Written by Elle Windsor
A-spec history is a little tricky to pin down. It’s a pretty nebulous thing, by it’s nature. It’s not really possible to know someone is or was asexual or aromantic unless they tell us. And the language we use today is specific, complex and fairly new which make searching for its equivalent in a historical context very difficult. Still many have tried and succeeded. You just have to modify your methods and be prepared to do a lot of digging.
Successfully exploring a-spec history requires us narrowing our definitions and accepting some amount of ambiguity and ‘political incorrectness’ for lack of a better term.
We have to let go of the grey area. Not because those who inhabit it are any less valid or important, but because they will just be harder to spot. It’s not possible to know whether an amatanormative couple were romantically or sexually involved without further exploration, and we could be forgiven for assuming they were “ordinary” unless we had some evidence to the contrary.
It’s for these reasons too, that I’ve lumped asexuality and aromanticism together for the most part. Since the idea of them being separate is a realiazation in and of itself, and a fully aro-ace person (defined by a total lack of romantic and sexual relationships) will be easier to spot. Lumping the whole A spectrum in together makes it easier in general.
As Jo, a non-binary aro-ace blogger, says in their post Asexual readings of history: Ace/Aro tensions –
“We have to conflate asexuality and aromanticism in a way that would be abhorrent in a contemporary context because it may be the only way to properly identify both asexual and aromantic figures and moments in history. We have to think about the distinctions people make in their original context…”
This is the only way we can possibly even find enough to build a sense of legacy.
When you let go of modern constraints you can find a great deal of allusions to asexuality and aromanticism. Our understanding of a-spec orientations today is broad and nuanced, informed by masses of research and digitally-aided conversations and the idea of defining asexuality as simple lack of interest in sex or considering a woman who never married as a potential aromantic feels reductive and odd. But that’s what we need to get over in the first instance.
If you set out to search for ‘aromantic history’ as I did, specifically, you will doubtless end up dissappointed. It’s a modern term, and therefore won’t be present in historical resources. You have to look at coded behaviours and then you can dig deeper into the people themselves, discover their motivations and learn a bit about the way they defined themselves.
I thought I’d start with some public figures from history I’ve identified as probably ace/aro.
Tesla is responsible for the discovery of electricity. He remained celibate his whole life and never married. He maintained that his lack of sexual interest was integral to his scientific abilities and achievements. He is quoted as saying he found all the stimulation necessary in his work.
Of course it’s not possible to know without a doubt whether Tesla was actually aro-ace. He may have been lying. He may have been, as many have claimed, a closeted gay man. And of course it’s true that celibacy and refusal to marry are not necessary to be asexual. But through his own comments and situational clues there’s a lot to suggest he might have called himself asexual if he had the vocabulary.
Bowles was an American writer who was married to Paul in 1938. The Bowles’ marriage was a non-sexual on, non-romantic one although they are understood to have had a deep platonic love for one another. They spent a lot of time together and were comfortable in each other’s company. They were both queer and throughout their marriage had many flings with other people.
It’s commonly believed that Jane was a lesbian, based on her apparent lack of interest in men and picking up on themes in her writings – many characters had relationships with men before realising they preferred women. Bisexual is the label most often used for Paul.
I find the Bowles’ relationship so appealing. They were best friends, they lived together, worked together, but also had their own lives. At one point Paul went to stay in Morocco without Jane and vice versa. The term ‘Queerplatonic’ could hesitantly be used to describe their partnership here.
While I’m wary of downplaying the history of these ‘sham marriages’ between queer people of both binary genders designed to safeguard themselves against overt homophobia, I believe that Jane at least was aromantic. I base this on the understanding that she had few – if any – genuine romantic connections and preferred purely sexual encounters outside of her marriage to Paul.
