An Aspen in a Forest of Pines: Thinking through Asexuality

I first met Chris Krycho after he reviewed Earthen Vessels and proceeded to grill me about it.  He’s a thoughtful fellow and wrote the following.  As I had been planning on addressing the same piece soon, I asked if I could post Chris’ insight instead.  I am grateful and honored he agreed.  For more, follow Chris on Twitter.  

In an interesting piece in The Atlantic last week, Rachel Hill highlighted David Jay and his organization, the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network:

But what all asexual people have in common — and what defines asexuality as an orientation — is that, while they may have a desire to connect with other people, asexuals have no desire to connect with them sexually. Asexual people are not the same as celibate people: it’s not that they are purposefully or unintentionally abstaining from sex they would otherwise like to have, but rather that they have no interest in it.

The article is fascinating on several levels: its examination of asexuality as a “sexual orientation,” its exploration of the idea that for some people, sex just isn’t that important (however odd that may seem in our society), and its recognition that a sex-defined culture is perhaps not always beneficial. Hill’s conclusion is a bit breathless in its hope that this small but growing group of people who identify themselves as asexual will serve as correction to the current tendency to reduce personal identity to sexual identity:

In other words, you might want to have sex five times this week, or you might not want to have sex at all. Your experience of desire might be intensely physical, or it might be indistinguishable from emotional attachment. You might experience next to no attraction for years, and then find yourself consumed with another person. At one point in your life, sex might be the ultimate thrill; at another, it might be boring and routine. And all of it is okay, and none of it marks the essence of who you really are.

I’m not convinced: asexuality may be a negative definition, but it’s still an identity in sexual terms, as highlighted by the author’s comment that “turning [asexuality] into a positive identity was a radical act.” No doubt it was: to reject the prevailing culture narrative is a brave move, but the author misses the forest for the trees. Yes, the asexual movement stands out against the sexual obsession of our age, but as an aspen in a forest of pines. They’re both still trees. Asexuals are still self-identifying in explicitly sexual terms, even if those terms are negative. In a post 1960s world, any negation of sex seems shocking, but the movement offers only antithesis; synthesis remains elusive.

Put bluntly, that is our fault. When David Jay creates an organization to gather and support asexuals, he highlights the church’s failure to present the truth that is most apparent in Jesus himself: sex is not the sum of our existence. Even in his embrace of asexuality as an identity, Jay remains trapped by sexual centrality in our culture.

One of the most important points Matthew Lee Anderson made in Earthen Vessels is how the church has completely bought into our culture’s outstanding narratives about sexuality and identity. Rather than offering up a Christ-centered vision of human flourishing and personal being that includes but is neither grounded in nor circumscribed by sexuality, the church has kowtowed to a cultural vision in which we basically are our sex drives. The Christian sex manuals and sermons and seminars are our way of shouting to the world, “Look, we like sex, too! We have good sex, too! And ours is actually better than yours, because we’re good Christians who got married before we had sex! (Well, maybe.)”

The problem with this, at Matt pointed out in a chapter that ought to be required reading for everyone, is that it simply does not match the picture God paints for us in Scripture. Yes, sex is good and yes, it is an enormous blessing in marriage. But sex is not essential to human flourishing. This should be obvious, and if we had a more robust Christology and a more thoroughly biblical anthropology, it would be. If Jesus is in fact the ultimate man, the living, eating, breathing definition of human flourishing – and he is – then his chaste celibacy matters. It stands as a stunning rebuke to American society’s obsession with sex and our proclivity for self-definition in terms of sexual motivations.

Consider not only the extent of sexual saturation in society, but also the extent to which the entire gay rights movement is predicated on the notion of sexuality as central to identity. The primary thrust of the various queer arguments in the public square is simple: “This is who I am. How dare you criticize that?” If the church often seems unable to mount a coherent response to this argument, it is because the church, in its teaching and its approach to sexuality, basically agrees. No amount of shouting, “Christ is your identity!” will overcome decades of practical push in the other direction. In its attempt to overcome apparent (and sometimes actual) prudishness, and in its rush to defend marriage against a culture assaulting it, the church has centralized sexuality in most Christians’ understanding of their lives. As Matt put it:

We implicitly convey to young people that sex is a need by marginalizing those who are single or cordoning them off in singles groups so that they hopefully will get married. Then we expect them to live some of the most sexually charged years of their lives without yielding to temptation. No wonder young people struggle to stay sexually pure: either sex is essential to their flourishing as humans or it isn’t. And if everyone who is married thinks it is, then young people will too—regardless of whatever else we tell them.

