Finding Asexuality in the Archives

Asexuality is often considered a recent invention of the internet. But a closer look at queer history proves “aces” have long existed IRL.

An asexuality pride flag along with other flags.
PeskyMonkey/iStock/Getty Images Plus

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

In 1981, a woman named Catherine Kobaly wrote a letter to the feminist newspaper Heresies. She thanked them for their recent issue that centered marginalized sexualities but added, “I also felt a bit left out, for among the many points of view represented, I was unable to find one with which I could identify wholeheartedly.”

Kobaly was asexual, she wrote, and so were most of her friends. She recounted wrestling with shame over her identity, noting that mainstream American society promoted the notion that “the lack of a sexual partner, and especially the lack of a history of sexual partners”—a possible signifier of asexuality—“is seen as a negativity, a lack, an expression of the incompleteness of a human being.” For years, Kobaly had watched gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual activists parade down Fifth Avenue as part of annual Pride celebrations. Her concern was that the asexual community needed to experience the same kind of visibility and confidence. As she explained to the editors of Heresies, “It would be a lot easier to refute these messages, to say, ‘I am what I am and there’s nothing wrong with it,’ if we asexuals had the help of a support group [focused on solidarity] such as lesbians and gay men have.”

The mere existence of Kobaly’s letter shatters a pernicious stereotype. Because modern asexual organizing has largely happened on the internet, some commentators have defined asexuality as the first “internet orientation.” But these framings perpetuate the myth that asexuality is a new phenomenon, borne out of a series of internet forums and Tumblr posts. In reality, history is crammed with people talking about their complicated relationships to sexual or romantic attraction, and in countless queer spaces in the 1960s through the 1980s, “asexual” was a recognized and valid self-identity. That history, however, has very rarely been told.

Today, activists consider asexuality a spectrum. While the oft-repeated definition of asexuality as “experiencing minimal to no sexual attraction” captures the experiences of a segment of the asexual community, it does not align with everyone. Some asexual people experience romantic attraction; some do not. Some asexual people, particularly demisexuals, might feel sexual attraction under certain circumstances; others do not experience it at all.

Admittedly, identifying early instances of asexuality can come down to acts of interpretation. Historical figures have long discussed their low levels of sexual or romantic attraction, even though they did not use terms like asexual. Some asexual researchers have found asexual resonances in the writings of 17th-century French poet Catherine Bernard or 19th-century British suffragist Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy. Since the 19th century, the medical profession has also diagnosed people who expressed little interest in sex with “sexual anesthesia” or “sexual coldness.”

In the U.S., one of the earliest explicit references to asexual identity came courtesy of Carl Schlegel, a German-born reverend and one of the first modern gay activists in the U.S. At the turn of the 20th century, Schlegel issued pleas for queer equality that specifically invoked asexuality. “Let the same laws for all the intermediate stages of sexual life: the homosexuals, heterosexuals, bisexuals, asexuals, be legal as they are now in existence for the heterosexuals,” Schlegel said in a speech composed in 1907. The famous sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld also used the term, writing in “The Role of Homosexual Men and Women in Society” in 1920 that “we must (if this were possible) describe” philosophers like Immanuel Kant “as being asexual.”

Fast-forward half a century, and the emerging literature on queer identity made frequent references to asexuality. In 1952, the magazine Transvestia claimed that, while most trans people “are entirely heterosexual,” “some are also asexual.” By way of explanation, Transvestia in 1965 published a short description of what it termed the “A-sexual Range”—perhaps an early prototype of the asexual spectrum—in which it noted, “There are persona who simply have a very low libido—no sex drive to speak of.”

Transvestia, written by and for the trans community, was not the only example of trans people openly identifying as asexual. In an October 1970 article on trans liberation, the Philadelphia newspaper Gay Dealer wrote that “Trans Lib”—short for transgender liberation—“includes transvestites, transsexuals, and hermaphrodites of any sexual manifestation and of all sexes—heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and asexual.” At one feminist conference in 1973, women and nonbinary people were asked to wear a label choosing one of several identities: “Straight, Lesbian, Gay, Butch, Femm, Asexual, Anti-sexual, ?, other, etc.” Asexual researchers recently located a photo from a similar conference in which Barnard College activists asked attendees to “choose your own label instead of having someone do it for you.” Among the listed options was “asexual.”

