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3.1 Early Mentions

Through a chronological revision of a selection of news items, journal articles and talk shows, this chapter illustrates the attitudes towards asexuality presented in the media and the shift in the presentation of the concept of asexuality throughout the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century. Examining the way asexuality is perceived in non-fiction media can provide a basis to approach the discussion about how asexuals are represented in fictional narratives and offer help in interpreting the portrayal of asexual characters on television. The selection of 20th-century secondary sources was limited due to the fact that asexuality as an orientation or as a concept has not been greatly present in media at that time. The section on the early mentions of asexuality thus contains as many relevant articles as it was possible to recover through available sources. The section on the 21st-century representation of asexuality focuses predominantly on the US-based media to provide a relevant backdrop for the analysis of the US television fictions in the 21st century. The articles and television programs selected are presented chronologically and aim to illustrate the most prominent ideas and directions in the development of the media debates on asexuality.

Most of the articles used as secondary sources were found through World Watch, a subsection of the AVEN forum which functions as a library of asexuality in newspapers, magazines and on television. Even in 2017, members of AVEN still express excitement over mentions of asexuality and contribute to the World Watch with links and quotations from relevant media coverage. The World Watch archives are divided based on the year of publication or airing, with the first subsection labeled “Pre-2002”. This can be attributed to the fact that the late 20th-century world, preoccupied with the acceptance and promotion of human sexuality, would not have concentrated in great detail on individuals lacking sexual attraction or seeing no interest in pursuing sexual relations. In addition, asexuals comprise such a small percentage of the population that before the emergence of the Internet, it would have been less likely for an asexual person to meet someone of the same orientation, or even possess the language to describe their experience. Data published by the US Census Bureau provide some insight into the emergence of Internet use among the general population in the United States.


Forty-four million households, or 42 percent, had at least one member who used the Internet at home in 2000. This proportion was up from 26 percent in 1998, and more than double the proportion of households with Internet access in 1997 (18 percent), the first year in which the Census Bureau collected data on Internet use.

(“Home Computers” n.p.)

The asexual community, predominantly based online even nowadays, thus lacked a consistent platform to communicate and connect prior to the beginning of the 21st century. For this reason, any conversation about asexuality happening before the emergence of AVEN would have been carried out mostly on a small, private scale, rarely reaching the non-asexual population through more than firsthand personal contact with a person identifying or behaving as asexual.

Nevertheless, asexuality was not completely absent from the society and, by extension, from pre-2002 media, just as it was not completely absent from academic articles, as we have seen in previous chapters. A 1978 front page of The Village Voice, a weekly New York newspaper, held the title “Asexuality – Everybody’s Not Doing It”.

In this article, Arthur Bell explored what he understood to be a modern trend of forgoing sexual activity. He interviewed several people, most of whom identified as asexual, even though the understanding of the term seemed to rely heavily on choosing celibacy as a way of achieving greater productivity in one’s career instead of asexuality as an innate sexual orientation. A psychiatrist quoted in the article denied the existence of asexuality, saying that “asexuality means nonsexuality, and nonsexuality doesn’t exist” (Bell 20). Furthermore, he claimed that asexuality or nonsexuality was either a result of various physical or mental conditions, such as diabetes and depression, or merely an appropriate response to an intense environment of working in business and politics. While these claims are less than surprising when examined against the backdrop of the scientific views on asexuality during that period, it is worth noting that the medicalization and dismissal of asexuality continued well into the 21st century.

Additionally, Bell blamed the decrease in people’s sexual activity on overt accessibility of sex in the contemporary society and media, and asked “what makes an asexual[?] Are they spottable? Are they crabby? Serene? Spacy? Are they all Jewish?