This places an enormous burden on those who remain single, as the church has offered no intellectually or emotionally compelling alternative to the narrative of marital sexuality for personal flourishing. In a culture whose chief idolatry is sex, this is catastrophic. The church has no prophetic answer where it is most desperately needed. Again:

I realize there are deep difficulties here, not the least of which are discerning the call of singleness and establishing structures and systems of support within the church for those called to it. But the absence of visible, lifetime singleness within our communities suggests that our affirmation of marriage and the goodness of sexual pleasure have overstepped their boundaries. We cannot affirm the goodness of the created order as Christians without also seeing how it has been caught up and renewed in Christ—which those who are called to celibacy bear witness to by their lives and their love. A church without singles has lost one of its main ways of warning against a sexual idolatry that has driven the whole world mad.

The tragedy is all the greater because the church has a unique capacity to speak to precisely this issue. Only Christianity both values human sexuality as a genuine societal and personal good and values celibacy as a genuine societal and personal good. Paul can write to the Corinthians both that he wishes all were single as he was for the sake of the kingdom and that marital sex is good and to be given freely and joyfully between spouses. Scripture paints a full picture of human sexuality – from the debased to the beautiful – and at the same time provides striking images of God-glorifying celibate men and women.

The church can offer powerful comfort and encouragement to men and women who do not experience sexual desire: this is not a bad thing, whatever our culture may say. Moreover, we have the resources to offer this encouragement without the sort of sexual equivocation Hill offers in The Atlantic. This “orientation” is not good simply because all orientations are good; it is good because it is a gift, meant to be used for the glory of God (see Matthew 19:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 7:7).

The church has an answer for the sexual maladies of our culture, but we must first jettison the idea that we’re going to win people over to the church by being sexually hip, and we must reject our culture’s toxic equation of identity with sexuality. To reiterate a point I made earlier: we need a more robust anthropology, one that is grounded in a more robust Christology. Christ’s humanity, his incarnate life, is not less significant than his death and resurrection. There is no better picture of human flourishing than in Jesus. Accordingly, there is no better prophetic answer to our culture’s obsession with sex than to get back to Jesus. He made sex, and he lived in chastity. Only in Christ can we see how sex and chastity are both truly good without being ultimate. I’ll let Matt close, as he said it better than me: “Marriage points to Genesis, singleness to Revelation.”


Further reading:

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  • http://www.chriskrycho.com/theology/ Chris Krycho

    I’ll be around, reading and responding to any comments people might offer. No promise of speed, though.

  • Brian Lakin

    I’m an aspen by choice. The reason I chose this life was to have more time to serve in ministry and to study. However, an aspen has to decide how he or she want to interact in the church and in society. My decision to be an aspen was to teach the next generation about our God Ps.48:12-14. Rewards are great when you see your students excede beyond yourself.
    By being an aspen I was able to give my students more of my time to thier intrests; sports, theology, history and to pray for them.
    I also like to cook and my local church knows that, enough said. If the local church will let the aspen use their talents for Gods’ glory, that church will be a little bit richer.
    One question for either Chris or Matt, Was C.S. Lewis an aspen?

    • http://www.chriskrycho.com/theology/ Chris Krycho

      I appreciate this response a lot, as it exemplifies just how good the church could be (but usually isn’t) in this area.

      If the local church will let the aspen use their talents for Gods’ glory, that church will be a little bit richer.

      This. So many times over, this. Jesus’ comments in Matthew 19 seem to be driving at exactly this point. Some of us are aspens (“ace” in the queer community’s terms) by birth, and others have chosen it for the sake of the kingdom. This is a hard teaching, Jesus says, and obviously the church’s response bears that out, with its historical variation in demands: all celibacy, or all-consuming marriage. Neither is great.

      On Lewis, I would say no. If I recall correctly, he was quite promiscuous in his youth. I have no idea how sexual his relationship with his wife Joy was, but I see no reason to suppose it was asexual (and if it was, it was probably unbiblical, at least during the times she was healthy, consider Paul’s instructions to married couples in 1 Corinthians 7).

