Asexual Readings of History: Behavior, Celibacy, and Feminism

[tl;dr Even while we like to separate asexuality from behavior, behavior in historical research can show us where to find asexual potential]


All right folks, I’m back for another look into methods of uncovering asexual history. Previously, I looked at the tension between queer allo and asexual history and unpacked the need to conflate asexuality and aromanticism. This time, I want to talk about behavior, particularly how self-identity is an impossible identification technique when looking at history and how we have to start looking at someone’s behavior.


Problems of self-identity


I’ve already talked about this a bit, but, just to repeat it again – when we look at history, we are looking at figures and moments that did not have a word for asexual experiences. Or they had different words which didn’t quite mean what we are looking for. No matter how much value we currently place on self-identity, it is impossible to find a self-identifying asexual person because asexuality did not exist in its current form. We have to look at other characteristics and traits in an attempt to find the possibility of asexuality.


That’s all we can find without self-identity: the possibility of asexuality. There will never be a firm answer.



Celibacy or asexuality?


It’s a longstanding understanding that asexuality is not celibacy. Asexuality is an identity characterized by a lack of sexual attraction. Celibacy is a choice (though often deeply held and identified with) characterized by a lack of sex. They are two different things.


However, there is a clear, logical overlap – it makes sense that those who do not experience sexual attraction may be less enthusiastic about sex (obviously this depends on the person and is currently a grand generalization), less enthusiasm around sex means they are more likely to choose not-sex, and thus asexuality and celibacy are related.


An interesting thing I’ve noticed when discussing celibate communities (monks and nuns being popular examples) is that many allosexual people think that going without sex with be reeeaaaallly hard. Now, I know there are varying degrees to enjoyment and that all allozeds can live without sex, but it does make me wonder about the people who made that choice historically. It stands to reason that many  folks who made the choice to be celibate were a little less attached to begin with, opening up space for asexual potential (this does not include situations of forced celibacy which is another pathway I do not have time to go down).


When we can’t truly find asexuality to begin with, celibacy is a good place to start looking. It’s not accurate within our contemporary context, but it will show us asexual potential that would otherwise be hidden behind other assumptions around sex and desire.


Example: Political celibacy in Feminist movements


Political celibacy in feminist movements is one time we can look at celibacy, understand that it is not necessarily asexual, and then recognize how it is, in fact, part of an asexual history.


Dana Densmore of Cell 16 challenged the notion that sex was necessary for survival and brought up the same contentions asexual communities have today with how society privileges sex over other forms of pleasure and relating to others (Przybyly & Cooper, 2014, p. 308).  An important part of Cell 16 was encouraging celibacy as a way to get women out of abusive relationships (Densmore, 2016, p. 8). Celibacy wasn’t just a choice, it was a direct political action to challenge patriarchal control.


Similarly, Valerie Solanas saw political asexuality not only as a way to curtail men’s sexuality (and the patriarchy), but to eventually stop reproduction completely (Przybyly & Cooper, 2014, p. 308). Before Densmore and Solanas, we have a history of the of celibacy and anti-sex discourse dating back to the nineteenth century through, notably alongside spinsters and social purity activism (Kent, 2018)


So celibacy is political, not asexual?


Think about it – who would have an interest in anti-sex feminist work? While it is very clear that many of these movements included allozed women and women interested in sex, it is also equally a space for asexual women to exist in a positive way in a world that claims that they should experience sense in relationship to a man (quite naturally also making this a space for lesbian and bisexual women).


Especially in our contemporary world in which one of the big claims lashed at acespecs is that we are fighting to “do nothing” or “don’t challenge the heteropatriarchy like a gay person” and this is used to discredit acespec queerness, it is that much important to understand that asexuality is political. Asexuality is radical. And, it is so because of its relationship to celibacy which makes space for asexuality by threatening amatonormativity, heteronormativity, and the patriarchy.


Boston Marriages


I want to tease out a little more about Boston marriages because I think they’re interesting. Boston marriages were instances of two unmarried women living together and supporting each other in a committed relationship. Unlike the celibacy mentioned above, these were not an immediate political stance. For some, yes, definitely. But, in general, Boston marriages existed due to practicality.


As more women got educated, they were then less-desirable as a wife. Yet, in terms of economy, society existed, as it still does today, with the assumption that everyone was in a couple. So, women had to live together in order to support each other. That’s the barebones of it.


Some of these were probably (and, by probably, I mean, most definitely) lesbian relationships which had found a a way to exploit society’s incapability of understanding a woman’s sexuality outside of men to just…get on with it. But whenever I read something about a Boston marriage, I’m reminded of queerplatonic relationships.


Once again, we’re hitting the wall of this-thing-didn’t-exist-then, but I think it’s worth noting: Boston marriages weren’t characterized by sex, they were characterized by two women living together, quite affectionately and communally, supporting each other, and not marrying.


