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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyOctober 30, 2022

Essay on Sunday: Asexuality and the artist

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Deeply divided for years between his lack of sexual desire and his longing to connect, James Wenley ultimately used theatre as a means to understand himself as an artist, a sometimes-romantic, a human being, and an ace. 

It is said some artists return again and again to a central idea or question throughout their career. A throughline can be traced across their life’s creative output, variations on a preoccupying theme. If you were to pick one for Aotearoa’s cinematic superhero Taika Waititi, it could be the value of fantasy and imagination against disillusionment. In literature, Katherine Mansfield’s might be the impacts of isolation, while Janet Frame’s questions society’s notions of sanity. Sure, this is reductive, but if this is so, I know what my preoccupation is: connection. Or, to get more vulnerable through specificity: the longing for connection. I’m not claiming it’s an original one.

I observe this theme in the short film I made for my 2006 media studies class in my final year of secondary school. It parallels the unfulfilled romantic lives of two strangers: a single guy (played too autobiographically by me) and a young woman wanting out of her dreary relationship. In one scene I held up a handwritten sign asking someone out on a date (I’m politely refused). The other protagonist is left by herself at the Queen St Cinemas when her boorish boyfriend says he’s going to “make like Tom… and cruise.” She holds up a sign saying “help!” as the camera zooms out. It was artistic, okay? Mr Thomas gave it an Excellence.

I observe this theme in my artistic medium of choice, not film – Two Strangers was the height of my screen career – but theatre. Theatre is the ideal medium of connection. There’s an energy when the bodies in the room join together; when you, as an audience member, connect with the characters, when you connect with others in the audience connecting with the characters, and when the actors connect back with you. I’ve dedicated my life to theatre – as a practitioner, critic, researcher and teacher – in pursuit of this sublime series of connections.

At the end of my second year of University of Auckland drama I needed to register a theatre company name to take part in the inaugural 2009 Auckland Fringe Festival. I thought about the type of theatre I wanted to make. I wanted something uplifting, nurturing, connecting. I wrote “Theatre of Love” on the form and coined a longer tagline: “For the love of theatre, we make the theatre of love.” For years the Theatre of Love Facebook page carried the cringey mission statement: “We want to make theatre love to you.”

Picasso famously expressed that “sex and art the same thing” (the artist’s sexual proclivities have long been part of his mythos, although behaviour that was once excused due to an “uncontrollable sex drive” is now recognised as abuse). The quote gets at the idea that art-making and love-making are intertwined: art as a procreative act with the muses. Freud understood that “primitive sexual urges” underpin appreciation and creation of beauty, with these urges “transfigured in culturally elevating ways” – like art. We might also understand art as peacocking, an (un)conscious strategy to increase one’s sexual appeal. Karley Sciortino talks up the artist as a sex symbol in her article ‘Why do we like having sex with artists?’: “Art, at its best, aims to be a transcendent experience. As does sex… I’ve always found it attractive to think that artists might be more in touch with generating transcendence than the average person, and therefore must be better in bed.” A frequently cited 2005 study of 425 British people found professional artists and poets averaged 4-10 sexual partners compared with the so-called average person’s 3 sexual partners. “What we seem to have established is that artists and poets are, amongst other things, horny old toads,” said the researcher.

Art and sex are viewed as bedfellows, engaged in a dance of tension, desire and creative release. Fuck around and make art.

But if this is so, what is the place of the asexual artist?

Pablo Picasso embodied the stereotype of the sexually voracious, endlessly seductive artistic genius. (Photo: Getty Images)

Asexuality is an identity I’ve only felt able to embrace in my early 30s. In this, my story joins stories from people across the rainbow community who have discovered later in life other ways of expressing and being beyond narrow gender and sexual binaries.

The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network describes an asexual, or “ace”, person as “someone who does not experience sexual attraction or an intrinsic desire to have sexual relationships”. This definition is a starting point only. One of the wonderful aspects about asexuality is that it itself is a spectrum and umbrella: there are acespec people who experience no or low sexual interest or attraction; people who do sometimes (graysexual) or in specific conditions (demisexual, recriposexual, akoisexual); people for whom their experience of sexual attraction fluctuates over the spectrum (aceflux); and many more permutations. Romantic attraction and expression has its own spectrum – both asexual and allosexual (people who experience sexual attraction) individuals can have a romantic orientation separate to sexual orientation.