Do they own lap dogs?” (Bell 1). These questions appear to correspond with some of the most prominent stereotypes about asexuals, such as the belief that they are likely to be unhappy, religious, or somewhat detached from the problems and realities of


everyday life. The detachment was emphasized by the fact that Bell’s interviewees were predominantly people working in the entertainment industry – traditionally viewed as bohemian, nonconformist, with unconventional lifestyles. Non-asexual interviewees either urged Bell to differentiate between “impotence, which is not being able to get it up; celibacy, which is self-afflicted abstention; and dry periods”, making no space for asexuality as it is understood nowadays, or claimed that asexuality was “the first step you take when you decide to become nonhuman” (Bell 20) in an example of sex being perceived as an essential part of being fully human. One writer spoke about how he would prefer to be asexual if he could: “Think of all the time and energy spent in the search and consummation – and the hangovers of sex. Think of the books I could have written, the photographs I could have taken” (20) – while such an assumption could be viewed as stereotypical and harmful nowadays, conflating asexuality with time-saving measures was actually an astute observation considering the responses of the self-identified asexual interviewees in the article. These people did not evaluate asexuality in terms of sexual orientation at all. An owner of a dance club spoke about working 16 hours a day, citing business as the reason for asexuality – the same as an actress who claimed to have no time for sexual relationships in her line of work: “Career takes away from sexual energy. You can either have a nice sex relationship or be completely selfish about your work. You can’t have both. […] There’s no time for a man” (Bell 20).

Asexuality, or as Bell called it, “the ‘70s malaise” (20), was portrayed as a rational choice of people prioritizing their careers.

Interestingly, this article also indirectly linked former New York mayor Edward Koch with asexuality. Elected in 1977, Koch served three terms and came to be infamously known as the mayor who in 1981 refused to acknowledge the threat of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) epidemic spreading through New York (Humm n.p.). Koch garnered attention in regard to his uncertain sexuality throughout his political career, as evidenced by attitudes presented in The Village Voice article. Bell described a situation where a reporter from The New York Times asked him for confirmation of the rumors of Koch’s homosexuality. However, when Bell replied that there was “no evidence, nothing concrete through the gay grapevine”, the reporter said: “Poor Ed […] That’s what I was afraid of. If only he were gay, or something, or anything. Our next mayor, I fear, is asexual” (20). Frank Langella, a heterosexual Broadway actor interviewed in Bell’s article, spoke on the subject of Edward Koch in a similar manner: “I would be


more sad to find that Koch was an asexual than if I knew he was gay” (Bell 20).

Asexuality appeared to warrant pity, sadness and even fear, to such an extent that Bell mentioned another reporter who had the mayoral candidate followed for two weeks, attempting to find out about his sexuality – to the man’s disappointment, “Koch did nothing but campaign and sleep” (20). People expressing concern about Koch’s asexuality, even stating that they would be happier if he were homosexual instead of asexual, bring to light an attitude towards asexuality that could very well be connected to the perceptions of masculinity and capability of the mayoral candidate.

Subconsciously, the question was not whether or not Koch was hetero- or homosexual:

the underlying concern was that if Koch failed to be sexually active or even aggressive, a trait stereotypically associated with hegemonic masculinity, would he be man enough for leadership? Edward Koch never came out and denied the claims of his homosexuality until his death in February 2013, despite several people’s claims in a 2009 documentary that he had a male lover who had to leave New York when Koch became the mayor (Humm; McFadden). Whether Koch was homosexual, asexual, or any other variation of sexuality, the truth is that the articles about his death invariably mention possible homosexuality (if they touch the subject of sexuality at all), despite the fact that in 2013 the asexual spectrum was no longer an alien concept and thus could have been a part of the speculation about the former mayor’s orientation. One possible reason for the omission of asexuality from speculations about Koch’s life is that the journalists writing about the mayor were unable to reconcile the image of a politically powerful male figure with asexuality.

