In part one of this series, I discussed the 21st century, in which we saw the formation of asexual communities and the start of asexual activism. Once we go further back, the question arises whether there is any asexual history before the existence of the asexual community. Can we speak of asexual history in a period when there is no community of people actively identifying as asexual? I think the answer is a resounding yes, and the time period from the second half of the 19th century up to the end of the 20th is of particular interest.
Scholars generally put the origin of our modern understanding of sexuality and sexual orientations in the mid-19th century. It would therefore be interesting to see how and if asexuality fits into this 150 years of sexual history leading up to the start of the asexual movement. I will first explain what I mean with the statement that the origins of our modern understanding of sexuality lay in the 19th century. After that, I’ll turn to how asexual history in this period might be approached.
Once upon a time, half-way through the 19th century…
We conceptualize sexuality and sexual identity based on who we are (sexually) attracted to. This sounds so objective and so logical that it may be surprising to learn that this was not the principle organising method for sexual identities during much of human history. It is, in fact, a very recent development, and one that is particular to the Western world.
To (very quickly) explain what I mean, it is useful to look at the history of homosexuality.1 In the last decades of the 19th century, scholars have observed a shift in intellectual discourse from a religious framework towards a medical/scientific one “characterizing homosexuality as the condition of certain, identifiable individuals rather than as a form of sinful behavior in which anyone might engage.”2 Furthermore, there is a shift away from homosexuality as part of a set of symptoms of sexual and gender “deviance” towards a phenomenon independent of gender roles and biological sex.3
Parallel to this shift in thinking about homosexuality, there is a linguistic change. The words ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ were coined by Hungarian writer and journalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny in 1869.4 In contrast to other words to describe homo- and heterosexuality, these words did not carry a build-in value judgment. They were adopted by leading sexologists and psychiatrists of that time, in particular the influential Richard von Krafft-Ebing. Through the works of such sexologists and psychiatrists, the words were introduced to languages all over Europe.5
To wrap up this race through the history of homosexuality: the end of the 19th century saw a shift in the understanding of sexuality, the coinage of value-free terms to describe same-sex and different-sex attraction, the start of LGBT activism and the development of a new discipline: that of sexology. And now the question arises: how does asexuality fit into this picture. If this is a time period in which people were categorized based on who they’re attracted to, did they talk about people who weren’t (sexually) attracted to anyone? If so, how?
Asexuality from the late 19th century until the end of the 20th century
The exciting thing is, asexuality does pop up in scientific and mainstream discourse over the course of these 150 years. Once you start looking, these fascinating tidbits start popping up everwhere you look.
Below, I’ll discuss some of the ways in which we could research asexual history in this time period. It’s purposedly not a coherent story. All I have is a collection of puzzle pieces, and no way of knowing how they fit together, or if they even belong to the same puzzle. Therefore, instead of trying to tell the story of ‘asexuality from the mid-19th century until the end of the 20th century’, I’ve organised the puzzle pieces and present them as possible entry points for researching this time period. Take it for what it’s worth.
When did people first started to use the word ‘asexual’ to refer to humans with a lack of sexual attraction or lack of sexual interest? Were there other words to refer to this group or a similar group, and if so, how were they defined? This line of questioning will turn up a wealth of words and a somewhat bewildering inconsistency in their use. The earliest use of the word ‘asexual’ which I have been able to find (up to now), is in a 1896 pamphlet called “Sappho und Sokrates” by Magnus Hirschfeld, an influential German sexologist and activist for LGBT emancipation.6
There are several other words which might be of interest. Ralph Werther – Jennie June was an outspoken transgender person who wrote extensively about his life and the New York LGBT scene at the turn of the century. He uses the word ‘anaphrodite‘ to describe people who are “not suffused with adoration for any type of human” and who “shudder violently at the very thought of any kind of association grounded on sex differences”.7 Karl-Maria Kertbeny also mentions an interesting word in his 1869 pamphlet: ‘monosexuals’, which he defines as “those who (only?) masturbate”.8 It would be interesting to further explore the usage of these words and how they relate to the modern concept of asexuality.
