First, a big shoutout to my mom for finding this as a used book, knowing it was relevant to my interests and bringing it back for me!
Also, if this kind of historical snippet is up your alley, consider joining the asexual history interest group.
When it comes to researching the history of “asexuality” before communities began to form under that name in the late nineties, one set of sources that I think can provide interesting insight is in older academic and popular works of psychology, sociology, and sexology. While such books rarely refer to “asexuals” in the same terms or with the same models we use today, they do frequently make references to individuals with low libido or complete lack of interest, often describing experiences that in many ways mirror the personal testimony of aces today.
As with any research on the sexualities of individuals in a time and culture where different sexual paradigms prevailed, I don’t think it’s appropriate to argue whether or not any of these populations described were or were not asexual – but I think we can definitely see them as something like our cultural ancestors, and we can definitely see the seeds of the patterns that currently pervade modern cultural and academic discussions of asexual people and communities.
For this post, I wanted to share a short excerpt I stumbled upon from a 1965 book titled “Sex and the Significant Americans”, a pop psych style overview of the sex lives of
“Significant Americans….a roughly representative group of the leadership echelon, the decision-making, policy-forming people, the most clearly successful, as success is currently conceived. In other investigations people like them have been designated Elites, Eminents, Top Influentials, and more academically, Upper Middle Class.”
The findings of the book are drawn from personal interviews with 437 “significant americans” – government officials, business executives, judges, specialist physicians, professors, military officers, clergy and artists (mostly male, but with a few women). Single women were deemed “significant” by the same standards as men, while married women, as well as the recently widowed or divorced were considered “significant” if their husbands were (hello, sexism).
It’s a popular press book from the 1960s, and it kind of shows. There’s definitely a lot of embedded gender roles, and it’s aggressively heterosexual – it very carefully never mentions anything about same-sex encounters (despite citing Kinsey’s reports, so lol). That also means that it reads very differently from more modern, “sexual orientation” approaches to a/sexuality. Instead of framing asexuality as a sexual orientation compared to being gay or bi, books like this one (and other sexological works from this time period) are more likely to discuss asexuality-like experiences in terms of lack of sex drive, lack of sexual desire, or low libido, rather than using a [lack of] gender preference frame.
In particular, this book contains a passage that many modern aces may find familiar in a section on “sexual sublimation” (emphasis added by me):
“Sublimation, too, can do with a second look. In recent years it has been intellectually fashionable to point out that sexual sublimation is exceedingly difficult to pull off and quite dangerous to mental health should one succeed. The people who provided the information for this study challenge both of those assumptions. Many of these career dominated people have channeled almost the whole of their energies into success aspirations. For some it had been practically a necessity to do so in order to complete their education and carry the grueling responsibilities and workloads of their early years. Some now regret that they were as successful at sublimation as they were; now they would like to recapture the sexual vitality which they relegated to disuse, but they have become different people and it is impossible to go back. We are, of course, dealing here with a highly educated group of people, a selected group in the sense that they have demanding jobs that usually require a great deal of discipline. In other classes the frequency and success of sublimation may be very different. Nevertheless, a great many of these prominent people have been able to inhibit the sexual side of their nature without visibly jeopardizing their mental health or their spectacular career success.
Some, of course, seem to have paid for successful sublimations – depending on what one means by “paying a price”. It is very difficult to weight a distinguished scientific or diplomatic career built by endless hours of hard discipline against a presumably enriched personal sexual life which the subject might have had if he had lived more like an ordinary man. This raises questions of moral value which go beyond considerations of individual frustration or fulfillment. It can and has been argued that talented and highly placed people have a public responsibility to make whatever personal sacrifice may be entailed in order to carry out their obligations to society. At least some of the Significant Americans accept this logic and defend it as an altogether reasonable requirement.
Furthermore, what is often interpreted as sexual sublimation in the interests of career has in many cases not been sublimation at all. For some people there has always been low sexual energy or absence of sexual awakening, hence no pressing libidinal urge to be inhibited. It has been suggested in much serious professional writing that low sex capacity may be associated with outstanding academic and later occupational achievement in just this way. Whatever the cause and effect connection, it is in line with the self-description and self-analysis of a substantial minority of those whom we interviewed that the absence of a clear sexual valence in their lives is not the result of deliberate inhibition. “It’s never been that important to me – much less a problem”.
This comes from chapter 9, “Against the Grain”, which in general details instances of dissatisfaction with sex and marriage that run counter to common social sexual expectations – though not all of these instances are quite so directly relevant to the modern asexual experience, some definitely makes for interesting further reading for those who would like to dive deeper through this kind of period perspective.
As for the word “asexual” itself, it doesn’t get mentioned much in the book, but there is an offhand reference in the following chapter, which serves as a concluding overview, where we see this statement:
“The biological fact of heterosexuality is not so much a determining fact of life as a condition upon which people build radically different life facts. The sexually expressive, the asexual, the apathetic, the hostile – all have built their characteristics upon the biological and cultural substructure of a two-sex order, but they have done it so differently that they are strangers to one another in this important regard, however close their affinities on politics, recreational or aesthetic matters.“
Cuber, John Frank, and Peggy B. Harroff. Sex and the significant Americans: A study of sexual behavior among the affluent. Penguin Books, 1966.