Some early discussions of asexuality cropped up accidentally. In 1971, the Village Voice published what it intended to be a parody article titled “Asexuals Have Problems Too!,” but in a flurry of letters to the newspaper, readers embraced what they assumed was a frank discussion of asexuality—suggesting a widespread curiosity about asexual identity. “Now I don’t know if I’m an asexual or not, but I know that when many of my friends are claiming to be staving off their primitive, lustful desires, I’m spending most of my time trying to reassure myself that I have them,” one anonymous reader told the paper. Soon after, queer zines began making occasional references to asexual identity—the beginnings of what would prove to be a profound link between zine-making and the asexual community.

Illinois State University professor Ela Przybylo, in her book Asexual Erotics, highlighted a feminist effort in the 1960s and 1970s to swear off sex. In the latter half of the 20th century, the rise of publications like Playboy helped to usher in a new era of sexual openness—at least for white, cis, heterosexual men. As Przybylo has documented, this shift turned public displays of sexual desire into a social necessity. A 1962 book, for instance, chastised women who embodied a sexual “frigidity.”

In response, feminists began rejecting the need for sex at all. Valerie Solanas, in her 1967 SCUM Manifesto, identified sex as an invention of the patriarchy that should be sworn off in pursuit of other tasks. The women of the predominantly Puerto Rican activist group the Young Lords withheld sex in order to win over demands; black feminists like Toni Cade Bambara, meanwhile, critiqued sex for reaffirming a strict gender binary.

The rise of these critiques inspired one feminist, Lisa Orlando, to publish “The Asexual Manifesto” in 1972. Orlando’s interpretation of asexuality may not align with today’s dominant definition—Orlando frames asexuality as a political reaction to the patriarchy, rather than a deeply held identity—but she does note that the longer she and her friend Barbara Getz have avoided sex, “our need for and interest in sex diminished.” She casts sex “as a means of self-deception, as a way of avoiding real closeness rather than achieving it.”

Orlando, Bambara, and others were advancing a critique that the 21st-century asexual movement would later center, according to Przybylo: Interest in sex is not, and should not be, a social norm. “Even though they are articulating it as a temporary thing, a lot of them are still putting forward this critique of compulsory sexuality that is really resonant with asexuality,” Przybylo told me.

“The Asexual Manifesto,” at least, struck a chord with people who more closely matched today’s understanding of asexuality. One writer, the gay liberationist Greg Turner, cited it in a 1976 essay outlining his search for an identity label. Turner described feeling minimal interest in sexual for long periods of his life. A friend told him about the manifesto, and it briefly inspired him to identify as “asexual.” Ultimately, Turner settled on the term “monosexual,” which he defined as “akin to Asexuality”—“simply relying on oneself for sexual enjoyment without a dependence on others.” (Today, monosexual more generally refers to people who prefer sex with one gender, like gay or straight, as opposed to bi- or pansexual.)

Although there does not appear to have been a formalized asexual liberation movement in the 20th century, the idea was not foreign. In a 1978 book review, the Gay News literary editor Alison Hennegan noted that people have the right “not to be sexual at all” and quipped, “These days, there’s a strong case to be made for Asexual Liberation.”

By the time Catherine Kobaly wrote her letter to Heresies in 1981, references to asexuality peppered the historical archive. Though asexuality is rarely discussed in traditional history books, my research suggests that asexual identity has been part of queer activism for more than a century. The only reason people still dismiss asexuality as an “internet orientation” is that this history is barely disseminated—not because it isn’t there.

While few remember it today, Kobaly’s vision of an activist network of asexual-identified people would prove to be especially prescient—the intellectual forbearer, perhaps, to modern groups like AVEN, the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network. As Kobaly told the editors of Heresies, she combated social stigma by forming groups with other asexual-identified people. “If more of us could make contact with each other, it would help immeasurably in finding ways to deal with the problems in our lives,” Kobaly wrote. “If we can attack these feelings of shame at their roots and get rid of them, then I believe we will see that there are just as many asexuals in the world as heterosexuals and homosexuals.” Even a decade before the internet, the first spark for the asexual movement had arrived.