Research regarding asexuality
There are several models of human sexuality which incorporate asexuality. Researchers like Magnus Hirschfeld and Alfred Kinsey did notice and describe asexuality. It is rather remarkable that some of the most well known sexologists make mention of asexuality, and yet we have been woefully understudied over the course of the last 150 years. This in itself calls up some questions: was it the nature of the discipline to study sexuality, but not the lack of it? Was asexuality studied under a different name or as a different category (instead of as sexual orientation, as a dysfunction)?
There are some studies which focus on asexuality prior to the formation of asexual communities, dating from the 1970’s.9 However, the start of current research into asexuality was in the 21st century with the publication of “Asexuality: prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample” by Anthony Bogaert in 2004. For an overview of research regarding asexuality, see this informative video or this wiki-page on AVEN.
Asexuality and pathologization
A related topic worth exploring is the way asexuality is or was pathologized. This will involve an examination of pathologized sexual behavior which overlap with or incorporate asexuality. Some examples would be ‘frigidity’ and ‘sexual anaesthesia’,10 as well as more recent terms like ‘Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder’ (HSDD). In his book ‘Understanding Asexuality’, Anthony Bogaert has a short discussion on the pathologization from the 1980’s onwards, particularly related to HSDD.11
Very little work has been done on the pathologization of asexuality before the 1980’s. All I have been able to find is this abstract of an undergrad paper: ‘(A)sexuality and Pathology: Historical Writings on Asexuality’. Unfortunately, the full text of this paper seems to be unavailable. However, we might not have to wait too long for more research regarding the history of pathologization. Several scholars have already expressed interest in this particular topic of ‘asexual history’. For example, Karli Cerankowski, who said in a recent interview: “What I imagine being the next step for my research would be to look through some of those medical and sexological histories and trace a kind of genealogy.”
Asexuality and LGBT history
With the emergence of the asexual community came the specific framing of asexuality as a minority sexuality comparable to gay, lesbian and bisexual identities. Before this, we weren’t seen as such and we are therefore not present in LGBT history as a separate entity. However, there are several intriguing bits and bobs that make me think that we’ve been there from the very beginning as a sort of undercurrent which pops up every now and then.
We are present in the works of LGBT pioneers like Magnus Hirschfeld and Ralph Werther – Jennie June (see above). It’s worth investigating how we fit into their circles: turn-of-the-century Berlin and New York. Then there are phenomena like the Boston marriages – relationships of which the main features are not just lesbian, but also asexual – and the description of asexuality as a subcategory of homosexuality in the 1978 study ‘Homosexualities’. There must be something there, even though the things I’ve found up to now are too scattered to put my finger on what our connection is.
Asexuality in the public perception
Most of the above discussion focusses on asexuality in the context of two niche communities: the LGBT/queer community and the intellectual, medical community. Was asexuality talked about in more mainstream discourse? Newspapers and works of fiction would be interesting sources as these are often produced for and more easily accessible to a wider audience. Sennkestra has already done some really great research searching through American newspapers.12 In my own searches through Dutch newspaper archives, I’ve also found some interesting stuff.13 There’s an evergrowing online archive of old newspapers and magazines which will give us plenty of opportunity to search for traces of asexuality in the media.
Fiction can be a wonderful mirror of how society views certain topics. It would therefore be interesting to look at historical works of fiction from this perspective. We could think of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, or the stories of Hercule Poirot (or portrayals of perpetually single detectives in general….). Other interesting novels would be Herland by Charlotte Perkin Gillman (1915) or The Bone People by Keri Hulmes (1984). The later author explicitly identifies as an aromantic asexual.14 Her portrayal of one of the characters, Kerewin (who’s aro ace), is therefore really interesting as the book was written well before the formation of the asexual communities.
Having discussed 5 different entry points for researching asexual history in the 19th and 20th century, and in the process cataloguing the puzzle pieces I’ve found so far, I’ll leave it here. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this subject. Does anything I’ve discussed above sound particularly (un)useful? Do you have additional ideas on how we might approach asexual history in this time period?