Lovecraft is a celebrated horror writer and much of his work features sexual themes and undertones. However in his personal life he was less than enthusiastic about the whole affair. His wife was known to complain of his lack of interest in her, and reported that while he did his duty (and well!) when prevailed upon, required much encouragement and never was the one to initiate.
Sonia Lovecraft theorised that this ambivalent attitude towards sex was brought on by her husbands strict puritan upbringing, but it’s also possible there was another, more innate reason. Other sources hint that Lovecraft wasn’t afraid of or even particularly averse to sex, simply…neutral. Crucially, he never displayed any interest in men, either.
Rabi’a bint Isma’il
This is a more ancient example. Around the late 8th Century. Rabi’a was a Sufi mystic, and the wife of Ahmad ibn Abi al-Hawari, they lived in Damascus in what is now Syria. Rabi’a’s sexuality is discussed in a Cornell University report on early Sufi women.
“She said to me: “I do not love you in the way that married couples do; instead, I love you [with] the love of siblings…”
Rabi’a is seen as employing several methods to avoid sex. She would declare herself to be fasting and thus unable to engage in intercourse, she would plead with her husband to leave her be and pursue relations with other women instead. This is unlikely to have been a signifier of intense religious dedication, as celibacy was considered contrary to Islamic teachings.
The possibilities here are endless. It could be that Rabi’a is asexual, or just that she wishes to avoid the act of sex for some other reason. She could be experiencing a lack of romantic interest which is a possible interpretation of the above quote. She could be gay and this is her expression of being uninterested in Ahmad because he’s a man.
Rabi’a is a fascinating figure. And what’s clear if nothing else is that there was strong motivation on her part to avoid doing what was expected of her as a Muslim wife.
Now I’m going to go a bit more general. I was able to find an entire Wikipedia page with a timeline of ace history so I’ve collected some highlights from there. There was no such page for aromantic history and I’m trying hard not to be bitter about that. I’ve spent a while searching for aromantic communities, research and resources throughout history and I’m pleased to say I’ve actually unearthed a fair bit.
We begin in the 1200s. I’m sorry I can’t be any more specific than that. In medieval Flanders (France) communities of women began cropping up in the form of small gated cities known as beguinages. These were for single women who wanted to lead solo lives – usually for spurious religious reasons – these communes had their own amenities, businesses, farmlands, leisure activities…they represented freedom from the expectations of marriage and family.
Later in mid 17th century China, the Golden Orchid Society posited the same thing. The Society offered women an alternative to heterosexual marriage – which was often unpleasant and unwanted for the women involved. Women who joined this order would style their hair in the same way as a married woman, signifying their unavailability, they would support one another to become financially independent and live a life of their own design.
It’s likely that many women involved in the Golden Orchid Society had the same feelings toward love and romance as do modern day aromantics, but besides this the Society is undoubtedly an important piece of both feminist and queer history. It stood in opposition to patriarchal oppression, and many Society women would marry other women – a practice not exactly favoured but tolerated at the time in China.
Also in the 1600’s and also in France, Catherine Bernard was writing her tragedies. She cannot be confirmed as ace/aro, but her writings speak to an experience of asexuality and the way she lived her life leaves it as a possibility.
Bernard always spoke of love in quite disparaging terms, she is quoted, commenting on some of her work;
““I see so much disorder in even the most reasonable love that I thought that it would be better to present to the public image of misfortunes coming from this passion than to show virtuous, gentle lovers happy at the end of the book”
This would seem to designate her as an outsider looking in at romantic relationships. Indeed, an underlying theme in her work is that love never ends well.
Catherine never married. In, fact there is no credible evidence of her having had any significant other her whole life.
In the time of the industrial revolution there’s actually a fair bit to be found. It’s known that human sexuality has been a contentious issue from the time of the Middle Ages and onset of repressive religious rule. But LGBT+ activism has always existed.
