Asexuality Has Been Around Longer Than You Think: A Peek at the History of a Concept and a Word

Hi, everyone! I hope your week is off to a fantastic start! I know. I know. No one likes Mondays because the week's off to a new start. But you know what Mondays also mean? It's time for Monday Musings! Wherein I ramble about various and sundry depending on my whim or Patreon requests/suggestions. Posts are somewhere below 2,500 words at most and consist of short personal essays and discussions.

Asexuality Has Been Around Longer Than You Think: A Peek at the History of a Concept and a Word

Whenever people discuss asexuality, especially in mainstream outlets, there’s a good chance that the article or feature will, at some point, mention David Jay as the originator and point towards the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, founded in 2001, as the starting point of asexuality as we know it today, but the founding of AVEN is not, in fact, the first time anyone had ever heard of asexuality.

In this essay I will outline some key moments in history pertaining to asexuality as it is known and defined today. Exclusionists will often use the modern coinage of ‘asexuality’ by David Jay and the definition provided by AVEN as a way to discredit asexuality as a sexual orientation. It is too new, has never been a part of the queer rights movement. These arguments often look something like this

it wasn't until the  2000's asexual "activist" david jay began making the big push into the lgbt+ community claiming asexuals actually belonged there... btw david jay is known to be homophobic and misogynistic fyi (Unattributed)[1]

Ignoring the way nothing in this tweet forms a coherent argument, both the idea that asexuality did not exist prior to David Jay’s creation of AVEN and the idea that it was David Jay who began the association between asexuality and other sexual minorities are demonstrably false[2].

It is true that, in the English-language sphere, it was David Jay who created AVEN and it was, largely, David Jay who led the push to accept asexuality as a sexual and political minority in the early 2000s, but crucially Jay was neither the only person doing this nor the first to discuss asexuality. On a global scale, there are at least two earlier occurrences of the term ‘asexual’ that use the word in much the same way David Jay does.

As Andrew Hinderliter notes in his article “How is asexuality different from hypoactive sexual desire disorder”, before the creation of AVEN there was at least one other, older community: the Yahoo group Haven for the Human Amoeba. Around the same time, LiveJournal hosted two asexual communities: the community Asexual and, from 2002 onwards, the community Asexuality. Asexuality actually predates the creation of the AVEN forums by two months, as per the history mentioned on AVENwiki, AVEN’s own wiki.

While the modern definition of asexuality was more or less formed by AVEN and David Jay, it is important to note that he neither invented asexuality nor, indeed, the term ‘asexual’.

The history of asexuality is fractured by the ephemeral state of the internet and the etymology of words hampered by the fact that we can never truly know what the first use of a word is, only the first recorded use we have found, yet asexuality as a concept has been around as long as the modern concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality. That is to say, from the 19th century onwards, we start to find sexologists discussing sexuality in ways and from a lens that we are familiar with today, and the concept of asexuality has always been a part of these discussions.

In 1948, Alfred Kinsey et al. published Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male. Several years later in 1953, they published Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female. These two works together became known as The Kinsey Reports. Readers may be aware of the scale used in these reports because I refer, of course, to the Kinsey scale. Briefly, for those unaware, the Kinsey scale aims to demonstrate that sexuality exists along a spectrum from homosexual to heterosexual. The spectrum consists of 6 categories with an outlier, group x, for people who fall outside of the 6 sexual categories because they have “no socio-sexual contacts or reactions”. The definition of this group has a large overlap with the definition of asexuality.

If we assume that Kinsey’s work is, as many see it, the start of the sexual revolution, then it is notable that this work already included a definition that maps neatly onto the general definition of asexuality almost 50 years before David Jay coined the term ‘asexuality’.

Kinsey’s work, though, is not the only time we see the concept and definition of asexuality come up prior to the creation of AVEN and the internet-aided spread of awareness regarding asexuality. The research he and his team did is simply some of the most recognisable.

Long before Kinsey’s ground-breaking work, the sexologist Magnus Hirshfeld wrote a paper entitled “Sappho und Sokrates oder wie erklärt sich de Liebe der Männer und Frauen zu Personen des eigenen Geschlechts?”[3] under the pseudonym Th. Ramien. Hirshfeld was a German sexologist who published this paper in 1896. Since modern readers will (correctly) infer the title to refer extremely clearly to the concept of homosexuality, one may wonder what asexuality has to do with it. It is, after all, a paper that deals with homosexuality. Isn’t it?

