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No Sex? No Problem

After Michael Jackson’s death, Brooke Shields called the pop star “asexual.” But does asexuality really exist? Jacqueline Jennings investigates the phenomenon of life without libido.

07.18.09 8:29 PM ET

When Ivy was 15, her boyfriend addressed her Valentine, “Dear Ms. No Hormones.” Ivy didn’t want to kiss, make out, or sleep with her boyfriend, and her boyfriend couldn’t understand why. Neither could she. “Around the same time people were noticing they liked boys or liked girls or liked both, I realized I didn’t like either.” Now, at 31, she still doesn’t want to sleep anyone.

“They say sex sells,” says one asexual. “That doesn’t work on me.”

Ivy, svelte and fair-skinned with waist-length blond hair, is a part of the approximately 1 percent of the population that, according to a 2004 study, identifies as asexual. “I think some people just assume that eventually I’ll get through this phase,” Ivy says, “I’ll find the right guy. The problem is, even if I live to be 115, they’ll say, ‘Oh, well, she never found the one.’ “

But Ivy is absolutely positive she’s not interested in sex, and rejects the suggestion she’s merely confused or sick. “When I answer the question honestly,” she says, “I want to be believed.”

The lack of understanding surrounding asexuality has kept members of the community largely invisible. But one very visible person who recently brought the term into the open was Michael Jackson, a sexual enigma until the day he died. Earlier this month, Jackson’s longtime friend, Brooke Shields, referred to Jackson as “asexual” in an interview with Rolling Stone. "As he grew older and the more he started to change physically, the more asexual he became to me,” she said.

Jackson, however, seems to illustrate a state of arrested development more than true asexuality, a character trait that mental-health professionals are currently debating the abnormality of. The term asexual describes a person who does not experience sexual attraction. They’re not necessarily celibate—they may have sex to “pass” or to please a partner—but they’re not personally interested in having sex. Whether this constitutes a “disorder” remains a subject of deliberation.

As for Ivy, she is celibate and thinks she always will be. “Nothing I've done could be construed as sex,” she says, happily. To those who would suggest she can’t dislike it until she’s tried it, Ivy retorts, “I'm as sure that I don't feel the attraction as any heterosexual person can be said to be sure they aren't interested in homosexual relationships. By that logic, they'd all have to try gay sex before they could say they didn't like it.”

For most people, such a mind-set is nearly impossible to comprehend. If the culture that surrounds us is any indication, a desire for sex motivates us more than any other single impetus. Sex inspires great works of art, sells soda and cars, and drives people to upend their entire lives, risking their marriages and careers. It brings out the best and the worst in us.

In that sense, a lack of libido might, at the very least, seem to make life easier. But David Jay, founder of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, says it’s akin to living in a country where you don’t speak the language. “I’ve spent time thinking just wanting sex would be so much easier,” he says. Still, he’s as sure as Ivy that he doesn’t want it. “I never think to myself, maybe asexuality is a lie, maybe I really like sex and this has all been a sham.”

And Ivy insists that even if asexuals are set apart by their lack of libido, it doesn’t preclude their participation in human culture. As a part-time writer, Ivy has produced novels in which romance plays a major role. “I can get caught up in someone else’s expression of love as long as it doesn’t have to do with me,” she laughs. “They say sex sells—that doesn’t work on me.”

What does and doesn’t "work” on asexuals, emotionally and psychologically, was the focus of Dr. Nicole Prause and Dr. Cynthia Graham’s 2007 study, Asexuality: Classification and Characterization. Prause, assistant professor of clinical psychology at Idaho State University, examined asexuals and found many had engaged in masturbation at some point. A similar 2008 study conducted by Dr. Lori Botto et. al. found that the frequency of masturbation among the study’s sample of asexuals was not far from the rest of the population.

But in both studies, the language asexuals used to describe masturbation and sex was clinical, even mechanical. One patient quoted in Dr. Botto’s study described sex with her partner as trying “to see what our body parts do to each other.” Botto posits that maybe asexuals engage in sex and masturbation for purely physiological reasons, to release tension or keep their partners satisfied.

Look at this way, it might sound like asexuals aren’t uninterested in sex as much as they’re uninterested in people. But Dr. Prause is emphatic that her research finds no evidence of psychopathology in asexuals. Instead, she says, “I honestly think it’s just part of normal human variability.”

Sara Beth Brooks, a high-energy San Diego community organizer, can testify to the medical community’s struggle with asexuality. Brooks has had several boyfriends throughout her life and isn’t a virgin. “I turned 18 and I started having sex with the guy I was dating,” she says. “And it was my choice, but I didn’t start doing it because I wanted to.”

At 21, Sara Beth was engaged (to a different man) and still not interested in sex. She underwent hormone treatments with progesterone and testosterone, and participated in talk therapy. It wasn’t until she learned about asexuality that things made sense. Now she identifies as asexual and feels that throughout her various attempts to feel sexual desire, “There was nothing wrong with me. It was just the way I was made.”

It seems asexuality would be a natural add-on to the ever-growing LGBT acronym. But Carrie Davis, the director of adult services at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York, expresses some uncertainty about asexuality as orientation. “We’re an institution that deals with sexual orientation. So if someone was lesbian, gay, or bisexual, that would be a sexual orientation.” Davis is quick to say she doesn’t feel asexuality can’t be an orientation, but where exactly it warrants intellectual and societal space is less clear.

One place asexuals don’t want to be included is in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, the new version of which may include asexuality. Jay says that, through AVEN, asexuals have been documenting their opinions and the opinions of “friendly” professionals on asexuality, and submitting these testimonials to the APA in the hopes that their input will keep asexuality out of the manual. They point in part to the fact that homosexuality, now considered normal, was classified as a disorder as recently as 1973.

But it might not be enough. As Carrie Davis from the LGBT Community Center points out, “Our culture is OK talking about straight and talking about gay. They have trouble with everything else in between.”

There is plenty in between. Even within the world of asexuals there are some, like Jay, who identify as “romantic,” and others, like Ivy, are “aromantic.” According to Ivy, aromantic means “I’m not interested in a sexual relationship with anyone, but I’m also not interested in a romantic relationship with anyone.” Sara Beth Brook is a "bisensual asexual."  She explains, “I basically like some things but not other things. I like kissing, I like cuddling, I like hand holding, I like curling up in bed next to my girlfriend.” Some asexuals are interested in romance, in long-term relationships and even physical affection—just not sex.

For a young asexual, the lack of clarity surrounding the word can be intimidating—David Jay seems invigorated by it. “For asexual people, there are no rules. It’s a blank slate. No one’s telling us how to do it right, no one’s telling us how to do it wrong, no one’s even telling us it’s possible.”

This vagueness leaves asexuals to make their own rules. A whole vocabulary of terms like aromantic and biromantic have evolved for asexuals to communicate relationship status. Social-networking sites like AsexualPals.com have been born out of the need for asexuals to feel less alone. Still, the notion of coming out as an asexual, campaigning for changes in the DSM, and identifying with a group is hard work. It would be far easier to let the world assume what it may. Ivy says that sometimes family or friends assume because she’s 31, single and not looking, she must be gay or just hasn’t found the right person. Why bother to explain it at all?

“It’s truth, it’s honest,” is her explanation. “I want to be honest.”