Good times with the NCSF, a lecture update, visibility blitzing, and some more on community based intimacy. Hold on ‘cause this is Episode 10: The Masturbation Paradox.
Recently the asexual community has been receiving a lot of press. From 20/20 to the View to the New York Times, a lot of people seem fascinated by the previously boring topic of not having sex. As a community, we’ve had to put together a sort of public relationships strategy. Generally speaking we try to steer the interviews towards more emotional topics- relationships, coming out, fulfillment and other life experiences. Talking about arousal and masturbation makes the discussion clinical, about our bodies rather than our lives, while talking about emotional topics highlights our humanity. It invites audiences to empathize with us rather than clinically dissecting us. But inevitably questions keep on coming. Do asexual people experience arousal? Do they masturbate? Do you? How can someone masturbate and call themselves asexual?
It’s high time we gave them a good answer.
Asexual masturbation is something of a paradox. Ask almost anyone, and they’ll tell you that it’s a sexual act. It involves sexual arousal, sexual pleasure, often times it even involves orgasm. It makes up a significant chunk of the sexual activity that happens in the world, and is a vital part of the sexuality of most sexual people. If sexual desire is just the desire for sexual pleasure, then masturbation is by far the easiest way to act on it. No long courtships, no emotionally complicated relationships, no fancy clothes and pick-up lines and alcohol, just a little free time and (usually) a private place.
In a sense, the desire to masturbate is the purest form of sexual desire out there. If you genuinely, truly, JUST want to get off then there’s no reason to involve all of the complexities of other people. Pure economic logic tells us that if you put in all of those long, grueling hours for sex with a partner you’re looking for something more than an orgasm that’s just a broom closet away. Partnered sexuality is adulterated with all sorts of nonsexual egos, expectations and emotional needs which take turns either enhancing or detracting from the Good Stuff. Unpartnered sexuality is easy, direct, to-the-point and pure. If sexuality is just the desire for sex, then people who only masturbate should feel like the most purely sexual people on the planet.
Rather inconveniently, people who masturbate and don’t have sex with other people tend to call themselves asexual. We can’t say this universally, but currently the asexual community is the only place where these kids of people have gathered together to talk about it in any number. These people don’t identify with sexuality at all. Unlike most people, who consider masturbation sexuality and sexual desire to be central motivating factors in their lives, people who only masturbate tend to think of their sexuality as nonexistent. They spend their time hanging out and sharing an identity with people who experience no sexual arousal at all, or who experience sexual arousal and are never motivated to act on it. These people relate to one another’s experiences, use the same terms to describe themselves, struggle with the same problems and swap the same strategies to tackle them, and they do it all in a community founded by someone who masturbates and calls himself asexual. What’s going on here?
It’s tempting, though ultimately pointless, to try and correct this situation. You could crash into the asexual community wielding badges of scientific, medical or imagined authority and demand that all of the masturbating asexuals pack their bags and truck off to a conceptually consistent set of terms. Not only would this be wrong (because it would deny masturbating asexuals their right to self-identity) and pointless (because there’s no way to create a division in the community if masturbating and non-masturbating asexuals don’t see one), it’s a textbook case of changing the facts to fit the theory. To make sense of this paradox, let’s take a step back to our ideas about sexuality and sexual desire.
In the asexual community, asexuality is about more than how you feel about sex. There is no litmus test, no way to examine your own internal wiring (or lack of wiring) around sexuality and scientifically state whether or not you are asexual. Asexual identity is viewed less as a label and more as a sort of toolbox. If the word “asexual” works, if it helps you understand yourself and describe yourself to other people, then you pick it up and you use it. In the asexual community you meet people with all sorts of tips and tricks in their toolboxes on everything from coming out to nonsexual flirting, and you swap and experiment until your asexual identity has evolved to perfectly fit your lifestyle. In the asexual community identity is constantly evolving and changing as people pick up new terms and ideas and send old ones off to be recycled.
Why do most people in our culture identify more strongly around their race and their gender than around their eye color and their blood type? Is it because race and gender are more biologically relevant? Of course not. Most people are made to think about their gender and their race on a daily basis, and about their blood type a maximum of a few times a year. Most of us are forced to think about our race and our gender- and about the problems which arise around them- almost constantly. As we grapple with the problems put in front of us we create tools to address them. How we use these tools begins to shape our lives, we being to feel a common bond with those sharing our struggle and before long we find ourselves embroiled in a full-fledged identity. More than mere labels, identities that matter come equipped with a full set of ideas, terms, and collective wisdom that can let us take on even the most daunting of challenges.
What if sexuality is about more than just liking sex? What if sexuality, like asexuality, is a sort of identity? Any sexual 8th grader can tell you that sexuality is fraught with emotional hazards. Starting young, most people devote an intense amount of time and energy to figuring out how to happily fit sexuality into their lives. They swap ideas and tricks, experiment, and fill up a personal sexual toolbox chock-full of the skills and knowhow required to gracefully deal with a wide range of sexual situations. If our examination holds it’s people’s identities, their “toolboxes” and not the contents of their underwear which serve as the locus of their sexuality. When someone kisses their boyfriend they think about it with ideas and terms from the sexual toolbox, and the experience feels “sexual.” Swap kissing a boyfriend for kissing a mother and, oedipal complexes aside, people think about the situation with tools and concepts from another, nonsexual toolbox.
In this scenario it’s easy to see why masturbation is so sexual for so many people. Arousal and orgasm by yourself feels a lot like arousal and orgasm with another person, and it’s no surprise that people use very similar concepts and terms to describe the two. Once you’ve spent those hard adolescent years feeling out a place for sexuality in your life, it’s no surprise that for most people masturbation fits nicely into the picture.
But think back- was masturbation really the cause of all that frantic, awkward adolescent identity-building? It is, after all, just a matter of some spare time and secluded corner. Masturbation is easy, far too easy to spark the development of a full-fledged sexual identity. At the end of the day sex is simple, it’s the relationships where it happens that are complicated. From High School cafeterias to Sex and the City people are struggling with the complicated things that happen when you mix sex with other people, not the fairly straightforward things that happen when you have it by yourself. If relationships are the name of the game, kids who only masturbate will feel out of place in conversations about sexual intimacy and right at home with people exploring complicated emotions and relationships without sex. Without a sexual identity to contextualize it, masturbation would become nothing more than an amusing pastime, a momentary distraction unrelated to the complicated and daunting task of living in as an asexual person in a highly sexual world.
The important lesson here isn’t about masturbation or asexuality, it’s about the nature of sexuality itself. Is sexuality as simple as a raw biological desire? When (and if ) we feel it, are we feeling what all other people feel and have felt through human history? Or is sexuality more complicated? Is it an identity: a frenzy of ideas, problems, strategies and (often contradicting) desires unique to each person at each time in their lives? Either definition is valid, just make sure to choose the one that’s most useful.