Asexuality did not gain much presence in the media of the 1980s and early 1990s, despite the existence of people who either identified as asexual at the time or would have claimed the label, had it been more accessible or discussed, as evidenced by AVEN’s Older Asexuals subsection. The gradual popularization of the Internet over the course of the 1990s brought greater anonymity as well as the possibility of exploring one’s identity from the comfort of one’s home, and mentions of asexuality can be found in various advice columns of the pre-2002 era. A short article on the webpage Australians Abroad from March 26th, 1999 expressed mild dismay over the emergence of asexuality in New York, citing American puritanism and New Yorkers’ lack of time as the main reasons (“The New Minority” n.p.). The anonymous author ironically asked if “there just weren’t enough sexual preference groups around”, then proceeded to speak in a sarcastic manner about advice columns where asexuals were writing with hopes of


having their orientation validated (“The New Minority” n.p.). The cynical question

“Why should I take the asexuals more seriously than the amputee fetishists?” insinuates that clinicians and psychologists were not the only hurdle asexual people had to overcome at that time on their way to comfortable vocabulary about their experiences.

A much more direct, and more positive, example of advice on asexuality would be “Ask Beth,” a relationship and sexuality column for teens published in The Boston Globe. In May 1999, Elizabeth Winship, the psychologist who ran the column, received a letter from a woman who labeled herself as heteroplatonic, a term she used to denote that she desired to have male friends more than female friends, but without any romantic attachment, and asked why people could not seem to grasp the concept of non-romantic friendships with the opposite sex (Winship, “1 May” n.p.). This letter shows that in the last years of the 20th century, people were discovering that the commonly known identities of that time could not accommodate the needs of every human being, and that creating new labels for themselves might be a meaningful and rewarding pursuit. Nowadays, the woman would likely find the term aromantic useful: back in 1999, she had no choice but to create her own terminology to describe her experiences.

The loneliness of standing outside of any known community of like-minded individuals is apparent from the signature this woman used in her letter: Anybody Else Out There?

is a blatant cry for understanding and inclusion. Winship, who was praised for being

“modern […] compassionate [and] tactful” (Dickinson n.p.), responded with advice both worthy of her reputation and yet visibly rooted in the predominant view on asexuality at that time: she claimed that everyone was individual in terms of sex and friendship and advised the woman to meet new people and make friends who would not judge her. While Winship apparently acknowledged the possibility of people experiencing friendship and sex in different ways, she still offered possible causes for the woman’s asexuality, such as meeting the right person or a history of sexual abuse, mental health issues, and hormonal imbalance. However, considering the absence of late 20th-century research on asexuality, one can hardly hold such views against a psychologist writing an advice column nearly two decades ago. It is also worth noting that Winship clearly put the decision about whether or not to seek treatment in the reader’s hands: the wording hints that the crucial criterion for treatment would be the woman’s distress over her asexuality, i.e. the feeling of missing out on something, or a negative self-image caused by her lack of sexual desire.


In October 1999, two people wrote to Winship in response to the letter from May. One of them stated their intent to let the woman know that there were, indeed, more people out there with similar experiences. This person claimed to be asexual and uninterested in romance, while still capable of rewarding relationships. The person also went on to describe that their closest friends did not have any problem dealing with asexuality, even if there were occasionally people who responded with “unkind words”

or said “there’s ‘something in my body language’ that makes them suspect that I am gay, or unusual in some sexual way – because few people give a thought to people being asexual unless they are priests” (Winship, “9 Oct” n.p.). The second letter was from Transgendered and No Longer Confused, who suggested that the asexual woman was actually transgender and that she should see a specialist to “explore where her true problem might lie”. According to this person, “many girls like her waste large portions of their life thinking something’s wrong with them because they don’t ‘act like girls’

before discovering that their inner beings are actually male” (Winship, Oct 9 n.p.). Both letters serve as examples of how the public expression of one’s sexuality and romantic feelings can tie in closely with how one’s gender identity is perceived in a heteronormative society, not necessarily only by cisgender and heterosexual people.

