This post is being cross-posted to my personal blog, A Trivial Knot, and is written for a general audience.
“Asexuality is not the same as celibacy” is a common line in introductory explanations of asexuality, but as I discussed in an earlier post, mocking celibacy can still be asexual-unfriendly. Here I will go further in depth.
The distinction between asexuality and celibacy plays the same role that “born this way” plays for LGBT people. The purpose of each talking point is to establish that LGBT/asexual people did not choose their orientations. The slogans can be useful, particularly in hostile environments. However, if people become more accepting, if people realize it does not matter if it is chosen, perhaps we can move beyond slogans.
Aside from the politics, there is also a question to what extent it is really true that LGBT people are always “born this way”. If you look, you will find people who subjectively experienced a choice, people who emphasize that their identity or behavior are chosen, and people who would like an honest look at the empirical evidence.
Similar questions may be raised about asexuality and the extent to which choice plays a role in it. While asexuality and celibacy certainly have distinct meanings, we want to know exactly how far that distinction goes. For example, some people take that to mean that asexuals and celibates are non-overlapping groups. But is that really true?
What even is celibacy?
My commentary is indebted to ACH, who wrote three blog posts on this subject back in 2008. In his investigations, ACH realized that he did not truly understand what “celibacy” meant in the first place. He found the following definitions in the dictionary:
1. abstention from sexual relations.
2. abstention by vow from marriage: the celibacy of priests
3. the state of being unmarried.
To see which of these definitions was most common, he looked at a few different sources, finding that the first one was dominant. Although amusingly, the Wikipedia article at the time denied the validity of the first definition, while also using the same definition in its examples.
Aces most commonly define celibacy as abstention from sex. But even within this definition there are ambiguities. Is abstention a state of being? Is it an action? Is it a choice? How much of an active role does “choice” imply? And finally, if an asexual does not have sex, do they count as celibate?
Celibate aces, by the numbers
The answer, of course, is that different asexuals have different views on the matter. We now have quantitative data on this question, in the form of the 2014 Asexual Community Census, which I helped design and analyze. Among aces who are sexually inactive, 12% identify as celibate. Those who did not identify as celibate were asked to check off applicable reasons from a list:
I think celibacy suggests deliberate effort in not having sex.: 70.8%
I think ‘celibacy’ has strong religious connotations that don’t fit me: 42.1%
I’m not currently sexually active, but open to it, so I don’t think celibate would fit me: 32.7%
I don’t think a person can be both asexual and celibate: 6.11%
The percentages do not add up to 100% because respondents were allowed to check off multiple reasons. This is an amateur survey and should be regarded critically, but it suggests that many asexuals disidentify with celibacy because of the connotations of effort, choice, commitment, or religious motivations. And then, of course, there are those 12% of sexually inactive aces who do identify as celibate. Either the connotations aren’t strong enough to discourage them, or they believe that the connotations are apt to describe their personal situation.
Note that the census is not representative of asexuals in general, but is a sample of online communities, where most people have had some contact with the “asexuality is distinct from celibacy” slogan. I suspect that aces who have less contact with the community would be more likely to identify as celibate.
By the way, the survey asked about celibacy because someone on the committee wanted to gauge interest in a voluntary celibacy community, which would include both aces and non-aces. I want to give a shout out to their voluntary celibacy page.
Personal reflections on celibacy and choice
Another survey result was that 12% of aces are sexually active, and well I’m in that 12%, so naturally I would not describe myself as celibate. It seems to me that “celibate” could potentially convey useful information, distinguishing those aces who are sexually active, and those who are not. Alas, the statistics show that celibacy means different things to different people, thus failing to convey useful information. “Sexually active” and “sexually inactive” are much more informative terms (although also ambiguous at the boundaries), and bypass any religious connotations.
Regardless of preferred terms, I would like if more people embraced the idea that when aces don’t have sex, it is still a choice. That a choice is predictable and straightforward does not make it less of a choice. I want it to be clear that asexuals have agency.
In the opposite situation, if a person has said yes to every solicitation of sex they have received so far, we would not claim it had stopped being a choice. To say it stopped being a choice would be to deny the person’s agency. On the other hand, the decision to say “yes” to a solicitation seems more like an active choice, while merely avoiding solicitations seems more passive. So I could see it both ways.
When people criticize celibacy, I just have no idea what they mean. Do you know?