Why Asexual Identity Emerged in the Millennials’ Generation

I recently read the article “When it Comes to Sex, Baby Boomers Aren’t Normal”, which is a response to various essays about Millennials (that is, people born between 1980 and 1996) having less sex than Baby Boomers and Generation X. This quote contains the premise of the article:

Instead of asking why Millennials are having less sex, we could also ask why Boomers and Gen-X had more. Rather than asking why Millennials are so weird, we could compare birth cohorts in a way that doesn’t assume any of them as the baseline. Sexual norms and practices are in constant flux, and we ought not treat them as fixed.

The article also points out some other problems with the hand-wringing over why Millennials aren’t having ‘enough’ sex. For example, many statistics about how much sex people have DO NOT distinguish between consensual and non-consensual sex. It is very difficult to measure the frequency of non-consensual sex, but according to the article, the indicators we do have suggest that one of the main reasons that Millennials have less sex than the Baby Boomers and Generation X is that sexual assault is significantly less common among Millennials (i.e. a disproportionate portion of the decrease in sexual activity is a decrease in non-consensual activity). If this is true, then it’s a wonderful change. The article also claims that Millennials are less supportive of rape culture than Baby Boomers and Generation X, which might explain a decrease in non-consensual sex.

Anyway, what I want to discuss is how the emergence of an asexual identity fits into this pattern of Millennials having less sex (note, I am only going to discuss this in the context of the United States because I do not know enough about how these things play out in other societies).

A disproportionate number of people who participate in asexual communities are Millennials, including me. Contemporary asexual communities, so far, have been largely built by Millennials. Why has asexual identity become more prominent in our generation rather than other generations?

A common answer to this question is ‘The Internet’. The internet no doubt has something to do with it, but I’ve always felt that that’s an incomplete answer. I think another part of the answer is the way that American culture is shifting.

I think compulsory sexuality became especially overt in the Baby Boomer generation (of course compulsory sexuality was around before, it simply was less blatant), and that was one of the reasons why they engaged in more sexual activity than earlier generations. As the Millennial generation emerges in a world which has been dominated by Baby Boomers, the resulting generation clash created a space for an asexual identity to emerge. In other words, my theory is that generations before the Baby Boomers did not deal with Baby Boomer level of compulsory sexuality, thus there was less pushing the asexually-inclined people to identify with asexuality. Then, asexual identities *rarely* emerged in the Baby Boomer generation because it was a particularly hostile environment. Now, the Millennial generation has lived with Baby Boomer attitudes, but is itself calmer about compulsory sexuality, so there was both the motivation and a sufficiently supportive environment for an asexual identity to emerge.

Anyway, this is more of a theory I have than something I have concrete evidence for. Maybe if I did actual research, I’d find that this does not explain the emergence of an asexuality identity in American culture after all.

What I Got out of Everywhere House as an Aro Ace Reader

The cover of 'Everywhere House' which shows the phrase 'Women Fight Back!' graffittied on a wall above the legs of a dead body. I recently read the novel Everywhere House by Jane Meyerding. It is a murder mystery set in the radical feminist lesbian community of 1970s Seattle.

Some aspects of the story which stood out to me as an aromantic asexual are:

1. The protagonist, Terry Barber, is a lesbian woman. Her best friend, Roger, is a heterosexual man. On Terry’s end, she hides her close friendship with him from her radical feminist lesbian companions because they would disapprove of her close friendship with a man. Her friend, understandably, does not like being treated like a dirty secret. Likewise, as he gets on with his heterosexual life and eventually gets engaged to a woman, he struggles with maintaining the friendship with Terry. Most interesting to me is that it is clear that Terry is more comfortable with and more willing to confide in him than with her lesbian girlfriends. I like that it turns the relationship hierarchy (romantice + sexual relationships are more important than friendship) upside down.

2. There is a lot of discussion of queer politics, particularly how different lesbian groups interact with each other. For example, Terry’s girlfriend, Ellie, is an assimilationist lesbian – she just wants lesbians to be treated like ‘normal’ people. By contrast, Terry’s housemates want to change the political and social order. However, among the ‘political lesbians’ there are many different strains of radicalism, and Radical Lesbian Group A may have very bad feelings about Radical Lesbian Group B. Asexual group politics are not quite like that, however the idea of subgroups within subgroups, sometimes based on thoughts rather than experiences, is familiar. Of course, a major theme is the interaction between lesbians and society as large, how lesbians (particularly radical feminist lesbians) are considered less credible ~because~ they are lesbians.

3. The sex scenes were pretty awkward. It wasn’t that they were all fade-to-black – fade-to-black sex scenes can be pretty smooth – it felt more like obligatory sex scene + super fast and jerky fade to black. By obligatory, I mean that it felt like the sex scene was happening because the writer (or the editor, or somebody) decided that a sex scene was necessary to demonstrate Terry’s lesbianness rather than because the plot or Terry’s feelings seemed to be leading into a sex scene. Since I have read very little lesbian fiction, I was willing to entertain the possibility that I simply am not familiar with the conventions of lesbian sex scenes.

Since this is a novel about lesbians published by a publisher (New Victoria Publishers) which specializes in lesbian fiction, I had assumed that Jane Meyerding herself is lesbian. Shortly after finishing the novel, I found out that, actually, Jane Meyerding is asexual. Knowing that the writer is asexual (and possibly aromantic, though since she has not said that explicitly, I’m not going to assume) put all of the above in a new light for me.