From this point onwards, more and more people sought advice on asexuality, whether it was related to their own lives or someone they knew. In 2000, one of the questions in an advice chatroom with Dan Savage, a sex advice columnist, was: “Do you think it’s possible for a person to be asexual?” (Savage, “May 21” n.p.). The person was asking about a male friend who never talked about dating and was seen as effeminate, gay, or an eternal 10-year-old, highlighting the importance of expressing interest in dating, i.e. romantic and/or sexual relationships, for the perception of masculinity in an American male. Once again, a connection was made between a person’s gender expression, in this case that of perceived femininity, and their sexual orientation. Savage’s reply corroborated the assumption of the man’s homosexuality by implying that asexuality is merely a mask to hide one’s actual orientation:

Most of the people I know who are ‘asexual’ had same-sex orientations. When someone denies their sexuality, or denies themselves a sexuality at all, there is usually a reason. Straight people are less likely to feel conflict about their sexuality, so when you meet someone who’s in denial or appears to be asexual, well, odds are better that he or she has a homosexual orientation.

(Savage, “May 21” n.p.)


Savage, who is not a certified psychologist, did not even mention the usual concerns:

hormone levels, mental health, or meeting the right person. Instead, his explanation stems from the apparent belief that asexuality equals willful denial, repression, or internal discord with one’s homosexual orientation. He offered the same advice in the chatroom in 2003, when someone wrote to demand answers about a colleague’s sexual orientation:

Not that it matters, but the million dollar question around our office is the sexual orientation of one of our co-workers. Our office is pretty open, (there are many open heterosexuals among us), but this one guy is a complete mystery. There are even some who postulate that he is asexual.

(Savage, “March 5” n.p.)

Despite the fact that the message started with words “not that it matters”, by the end it became clear that this person’s orientation did matter to all the colleagues, acquaintances and friends who wanted to figure him out and were willing to spend quite some time speculating, even asking Savage for advice on how to proceed in solving this mystery. Savage’s reaction was slightly contradictory: on the one hand, he advised the people to leave their colleague alone and stated that “when he wants you to know about his sexuality, he’ll tell you” – on the other hand, he rehashed his previous ideas about asexuality being nothing more than a cover for homosexuality and said “were this person my co-worker, I would assume he was gay and let it go at that” (“March 5” n.p.).

It is interesting to note that in both instances when someone wrote to Savage about an acquaintance’s possible asexuality, it was about a male friend or coworker, indicating that a man not displaying sexual interest in women was immediately a source of suspicion about his sexual orientation, labeled effeminate, childish, or a mystery to be figured out at all costs.

Despite Savage’s questionable advice given about potentially asexual people, neither of these instances came close to his reply to a 2003 letter from a young man who sought advice on how to establish close, intimate relationships with other men without sex. The column was originally posted on a gay-oriented website PlanetOut.com, which is now defunct. The young man, who called himself Andrew, explained that despite being emotionally and sensually attracted to other men, sexual relationships were always frustrating for him, and that he wanted “a meaningful, long-term, monogamous relationship that’s intimate but nonsexual” (“Action Alert” n.p.). He did not ask for orientation on how to change these feelings, but wished to know how he could find


someone who wanted similar things out of a relationship. Savage’s response was aggressive and dismissive from the start: he claimed that “healthy, functional people”

only had intimate nonsexual relationships with friends and family, and called Andrew

“one fucked-up dude”. Then he proceeded to inform the young man in a condescending tone that unless he found “a guy who got his balls shot off […] [he was] unlikely to ever meet a guy who will settle for the screwed-up non-sex life [Andrew was] proposing”, indicating that it was impossible for any man to be content without regular sexual activity. Savage concluded the letter by advising Andrew to seek out psychological help and until then “not to inflict yourself on anyone” (“Action Alert” n.p.). This piece was seen as not only misinformed but also highly offensive in the asexual community at the time. Several AVEN members chose to send their own letters to Savage, explaining that

“one fucked-up dude”. Then he proceeded to inform the young man in a condescending tone that unless he found “a guy who got his balls shot off […] [he was] unlikely to ever meet a guy who will settle for the screwed-up non-sex life [Andrew was] proposing”, indicating that it was impossible for any man to be content without regular sexual activity. Savage concluded the letter by advising Andrew to seek out psychological help and until then “not to inflict yourself on anyone” (“Action Alert” n.p.). This piece was seen as not only misinformed but also highly offensive in the asexual community at the time. Several AVEN members chose to send their own letters to Savage, explaining that