A version of this post was originally published on May 26, but, upon reflection, I decided I wasn’t happy with it and decided to re-write parts of it. Apologies to those who read the original version and “Liked” it, only to have it disappear on them. The changes are mostly to the beginning and to the final paragraph.
For more on my frustration with labels, including ones related to race and gender, see my article “Expecto Patronum: Seeking Identity in a World of Labels”.
Content Warning: This post is largely about celibacy that is not chosen, i.e. involuntary. This includes a discussion of how “involuntary celibate” is used in misogynistic discourse and how this usage denies and delegitimises the sexual desires of people who aren’t straight men.
Short for “involuntary celibate”, I first heard the word a few short weeks ago. Its use was to describe heterosexual men whose failure to find sexual partners had driven them to anger and, often, hatred of women. I find this sad, given that the term was originally coined by a woman and had nothing to do with misogyny.
I also find it sad because “involuntary celibate” describes me at least as well as “asexual” does.
The appropriation of the word “incel” as a rallying point for misogynists is offensive for several reasons. It implies that only straight men experience sexual rejection and unwanted celibacy. It perpetuates the myth that women do not have sexual desires – or, if they do, that they never have any difficulty getting those desires met. It denies women, queer men, et al. their sexual appetites, their sexual disappointments, and their sexual frutration. And, by associating involuntary celibacy with hatred and violence, it reinforces the sense that celibacy is shameful – even though celibacy, voluntary or otherwise, is nothing to be ashamed of.
For me, claiming the “involuntary celibate” label is further complicated by the fact that I am also ace-spectrum. Identifying with asexuality, the state of not wanting sex, makes it hard to explain that I sometimes do want sex, or that the celibacy I share with so many of my fellow aces isn’t actually my preferred state. But sexual desire, relationships, and behaviour are complex, and not always reduceable to either/or categories. It’s not that I think dichotomies like “asexual”/“allosexual” and “voluntary celibate”/“involuntary celibate” are meaningless. But, like so many others – “white person”/“person of colour”, “cisgender”/“transgender” – I find them, at best, an awkward fit for my own experience.
The term that describes my sexual orientation is “demisexual”. This basically means that I’m asexual except on rare occasions when I meet someone, get to know them, and start to feel attracted to them. At such times, I become very sexual, but only towards the one person. Because demisexuality is non-normative, it’s considered an ace-spectrum identity. But what’s less often talked about is that it’s also a sexual identity. I experience sexual attraction and desire the same way allosexuals do. I just experience them in different circumstances.
In terms of functioning in mainstream society, the “ace” part of demisexuality presents an obvious problem, but so does the “sexual” part. The “normal” way to form sexual relationships is to find people you’re attracted to, engage in sexual/romantic behaviour with them, and build a relationship based on that. This dating system is really rigged against demisexuals, who usually need to be in a relationship before experiencing sexual attraction, and may therefore focus more on forming friendships than sexual romances. Far from enabling demisexuals to find sexual partners, the standard system may actually hinder them from doing so. In other words, many demisexuals may end up celibate – and not by choice.
We like to say that in modern society it’s easy to have sex, but that’s not really accurate. It’s easy if you conform to certain normative standards and play by a fairly strict set of rules. But for those who fail to conform, it can be very difficult. Trust, commitment, and intimacy are still hard to come by, and if you require those things before engaging in sexual activity then your options are limited. And all the self-satisfied rhetoric about how we’re now “free” to engage in sexual expression without those things sounds less like a celebration of sexual liberation and more like a demand for emotional self-denial.
That being said, my celibacy is not all society’s fault. Given that I can literally count on one hand the number of crushes I’ve had, the fact that none of them has been requited is not, statistically, surprising. Being introverted and socially awkward doesn’t help in terms of making new friends. And I have rather stubbornly refused to play the game by society’s rules. Wearing make-up, removing facial hair, dressing alluringly, drinking alcohol, embracing hook-up culture, joining dating sites – these are all things I don’t do because, in the end, I would rather be comfortable in my own body and do what I enjoy than spend all my energy seeking out a sexual partner I may not find and don’t really need.
Because demisexuality is less important to my sense of self than being platoniromantic. “Platoniromantic” means that I take my platonic relationships just as seriously as most people take their romantic relationships. This does not mean that sex is of no interest to me, but it does affect the relative importance I place on it. For me, sex is not a prerequisite for intimacy, affection, and companionship. And so it’s possible to have fulfilling relationships despite being celibate.
What these two characteristics – being demisexual and being platoniromantic – have in common is that they both find themselves up against a society that devalues friendship. This makes it simultaneously difficult to find sexual partners and difficult to form truly fulfilling non-sexual relationships. In fact, I would say that I find modern sexual norms very frustrating – both as an ace person and as a sexual person.
So I’m not celibate by choice, but I have made choices that have kept me that way. I identify as ace-spectrum, but I also experience sexual attraction, desire, and frustration. It’s complicated. But I think, in the end, what matters is that I deserve to live in a society where my lifestyle is respected, my desires allowed, and my choices validated – even if that lifestyle is celibate, those desires are frustrated, and those choices lead to not having sex.