  • http://jdavidcharles.wordpress.com Joshua Charles

    As someone who identified as asexual for most of my life–which is a difficult identity with much confusion, misunderstanding, and hurt surrounding it–I would like to add that it is precisely by claiming asexuality as *a* sexual identity that the asexual community aims to question precisely what we mean by identity and sexuality (as you seem to be advocating). Simply by using the prominent discourse of sexual identity politics doesn’t mean that the asexual community (nor other lgbtqqia communities) are conflating sexuality with identity.

    By asexuals being able to find a community of those like them and affirm their existence and voice–two things which are made invisible in the discourses of sexuality–allows precisely the means, strategies, and tools by which to subvert this discourse. Organizations like the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network provide a space precisely for a re-centering, questioning, opening up of possibilities of what sorts of identities are and can be when asexuality is not silenced. To lump asexuality into “the forest” of other sex-positive identifications is to commit this very same sort of silencing and further misunderstanding about asexuality.

    I guess, ultimately, the problem I see here is a conflation of sexual frankness or explicitness about sex *with* sexuality when these two are of course very different terms. From my experience as identifying as asexual (although I did receive poor treatment from members of queer communities) it was the broader chistiannormative compulsory heterosexual community with it’s implicit and unspoken taboos that caused the most grief. It was precisely within this context that I was shamed as perverted, outcast, and blamed. In other words, it was the sexual compulsions of their heterosexuality, which they were unaware of–it’s privileges contingent upon the suppression of non-straight identities–that caused my identity to appear so “sexual” (when it was anything but!) and other.

    Long story short. To identify as asexual isn’t to say “identity” is a wholism, non-constructed, erratic, interior, and isolately sexual. RATHER it’s to say that one of the means in which facets of an identity are *communicated* within our society is through our sexual and erotic and romantic and tactile relations with other human beings. Asexuals are *forced* by a broader sexual hegemony to confront this in a radical way that oftentimes others do not–they are labeled, shamed, assaulted, etc, precisely for being who they are (and from my personal experience by Christian heterosexuals). Thus, yes, it is a radical act to speak an identity that is silenced by a society that privileges the Christian and the straight. Is asexuality meant to codify the whole of the asexual’s subjectivity in terms of sexual explicitness? Of course not. It’s a means of communicating, a label, one that is radical, forcing it’s way into a discourse that for too long has denied, shunned, and silenced it’s existence.

    • http://www.chriskrycho.com/theology/ Chris Krycho

      Joshua, first let me say: I’m sorry that you got the reactions you did from Christians. That’s one of the things I’d like to combat, and that sort of reaction in general has been one of my pet peeves about the church’s interactions with people outside the marriage narrative – whether simply single or actively identifying as some variety of “queer.” I think some of the work Matt did in Earthen Vessels was a good push in that direction, and I would like to think this little post (insignificant though it may be) is as well.

      Now, taking your final summary statement, I found a lot to agree with but some to disagree with as well. You wrote,

      Asexuals are *forced* by a broader sexual hegemony to confront this in a radical way that oftentimes others do not–they are labeled, shamed, assaulted, etc, precisely for being who they are (and from my personal experience by Christian heterosexuals). Thus, yes, it is a radical act to speak an identity that is silenced by a society that privileges the Christian and the straight. Is asexuality meant to codify the whole of the asexual’s subjectivity in terms of sexual explicitness? Of course not. It’s a means of communicating, a label, one that is radical, forcing it’s way into a discourse that for too long has denied, shunned, and silenced it’s existence.

      I wholeheartedly embrace the aims you suggest here, and I agree that it is a radical action to reject the normativity of sexual identity in our culture.

      But it seems to me that one of the major differences between my and other Christians’ and AVEN or other asexuals’ approach to the question of sexuality and identity is one of strategy. I’m simply not persuaded that the tools, strategies, and means of existing queer discourse are actually capable of subverting our culture’s ongoing fascination with sex. (I say that while recognizing my own limited engagement with queer politics as opposed to gay politics, a distinction David Jay made in a comment on my original copy of this post.) It seems to me that what is needed is a prophetic disruption from a community standing outside, over and against, the standard critical and popular means of discourse that have sustained the current worldview.

      (It is of course an open question whether evangelical Christianity is capable of fulfilling that role. Without a substantial change in precisely the areas I identified in this post, I don’t think it is – but my hope is that it will be, since it very well can be and certainly should be.)

