The 19th-century British feminist Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy may not have identified as asexual — the term used to describe people who experience minimal to no sexual or romantic attraction is barely two decades old — but modern asexual activists can trace their history back to her.
Elmy was adamant in her belief that love could be just as pleasurable without sex as with it. Men, she felt, used women purely for sex, an act she described as the “degradation of her temple to solely animal uses.” Her solution was to base relationships not on sex but on what she called “psychic love,” or the “realization of justice, equality, and sympathy between the sexes.”
Yet while countless books and scholarly articles have highlighted Elmy and her contemporaries as important British feminists, not a single source dared to refer to them with the word “asexual.”
That is, until earlier this month. In a June 3 post on a Tumblr blog called Making Queer History, 19-year-old Daria Kerschenbaum, a rising sophomore at Fordham University, claimed Elmy as an “early asexual feminist” whose critiques of compulsory sexuality mirror those made by the modern asexual movement. Kerschenbaum wrote that Elmy’s vision of a “psychic love” relationship “bears resemblance to some modern asexual relationships.” The post quickly made the rounds throughout the asexual community on Tumblr, including on widely shared Tumblr blogs like fuckyeahasexual.
In writing about asexual history, Kerschenbaum and other bloggers are doing the work that much of academia has not. Even as queer history continues to seep into the mainstream, asexuality — despite also falling under the “queer” umbrella — is continually excluded from academic discourse. Only a handful of academics actively study the topic of asexuality, and there is not a single historian who devotes their work to tracing the development of asexuality.
Bloggers like Kerschenbaum — many of them students — have stepped up to fill the gap, building a canon of asexual history where it was previously nonexistent. As an asexual person, Kerschenbaum first embarked on her project in order to locate others like her. “Representation in history is a really powerful drive,” she told me. “I had never really seen myself represented in history in a way that made me feel part of a lineage.” She’s since cast Elmy, the social purity activist Frances Swiney, and the 18th- and 19th-century dandies — extravagant fashion icons many of whom experienced a widely noted “distaste for sex” — as embracing a kind of asexual aesthetic. “He was faithful to fashion and fashion alone. [...] He could care less for the other earthly pleasures that surrounded him,” Kerschenbaum wrote of the dandies.
It’s worth noting that Tumblr, the once-white hot blogging platform that has sagged in popularity since it was acquired by Yahoo! in March 2013, has become the medium of choice for sharing these stories.
The strength of queer communities on Tumblr, which allows for more detailed discussion than Twitter minus the hordes of trolls, is widely documented. Last May, Australian sociologists Paul Byron and Brady Robards surveyed queer social media users aged 16 to 35 and found that 64 percent were active on Tumblr. But especially for the asexual community, which is often excluded from queer spaces, Tumblr has become the primary place to connect. The platform teems with thousands of asexual blogs, including fuckyeahasexual, The Asexuality Blog, and Asexual People of Color. For members of the community, it’s the ideal way to disseminate their history.
Most asexual people credit writer Zoe O’Reilly’s 1997 essay, “My life as an amoeba,” with creating the first contemporary asexual community. Countless commenters responded to O’Reilly’s proclamation that she was “out and proud to be asexual” with relief — they, too, had never experienced sexual attraction, and they thought they were the only ones. Before O’Reilly’s piece was published on the now-defunct website StarNet Dispatches, the word “asexuality” predominantly referred to a type of reproduction in single-celled organisms: “School science books make the barest mention of our kind and even then stick to the single-celled variety,” O’Reilly wrote.
Four years later, in October 2000, a Yahoo! Group “Haven for the Human Amoeba” was established as place where asexual people could find each other online. But the biggest breakthrough for the community came in March 2001, when a freshman at Wesleyan University named David Jay launched what is today called the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), a website, wiki, and forum that has connected thousands of asexual people across the world. In 2004, when the Journal of Sex published a landmark paper arguing that roughly one percent of the U.K. population identified as asexual, researchers confirmed what members of the community already knew: asexuality was an inherent sexual identity.
But the community has lacked a history of itself beyond the last two decades. “I got sick of hearing one too many times that asexuality didn't exist before David Jay founded AVEN,” said Noel Smith, who launched a blog called Historically Ace (“Ace” being the colloquial term for asexuality) in June 2016. “So I started with things that I knew I had the resources at hand to disprove, and it grew from there.”
Tumblr made sense as the space to share that history because queer communities already existed on the microblogging platform. "That was the space where I felt like I needed to speak up,” Smith said. “I made this project a Tumblr blog because Tumblr was where the work needed to be done.”
Smith believes many academic writers on asexuality focus too much on the basic questions of what asexuality is. “Aces know we exist, and intracommunity, the conversations need to be [...] moving beyond that,” Smith said.
To do that, asexual bloggers have turned to the past. Combing through archives, bloggers have claimed historical figures like the 17th-century French poet Catherine Bernard as one of their own. Queer historian and dancer Jo Troll depicted Bernard as “an outsider looking in on relationships and find[ing] it easiest to see the negative messiness of a relationship.”
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Some contributors to the asexual canon do come from an academic background. Ela Przybylo, a researcher on asexuality at Simon Fraser University in Canada, has identified 1970s women’s liberationists like Dana Densmore and Valerie Solanas, who refused to have sex and made the revolutionary claim that “some people go through their whole lives without engaging in [sex] at all, including ﬁne, warm, happy people,” as early figures who engaged with asexuality. (Solanas is perhaps best known for attempting to murder Andy Warhol.)
But the politics of actually claiming a historical figure as asexual are tricky. Because celibate does not equal asexual, determining whether a long-dead figure was making an active choice in refraining from sex is nearly impossible. Instead, many writers have opted to focus on the aesthetics such figures present.
Kerschenbaum said she tries to avoid labelling historical figures as definitely asexual. Rather, she examines what they’re saying in the abstract and how that might link to modern conceptions of asexuality. Kerschenbaum wants to open up space for a possible — but by no means definitive — asexual reading, just as many other historians have done with homosexuality.
Przybylo advocates not categorizing someone as asexual but noting “whether their lives had asexual moments, inclinations, or tendencies” — what she calls “asexual resonances.” She points to another example — the women in the 1960s the Puerto Rican activist group the Young Lords who launched a “sex strike” to demand a greater focus on sexism.
“I think it is meaningful to map these many forms of ‘asexuality’ together not because these people were necessarily asexual but because they present us with critiques that the contemporary asexual movement brings forward,” she said. On Tumblr, that's what a disparate group of writers has tried to do.