This “Manifesto” is not the last word on asexuality: it is only a beginning.
-Lisa Orlando, The Asexual Manifesto, 1972
Last year, someone discovered a photo from 1973 that included a sign mentioning asexuals. The photo appeared in an article reporting on a lesbian/feminist conference. The article mentioned a workshop on asexuality hosted by Barbara Getz, and an essay called The Asexual Manifesto, distributed by the New York Radical Feminists.
At the time, I couldn’t find any information on the Manifesto, so I instead wrote about other appearances of asexuality in 1970s feminism. Since then, I learned that the author of the Manifesto was Lisa Orlando, and I corresponded with her to learn about the surrounding context.
During the second wave of feminism, there was often friction between straight and lesbian feminists. For example, in 1969 the co-founder and first president of the National Organization for Women, Betty Friedan, described lesbianism as the “Lavender Menace”, because she thought people would use lesbian stereotypes to dismiss the movement. “Lavender Menace” was soon reclaimed by a lesbian feminist organization of the same name, which sought to force the issue among feminists.
On the other hand, radical feminists would often embrace political lesbianism. They felt that sexism was such a strong component of heterosexual relationships, that it was best for feminists to avoid relationships with men altogether. Though it was called lesbianism, it did not require seeking or forming relationships with other women, and many practitioners were celibate straight women.
Lisa Orlando described herself as disillusioned with political lesbianism. She once had a public confrontation (some time after the Manifesto) with Rita Mae Brown, one of the leading figures in The Lavender Menace. Lisa said, “[Rita] was telling an audience of straight women that their lives would be perfect if they became lesbians. I have a really hard time keeping my mouth shut when I see women being gaslighted.”
So back in 1972, the New York Radical Feminists found that it had somehow avoided the straight/lesbian split that had affected other feminist groups. Their Coordinating Committee created caucuses to explore the issue. There was a heterosexual caucus and a lesbian caucus, and then one of the committee members, Evan Morley, decided to create a caucus to represent bisexuality (despite Evan being lesbian herself). Lisa felt inspired to create an asexual caucus, “for ex-lesbians who were turned off because they discovered that women were as fucked up as men.” Only one other woman joined Lisa’s caucus: Barbara Getz, whom Lisa described as straight.
The caucuses were intended to write position papers, but only Lisa’s caucus ended up writing one; the position paper became The Asexual Manifesto. Barbara helped with the first draft, but dropped out because she was afraid that having her name associated with it would affect her therapy practice. Afterwards, Lisa rewrote the Manifesto to better reflect her own views, instead of being a compromise between authors.
The Asexual Manifesto
The Asexual Manifesto is short and readable, and I encourage you to read it for yourself to form your own impressions. Here I present my own analysis, informed by my correspondence with Lisa.
The Asexual Manifesto defines “asexual” as “relating sexually to no one”. Explicitly, this definition explicitly does not exclude masturbation, nor does it exclude “physical affection and sensuality”. “Asexual” is also contrasted with “celibate” and “anti-sexual”, because
the first implies that one has sacrificed sexuality for some higher good, the second that sexuality is degrading or somehow inherently bad.
On each of these points, asexuality in the Manifesto is similar to the modern concept of asexuality. But there are also differences. In correspondence, Lisa described asexuality as “a choice, and an experience, not an identity.” She did not think of asexuality as an identity, being suspicious of identity politics (and no I don’t know what exactly she means by this).
The other two components, choice and experience, are both reflected in the Manifesto. Like political lesbianism, asexuality was a positive political choice that could be made by any feminists who recognized the exploitation in sexual relationships. But unlike political lesbianism, it recognizes that exploitation even in relationships with women. The asexual experience is described as having pursued sexual relationships because they were conditioned to think they must, and realizing that it had been unnecessary all along.
From a modern perspective, there is some tension between asexuality as a political choice, and asexuality as an experience. If we recognize asexuality as an experience, then we recognize that it is an experience not shared by everyone, and thus its efficacy as a political choice is limited only to the few who relate. The Asexual Manifesto does not say whether asexuality is an efficacious choice for everyone, but rather expresses an experience that makes it efficacious for the author.
While the experience described in the Manifesto has obvious resonances with what we would call asexuality today, I believe the experience would also be shared by some allosexual women–perhaps women such as Barbara Getz–or by women who simply didn’t know what they were. The Manifesto says
It is difficult even to speculate on the nature of “ideal sexuality” (uninfluenced by sexism) but we are certain that it would not occupy as much of our lives as it does in this society.
Today we are primarily concerned with our “ideal sexualities”, and even as we read through old essays we search for clues of what the underlying sexual experience might have been. But at the time many people might have felt so affected by sexist conditioning that their ideal sexuality was unknowable even to themselves, to say nothing of external observers decades in the future.
The Asexual Manifesto was soon published and distributed by the New York Radical Feminists (NYRF). Apparently, it was a hit.
Evan Morley wrote an article in the NYRF newsletter about how many requests they got. An excerpt appeared in Shere Hite’s 1974 book, Sexual Honesty. Margot Adler had a reading and discussion of the Manifesto on the WBAI radio show. And someone pointed me to a mention in an article in the spring 1976 issue of Gay Liberator (page 7 and 17, contains images of nudity). The author, a man, describes a long personal journey with many sexual identities, including asexuality, directly inspired by The Asexual Manifesto.
The Feminists (the organization founded by Ti-Grace Atkinson, as I discussed last year) tried to recruit Lisa Orlando on the basis of the Manifesto. At the time, Ti-Grace Atkinson was no longer part of the organization, and it consisted of just three women. All three women were straight, but the organization required celibacy among its members. Lisa Orlando disliked the views of The Feminists, and declined.
Lisa, by her own account, did not remain asexual for very long. In the 80s she became a radical bisexual activist, and fought anti-porn feminists in the Feminist Sex Wars. Several articles she wrote have been collected in her 1985 masters thesis. In the 90s, she was married for a time. Today she again describes herself as asexual (with the caveat that she still does not think of it as an identity).
For many of us, what motivates this historical investigation, is the desire to see ourselves represented in the past. I expect that opinions will be divided whether the asexuality in The Asexual Manifesto is nearly the same or very different from asexuality as we understand it today. Either, I hope that the context I’ve provided clarifies the narrative.