We could say this happened because men were less likely to marry educated women, but what about women, educated or not, who were uninterested in marriage? Suddenly, here is a space and an opportunity to not have to marry while spending time and building community among other women who have reasons for not marrying.


Here, it is not so much about celibacy as it is about marriage. Marriage is fuzzy, as a behavior, because we know plenty of people marry for reasons other than sexual attraction. However, the choice not to marry, similar to the choice of celibacy, shows us a potential for asexuality.


Concluding the series


I want to point out that almost every example I used in this series was a woman (or women). While, it is possible to claim that history just hasn’t dug up the asexual men yet, and that is probably true, I think these instances of asexual behavior is particular to women, and easier to see. It speaks to a long history of patriarchy and control of women’s sexuality.


In other words, asexuality becomes visibility when sexual norms are challenged and, as many of those norms are gendered and deeply harm women through dehumanization, control, manipulation, and judgement (and many other things), it is most visible when women step out of the system. Asexuality is political. Asexuality is gendered. Asexuality is  a challenge to the amatonormative status quo.


Asexual history doesn’t really exist. But asexual potential is all over the place. We just have to be willing to look at it as it is – potential, something we will never fully know because contemporary understandings of asexuality are new and vastly different. And we have to know how to look – at existing queer figures and moments, at both aromantic and asexual possibility, and at behaviors that speak to asexual experience, even if they are not necessarily asexual.


And somehow, through all of that, we may find something.



References/Works Cited/Further Reading


“Boston Marriage,” RationalWiki, 2018 <; [accessed 4 July 2018]


Densmore, Dana, “Cell 16: Gender And Agency, With Digressions Into Naming”, 2014, <> [4 July 2018]


Kent, Daria, “Early Asexual Feminists: The Asexual History Of Social Purity Activists And Spinsters”, Making Queer History, 2018 <; [4 July 2018]


Przybylo, Ela & Cooper, Danielle, “Asexual resonances: Tracing a queerly asexual archive”, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 20.3, (2014), <  > [23 September 2017].





4 thoughts on “Asexual Readings of History: Behavior, Celibacy, and Feminism

  1. I was recently reading up on political celibacy in the late 60s/early 70s myself, and it’s neat to see someone else researching the same.

    From what I could tell, Dana Densmore is not obviously asexual. For example, in “Independence from the Sexual Revolution”, she wrote

    Personally, I recognize that I have sexual feelings. Their exact nature and origin is open to debate, but I have no doubt that there is an objective, physical reality involved at least to some extent.

    which could certainly be said by an asexual or asexual spectrum person (or aro-spec for that matter), but it doesn’t really shout “ace” to me. But I have no doubt that ace/aro women could have gravitated towards her ideas. Densmore quotes a letter she received, which said,

    When I reflect on my own past experience, I can rarely find a time when I was driven to it from inside need.

    Solanas, unfortunately, is a bit more opaque. The SCUM manifesto is satirical. Although it surely represents some of Solanas’ sincerely held ideas, or those of the people who read the manifesto, it’s just hard to tell what’s what. The SCUM manifesto does in fact use the word “asexuality”:

    On the other hand, those females least embedded in the male `Culture’, the least nice, those
    crass and simple souls who reduce fucking to fucking, who are too childish for the grown-up
    world of suburbs, […] in short, those who, by the standards of our `culture’ are SCUM… these females are cool and relatively cerebral and skirting asexuality.

    Your guess as to what that means is as good as mine.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Totally. To be clear – I don’t actually believe Densmore or Solanas were asexual (many many reasons here, a lot due to the weird elitism that comes from this and other instances of celibacy), but I think including them and thinking about their work shows us places to look for asexuality from before our current definition and community existed. And it offers us asexual potential that we usually overlook under the belief we have to only look for self-identification and textbook asexuality. There is noteworthy resonance here, even if it isn’t what we expect.

      The other reason I really like political celibacy as an example is because it reframes asexuality and celibacy into blatantly political (and radical) positions. When we talk about marginalized identities, our existence is radical, but asexuality itself has been deradicalized and often seen as “doing nothing”,
      the “privileged identity”, etc. I recently was interrupted during a panel when I was discussing asexuality by someone who went on to ignore everything I had just said in order to claim that sex and deviance was part of queer art and that there was no real reason to be considering asexuality in queer art (implication: it just wasn’t “radical” enough). I want to claim these moments of radical behavior, not just because it echoes asexual potential and creates space for an asexual experience, but because it allows us to see asexuality as an actioned position instead of nothingness. If that makes any sense?

      (sorry for only vaguely related response, I got excited and my brain is tired!)

      Liked by 1 person

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