Karl-Maria Kurtbeny was a Hungarian journalist and human rights campaigner. He is well known for first coining the terms ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ Kertbeny wrote extensively about sexuality and he did so from a social justice perspective. He believed strongly that policing consensual sex acts should not be under the purview of the state. He was also of the belief that sexuality was innate and unchangeable and should therefore not be thought of as sin.
In a pamphlet protesting Prussian Sodomy Law that he authored in 1869 he made reference to people who eschew all sexual contact with others and choose only to masturbate. He called these people ‘monosexual’
The next major piece of work in the same vein came in 1896, it was Magnus Hirschfield’s book Sappho und Sokrates. This was a scientific manual curated to defend the rights of homosexuals and expand the public understanding of generla sexuality, it also mentioned people without sexual desire and used the term ‘anesthesia sexual’
In 1948 Alfred Kinsey introduced his “Kinsey Scale” a method of measuring sexual attractions and behaviours in adult men. This scale and the research it was based on was the first scientific suggestion that sexuality could be a spectrum. The table of the scale ranged from 0 = those who had only desire for the opposite sex to 6 = those who had only desire for the same sex. It also included an X rating for individuals who reported no sexual contact or reactions. A female version of this study was not undertaken until 1953, however.
It’s clear then that asexuality has been on the medical and scientific radar for a pretty long time and it’s true as well that we have evidence of it’s existence in social justice circles too.
Anton LaVey of the Church of Satan said in his 1969 treatise The Satanic Bible that “Satanism condones any type of sexual activity which properly satisfies your individual desires – be it heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or even asexual”
And in 1972 Lisa Orlando (and Barbara Getz) wrote The Asexual Manifesto which was published by the New York Radical Feminists and circulated widely. It has been criticized by exclusionists as being evidence more about chosen celibacy than any innate orientation but contrary to that belief it reads;
““We chose the term “asexual” to describe ourselves because both “celibate” and “anti-sexual” have connotations we wished to avoid: the first implies that one has sacrificed sexuality for some higher good, the second that sexuality is degrading or somehow inherently bad. “Asexual”, as we use it, does not mean “without sex” but “relating sexually to no one”. This does not, of course, exclude masturbation but implies that if one has sexual feelings they do not require another person for their expression. Asexuality is, simply, self-contained sexuality.”
Which I think speaks for itself.
This picture from 1973 is also criticized on the same grounds.
It features activists from Barnard College in Manhattan New York (an institution known for feminist action) advising event attendees to ‘choose your own label instead of having someone choose it for you’
It seems clear to me though, that the labels listed are simple suggestions and not intended to be part of any unified category. It’s just an indication that asexuality was considered a valid identity as opposed to however a heteronormative society might choose to otherwise define it.
The image was intended to be released alongside a previous article which described asexuality thus “an orientation that regards a partner as nonessential to sex, and sex as nonessential to a satisfying relationship.” Barnard College would go on to have a conference on sexuality in 1982.
In 1977 Myra Johnson wrote The Sexually Oppressed. This was one of the first academic papers about asexuality. She defined asexuality as a complete lack of sexual desire, and those who did experience sexual desire but had no desire to satisfy it with others she called ‘auto-erotic’ Johnson’s study had a feminist bent as she focused on the struggles of women who had been left behind by mainstream sexual liberation.
The year 1979 brought two major resources the first was Advances in the study of affect by Michael D Storms. Storms re-imagined the Kinsey Scale as a two dimensional thing with hetero/homo-eroticism on separate axes rather than two ends of the same sliding scale. This, he argued, would prevent asexual people being wrongfully categorised as bi, since previously they had only been distinguished by a lack of preference for either gender.
The next piece of work which made me very excited was called Love and limerence by Psychologist Dorothy Tennov. She described the phenomenon of ‘limerence’ collected from a diverse series of personal accounts as an intense and involuntary psychosocial state being separate to sexuality or ‘love actions’. This was the first scientific framework of the experience of being ‘in love’
Tennov’s work was expanded on by J.W Wells in 1989, he talked about ‘affectational orientation’ as the capacity of people to experience what Tennov had described.
