There is a simple way to distinguish asexuality from celibacy. Asexuality – as a sexual orientation – is about not experiencing sexual attraction (preferences with respect to sexual partners) and/or about lacking sexual desire. An asexual person can meet these criteria and yet still have partnered sex. Celibacy, on the other hand, is about not having sex. A celibate person is necessarily abstinent. An ostensibly celibate person who has sex has failed at celibacy.
Interestingly, there are two different ways in which one may fail at celibacy. The voluntary celibate has made a conscious choice to resist their sexual appetites in order to achieve some greater end (such as to facilitate a closer relationship with God). This person fails when weakness of the will permits their (lower, if you must) impulses to take control. The involuntary celibate goes to lengths to fulfill their sexual impulses, but is prevented from doing so by circumstances and personal ineptitude. This person fails when luck or innovation enables them to finally actualize the sexual encounter they so desperately seek.
There is one other illuminating contrast. Insincere voluntary celibacy has produced some notorious religious scandals (most notably, sexual abuse among the Catholic priesthood). Sincere involuntary celibacy has produced some of the greasiest spaces on the Internet (most notably, the love-shy.com website). In this way, voluntary celibacy is palatable when successful and unpalatable when it fails, while involuntary celibacy is unpalatable when successful and palatable when it fails.
I have introduced these distinctions to further discussion pertaining to a new definition of asexuality. This definition provides that: an asexual person is a person who does not value partnered sex enough to pursue it. Formulated in this way, it excludes involuntary celibates, who assuredly value partnered sex enough to pursue it (although they do so in an inept fashion). However, it does not exclude voluntary celibates. But the definition may be modified as follows: an asexual person is a person who does not value partnered sex enough to pursue it, and who does not perceive that celibacy provides greater intrinsic rewards. This definition excludes both involuntary and voluntary celibates, and therefore satisfies those prerequisites for being a satisfactory definition of asexuality.
The picture that I’ve presented above requires some elaboration. In particular, the reader may want to know more about what is meant by “intrinsic rewards”. Here I’m relying on the philosophical distinction between intrinsic desires (things that are valued for their own sake) and instrumental desires (things that are valued because they enable us to achieve intrinsic desires). I suggest that for sexual people, partnered sex is desired intrinsically (and likely also desired instrumentally), while for asexual people partnered sex can only be desired instrumentally. This raises a question, since while some philosophers would include things like partnered sex among the list of intrinsic values, others would argue that it is in turn only a means to a true intrinsic value – perhaps even the only true intrinsic value – such as pleasure. But I’m content to leave open this philosophical point of order. In doing so, I’m resisting the asexual tendency to overthink everything. It is sufficient to say that for sexual people, there are sexual appetites which can only be assuaged through partnered sex, and there are states of sexual attraction which can only be addressed through being sexual with the object of attraction. In these ways, sexual people find partnered sex to be intrinsically rewarding, because for them it provides something which is good for its own sake and which cannot be achieved through other means. By contrast, while an asexual person might have sex for the desired good of conceiving a child, they could achieve the same good by other means such as in vitro fertilization. Likewise, while an asexual person might have sex in order to make their sexual partner happy, all other things being equal they would prefer a partner who doesn’t require sex in this way, whereas all other things being equal a sexual person would prefer a partner who also requires sex to be happy.
There is more to be said here. Consider the case of Buddhist nuns/monks, who are devoted to the objective of extinguishing desire in all of its manifestations, including sexual desire. To do so, they may first commit to celibacy, and then work towards extinguishing sexual desire (through techniques designed to internalize associations of sex and human bodies with the emotion of disgust). If they succeed in doing so, they may then be considered asexual as people who lack sexual attraction/desire (significant sociocultural differences notwithstanding). But while they’re in the process of doing so, they’re voluntarily celibate rather than asexual because they believe that celibacy is a necessary component of a form of practice required to actualize an intrinsic good, which of course is a mindset that falls within the main definitions of asexuality (God, I love philosophical logic!).
The Buddhist example shows that one may make a choice to become asexual, whereby celibacy is part of the path required to achieve that objective. The amount of effort and time required is not realistic for most people. Nor do most asexual people (within our sociocultural context) make a conscious choice to be asexual. But what is likely is that many people make choices which contribute to their becoming asexual. For example, psychologists have suggested that a lack of sexual conditioning experiences during adolescence and young adulthood may be a cause of asexuality. In turn, causes of this may include conservative religious upbringings and social isolation. Now consider a really religious teenager who chooses not to masturbate or pursue sexual partners before marriage. They make choices that produce conditions which are a cause of asexuality. But they have likely never heard of asexuality at the times when they make the relevant choices. And their reasons for making these choices were influenced by factors over which they had no control, the religious values of the family into which they were born.
It is rare, if ever, that we choose free and unfettered by circumstances over which we have no control. We don’t have to overanalyze to the the point of invoking the debate between free will and determinism to realize that there’s no simple distinction between being a choice and not being a choice. Consider the case of gray-asexuals who experience low levels of sexual attraction/desire, while being sex-averse/repulsed and/or touch averse. They probably didn’t choose to have those conflicted feelings, although they may have made choices which were contributing causes. These feelings may suggest that partnered sex – despite seeming to offer some intrinsic rewards – presents too make negatives to be desirable on balance. Nevertheless, they could still choose the worse option if they want to. They’re not forced to choose the better deal. In this way, these gray-asexuals exercise some choice with respect to their asexuality. However, the choice they have is analogous to the choice one has to reject medical treatment for a serious injury. It is the choice to avoid a negative, to take what rationality dictates is the only real option. This is the reason why I have specified my definition of asexuality as: an asexual person is a person who does not value partnered sex enough to pursue it, and who does not perceive that celibacy provides greater intrinsic rewards. The gray-asexuals that I’ve described above seek to avoid negatives which they perceive as attached to the act of sex. Thus, they are properly differentiated from the voluntary celibate person who seeks advantages from not having sex.
I have observed that some people in the asexual community hold sex negative views whereby they believe that a nonsexual lifestyle is objectively better than a sexual lifestyle. These views may operate in two different ways. To the extent that they provide a motivation for not having sex, they are a cause of celibacy. And to the extent that they represent an internalization of beliefs which reduce the person’s ability to experience sexual attraction/desire, they are a cause of asexuality. In this way, my definition preserves the distinction between asexuality and celibacy while showing how they may be interrelated in practice.
When I was an undergraduate philosophy student at University of Toronto, I enrolled in a course on the philosophy of art, taught during a 6-9pm time slot at Sidney Smith Hall. During the first half of class, we would learn about a nice neat concise definition of art that some philosopher had proposed. Then we’d load up on espresso during break, and return to hear about all the various counterexamples brought against it, how the view had been modified to respond to those counterexamples, and how yet more obtuse counterexamples had been invented to defeat those modifications. By the end of the semester, any practically-minded person would have abandoned the project of defining art as an utterly hopeless endeavour. But I’m not a practical person, and so I proceeded to enrol in the upper year version of the course, taught during a much more reasonable time slot from 3-6pm across campus at Saint Michael’s College. I provide this story to explain why I have persevered in the Definition Debate for so long. I realize that for asexuality – as with art – a satisfactory definition may forever elude us. I have hope, however, for asexuality is a less abstract concept than art, so there is reason to think that we might get close, so long as we don’t overthink things.