This is what I expected: Jay and I were meeting to talk about the one thing that is harder to talk about than sex: not wanting to have sex. Ever. We were also meeting to discuss a new feature-length documentary he starred in called (A)Sexual. The film, produced by Angela Tucker, debuted at the Frameline Film Festival at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco in June and at NewFest, the New York LGBT Film Festival in July. It follows the growth of the asexual community—people that experience no sexual attraction—and their efforts to claim a voice and identity in a sex- obsessed culture.
But this is what I didn’t expect: Within the next two hours David Jay, a guy who identifies himself as a lifelong asexual, would give me more insight on dating, sexual intimacy and forming deeper romantic relationships than any sexual person I’ve ever met. Jay carries a brilliant perspective on the subject of sex, one that can only be achieved through exclusion. As they saying goes, only from the sidelines of the game can you see the entire field.
Jay came out as an asexual to his parents and friends during high school in 2000. Later in 2001 while at Wesleyan College in Connecticut, he started a website called asexuality.org (or AVEN, The Asexual Visibility and Education Network) because he realized swarms of people were using the word “asexual” to describe themselves and then later, feeling broken and desperate for more information, typing it into Google. (Studies show that 1 percent of the population is asexual). Asexuality.org is the first organized community to provide information and a safe place to discuss issues surrounding what it means to be asexual.
In 2004, the New Scientist in the UK became fascinated with the growing asexuality community here in the states and ran a six-page feature on it. The story exploded and was featured all over the British press, marking the beginning of Jay’s very public persona as an asexual person. He was featured in the London Times four different times from 2003- 2006, on British TV and on five different BBC radio stations. The news spike triggered press in the U.S. too; Jay was later featured in the New York Times and was a guest on 20/20 and The View where he held strong as the hosts teased him and tried to reduce him to just a confused kid. But they were soon rapt with his knowledge, emotional intelligence and candid honesty.
When an article featuring Jay came out on Salon.com in May of 2005, Angela Tucker read it and the idea for this film was born.
The Rumpus: What did you think of the film?
David Jay: As the subject of the movie, I’m much happier with it than I thought I would be because it is very personal. I’m used to talking about my sexuality in a very public way, but this film got into some really deep and personal stuff about my relationships, on a level that no other press has ever has managed to reach. It captured some really complicated insecurities and uncertainties I was going through at the time. The way our society talks about intimacy is really sexualized but this film showed a great deal of intimacy in my life that isn’t at all sexual. It was also a great visibility tool. Our community’s whole goal is to get people talking about everything–power, peoples’ bodies, and all the stuff that is wrapped up in sex. But if sex is not happening, how are you going to relate to these things?
Rumpus: Is it strange to see yourself on the big screen?
Jay: Yes, it’s awkward having cameras following you around but I’ve learned to get used to it being a spokesperson. To anyone who’s ever fantasized about having someone make a movie about your life: it’s not as pleasant on the ego as you may think.
Rumpus: Is there anything you regret?
Jay: I wish I’d talked more about the experience of Grey-A’s, people on the spectrum between sexual and asexual. They weren’t mentioned in the film and were justifiably upset about that.
Rumpus: You’ve said there are multiple forms of asexuality. What does being asexual mean for you?
Jay: I don’t experience sexual attraction, which means I don’t see people and experience an innate emotional draw to be sexual with them. Whether it is someone I see on the street or someone that I am flirting with and we’re having crazy chemistry. I’ll have the crazy chemistry; I just won’t be pulled towards sex.
Rumpus: Do you date?
Jay: Yes, sort of. In the past I had a series of close relationships with women that weren’t sexual. And we didn’t know exactly what that meant. A lot of times they also had boyfriends but they were much more emotionally intimate with me. And their boyfriends didn’t know what to do with that—they got really jealous. It was a mess. And it was a mess because there were no words for a really close friendship that didn’t involve sex or sexuality. There was no status for it.