It is, but it also includes the following line “Es giebt Individuen mit garnicht vorhandenen geschlechtlichen Begehren (Anästhesia sexualis), bis zu solchen, deren ganzes Sein, Sinnen und Trachten von ihrer Geschlechtsphäre beherrscht wird (Brunst, Bestialität, Hyperästhesia sexualis).” (p. 6) This line translates, roughly, to “There are individuals with absolutely no existing sexual desire (anaesthesia sexualis) to those whose whole being, senses and striving is controlled by their sexuality (lust, bestiality, hyperaesthesia sexualis).”

Apart from the fact that a sexologist in 1896 clearly defined sexuality as a spectrum ranging from a definition of asexuality to one of hypersexuality, that definition Hirshfeld gives of ‘anaesthesia sexualis’ sounds an awful lot like AVEN’s definition “an asexual person is a person who does not experience sexual attraction”. In fact, the only difference between the two definitions is that Hirshfeld uses ‘desire’ and AVEN uses ‘attraction’, and discussions about attraction and desire between asexuals will soon show you that there is a lot of overlap between people’s understanding of the two.

To stress and repeat, Hirshfeld was a 19th century German sexologist who studied the way sexuality occurred in humans. In 1914, he published Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes, an attempt to prove that homosexuality occurred in all human cultures, and throughout his life he fought for the rights of sexual minorities, believing that homosexuality was a normal and natural expression of human sexuality. (Asexuality, it seems, not so much.) As a note, Hirshfeld books were among those banned and burned by Nazis for their discussions of sexuality as a spectrum and the way homosexuality was a natural aspect of human sexuality.

In any case, in this pamphlet Hirshfeld may not use the words ‘asexual’ or ‘asexuality’ and, like many, he may not define what ‘desire’ means because like many he assumed everyone shared the same definition, but he certainly uses the same wording to define asexuality that David Jay and others would use over 100 years later.

Intriguingly, and with another leap in time, even the term ‘asexual’ is not unique to David Jay’s use and coinage, although it seems unlikely that David Jay was aware of this at the time. In the spring of 1991 in the Netherlands, the Gemeentelijke Pers Dienst (Municipal Press Service) organised a survey in conjunction with Leiden University and the Erasmus University. The survey appears to have been somewhat similar to the Natsal surveys that Anthony Bogaert would later use for his analysis of asexuality within the UK population. It’s known as ‘De Staat van het Land’ (the state of the land) and was conducted by psychologist R. Diekstra and economist B.M.S. van Praag. On the 9th of November 1991, Nieuwsblad van het Noorden (Newspaper of the North), published a full-page spread discussing the survey results. This newspaper was published from 1888-2002 and was aimed at the northern part of the Netherlands, published in Groningen.

One of the articles in this full-page spread is called “Anders geaarden hebben het niet makkelijk”. In English the title means something like “Those with a different nature don’t have it easy” and it is, as one would expect, an article on the troubles faced by people of a sexual minority.  The article mentions the percentages of people who identify as heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual.

And then a subtitle announced ‘A-seksueel’. It is similar enough to the English term ‘asexual’ that I doubt anyone will be surprised when I say that this is, indeed, the Dutch term for ‘asexual’. This section of the article about the struggles faced by sexual minorities – and I just want to stress that this is an article that is explicitly about people’s sexuality[4] – offers the reader a definition of asexuality: people who have no interest in sex at all. The article doesn’t include much more information that that, only noting that 1.5% of the men in the survey and 2.7% of the women identified as asexual. This is important because this implies that ‘asexual’ is a description used within the survey itself.

The full Dutch line is “Uit de enquête blijkt dat 1,5 procent van de mannen en bijna twee keer zo veel vrouwen (2,7 procent) zichzelf a-seksueel noemen.” This translates into “The survey shows that 1.5% of the men and almost twice as many women (2.7%) call themselves asexual”.