Libido is its own thing too. Asexuality, like all sexual orientations, refers to attraction and desire, not behaviour: some ace people might seek non-sexual relationships and intimacies; some might have sex in relationships, even if they don’t feel sexual attraction; some ace aromantic people don’t desire sexual or romantic partners, or may form queerplatonic relationships. For me, as ace polyromantic, I seek romantic relationships with women and non-binary/genderqueer people (although I’m not sure how strongly I feel romance either). There is no singular ace experience, and what I describe in this essay is particular to me.

Asexuality has an important contribution to make to a sex positive consent culture. It is fundamentally opposed to incel ideology, an identity based on an entitlement to sex, and objection to this “right” being withheld. Normalising not desiring sex or assuming everybody wants sex promotes a healthy consent culture for everybody – for allosexual people who enjoy sex to have great sex, and for it to be respected if people aren’t into it. Asexuality is a valid and healthy identity.

Asexuality was labelled The Invisible Orientation by Julia Sondra Decker in her 2014 book. “It’s isolating and lonely to be the only person around who lacks sexual attraction or interest in sex,” Decker writes. It is estimated that between 1 to 4 people out of every 100 could be asexual. Decker notes that “most asexual folks don’t know using the asexual label is an option for much of their lives”.

Part of the reason it took me so long to find asexuality was due to the twinned forces of compulsory sexuality and amatonormativity. Compulsory sexuality is a societal endorsement of sexual desire as natural, normal and rewarded (if heavily policed, preferencing a white, ableist heteronormative sexuality). It’s there in the attitudes to sex and art: the assumption that all artists must have sexual desire, everyone who consumes art must have sexual desire, therefore all art must be sexual – and artists must be especially horny toads.

Amatonormativity, theorised by Elizabeth Brake, refers to the way we socially and legally prioritise and valorise central, exclusive, amorous relationships. This produces a particularly narrow and western conception of love, elevating a romantic and sexual unit of two above all other forms of relating and social organisation. Finding my asexuality was made harder by how totally I had absorbed this amatonormative ideology that, firstly, to be coupled is to be successful, and secondly, that sexual interest and activity is a baseline for intimate relationships – the idea that it’s not a “real” relationship until you’ve consummated it, or you can’t truly know if you vibe with someone until you’ve slept together. It was made harder still by my lack of exposure, with little in the way of asexual representation and role models on my radar.

Aotearoa has made some important community and creative contributions to ace representation. Asexuality Aotearoa New Zealand, which ran online from 2005 to 2009, undertook vital community building and advocacy work. Kerewin Holmes, the main character in Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize winner The Bone People (1984), was asexual and aromantic, like Hulme. Shortland Street’s Gerald Tippett, played by Harry McNaughton in the late 2000s “is considered the first asexual character on mainstream TV”. The Spinoff’s 2020 documentary Ace of Hearts by Julie Zhu, showcases the lives of ace folk in New Zealand. Susan William’s autobiographical solo play Illegally Blind (2021), celebrates their ace experience alongside other intersections of their identity as a disabled, non-binary performer.

The late Keri Hulme was perhaps the first New Zealand writer to depict asexuality in a novel. (Photo: Getty Images)

It was the creation of my own autobiographical solo show, Dr Drama Makes A Show (2020), that helped nudge me towards the relief of the ace identity. Riffing off the lecture format of my university job, I put up my own body as a text to read, unpack and scrutinise. An antique desk, a family heirloom originally owned by a Scottish ancestor, became the catalyst to engage with my entanglement with colonisation and the politics of putting my white, Pākehā, masculine able-body on the stage. In one scene, I travel back and forth between different spotlights and a microphone, declaring an earnest woke statement then complicating it with a question to the mic: “Is it different if a man says it?” I add more identity markers: white, educated, bald, wearing glasses. Afterwards, I offer some analysis of what’s just happened, asking the audience to “note what is revealed, and what is occluded. James is not prepared to claim a sexual identity.” Examining my sexual orientation felt too confronting, something I wasn’t ready to speak to in the show. I’d previously pursued romantic relationships with women, but I could have an aesthetic appreciation for people of any gender, yet I wasn’t interested in doing anything with anyone. I didn’t feel able to adequately claim any sexual identity in the show. It was almost like I didn’t have one.

I went back looking for clues, in my life, and in my art.

