The last time I popped through America, I wound up in a hipster jazz bar in Iowa (just wait, it gets more improbable) where I met a boisterous 22-year-old. “I have something to tell you,” she said after a few minutes of enthusiastic face-sucking. “I’m … asexual.”

“Asexual” is an identity label donned by a small but growing community to describe their disinterest in sex and sometimes also romance. They emphasize that for them this is not due to medical, psychological or emotional issues, and say that instead they have a perfectly viable alternative sexuality — i.e., little to none.

Fortunately I had actually heard of this before and didn’t miss a beat. “So, what kind of asexual are you?” I inquired.

“I like making out, obviously,” she replied. “And fondling and cuddling, but nothing else sexual.”

So we messed around a bit more then we went our separate ways. For me, kissing without sex is as pointless as tasting and then spitting out a fine wine; for her, it’s the summit of sexual expression. (She’s not alone as an asexual who enjoys kissing — though she kissed like a Brazilian whereas many of the other asexuals who do kiss seem to prefer a less slobbery, more chaste version.) She and I were fundamentally incompatible, and it was great for both of us to know that and move on to better things.

An asexual activist at a pride rally in America. Photo by  Davidgljay.

An asexual activist at pride rally in the USA. Photo by Davidgljay.

Few people seem to have heard of asexuality, especially back home here in Europe, where I’ve lived for most of the last decade. So I’ve recounted this episode a few times, and the responses are curious:

“She’s just looking for a long-term stable relationship; after that she’ll want sex,” an Italian woman told me. Not likely, I’d argue; this asexual Iowan seemed to rather love random bar hookups.

“She’s had too many bad experiences with men,” a French woman said. Possible — but she seemed quite positive and open to me.

And from a French guy: “She’s frustrated that she can’t get any so she just claims she doesn’t want it.” This theory was self-evidently false.

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I think these and other responses to asexuality boil down to projection. When presented with any new and unusual sexuality, we have a reflex to pathologize it, and often in such a way that’s framed by our own personal complexes. Asexuals must have something wrong with them: I bet they have my own sexual hangup times a thousand. They’re just closeted homosexuals, they just don’t know how to have an orgasm, they’re self-aggrandizing attention-seekers, they’re embarrassingly bad in bed.

This line of reasoning is not unlike the closeted homophobes whose main concern seems to be that everyone would turn gay if there weren’t religious prohibitions. It’s so tempting to assume that deep down, everyone else is just like us, or maybe a bit worse. Human sexuality doesn’t work like that though; I tend to see it instead as a vast metropolis of tiny, unlit dwellings, and behind every door there are creepy/fascinating new worlds of desire.

All that said, I do think that this particular asexual Iowan may have been something of an attention whore; the flamboyancy and self-satisfaction with which she pronounced her alternative sexuality was but one clue. She also flashed her boobs to the bar early in the evening, and the man she eventually chose to make out with was the loudest in the bar — himself a flamboyant, semi-Europeanized attention whore. So maybe in her case, the asexuality claim was a way of asking for more attention — but then again, maybe I’m projecting.