In my next post in this series, I’ll delve into a more general discussion of approaches to asexual history. The central question of that post will be: How to approach asexual history in time periods and geographical regions which are very different from the Western-centric recent history I’ve discussed in this part and part one of this series.
1. For a longer and more indepth discussions, see: George Chauncey, “From Sexual Inversion To Homosexuality: Medicine And The Changing Conceptualization Of Female Deviance”, in: Salmagundi, No. 58/59 (1982-1983), pp. 114-146, David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990), pp. 15-18. [Google Books preview]
2. George Chauncey, “From Sexual Inversion To Homosexuality: Medicine And The Changing Conceptualization Of Female Deviance”, in: Salmagundi, No. 58/59 (1982-1983), pp. 114.
3. David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990), pp. 15-16. [Google Books preview]
4. [Trigger warning for this link: pathologization of homo- and asexuality, discussions of sex with animals] He did so in a pamphlet protesting Prussian anti-sodomy laws. For the original text in German, see Magnus Hirschfeld,
[Trigger warning for the next link: discussions of pathologization of homosexuality] For more info in English, see Mother Jones for an article on Karl-Maria Kertbeny and other 19th century history of homosexuality.
5. For instance, the words were introduced into the English language in 1892, in the translation of Krafft-Ebing’s work Psychopathia Sexualis. See: David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990), pp. 15-16. [Google Books preview]
6. [Trigger warning for these links: pathologization of asexuality] For a discussion of Magnus Hirschfeld and what he wrote about asexuals, see this AVEN topic. If you want to read the original pamphlet, you can do so for free on the Müncherner Digitalisierungszentrum: (fair warning: it’s in German, in a lovely old Gothic font)
7. [Trigger warning for this link: pathologization of asexuality] Ralph Werther – Jennie June. The Female-Impersonators (1922), pp. 13-15. [Read online on archive.org] Suggestion that this description can relate to asexual history found in: Benjamin Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (2013), pp. 143-144.
8. [Trigger warning for this link: pathologization of homo- and asexuality, discussions of sex with animals] As opposed to the three other categories he identifies: “homosexuals” – those who have sex with the same sex, “heterosexuals”- those hwo have sex with the opposite sex and “heterogenits” – those who have sex with animals. It seems to follow that these ‘monosexuals’ only masturbate and do not have partnered sex, though I’d have to do a more thorough reading of the text to be sure. In:
9. In particular: Myra T. Johnson. “Asexual and Autoerotic Women: Two Invisible Groups” (1977), Bell and Weinberg. Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity Among Men and Women. (1978) (in which asexuality is studied as a natural subcategory of homosexuality) and Helen Singer Kaplan, “Disorders of Sexual Desire” (1970). For some more context and an hypothesis as to why there was such a surge of interest in the 1970’s, see the presentation by Sennkestra on asexual history of 1970 to now. See note 12 for more relevant links to Sennkestra’s talk.
10. For frigidity, see: Alison Moore and Peter Cryle, Frigidity: an intellectual history (2011), sexual anaesthesia was a term used by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his work Psychopathia Sexualis. See also this abstract of Josh Soller. ‘(A)sexuality and Pathology: Historical Writings on Asexuality’ in: Washington University Undergraduate Research Digest, Volume 8, Issue 2 (2013)
11. Anthony Bogaert. Understanding Asexuality, pp. 91-92 [Google books preview] He has not been the only one to write about HSDD and asexuality. For an overview of literature on this subject, see Asexual Explorations.
12. In addition to the video of the presentation at the Asexuality Conference 2014, you can download the powerpoint presentation, and on Sennkestra’s tumblr is the full text of an article from 1978.
13. I will share a more complete account of my findings at a later point, but I’ve shared some of them on my Tumblr: Hadimassa – A comedy sketch from 1970 and A nation-wide survey from 1991 which explicitly allowed people to answer ‘asexual’ as their sexual orientation.
14. She said so in a 2007 interview with the New Zealand Herald.