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October 2015

Giving a Name to the Asexual Muslim Experience

Note: This was originally published at Patheos altmuslim.

I spend an awful lot of my time online, for work, for volunteering, for fun. But even I didn’t expect that one of the most profound realizations in my life would come from the internet.

One evening in 2004, browsing news online after work, I happened upon an article called Coming out, loud and proud: Meet the people who say sex is an alien concept.

What’s that? I’d never understood the point of sex, myself, never had any interest in it, never felt any draw towards it. Intrigued, I began reading:

While David Jay's teenage friends seemed to think of little else, the good-looking, dark-haired young man from St Louis was too ashamed to admit that he found even the idea of sex a turn-off.

He had a girlfriend but their first attempts at "making out" left him cold and he never allowed his relationship to develop physically.

Yep, that’s me. That right there. Reading on, I learned that David Jay and others conceived of this state of being as a sexual orientation, called asexuality, and that researchers believe about 1% of the population are asexual.

At the time I read this article, I was 31. I’d long since structured my life around my lack of interest in sex. As such, the article didn’t tell me anything about myself I didn’t already know. What it did tell me is that there was a name for people like me. And that I wasn’t alone in being like this.

All the time before this, I had thought my lack of interest in sex was just something weird about me. Asexuality was never talked about along with other sexual orientations. No one had ever told me it was a possibility.

I’m the sort of person that not only marches to her own drummer but often doesn’t even realize everybody else is in a parade on another street. I’m used to being weird. So not being interested in sex had always been just one of those “Laura things”. But now I had a whole new way of thinking about myself.

Profound as this realization was, coming across that article in 2004 didn’t change my life, at least not immediately. Gaining insight from it wasn’t like a bolt from the blue. It was much more quiet, an awareness that gradually unfolded over time as I began to think about myself and eventually to talk about myself in a new way.

Being asexual profoundly shapes how I relate to others. If you changed that, you would change me. It’s central to my identity and how I understand myself in the world. Before the article about asexuality, I had no way to talk about that, to express myself to others in such an important area of my life. Without a word for my experiences, I’d struggled to explain the fullness of my existence even to myself. And I hadn’t even known how much it mattered.

The Islamic tradition, too, teaches us that words matter. In Qur’an 2:31, Allah tells us that, “He taught Adam the names, all of them”. Explaining this verse, Shaykh Muhammad Shareef writes:

Thus, the ability to define oneself and creation is the primary function of mankind after gnosis and worship of the Absolute Being. This function is what gives humankind their distinction spiritually, politically, socially, and individually. Your ability to name/define yourself and your environment is what gives you power. (On ‘Naming’ and ‘Defining’ the Self)

For human beings, language is essential.  We give names to everything around us and in so doing recognize their existence and reality. To be given a name by someone else that does not reflect your reality, as Shakyh Shareef discusses in his paper, or to not have a name at all, is in some way to be denied a valid existence.

In the last few years, I’ve been able to share stories with a number of other asexual people, including a growing number of asexual Muslims. This experience of not having a name for oneself is common to so many of us. For some, it meant years or even decades of bewilderment, alienation, and isolation. For others, it meant the only label they knew how to give themselves was “broken”.

Invisibility hurts. It hurts perhaps the most when you’re invisible even to yourself. And it hurts when you’re invisible to everyone else. It’s been over 10 years since I first learned about asexuality and I still almost never hear or read about it except in asexual spaces. Almost every week, I see discussions of human sexuality that leave out the existence of asexuality. Almost every week, I see myself declared an impossibility.

No, not everyone experiences sexual attraction, is interested in sex, desires sex. Allah created us diverse in so many ways, including our sexuality. He shaped each of us in a unique form, with different characteristics, identities, and experiences, and He tests us to see if we can live morally in the way that He has made us.

For most Muslims, marriage is the most moral way to live in their sexuality. It is for this reason that marriage is part of the Sunna of the Prophet, peace be upon him. But marriage is not the best course for everyone, and it is not an obligation. For me and for many other asexual Muslims, it is celibacy that is the best way.

I have come to understand that I not only am not interested in sex but that I would be harmed emotionally, mentally, and spiritually by being required to have it. That marriage would be a source of trauma and oppression for me because of the expectation that I provide something I am so deeply averse to. That I can only find a healthful condition, integrity of heart, preservation of faith, and a soul at peace through celibacy.

I wish that Muslim communities would respect this. That they would recognize lifelong celibacy as a valid path alongside marriage. That they would respect my single status and stop pushing marriage on me. That they would make a place for me at events and in mosques. That I could turn to them for support in leading a spiritually fulfilling life in accordance with the Quran and Sunna in my celibate state. That they would stop treating my sex aversion and my choice to avoid marriage as a disobedience to Allah.

It’s the insistent pressure towards marriage, without regard for my specific circumstances, and the marginalization of the perpetually unmarried that I find most difficult about being asexual in Muslim communities, especially as a convert without Muslim family. I would like Muslims to recognize that asexuality exists, yes, but more than that I need Muslims to understand what being asexual means.

Asexuality needs to be more than just a curiosity read about online and forgotten. Asexuality needs to be named and recognized as part of the diversity of Muslim experience. Asexual Muslims need to be welcomed and accepted as integral members of Muslim communities.

The week of October 19 to October 25, 2015, was Asexual Awareness Week. While this week has now passed, any time is a good time to make a difference for others. Look around for asexual Muslims in your communities, whether local or online, and learn about their lives and their needs. Make a place for them. Speak their name.