of a difference it makes that we're not actually sexually attracted to each other," he says. "The longer we're in this, the more trivial it seems."
The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network couldn't have said it better. In a flurry of media attention that began with the March 24 airing of a segment on "20/20," Cox and other AVEN members have appeared on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC's "The Situation" with Tucker Carlson to make the case that asexuality is as valid, normal and healthy as heterosexuality and homosexuality. They've booked engagements at universities and conferences. The exposure has brought hundreds of new members to the 8,000-strong network.
"Sexuality is like any other activity," says David Jay, AVEN's 23-year-old founder. "There are people for whom skydiving, chocolate cake and soccer are their world. But some people don't like skydiving, chocolate cake or soccer. There's no reason to focus your energy and attention on something you feel no reason to do anything about."
Asexuality is not celibacy, abstinence or escapism, Jay says. "Whatever sexual orientation is, it works like that. It's not something we choose. It's something we intrinsically feel."
But questions remain -- big questions. Mainly: "Are you sure you're not gay?"
An open-ended view of (a)sexuality
Not long ago a gay friend surprised me by declaring his belief that bisexuality doesn't exist. You're straight, gay or lying, he said. It struck me as unnecessarily restrictive. Who's to say there's no gray area between the homo- and heterosexual poles?
But I'm guilty of same. I remember a discussion among friends about a mutual friend, a man, who has never dated anyone as far as any of us knows and who emanates no detectable sexual vibe. Confounded, we ruminated over the possibilities, dragging theories and evidence out for scrutiny. "There's no porn stash," offered one who had stayed at his house. "I think he visits prostitutes," another confided. A third asked the inevitable: "Do you think he's gay and repressed?" We agreed that asexuality was a possibility, at least in theory, but we couldn't decide whether it actually existed.
Underlying that conversation was incredulity that a human being -- especially a man -- could lack a sex drive. In hindsight that seems as narrow as my friend's dismissal of bisexuality. Why shouldn't there be a whole range of intensity of desire, from zero to 10? I know couples in sexless marriages who are utterly devoted to each other, and women who don't care if they never have sex again.
Apparently we are poor judges of each other's sex lives. "There's a wide assumption that everybody's engaging in a lot of sex, and it's just not true," says University of Wisconsin's John DeLamater, editor of the Journal of Sex Research . "Even people who are engaging in sex aren't doing it as frequently as other people think they are."
Asexuality is a poorly understood phenomenon. Two years ago Anthony Bogaert of Canada's Brock University published a study suggesting 1 percent to 2 percent of the population is not interested in having sex. Little other research exists.
There isn't even a real definition. Is it the absence of sexual desire? The lack of desire to have sex with another person? Is it a distinct orientation? Or a matter of intensity? What if you used to like sex and now you don't?
In the absence of consensus, asexual groups have made up their own definitions. The Official Asexuality Society, another online community, states very clearly that its members, referred to as "nonlibidoists," do not experience sexual urges at all. AVEN, on the other hand, has a big-tent philosophy.
A note on the website reads: "Each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction and arousal somewhat differently." Moreover, some asexual people identify as gay, bi or straight. It goes on:
"For some, sexual arousal is a fairly regular occurrence, though it is not associated with a desire to find a sexual partner or partners. Some will occasionally masturbate, but feel no desire for partnered sexuality. Other asexual people experience little or no arousal."
This is where many folks out there in TV land might have trouble believing asexuality is not cover for something else. So you can masturbate and still call yourself asexual?
Jay likes to keep things inclusive. No one who visits the site is told that he or she doesn't qualify as an asexual, because the group's main goal is to encourage open discourse so people don't have to struggle the way Jay did when he was younger. "I spent a number of years coming to terms with myself and realizing it wasn't a problem, that it didn't mean I couldn't fall in love with people or anything like that," he says.
Jay embodies some of the contradictions in this open-ended view of asexuality. "I'm asexual and bi, more or less," he says. He has a history of what he describes as emotionally intimate, nonsexual relationships with men and women, though more often with women. "The way that emotional intimacy works in cross-gender relationships is easier than same-gender friendships," he says. "I'm also more attracted to women than men."
Jay says he is "one of those people who's felt sexual arousal," but he's not inspired to find a sexual partner, and he doesn't use sexuality to communicate intimacy. To him that spells asexual.
I believe there's a wide range of human behavior that deserves to be recognized as normal and healthy, but old stereotypes die hard. When I learn that Jay's main mode of transportation around San Francisco is a pair of rollerblades, I think to myself, "This man is gay."
It's a lot like professional football
Paul Cox notes that young asexuals are often told, and end up believing, that they're just late bloomers. "Until we find out it's something we can be," he says, "it's hard to feel like we've matured because there are rites of passage and certain things you're supposed to have experienced if you're an adult."
A lot of AVEN's members are in their 20s and younger, but not all. A man I'll call Brian (he asked for anonymity), who lives in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., is 56 years old. He does not date or form intimate relationships with men or women. He's not sure if that's related to his asexuality or because he moved around a lot for many years.
Brian stumbled onto the AVEN online community three years ago. He describes the discovery with elegance borrowed from Shakespeare.
"It gave 'to airy nothing a local habitation and a name' was kind of my feeling about it at the time, and still is," he says. "It was something I've always known about myself but it wasn't anything I ever thought about in terms of other people."
Brian has felt attracted to men and knows they've been attracted to him, but, like Jay, he still considers himself asexual because he has never thought of seeking out a sexual partner. It's like professional football, he says; a lot of men get really excited about it, "but if you gave them the opportunity to go down on the field and play, they wouldn't."
They might if their best friend went with them. I asked Cox if he and his girlfriend had discussed the possibility of sex. They had.
"We decided to just be open about it," he said. "If one developed the desire to have sex, I think the other would just go along with it for the other's sake."
That's not exactly hot, but for all the lack of romance this couple shares something most couples don't. They might fight about money and religion, but they'll never have to argue about sex.
"One way to look at it is sexuality's missing from our relationship," says Cox. "Another way is, we're one of the most sexually compatible couples in the world."
Traci Hukill is a freelance journalist based in Monterey, Calif.