      I also would suggest that Christiannormativity and heteronormativity are not actually the problem or the source of the hostility you encountered. Indeed: while Christianity is indeed heteronormative, it also includes unique resources to support and encourage people experiencing what you have experienced. Unfortunately, and this is the major thrust of my post, Christians have failed to embrace those tools and instead largely embraced the prevailing cultural narrative – whether friendly or hostile toward queers (largely along theologically liberal and conservative lines, respectively), sexual identity and activity has assumed to be central. The result of that failure has been the hostility you encountered, but I would (and did) argue that this is the result of a failure to appropriate the existing resources within Christianity and a consequence of evangelicals’ embracing of the cultural narrative. If Jesus and Paul both exemplify the value of chaste celibacy, and Christians actually recognized and ran with the intellectual and emotional consequences of their lives and their teachings – which fully value “eunuchs” (Jesus’ term in Matthew 19) and marriage – we’d have a vastly different situation. It might also make for substantially different approaches to other queer identifications.

      And for what it’s worth, I’ve seen some other good moves in that direction over the last few years, including from people who consider themselves same-sex-attracted but don’t identify as gay and are living as “eunuchs” within the Christian community. While I’m not opposed to the ex-gay movement at all (and would call it quite biblical), I think there’s room for a much wider variety of responses to non-heterosexuality within the confines of Christian orthodoxy.

      All that said, I want to reaffirm my appreciation for and agreement with the asexuality movement’s broader aims as both you and David Jay have identified them in reaction to this post. Our disagreement on strategy shouldn’t preclude an active and vibrant discourse and interaction, and I sincerely hope that said discourse provokes a more loving and Christlike response from Christians to asexuals. Furthermore, I hope that it provokes evangelicals to actually appropriate the broader resources we already have in our own tradition for understanding human identity in non-sexual terms and for valuing a broader set of options than “SEX IN MARRIAGE! SEX IN MARRIAGE! SEX IN MARRIAGE!” (Lest I be misunderstood: I like sex in marriage and think that’s the only place sex belongs. But that’s not the point here.)

      Thanks for the pushback. I’m just getting my feet wet here, and I’m provoked already to pursue a better understanding of the various queer communities and their aims.

      • http://jdavidcharles.wordpress.com Joshua Charles

        First, thanks for taking the time and care to respond to my comment. That said, this seems to sum up our differences well:

        Once again I draw the distinction between “fascination with sex” and “sexuality” which are radically different things. Asexuality it is true brings up sex, speaks about it, addresses it; however, it is not a sexuality. Asexuals do not experience sexual desire (or at the very least they experience it in a markedly different way than hetero/homo/bi/et al-sexuals). Thus, if I am to presume from the above given information, as a heterosexual man (pardon if I’m assuming awry–just consider it hypothetical) you *are* sexual. Heterosexuality, after all, is a sexuality. This doesn’t mean you have sex all the time, are “fascinated” by sex, or are or are not “chaste.” It simply means sexuality is something you communicate and move in. Heterosexual practice and discourse are a part of your life. People probably read you as heterosexual and afford you the privileges thereof. You *are* sexual whether you talk about it or not.

        You were brought up by and in and are a product of a sexual culture. Simply to *disagree* with this culture or actively try to restructure it does not cut you off from it–you are embedded just as I am embedded in it. This doesn’t mean we can’t critique of course, in fact I think this is a very fruitful and necessary conversation, but it means there is no culture over there, away from us. It’s *our* culture. And this culture of ours affords certain people privileges (in this case heterosexuals) contingent upon the underprivileging of (queer) others. No matter how much we as individual subjects distance ourselves and critique this cultural climate it will still distribute power and privilege the heterosexual over the queer (without radical systemic change).

        Yes, there is a cultural fascination with sex–who’s doing what kind and why. But this is only *one* of the components people presume when affording privilege to a heterosexual position. The ways in which you interact with people on a day-to-day basis, regardless of intention or your awareness, establishes, produces, repeats, and identifies your heterosexuality as well. You don’t need to have public queer sex to face discrimination. If you doubt this, just try holding hands or kissing someone of the same-sex in public–it’s a very simple experiment–and see how others treat you.

