If you’re a regular reader of Savage Love—and I know you are (don’t pretend like that isn’t the first part of the paper you turn to; you’re not alone)—then you’re familiar with the “proverbial hornet’s nest” columnist Dan Savage kicked last fall when he asserted that polyamory (love for/with multiple partners) wasn’t a sexual “orientation” so much as a “relationship model.” It wasn’t a case against the practice, as Savage has routinely insisted upon the natural nonmonogamy of human beings (whether or not they choose to practice monogamous relationships—as Savage himself does), but rather a little exercise in semantics. The debate played out over the next few weeks, with angry polyamorous readers insisting that their desire for multiple partners is as much a hard-wired fact of their sexual orientation as one who identifies as hetero, homo, bi, trans, etc.
Savage was clearly susprised by the level of passion in this response and more or less heard everyone out on the issue, contending that a big part of sexual freedom is the right to define own’s own sexual identity as they see fit. The conversation itself is not dangerous until someone begins to legislate against a type of orientation—although he did warn that if the conversation goes on too long, we “run a very real risk of disappearing up [our] own ass in a puff of santorum.”
The crux of this whole debate is an issue as old as Western philosophy: nature versus nurture. What about who we are is inborn, congenital or essential, and what is learned, conditioned, preferred and chosen? This is a big deal because it dictates how we begin to moralize human behavior. A huge theme in the historical fight for gay rights has been convincing the status quo that homosexuality is not a lifestyle choice that can be selected, taught or deprogrammed. The behavior follows from a set vector of desire. This is threatening to defenders of “traditional marriage” because it challenges the normative status of heterosexual monogamy upon which the tradition is based, and from which that identity is constructed. If there’s no choice, there’s no moral deviation from this norm.
This is why so many polyamorous readers responded the way they did. By accepting polyamory as an innate orientation, it eliminates the variable of choice and normalizes the identity.
A very similar conversation is taking place on the opposite end of the sexual spectrum among those who abstain from sexual activity altogether. David Jay is the founder of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) and the most prominent spokesman for the asexual community. The documentary (A)sexual chronicles his efforts to come to terms with his own orientation, organize the 1 percent of the population that identifies similarly, and raise awareness about asexuality. As Jay defines it, an asexual person is “someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction.” Like many orientations, this encompasses a great diversity of people who identify thusly, from those who experience no arousal whatsoever, to those who pursue romantic nonsexual relationships, to those who enjoy masturbation but have no interest in partnership, to the exquisitely postmodern “pan-romantic asexual,” the virtually polyamorous point on the sexual spectrum where the spectrum becomes a loop.
Jay’s biography is a textbook coming-out story: He recognized his sexual (non-) preference as a young teenager, suffered the alienation and guilt that comes with understanding oneself to be different and alone, began to identify as asexual in college and found incredible strength and solace through the act of networking with other asexual people. Celebrity asexuals such as Morrissey, Janeane Garofalo and Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox have helped normalize the orientation, but those who identify as asexual face the same core issue as the polyamorous, distancing their innate orientation from the behavioral choice of celibacy. A symbol for this issue within the asexual community is cake, a wry and delicious answer to the incredulous rhetorical question, “What could be better than sex?!”
“Is it a problem?” Joy Behar asked Jay during his appearance on The View. “Then why do you have to organize?” This is the puzzled reaction Jay routinely receives as the film follows him from speaking engagements to meet-up groups. The assumption is that asexuals are either repressing or avoiding their true sexual orientation and that, either way, their preference not to have sex should make the whole matter a nonissue. Savage himself expresses skepticism in the film, saying, “I set the bar pretty high for asexuality. If you’re beating off, you’re probably not asexual.” Studies, however, indicate that asexual rates of masturbation are no higher than with any other orientation.
Similar to the atheist plight for recognition under the First Amendment freedom of religion (as a freedom from religion), the asexual platform is a difficult inversion for some to comprehend, since no one is ostensibly persecuting them for what they choose not to do. As Savage says, “[The asexual community] didn’t need to march for that right. Just stay home and do nothing.”
This is where the asexual community differs existentially from the greater queer community, even while some asexuals propose inclusion in the LGBTQQIA alphabet soup. One of the movie’s strongest scenes is when Jay’s San Francisco AVEN group marches in the Pride parade. The group attempts to hand out literature to a crowd whose members are so sex-positive in their understanding of sexual freedom that the AVEN marchers get shunned and ridiculed in a manner disturbingly reminiscent of the most crass homophobia.
It’s unlikely that a group celebrating polyamorous identity would garner this reaction, which makes the whole issue troubling on another level, because it suggests that the nature vs. nurture distinction is not enough to truly legitimize sexual orientation. If total sexual freedom and nondiscrimination are goals we can agree upon as a society, the most intelligent voices in this conversation seem to be advocating something very different than hard-and-fast sexual identity, with the assumption that every individual migrates along the spectrum throughout their lifetime. This way, polyamory, asexuality and all points in between might be seen as valid, noncontradictory permutations of a fluid sexual identity less concerned with acceptance into the status quo than finding ever-freer ways to express desire, love and intimacy—including the freedom not to.