1983, Paula Nurius led the first real study into asexuality, specifically targeting the relationship between sexual orientation and mental health. She based the research on a variant of the Kinsey scale. In 1994 another study was published in The Journal of Sex Research concluding that 1 in 100 persons were asexual.
Zoe O’Reilly wrote My life as an amoeba in 1997, a webzine that explored asexuality from a personal POV. It was extremely well received and talked about by those who identified for years to come.
That same year autism rights activist Jim Sinclair published Personal definitions of sexuality in response to a class assignment, in which he identifies himself as asexual. Sinclair had previously been tv interviewed under the alias Toby as “an androgynous and non-sexual person.”
The 2000’s is where it really took off. In ’01 David Jay founded AVEN which would become by far the most succesful and well known community for asexual information and networking.
The next year heralds the earliest recorded use of the word ‘aromantic’ in an AVEN poll thread.
The New York Sexual orientation non discrimination act of 2002 came too, and it is the only piece of legislature to this day that explicitly mentions asexuality.
Anthony Bogaert professor at Brock University, had published throughout his career a number of papers into the study of asexuality. And in 2002 he appeared in New Scientist magazine. Shortly following, asexuality was covered in the Sex Files series on the Discovery Channel.
2005 bought the split attraction model into the limelight, as well as the concept of the black ring, worn on the middle finger of the right hand as a symbol of asexuality.
The creator of Spongebob also announced the character was asexual, although this is commonly understood to have been a jab at SGA people rather than an expression of support for the ace community.
In 2009 the first ace group marched in San Francisco’s pride parade and the following year the ace flag was made public and the last week of October was designated as ace awareness week.
The first ever Asexual conference was held in London in 2012. And a year later the DSM 5 changed to define asexuality as an orientation rather than a mental disorder.
Dr Praghati Singh in 2014, founded Indian Aces, the first Asian support network for a-spec people. A year later she would also launch the first Asexual Dating Platform Platonicity, however it only lasted a few months due to technical problems.
Labour party candidate George Norman appealed to parliament in 2015 to ‘recognise his sexuality’ Norman was very open and forthcoming about his asexuality.
2016 brought the character of Todd Chavez in Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, an asexual man.
Nabil Allal and Alaa Yasin launched Asexuality in Arabic a social media platform celebrating and uplifting non-white asexual voices.
At the same time, the Podcast Sounds fake but okay read by Sarah Costello and Kayla Kaszyc – an aroace and het demisexual – became very popular.
In 2018 YouTuber Samantha Aimee gained notoriety when she came out as Asexual, and BBC3’s documentary Sex Map of Britain did an episode on asexuality.
In 2019 a Sky news documentary mentions Asexuality and the soap opera Emmerdale features it’s first ace character.
The same year Ela Pryzbylo an Illinois State University professor published her book Asexual Erotics building on the work of Audre Lorde and tackling misconceptions about asexuality, aromanticism and desire.
This year, the Netflix series Sex Education featured Florence, a teenage girl who learns she asexual. Her guidance counselor speaks these words;
“Sex doesn’t make us whole, and so how could you ever be broken?”
One thing that came up in all my research that stood out to me was this muse.jhu.edu/article/548452
It’s an extremely wordy pdf document but well worth a look. It was written by Ela Przbylo and Danielle Cooper and is called Asexual Resonances. These professors have traced the archives of gay and lesbian history for themes and evidences of asexuality.
Their presumption is that wherever there is queer history there is ace/aro history too. This is such a freeing, such a validating idea. That there is this “unexplored potential” for asexual history, that’s just been disregarded due to lack of interest from other groups. That we have been hidden, that we can be found.
We have always been here, in truth. I think any a-spec person whose queer in any other additional way must already know that. The idea that asexuality is brand new and therefore defunct is harmful and without basis.