They ‘call themselves asexual’. For these people to call themselves asexual, the term asexual had to have been around in use, with a definition close if not identical to ‘does not experience sexual attraction’, in the Netherlands prior to the spring of 1991[5], which while it does not preclude that David Jay and AVEN may have been the origin of or the reason that the term ‘asexuality’ gained in prominence within the United States and, from there, the Anglosphere online, it also suggests that an etymological history of the terminology should dig deeper than these common held truths and that digging into this history would lead to a better and stronger understanding of not just asexual history, but global queer history as a whole.

But wait! Things get more complex. Part of what inspired this essay was stumbling across a few posts by Tumblr user tristifere, one of which was about a 1970s comedy sketch that features asexuality. The Dutch sketch comes from a programme known as Hadimassa. Hadimassa was a satirical programme broadcast from 1967-1972. It was a controversial show and much of the footage has been lost, but a 1970 compilation for the Montreux festival remains. The sketch about asexuals starts at 33:55 with a title screen that reads “Do you belong to the new minority?” The sketch then shows a man standing alone under a lamp and a voice-over talks about how this man knows he’s different and that he doesn’t have normal social contact, that he is part of “a new minority that screams for recognition”. The image then cuts to another title screen that says simply ‘The A-Sexuals’. The next shot has the asexual character describing how he learned that he was asexual and the clip – which I’ll remind everyone is from around 1970 – has him explicitly use the term ‘aseksueel’. It’s close enough to the English pronunciation that you should be able to pick up on its use even if you don’t speak Dutch.

While this is not an in-depth look at the way the term ‘aseksueel’ was used in the Netherlands in the past 50 years or so or how this modern Dutch use of the term ‘aseksueel’ relates to the research by Hirshfeld from the late 19th and early 20th century, it highlights the gap in knowledge regarding the origin of queer terminology and gaps in our knowledge of global queer history.

And, regardless, if nothing else it highlights how different people and different communities have all come up with similar ideas independently of one another as well as the concept that asexuality has, always, been a part of discussions regarding sexuality and sexual orientations. It may even have been a part of the discussions regarding sexual minorities from the very beginning.

References

„Anders geaarden hebben het niet gemakkelijk.” Nieuwsblad van het Noorden Zaterdagbijlage 9 November 1991: 36. Newspaper. 3 February 2019.

Bogaert, A.F. „Asexuality: Prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample.” Journal of Sex Research 41 (2004): 279–287.

Hadimassa (compilatie voor Montreux-festival). Art. Annemarie Oster, et al. 1970. Video. <https://www.vpro.nl/speel~WO_VPRO_032511~vara-1970-hadimassa-compilatie-voor-montreux-festival~.html>.

Hinderliter, Andrew. „How is asexuality different from hypoactive sexual desire disorder?” Carrigan, Mark, Kristina Gupta en Todd G. Morrison. Asexuality and Sexual Normativity: An Anthology. Routledge, 2014. Ebook.

Hirshfeld, Magnus. Sappho und Sokrates over wie erklärt sich die Liebe der Männer und Frauen zu Personen des eigenes Geschlechts? Leipzig: Verlag von Max Spohr, 1896. Pamphlet.

Kinsey, Alfred C., Wardell B. Pomeroy en Clyde E. Martin. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1948. Print.

Tristifere. Tristifere, comedy sketch from 1970 on asexuals is not so hilarious. 2015. 3 February 2019. <https://tristifere.tumblr.com/post/90490435564/comedy-sketch-from-1970-on-asexuals-is-not-so>.

End Notes

[1] The lack of attribution is, given that this is an online piece, for both my safety and that of the person who made the comment. In this case, Twitter netiquette has won out over academic fidelity. It is easy enough for people to find ace exclusionists making similar claims regardless if they look through ‘ace discourse’ on Twitter or Tumblr and the point is not to single out a specific person, but to highlight the way that this argument looks.

[2] Not that any aspect of this argument has any logical cohesion.

[3] Sappho and Socrates or how does one explain the love men and women have to their own sex?

[4] One of the Dutch words for sexuality is ‘geaardheid’. ‘Anders geaarden’ would literally translate as something like ‘differently-sexuals’ and more loosely as ‘people whose sexuality is different’.

[5] Modern use of ‘aseksueel’ seems to stem largely from English-language communities, but only research into the etymology of this particular meaning in the Netherlands and Belgium will shed light what is going on linguistically.