This past fall I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the Transcending Boundaries Conference. It was a weekend of exploration, camaraderie, and bridge-building with members of the lesbian, gay, trans, poly, kinky, and asexual communities (among others). To say that I walked away from the conference a changed person is to understate the experience. I had meant to post about the conference back in November when it occurred, but I’m still processing all of the experiences and thoughts I had then and now. Thus, I’ll be sporadically returning to write about the event over this next year as ideas move themselves from the ineffable to the articulate-able categories in my brain.
The keynote speaker for the 2010 TBC event was Lee Harrington. If you’re not familiar with him or his work, please see his website PassionandSoul for one of the most fascinating reads you’re likely to have in a long while. The conference presenter biography he provided reads thusly, “Lee Harrington is a passionate spiritual and erotic educator, gender radical eclectic artist and published author and editor on human sexuality and spiritual experience. […] Along the way he has been a brainy academic, a female adult film performer, a world class sexual explorer, an outspoken philosopher, and an award winning author and artist.”
On the last day of the conference, I made a point of attending Lee’s workshop on labels and identity entitled “What Labels Give Us, What Labels Take Away.” The description of the workshop made quite clear that it wasn’t going to be a lecture-style event, and participation, notebooks, and pens were recommended. From the very first question Lee asked to start the discussion, I began to feel like I was falling down a very dark and very scary rabbit hole. The question: What do you think is the purpose of a label? I racked my brain for one of those articulate answers that I felt was required of me as a Smith alumna while at the same time noting the suggestive nausea eating a pit in my stomach. Eventually, I managed to bravely raise my hand and stutter a response. I believe that labels act as a tool to succinctly verbalize boundaries and needs. Not a bad response.
I’d come to this answer not by any serious mental introspection, but through complete gut reaction. Somehow in the space of three minutes in a room with Lee Harrington, I had been startled out of my usual intellectualism into instinct and experience. My answer came out of my own feelings of what I want others to understand when I say that I am an asexual person. I want them to simultaneously understand my boundaries (sexual) and my needs (non-sexual intimacy). No sooner had I congratulated myself on my ability to think while simultaneously engaging in a fight-or-flight response, than the “two” of the one-two punch came swinging down with crushing clarity. Lee had asked, “What label do you use in your heart and mind that you do not use in the world?”
My answer? One word, sensual. Why sensual?
I don’t usually like to admit that parts of my life are circumscribed by fear, however, sometimes it is simply the truth. When asked by others to define my sexuality, I am quick to identify myself as asexual. The speed of that response hinges on the “boundaries” part of my earlier definition of a label. This is where the fear comes in. Frankly, I do not want anyone mistaking me for someone they can convert, coerce, or persuade. I don’t want to be considered shy, inexperienced (and in need of a guiding hand), or sexually embryonic. [As an aside and thought experiment, think of how you would respond to someone who said they were sensual and asexual. Would you think their asexuality wasn’t real or that they were just a late bloomer?] I want others to understand that sexual attraction is simply not something I experience, and that makes sex a very rare (if not absent) act in my life. My “outward” label is my way of ensuring I’ve defined my boundaries. But what about my needs? Where do they find a label, and how is it expressed?
I said above that I want others to understand my need for non-sexual intimacy when I identify as asexual in the world, but is that really something I can generally expect that word to connote? I’d say that I like others to infer this intimate need from the label “asexual,” but I’d also admit that it’s not likely to be the predominant reaction. With the exception of very few lovely friends, the response I’ve most frequently received to my identifying my sexual orientation is a mixture of sadness and disbelief. I believe both of these responses come out of a very real inability of the label to convey the needs aspect of the equation. People usually don’t believe in asexuality because they assume that it is inherently human to experience sexual desire (and thus seek sexual consummation), and the sadness comes in when they evaluate the positive effect sex and sexuality have had on their lives and then subtract it from mine which sums up to a worrisome lack.
I all too often feel in these moments that language leaves people in the position of two ships passing in the night with running lights off. I often want to say, “If you would give me a half hour of your time, I could explain it better, and then you wouldn’t be sad.” What I want to do is show them that sensuality and sexuality can be teased apart, and that, if they are honest, both form the underpinnings of how they enjoy their lives and bodies and those of their lovers. If I could just have that time, I could then grasp onto the concept of sensuality and inject it into their notion of asexuality. I could finally combat the notion that asexuality necessarily means not desiring romantic love, shared vulnerability, mutually unfolding mystery, and yes, physical pleasure. However, I very rarely have the half hour that I need, nor do I have an audience willing to chart those waters. Thus, my needs find themselves defined via the label “sensual,” but only internally.
I’d like to take these last two paragraphs to stake out some territory for my own internal label. I’m letting this little buddy out into the light of day. As I usually say right around this point, this is ONLY my interpretation, and not that of the entire asexual community. Caveat, caveat, caveat. Let’s move on. I am an asexual person (just in case you hadn’t noticed by now). I am also a sensual person. These two identifications are not contradictory for me. My experience of asexuality does not include detachment from my body. Asexuality for me does not inherently mean fear or distaste of things physical. In the same way, it does not mean a distancing of myself from the physicality of other people, especially those towards whom I am affectionally attracted. My asexuality also does not mean that I cannot love, am unwilling to love, or am afraid of loving. Asexuality is not aversion.
My sensuality means that I often revel in the physical. Every morning I lay in bed for a least a half hour after my alarm has sounded so I can curl up in the sunshine under my warm duvet in my high thread count sheets, kicking my feet back and forth to enjoy the softness. I’m notorious for taking extremely long showers, luxuriating in the warmth of the water on my skin for (literally, sometimes) hours. I have had a long-standing love affair with port, coffee, and coconut macaroons. I shiver with delight when I listen to someone speak with pure, clear diction and a deep velvety voice. I love to embrace the people I love, and sometimes those I just like. I once instituted “morning hugs” and “evening hugs” at my workplace, because I thought we all needed to experience affection and touch more. I have sat in the arms of someone I loved and let myself soak in every aspect – the warmth of body, the smell of skin, the sound of voice – feeling at that moment like bliss might be something containable and tangible. I love like I breathe: autonomically, deeply, and because if I don’t, I’ll die.