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.
Lisa herself did not have a copy of the Manifesto, but at long last, we found a copy! It was found by Caoimhe Harlock. A pdf is publicly available, and I have also transcribed the document.
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.
“Today she again describes herself as asexual (with the caveat that she still does not think of it as an identity).”
I wish I knew what she meant by that.
Lisa discussed her views on identity in “Bisexuals: Loving whom we choose”, which you can find in her masters thesis.
I’m really fascinated by how Orlando’s model closely approaches current understandings of asexuality in some ways while wildly diverging in others. I suspect the concept of sexual identity in general has shifted quite a bit over time, which may leave us talking at cross-purposes. Still, her movement back and forth between asexual and bisexual identities and communities helps to confirm my notion that that connection has existed for some time.
Thanks for posting; this was an interesting read.
As other commenters have pointed out, it is striking how much simultaneous overlap and disagreement there is with modern asexuality. Orlando’s manifesto strikes me as advocating “behavioral asexuality” more than the modern “attraction-based asexuality.” Notice that the words sexual attraction never appear even once in the manifesto. With this in mind, asexual experience is not about “experiences no sexual attraction” but instead about “the experiences of behaving asexually.”
My questions instead are:
What happened?! Despite what looked like a promising start, the whole thing just sputtered out. So I can’t help but wonder what our community would have been like if there were an unbroken line of succession.
And what would the then-asexual feminists think of modern asexuality and the modern community, if we got the chance to ask them?
Pure speculation, but “what happened” may well have been that there just weren’t enough people willing to identify with it or come together on the idea. I think sometimes people underestimate just how useful the internet can be for bringing groups of people together on niche perspectives.
So the way that the manifesto has been picked up and talked about on Tumblr is… interesting.
That’s the historical equivalent of having two data points, and drawing a straight line between them.
Specific points of disagreement: Attributing it to Barbara Getz, against Getz’s own wishes. Presuming that asexuals must have existed “as members of a community”. “Associating sexuality and sexual attraction to something bad has never been inherently part of asexuality” <- Not sure about "inherently", but sex-negative asexual communities have definitely existed at certain points of time (see Asexuality BC).
I also checked the notes, and some people are pointing out the “political choice” aspect of asexuality in the Manifesto, as a difference from modern conceptions. I agree there are tensions, but it’s not incompatible. I choose to identify as ace (in response to my ace experiences), and I’m a social critic so damn right it’s political.
Another weird claim in the notes, is that it was written by TERFs. This seems presumptive since not all radical feminists were what we’d now call TERFs. (Certainly though, I’ve been disappointed with the views that some 2nd wave radical feminists later expressed about trans people.)
Terf-ness is, mm, pretty hard to extricate from radical feminism. But that also means they could have just said “this was written by a radfem” and been done with it.
The main thing that jumped out to me was this person emphasizing “29 years before AVEN was started online,” solely to build up to the point of “So, no: we are not just Tumblr trenders.” ….So, what, do they think AVEN is a Tumblr user? Or do they not realize that the existence of non-Tumblr ace websites should itself be sufficient for that point? Why is *this* piece necessary for *that* argument?
…Anyway I just kind of find it exhausting that people encounter stuff like this and leap to turn around and make it solely about arguing with anti-ace people. Sometimes there can be stuff to remark upon besides just “this has the word asexual in it” + “it’s from many years ago,” you know?
Yeah, see, here’s an example of what I mean. We can take this Manifesto as an example of an extreme that a lot of us don’t want to completely embrace (for its treatment of sexhaving as politically suspect, etc.), but how far are we trying to go in the other direction? I think there’s an interesting tension there. It’s something I thought about when I wrote this post about the origins of the LJ Asexuality community — the “sexual attraction” definition essentially became a private, personal, individual-based alternative to a definition based on sexually elitist politics. That makes a kind of sense, as a response. But to express “we don’t want to embrace that politics” as “our asexuality isn’t political” is, I think, the wrong move. Of course it’s political. It’s political because it’s affecting our lives under sexnormativity and you’ve got brigades of people attacking us for it. I think it’s interesting to figure out how to talk about that without skewing too far in either the individualist or the elitist directions.
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I feel I ought to correct, for the record, a few inaccuracies in the above article (“Asexuality Is Often Dismissed as an ‘Internet Identity’“).
The article claims Lisa Orlando was inspired by several named activists, but she did not mention any of these to me. I did ask directly about Valerie Solanas, but Lisa was very negative and dismissive about her. The article attributes some statements in the Manifesto to Barbara Getz. But Getz dropped out, and Lisa reworked the draft afterwards. We do not know if they can be attributed to Getz.
Finally, I take issue with the statement “Orlando’s interpretation of asexuality may not align with today’s dominant definition”. That may be true, but it’s very likely also true of every single other example of the article. While there may have been many examples of people mentioning asexuality, they were largely isolated discussions and people did not have any sort of consensus interpretation. I mean, even in the early internet communities, it took quite a while for a consensus to form.
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