        I don’t mean to lead you down rabbit trails, but I do this to make a point. Heterosexuality and its privileges are much more tangible and definite to someone outside of it. It’s something *you* may not experience as conforming, normative, privileged, but these things have noticeable contours to someone on the outside (like from an asexual perspective). One of the things a queer perspective does is approach this general atmosphere of heterosexual privilege (and queer underprivilege) and names and defines these things that oftentimes heterosexuals are unaware of.

        Heterosexuality is an hegemonic institution not only regarding discourses *about* sex but practices encoded as sexual (like holding hands). Thus asexuality and queer sexualities are “fascinat[ed] with sex” only insofar as heterosexuality as an institution is fascinated with silencing and obliterating our sexual identities. It’s hard to talk about *our* oppression without naming the weapons of our oppressors. Thus asexual identities are very concerned with sex as it is the grounds of their exclusion and marginalization. To not talk about it, to not address it, is to suffer in silence.

        • http://jdavidcharles.wordpress.com Joshua Charles

          WOOOOAHHHH block quote FAIL. Sorry! That was meant to begin as such:

          First, thanks for taking the time and care to respond to my comment. That said, this seems to sum up our differences well:

          “I’m simply not persuaded that the tools, strategies, and means of existing queer discourse are actually capable of subverting our culture’s ongoing fascination with sex.”

          Once again I draw the distinction between “fascination with sex” and “sexuality” which are …

  • TimDG

    Interesting post, Chris. One question: doesn’t Hill’s remark that “none of it [varying levels of interest in sex] marks the essence of who you really are” sort of agree with your point that sex is inessential to human flourishing?

    This may be an obvious point, but it’s important to keep in mind that not only is asexuality not the same thing as celibacy, but also, not all asexuals are celibate. (Actually, some asexuals even masturbate.) I don’t really know anything about CS Lewis’ personal life, and I imagine he was probably straight, but the fact that he may have been intimate with his wife does not, in itself, entail that he was straight. Actually this might be an interesting issue for further discussion: how might the church relate to people who have romantic but not sexual attraction?

    • http://www.chriskrycho.com/theology/ Chris Krycho

      Tim, this is a good point. I think Hill is starting to head in the right direction there, but it seemed to me that her view was more naive than anything else. It’s great that she recognizes that sexuality isn’t and can’t be everything – but I don’t think that the asexuality movement is going to be nearly as influential in cracking that edifice as she seemed to suppose. (This goes to other comments as well, I think.) Obviously I can’t speak for her, just what I saw in the piece.

      On Lewis, your comment seems to highlight one of the other major pitfalls I see in our culture’s understanding of sexuality: its obsession with defining people as “straight” or some variety of “queer.” If Lewis was heterosexual and had ordinary heterosexual relations, on what basis would we classify him as anything but straight? And why the need to define it in those terms anyway? It clearly wasn’t the central point of his identity – but neither is my “straightness” the central point of my identity. I’m not sure what trying to couch the discussion in those terms accomplishes other than the continuation of the same problem: identification in terms of sexuality and a greater import given to emotional ebbs and flows than to a Christ-shaped life, whether sexually active or not.

  • TimDG

    Thanks for the post, Joshua. Well worth thinking about. Personally, I have a little difficulty seeing why anyone, Christians included, would feel the need to mistreat, harass or shame someone for being asexual, but I’m sorry that you had to go through that.

  • http://www.chriskrycho.com/theology Chris Krycho

    Just an FYI: I’m still around, and will get back to these comments… at some point. My 33-weeks pregnant wife was in a car accident this afternoon, and while everyone is gladly okay, everything since 3pm has taken a bit of a different turn than expected. Thanks for your patience. :)

  • Anonymous
  • TimDG

    “If Lewis was heterosexual and had ordinary heterosexual relations, on what basis would we classify him as anything but straight?”

    Well, a number of homosexual people have been involved in non-celibate opposite-sex marriages. (See the wikipedia entry “Mixed-orientation marriage.”) The point is that asexuality is an orientation, not a behavior: some asexuals have sex not because they have any sexual attraction to their partner but because their partner wants to have sex.
    That being said, I have no particular reason to think Lewis was anything other than straight, but the way you’ve phrased your question seems either confused or question-begging since “heterosexual” and “straight” are often viewed as synonyms. But I assume you mean “If Lewis was heteroromantic and had ordinary heterosexual relations . . .”

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