I was bullied as a child, kids having a superb skill at sniffing out difference and non-conformity. Drama class was my escape and my world then, as now, revolved around theatre, especially musicals. When I was 13,  I convinced Mum to take us on a trip to the capital just to see The Rocky Horror Show. It was absolute musical pleasure, and the gateway to the The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In all the ways that the 1975 film wouldn’t be made today, Rocky Horror remains a totemic queer text, a liberation from Brad and Janet heteronormativity. Frank N Furter’s world of fishnets, floor shows, and wanting to feel dirty, was indeed like something from another planet in the Galaxy of Transylvania, something for me to study and try to figure out. Richard O’Brien’s character Riff Raff stood out to me, introduced peering out of the window of the tower, anticipating relief from pain: “flow morphia slow, let the sun and light come streaming / Into my life, into my life”. Apollo (order, restraint) to Frank’s Dionysus (chaos, desire), Riff Raff seems to be placed at a remove from the erotic nightmares and sensual daydreams of the other Transylvanians, giving voice to alienation in his outburst after killing Frank and Rocky, “They didn’t like me. They never liked me!” Riff Raff was the one I saw myself in.

Released in 1975, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an enduring challenge to Brad-and-Janet heteronormativity. (Photo: Getty)

When I was in Year 12 I skipped my school’s ball – finding a date to take was too much of an overwhelming and confusing task. Instead, I watched the film Tommy, The Who’s rock opera (like Rocky Horror, also released in 1975), about a boy who withdraws his senses from the world, responding only to the game of pinball. Tommy’s internal plea “See Me / Feel Me / Touch Me / Heal Me” too adequately expressed how I was feeling that night. Reviewing the text now, I’m struck by how Tommy was placed in non-consensual sexual situations in an attempt to “cure” him. After he becomes lucid again, he follows a messianic, seemingly celibate path. While his followers desert him at the end of the film, he reconciles the shattered parts of himself and is complete and content on his own. I saw myself in Tommy too. I did go to the ball in Year 13, dressed in an extravagant purple costume suit with ruffles I’d hired from First Scene, a camp theatrical challenge to masculine conformity. My date pashed someone else that night at the after-ball, and I honestly didn’t mind.

At the University of Auckland I joined the theatre club – a notorious place for hookups and experimentation, but I was profoundly uninterested in any of that. The stage was enough to satisfy my creative energy and fantasy, including forming Theatre of Love and directing the stage version of Tommy. The joke was that I was very good at getting other people together in the shows I’d produce and direct, but would never get together with anyone myself.

Like my character in Two Strangers, I had a feeling of being on the outside when it came to the sexual economy. People traded banter, got together, formed partnerships. There was a whole language of desire that I couldn’t replicate, no matter how deeply I studied the relevant texts or rehearsed the scripts. I found unsought interest from others deeply distressing. I remember a night at the Basement Theatre where I went into an absolute panic because someone was coming on to me. I found myself apologising for not wanting to go home with them, with my companion wanting assurance that it wasn’t because I considered them unattractive. The still pervasive idea that men by default have a high libido and are always up for sex is damaging for all parties.

I began my first relationship in 2013 when I was 24, which lasted just over a year. Post-break up, I did the cliché and downloaded Tinder. Each time I swiped I could feel a piece of my soul disintegrating, the app’s emphasis on the physical deeply alienating. I dealt with it in the way I knew best: writing a musical. Only the opening number of Match: The Musical has been staged publicly, a 10-minute epic in which twenty-somethings Steve and Sarah break up after a three-year relationship. Composing the rest of the score proved too difficult, and the script remains in the bottom desk drawer. Match was my protest against being forced to conform to and perform expected sexual and romantic roles. I included a range of allosexual characters – queer, polyamorous, monogamous – and one character, Amber, is proto-acearo, making a strong plea for normalising singlehood: “No, I don’t need a partner for validation. Yes, I can actually be happy on my own. No, I’m not going to be a cat lady.” The act one climax sees the various characters anticipating “We’re gonna do it / Make it happen / Get it on / Make love” (Amber though is having a night to herself – “Sex is best with yourself”).

I remember being stumped when it came to writing a verse for Sarah expressing the pleasure she experienced during sex; I was worried about being “found out” if her lyrics weren’t convincing. “I can’t decide what I like best,” I had Sarah sing, but I knew which part I liked best: afterwards. I always felt numb on the occasions my partner and I were sexually intimate, confused about why I wasn’t enjoying it more, but I liked cuddling and feeling close after we were done. I learnt sex was the pathway to intimacy. I thought maybe my feelings about sex would change with more experience, but I didn’t rush out and try and find it.