I’d also get hurt. I’d get in a close relationship with someone and then that person would start dating someone and disappear. I began to realize that when relationships involved sex and sexuality, they got special social status. People were more willing to talk about the relationship and express their emotions. People were more willing to make commitment.
I’ve tried to date but don’t always know how to approach it. For a while I was forming all these relationships but they weren’t exclusive and they looked like friendships. I started getting attached to people but the relationships would never really go anywhere and it was always really hurtful because they couldn’t see the relationships as something more than friendships and I couldn’t describe what I wanted.
Now when I date I view it as one way of being intimate. I view it as a useful tool for the kind of community structure I want to build. There a billion ways to be intimate with people without dating, especially in cities like San Francisco and New York (and now with the onslaught of OkCupid) where you are constantly meeting hot, interesting and compatible people.
Rumpus: So instead of serial dating like many people today, you go out and meet people as a way to build your community?
Jay: Exactly. I treat dating more like community building. If I meet fifteen amazing people and have amazing connections with all them, instead of “dating” all fifteen of them at the same time (and spreading myself too thin so thereby no one will ever hit the activation energy of one relationship) I ask myself how can each of these people fit into my community? I prioritize the ones that will contribute to current needs in my life. And here is the key: I really listen to them when they talk about their lives and needs to see if I can contribute something powerful to them. If I can contribute something that they need, I know they will prioritize me. I know I will make it into their schedules. I don’t have to stress about whether or not they will call me back. And I know that I will make time for them. I am very intentional about who I make time for. And that is what allows me to cut through all of this San Francisco excitement.
Know what you want to do. Know the kinds of people that will help you get there and make time for them.
Rumpus: Are you a virgin?
Jay: No, I’ve had sex with a woman. It’s very common for an asexual person to have sex and even get into relationships with sexual people where sex is important enough to their partner so they have it. Most asexual people, like me, are sex neutral, which means that it’s not horrible. It’s just doesn’t do it for us.
Rumpus: How was the sex?
Jay: Fascinating [laughs]. It was a really surreal experience. It was not a negative experience but not at all like I thought or like I’ve heard people describe sexuality. It felt very intellectual and I was going through this very abstract mental exercise to sort of leave my body and see sex as a dance. I learned how to translate and relate to what was going on in her body. And it was interesting to perceive and interact with someone else’s body in that way, which was really nice. But words like desire, release and pleasure were not involved.
I had had a few sexual experiences that led up to the actual sex, but we didn’t get there because it was really overwhelming for me—a lot of sensory input that I didn’t know what to do with and it wasn’t fun.
Here’s the hardest thing about having sex—you have to figure out why you want to have it. And that affects the entire experience.
Rumpus: Why did you want to have it?
Jay: Something I’ve felt really strongly about (and can’t really say why) is having a kid. I want to adopt so I thought I needed to be in a committed relationship to do this. And the way most people find a committed relationship is through dating and the way most people date is through sexuality. So about two years ago I was like, shit, I have to train myself to be sexual in order to form the kind of relationships I want. Which was really hard; it took me a couple of years to come to terms with that. I really felt like I was selling out. But I felt I needed to understand how to use romantic and sexual partnerships to connect with people.
I was also getting scared that I wouldn’t be able to form my ideal relationship without it [sex]. So, when I met someone who I felt strongly connecting to (and who wanted to have sex with me) I decided to do it.
Rumpus: Did you have an orgasm?
Jay: Yeah. Not experiencing sexual attraction is different from not experiencing sexual pleasure or arousal. I experience sexual arousal and pleasure (in that when certain things happen to my body I feel pleasure). I am interested in sex from an intellectual standpoint and am interested in having sex from an abstract relational standpoint, but it’s not something I want on a deeper level.
If I am making out with someone, I don’t feel drawn towards sex. I feel more drawn to high energy cuddling.
Rumpus: What is high energy cuddling?
