Please note: The following post details my own personal experience and interpretation of that experience. I do not speak for all asexuals, and I definitely don’t speak for all who have practiced in the Christian faith. I am not an ordained priest, nor am I a Biblical scholar or holder of any degree of theology or divinity. I don’t claim to know all aspects of all Christian denominations. I am not endorsing or denouncing Christianity as a religious practice. I am simply engaging in a descriptive exercise. I reserve the right to believe as I do, and I respect and fight for the right of others to believe and practice, or not, as they wish.
Part 1 here
A spiritual advisor of mine once stated that the beginning and end of most religious philosophy is the nature of humanity. Whether that philosophy goes on to expand on the nature of humanity’s relationship with God, other people, or the world, the start is always an operational definition of what it means to be human. These characteristics are then further reified by their attribution to the will/act of God in creating humanity. Any subsequent deviation from agreed-upon qualities is thus considered unnatural, or not in keeping with God’s design plan. If you sit down with a Christian religious representative – whether a priest, pastor, reverend, monk, or nun (and I have conversed with many) – sexual attraction/desire will almost always be on this list of human attributes, even if a diversity of objects of that desire is recognized.
Depending on the denomination, the responses I have often received upon broaching the topic of asexuality range from the old-school “it’s an unnatural defiance of God’s will” to the more psychologically-informed “it’s an unhealthy aversion.” Such responses rely heavily on the idea that God’s design in human creation includes experiencing sexual attraction/desire. The reasons for God’s working this into the mix can also be varied, but usually reduce to ensuring procreation, solidifying marital intimacy and connection, and sharing the God-given gift of sexual joy in a committed, loving relationship. Once again, there is a conflation of attraction with action. When it comes down to it, all of these statements make it clear that sexual attraction/desire is normalized as a characteristic of being human, and not experiencing it makes one just that little bit inhuman.
On a more personal note, you can probably imagine what I faced when I announced to my potential Superior (they’ve done away with the “Mother Superior” title) that I really wouldn’t have a problem with the vow of celibacy, since I don’t experience attraction and don’t generally desire sex. My personal take on this was that everyone finds some religious vows more difficult than others, so while someone else might find celibacy and poverty a problem, they were the ones about which I had no worries. Obedience and charity were what kept me up at night. The actual reaction I received was an immediate, knee-jerk suggestion that something was wrong with me that might make me unsuitable for religious life. Seriously, I don’t know how many times the Superior reminded me that I’d have to pass a psychological evaluation before being admitted to the order. Just for informational purposes, my inevitable decision against pursuing a vocation was actually not due to this attitude, but a whole constellation of considerations.
The second breakdown of the “religion accepts and encourages asexuality” argument comes back to the perceived relative spiritual worth of asexuality versus celibacy. In the most simplistic of terms, celibacy is seen as strenuous test of spiritual mettle – the spirit waging a just war against the baser instincts of the body. (Trust me when I say I don’t personally subscribe to this judgmental spirit/body dichotomy). Asexuality, however, is viewed as easy. When there is no attraction/desire to fight against, the spiritual value assigned to the celibacy of the asexual is negated. This attitude is behind all the stories of the lives of the saints. Saint Benedict’s trial in the desert because of lust for a women he saw in the city is considered a spiritual triumph in the writings of Saint Gregory the Great. Saint Francis’ famous run-ins with the rose bushes to avert temptation are part of his legend as much as his love of animals. The fight of the religious devout (or even the average practitioner) against “giving into” sexual attraction and desire is framed as a fight with sin and evil. Where there is no desire/attraction, there is no sin or evil in the equation. And Christianity, being a philosophy of dichotomy, thus asks the question, if there is no evil, where then is the good which opposes it?
I have to admit that because of my own experiences, I get a little riled by questions like the one posed to me at Transcending Boundaries and the assumptions that it makes, even though I simultaneously know that others may not be as well-versed in the language of both communities as I. I think when we consider systems like religion, philosophy, or even politics and law, we too often fail to remember that there are very circumscribed definitions of “humanity” and “good” behind them. When we do not interrogate these concepts fully, we make mistaken assumptions as to who enjoys the privileges assumed to be conferred by such systems.
From the peanut gallery: My dear Archivist has rightfully pointed out that I have not considered historical context in this response. As she suggests with her usual perspicacity, “In the past [religious] orders could have offered [an asexual] a haven from marriage obligations and possibly education, etc. Sexuality, especially for women, was differently perceived, so they could probably have moved through the good/evil dichotomy of sexual desire with more ease. Modernity has changed so much of this.” She may write her own post on this in the future, at which point I will link with fervor.