I don’t know whether or not Jane Meyerding identified as asexual at the time she wrote this novel. Either way, I think it is a worthwhile contribution to the literature of Fiction by Asexual Writers.

Names Acknowledge Existence

The theme for this month’s Carnival of Aces is “Naming It”.

One question which is sometimes asked about asexuality as a sexual orientation is “But why do you need a name for it?”

Swankivy answered this question pretty well years ago. In short – things which exist tend to have names, and to have a name for asexuality is to acknowledge that it is a thing which exists.

Since a large part of the human asexual experience is to doubt whether what we feel is what we really feel, and to learn how to not trust our own feelings because our culture tells us that we can’t be feeling what we are feeling, having a name is a big deal. Having a name acknowledges that it is a thing, and suggests that we can know our own feelings, that we can trust ourselves to know ourselves.

For those who remember the series of posts I did on In Love and Warcraft Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), one of my major criticisms was that even though the protagonist was plausibly asexual, the play never used the word ‘asexual’ or acknowledged that it could be a valid way to be. Even if the play had ultimately used the word ‘asexual’ just to say that the main protagonist was *not* asexual, I would have probably been okay with it, since it was more important to me for the play to acknowledge that asexuality is a thing than for it to have an actually asexual protagonist. However, as the play currently is, it has a protagonist which many asexual people would identify with because she seems like an asexual, yet never affirms that being asexual is *okay*. To someone who is asexual, but does not know how that word is applied to humans, or is not aware of other asexual humans, I am afraid that story could encourage them to doubt and distrust themselves even more. And it would have been so simple to fix just by *briefly* mentioning asexuality in a non-derogatory context.

That is not to say that the word ‘asexual’ is never misused – it definitely is sometimes misused. For example, when disabled people who do not identify as asexual are said to be ‘asexual’ on the basis of their *disability* rather than their *feelings with regards to sex/sexual attraction/etc.* that is a misuse of the word ‘asexual’.

However, assuming the word ‘asexual’ is being used in a way which is somewhat in accordance with the way it is used in the asexual community, I generally feel better about an essay/story/etc. when they use the word than when they don’t. Using the word means that they acknowledge our existence. When the word isn’t being used, it is much more likely to be something which erases us and claims that our feelings are not valid.

The Way Social Pressure Bends Identity

In “A Matter of Discrete Divisions”, Coyote discusses the social pressure on people questioning various aspects of their identity to eventually resolve their questioning.

Some aspects of my identity may have been subtly pushed by such social pressures, but I still accept those parts of my identity. I can take back those aspects and go back to questioning if I want to, but I don’t want to.

I want to make this very clear – what I am about to describe applies to me, specifically, and is not intended to be a prescription for how other people should identify. I don’t want other people to feel obligated to treat their own identities the way I treat my identities.

As I indicated in a previous post, my approach to aspects of my identity I question at this point in time is ‘if it’s too hard to figure out, the answer is probably no’. For example, I figure that, given that it is so darn hard for me to figure out whether or not I experience romantic attraction, that means it’s either ain’t there, or it is so irrelevant to my life that it might as well not be there, therefore I am aromantic.

That approach also applies to gender – I feel very little discomfort with other people treating me as a cis-female, so rather than going through a questioning process to figure out whether I really am cis-female, I just accept myself as such. It’s close enough to accurate that I don’t want to invest the effort to discover an identity/label which describes me more accurately, even though I suspect a more accurate identity/label/description is possible. If my discomfort with being pegged as cis-female were greater, I would probably find it more worthwhile to question my gender identity.

Now, part of the effort/cost of questioning is dealing with other people, including the pressure to not be questioning indefinitely. Coyote describes it as:

I have to wonder if there’s some ticking clock I wasn’t made aware of, counting down until my time is up. ‘Cause sure, you can be unsure, but you better get that uncertainty settled eventually. Better get everything straightened up nice and exact and classifiable. Not now, not yet, that’s fine, but eventually.

I don’t think this is the only effort/cost of questioning – I think, even in the absence of social pressure, there would be elements of ‘Is this really X, or is it really Y?’ However, this kind of social pressure increases the effort/cost of questioning.

I find questioning tiring enough that I generally don’t stay there indefinitely – if nothing else, I’ll end up throwing up my hands and saying ‘This simply doesn’t make sense to me, therefore I’m not identifying as anything at all!’

The social pressure currently does push towards picking concrete (especially binary) identities over grey/ambiguous identities. However, I can imagine an alternate universe where social pressure goes the other way – where it’s considered fine to be questioning, say, one’s romantic orientation indefinitely, but that one shouldn’t identify as homoromantic, or aromantic, or biromantic, etc. unless one is 100% sure that is the ‘correct’ identity. In such an alternate universe, I would probably choose to identify as quoiromantic rather than aromantic.

So, by saying that in this universe I identify as aromantic, but in that alternative universe I would probably identify as quoiromantic, I am acknowledging that social pressure is a factor in my identity. Does that make my identity less authentic? I don’t think so. The whole point of having an identity is to help me interact with other people, and there is always some kind of social pressure when interacting with other people. Therefore, I cannot completely divorce identity from social pressure. And if I stopped interacting with other people, then I think the entire notion of orientation or gender identity, among other identities, would become pretty useless to me.

That is not so say that all kinds of social pressure are okay – I think some kinds of social pressure are harmful, including the type of social pressure Coyote describes – and I think it is beneficial to reduce or eliminate harmful social pressures. What I am trying to say that even identities which are partially shaped by social pressure are still valid.