Jay: When sexual people (for the most part) make out, as it gets more intense it also probably gets more sexual. For most people intensity and sexuality are the same things. This also means that as it gets more intense (for some) it also gets more focused on a narrower range of body parts, a narrower range of motion and a narrower range of instruction back and forth. That feels awesome, but it’s a little scripted. Imagine, if you will, that rather than that pull towards particular body parts and a predetermined “make-out” script, as things get more intense you can go in any direction you’re inspired to go. You aren’t confined to certain areas of the body. It’s amazing and intense and is something I’ve only really experienced when cuddling or making out with other asexuals. There’s no particular end goal or desire in the room. It can go wherever you want.
Rumpus: Have you ever been with a man?
Jay: I’ve kissed men but I’ve never really been very physically intimate with a man.
Rumpus: Do you masturbate?
Jay: Yes. Most asexual people masturbate. A recent study came out and said that it happens about as much in the asexual community as it does in the sexual community.
Rumpus: How do you feel about being in a relationship with a sexual person?
Jay: I could do it and have done it but in the long term I don’t really think that relationship would really be gratifying for the other person. I have been in a few relationships that involved sexuality, and my partners (mostly women) have always been really into it. Most of them have never before been in a situation where their sexual desire was the only thing in the room. It’s a different experience for them. It forces them to relate to themselves in a different way that they sometimes find to be empowering and interesting. But it’s still tough to decide if I want to take a relationship in that direction because, for me, it also shuts off a lot of really interesting possibilities.
Rumpus: How do you feel about Dan Savage’s message and criticism of the asexual community?
Jay: He is a sweetheart. He has been really responsible. He is, like many people I know, a staunch sex positive activist who has been fighting his entire life for the rights of people to embrace their sexual desire, whatever it is. So when people write to him and say “I think I’m not feeling sexual desire” his response is usually, “What is stopping you from embracing it?”
To his credit, he wrote to the community early on and asked me how he should respond to people who write to him about asexuality. I told him asexuality is about figuring yourself out. It is NOT a prescriptive identity so people shouldn’t feel like the definition will last forever. Take it, leave it or use it however you want. He respected that and then said he doesn’t understand why we have a social movement because we are not getting “hated on.”
Rumpus: True, but you’ve said the community has felt isolated.
Jay: Right. We feel isolated and invisible and broken. We are not getting murdered the way trans people get murdered and I am very grateful for that and I do not want to say that homophobia and transphobia are the same as what asexuals experience, because that is not true, but we still have a reason to get together and talk about our experience. We are still struggling with a lot.
Rumpus: How do you feel about the criticism that asexuality is a term used by someone who is closeted or has for some reason (trauma, abuse, etc) repressed sexual desire? (Here I was thinking of two things: Joy Behar’s question on the above segment of The View and Stephen Morrissey, lead singer of the Smiths, who said he was asexual in the 80s. He was later quoted as saying, “I’m gay” in Rolling Stone magazine but then he denied it.)
Jay: A closeted homosexual is usually someone who wants to be as “vanilla” as possible and probably doesn’t want to make a lot of noise around his or her sexuality. And if you do enough soul searching and come out as an asexual and join our community, you are usually making a lot of noise. You are drawing a lot of attention to your sexuality. So in my experience, most asexual people aren’t repressed or closeted.
That said, if within the process of finding our community, opening up and meeting other people like you, you realize you are actually a sexual person, THAT IS AWESOME! What’s wrong with that? We celebrate that in our community and feel proud that we can help people reach that place.
Rumpus: What message do you most want to convey with all of this?
Jay: A big part of having an open, honest discussion about sexuality is acknowledging that it’s not a big deal. Sexuality is only one lens to view intimacy, our bodies, power, physical touch, etc. In order to really understand these things, we need to also see them through other lenses and we need to talk openly about our diverse experiences. That is the best way to discover them.
Jay: Does this message speak to you in any way?
Rumpus:I think this message speaks to everyone in every way.
For more info in the film, including festivals screenings, visit http://www.artsengine.net/asexual/