In Dr Drama Makes A Show I include a story of vulnerability and disconnection from the next time I dated someone, in 2019. After a fun night going to the Rocketman film, my partner wanted sex, but I didn’t. “Maybe in the morning?” This was upsetting for my partner, and I felt there was something abnormal about me. I couldn’t get to sleep, and to my shame, I snuck out in the early hours. During rehearsals for the show I added a new line to the script’s commentary on this incident: “To what extent am I asexual?” It was an identity that seemed to explain a lot, but I still felt at that stage that maybe I didn’t have enough data. But I didn’t need further data – ace people don’t need to have tried multiple sexual partners, or indeed any, in order to assert their asexuality. I wished I’d had the self-knowledge and language about asexuality earlier so I could have talked it through with these partners. If only I’d been watching Shortland Street in 2008, I might have saved myself years of agony and confusion around relationships.

As the year went on I kept going back to the question I added to Dr Drama, gaining greater clarity. In 2021 I debuted a sequel, Dr Drama Makes A Show With You. This time using an interactive workshop format, I returned to the well of my central artistic theme, exploring loneliness and connection: my personal difficulty making close platonic and romantic connections, and, as a response to Covid-19, the value of people gathering in the same room to experience live performance. I share with the audience a sample of my extensive collection of show programmes from the plays and musicals I’ve attended: “Theatre – at the very least – makes me feel part of something more. My balm for the lonely.” After performing the show, I felt newly confident to share with my closest friends that I’m ace. The greatest surprise since assuming my acehood is how affirming it is to have my ace identity recognised within a surprise romantic relationship, and the relief I’ve found in not having to pretend or perform sexual interest.

I recognise that both my Pākehā-ness and masculinity has provided me with cover: I have been able to move through the world mostly without question. Women and gender diverse acespec folks might face greater acephobic demands to justify their disinterest in sex and be threatened with sexual violence. Whiteness imposes additional de/sexualising myths on aces of colour. Courtney Lane, founder of Disabled Ace Day, describes the marginalisation experienced by disabled ace people in both disabled and ace spaces. In publicly embracing my aceness I find value in being able to role model non-normative models of masculinity, especially for my university students, but I also need to interrogate my embrace of an ace identity as something that offers a distinctness beyond my banal Pākehā able-bodied cis male identity.

This essay is motivated by a longing to connect more deeply with myself. I don’t find asexuality easy to talk about – how do you articulate an experience of absence? What makes me push past my personal discomfort is the importance of ace awareness. Decker argues that “asexuality needs to be in the common consciousness so asexual people… know their feelings have a name – and can stop thinking they’re broken if they don’t conform.” I’m also motivated by the vital need for ace people to stand in solidarity with the wider rainbow community against bigotry, for acespec awareness to play a part in continuing to open people’s hearts and minds to the multispectrum of ways of being and expressing that are open to us as humans.

In Asexual Erotics: Intimate Readings of Compulsory Sexuality, Ela Przybylo utilises the work of Audre Lorde to argue for an asexual erotics that centres forms of intimacy beyond the sexual, challenging the lingering Freudian notion that sexual attraction is the “benchmark for desire and wanting” and prime motivator of our actions. Western amatonormativity privileges a restrictive and imaginatively-bound form of love and relationships. No matter where you fall on the blurry ace/allo or romantic spectrums, all of us can benefit from more expansive narratives about love, desire, and social connection. As Angela Chen, author of Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, explains, “when sex loses its dominance as the most important and intimate thing… more ways of relating and connecting become clear”.

Through writing this essay I find asexuality isn’t about absence after all; although I didn’t have the language for a long time, asexuality has had a remarkable presence in my life, glimpsed in the art and stories I consume and make. Art shapes us, both perpetuating and challenging societal myths, but we in turn shape art, perceiving it through our life histories and experiences. There’s a reason I gravitated towards characters like Riff Raff and Tommy, even if they aren’t an exact match for an ace experience.

I suspect the longing for connection will remain as a driving force in my artistic work (although I’m also thematically-curious). I’m able to recognise it now as a longing for connection without a sexual dimension. Theatre of Love still stands – an expansive love in many forms and varieties. For the love of theatre, we make the theatre of love, not sex.

Ace artists have a lot to offer in challenging allocentric norms and expanding our notions of the way people live, feel, desire, connect. The asexual artist has an inside-running on what art of all kinds is especially good at doing: offering another perspective and way of connecting with yourself and others.

Keep going!