[This is a prompted Patreon post from Jared.]
Graysexuality is fascinating because we get to watch the process of a new orientation being constructed in real time.
The Asexual Visibility and Education Network defines graysexuality as the following:
Sexuality is not black and white; some people identify in the gray (spelled “grey” in some countries) area between asexual and sexual. People who identify as gray-A can include, but are not limited to those who:
do not normally experience sexual attraction, but do experience it sometimes
experience sexual attraction, but a low sex drive
experience sexual attraction and drive, but not strongly enough to want to act on them
people who can enjoy and desire sex, but only under very limited and specific circumstances
Graysexuality can be a very broad term, and it’s easy to misinterpret what people mean about it from a definition. Here are some examples of graysexual experiences people I’ve talked to have had:
- Never experiencing sexual attraction or the desire to have sex, but suspecting they would be sexually attracted to someone in the context of a committed lifelong relationship.
- Two or three brief experiences of sexual attraction over the course of their entire lives.
- Attraction to fictional characters, but no attraction to real-life people.
- An interest in masturbation, but a sense of disgust and repulsion about sex with other people.
- A desire for sex about once or twice a year.
- An interest in sex, but only if it involves a specific complicated fetish that is impractical to do particularly often.
- Thinking they were asexual for decades and then experiencing sexual attraction for the first time in their thirties and being like “…what.”
- Confusion about whether or not they experience sexual attraction.
A common critique of graysexual identity is that graysexual people are “just normal.” In one sense, this is inaccurate: graysexual experiences are not very common. Most people want sex reasonably often and are attracted to a number of people you couldn’t count on one hand with fingers left over. Graysexual experiences are legitimately far from the norm.
But in another sense this is an accurate criticism. Graysexual experiences, outside certain communities relatively recently, are viewed as part of the spectrum of normal sexual behavior. They aren’t distinguished from ordinary heterosexuals, gay people, or bisexuals. A person who has graysexual experiences may characterize himself as “low libido” or “just not that interested in sex”, but he’s unlikely to consider it an aspect of his identity.
Indeed, we can see this with people whose experiences are equally far from the norm on the other side. A person with hundreds of sexual partners who’s had anonymous sex and who prefers to have sex two or three times a day might call himself “horny” or “slutty” or say he really enjoys sex; he will not characterize himself as having a sexual orientation related to being really really into sex.
Of course, this is very similar to the experience of gender-based attraction before the invention of heterosexuality. An ancient Roman man who is exclusively attracted to men might call himself a boy lover or say he doesn’t like women; he will not call himself “gay” and consider himself to be part of a group with all other gay men, opposed to all heterosexuals.
What we’re observing here is the process of a sexual orientation being constructed.
Humans are, in many ways, different from chairs. One way in which humans and chairs are different is that chairs do not respond to how you categorize them. If you categorize a chair as “an armchair” or “upholstered” or “environmentally friendly,” the chair does not change its behavior, because chairs do not speak English and do not have any concept of categorization. If a person is categorized as a Communist or an introvert or a bisexual, in many cases, the person may change their behavior. They might get defensive of other communists; they might feel justified in their decision not to go to parties; they might go to the Bisexual March to hang out with other bisexuals; they might create a niche meme page for memes relevant to people in the intersection of the three groups.
This means that, among humans, defining a category can create the category. People who are attracted to solely people of the same gender exist no matter whether a word for them exists or not. But rainbow flags and pride marches, gay undercuts and Grindr, coming out and familial rejection, the movies and books and music that make up the canon of gay culture, gay history and gay humor and specialty sex shops– these things exist because we have the category “gay” and that we decided it was a socially important category, one that matters for how we classify people.
Graysexuality is, in some sense, borrowing importance and salience from the more popular sexual orientations. Classifying it as a sexual orientation implies that it is an important category, something that matters a lot for understanding yourself and other people.
I think most of the effects of creating this category are positive. People– both graysexual and not graysexual– can find compatible romantic partners more easily. Graysexuals are less likely to feel broken or alone. They are less likely to have sex they don’t particularly want or find interesting, because everyone enjoys sex, don’t they? Their experiences feel valid. They can find other people who are similar to them and form a culture.
But I think there are negative consequences to forming the category as well. The way we construct sexual orientation in general makes claims about what is important to people’s experiences of their sexuality, but to many people in what ways their attraction is gendered is not actually a very important aspect of sexuality. (This seems like less of an issue for graysexuality– not particularly liking or wanting sex seems like it would be very relevant to nearly everyone’s experiences of sexuality.)
Labels can create a pressure to put your experiences in a box, sanding off the rough edges and the weirdnesses that make up every human experience of sexuality, instead of allowing things to be complicated. The pressure to know whether you are Really X can create a lot of angst and anxiety. People can stick with an identity that no longer serves them or describes their experiences, because they have a lot of their understanding of who they are as a person bound up with it.
Some experiences on the graysexual spectrum can be caused by medications, trauma, dissociation or simply not knowing what your sexual interests are. “I don’t need to be fixed, this is my orientation, it’s just the way I am, I can’t change” can be a double-edged sword. It frees some graysexuals from the futile search to fix a natural part of their sexuality, and allows others to explain what’s going on with their sexuality without giving a medical history or explaining trauma they’d like to keep private. But for some people sexuality is an important part of their flourishing, and a medication adjustment or a process of sexual exploration would improve their lives. (Fortunately, in my experience, graysexual communities are very friendly to people who switch to new identities.)
Certainly, however, the social construction of the graysexual identity is sociologically interesting, even as an outsider. Some person who studies the sociology of sexuality should consider writing a book on it; it’s an interesting case study in something we don’t get to see very often, the formation of a new sexual orientation.