In the Blog
Cross-post: Asexuality: A Minority in Need of Understanding
Image: Asexuality flag. Photo credit: Flickr user trollhare (https://www.flickr.com/photos/trollhare/) and used under a Creative Commons license.
This piece was originally posted at The WIP.
When I told my therapist “I think I’m asexual,” she told me it was my depression that made me feel that way. She informed me that the proper treatment would “clear that right up.”
Her denial of asexuality and belief that asexuality is symptomatic of a deeper mental health problem is not an uncommon response. Most people have never heard of asexuality; those that have often misunderstand it. Some people think asexuality is an excuse people use who “can’t get laid.” Some believe that asexual people must have suffered sexual abuse. In high school, when I was first starting to understand my sexuality, none of these explanations fit.
My therapist was the first person I told. I was seventeen, and for years I had felt uncomfortable with my peers, who had been exploring their own sexuality. Most of them had crushes; and in true adolescent-girl fashion, they demanded the identity of mine. I would try to evade them because I couldn’t answer, and their questions highlighted how weird I was. Weird was the only word I had to describe myself, and it is too vague to be useful. It left me feeling completely alone. That is why it was so important when a friend mentioned asexuality and why my therapist’s denial of asexuality deflated me. Finally I had a word to describe myself, a starting point for understanding; and most importantly, I was not alone. By telling me that asexuality is a symptom, not an identity, my therapist took away my newfound sense of belonging.
Perhaps one of the hardest parts about growing up asexual is the extreme loneliness. Some people in the asexual community are also aromantic, meaning they do not seek emotional romantic intimacy, but I crave that connection. During adolescence, relationships are particularly physical. Since I was not interested in physical intimacy, I didn’t date at all.
When I did start dating, it didn’t go well. My first boyfriend was very sexual and didn’t understand that I didn’t want to have sex with him. When I talked to him about my sexuality, he flat-out denied it and later told me he could “fix” me, suggesting asexuality is a problem in need of fixing rather than a facet of identity that requires understanding.
After we broke up, my ex asked, “Do you still think you’re asexual?” The way he phrased it felt like another rejection. He seemed to say I was wrong about my sexuality and the world was waiting for me to realize how I was misunderstanding myself.
My experiences are not unique. An estimated one percent of people are asexual, but this number is probably far too low because like me, many people who are asexual do not know that there is a word to describe them.
I spoke with members of The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) about their experiences. When asked what is the most important thing for sexual people to know about asexuality, one user (L.) says, “It’s quite simple, we’re just not attracted in that sense, it’s just nothing … I mean I can be romantically attracted (some people aren’t even that) but I don’t look at someone who I have a crush on and think the same things sexuals do. I’ve even been sexually attracted to one person but not to the extent they obviously were to me. So really [it’s] just that we don’t feel [sexual attraction]. Nothing wrong, we just don’t feel it.”
For years, the LGBT movement has been making waves around the world with annual pride celebrations in major cities. The movement does immeasurable good for improving understanding of sexual minorities, and they have paved the way for smaller groups that are harder to understand.
The media is noticing asexuality, but their reaction is often harmful. In 2012, Fox News did a comedy skit about asexuality that only served to further disenfranchise the identity. Fox pundits stated that asexuality is what every woman experiences once a month and there is no reason to raise awareness for such a small group. In (A)sexuality, a documentary aiming to raise genuine awareness about asexuality, a reporter commented that it was immoral for someone who is asexual to be in a relationship with someone who is not asexual.
These media reactions promote ideas that harm millions (conservative estimates put the number of asexuals worldwide at 70 million people). The documentary in particular raises dangerous questions about consent and morality. Is it really immoral for two consenting adults to enter a relationship if they do not want the same things physically? A person who hears that message may shy away from a relationship and remain lonely out of fear that seeking comfort in the companionship of another person is immoral. The decision to enter a relationship is for the potential (consenting adult) partners to decide.
Another all-too-common response is to suggest that people who are asexual simply have not had decent sex. This opens the door to rape culture, where sexual people believe it is okay to pressure asexual people to engage in unwanted sex because it might help “fix” the “problem.” CJ Chasin, a graduate student who researches sexuality at the University of Windsor, Canada cautions, “Of the two small groups of asexual and non-asexual women in my study (who had agreed to unwanted sex) with romantic partners who were men, participants in both groups generally had these experiences very frequently during the course of these relationships. And both groups actually experienced quite a bit of sexual coercion in those relationships overall. These asexual women as a group experienced particularly much [more] sexual coercion, including sexual coercion that was specifically related to their asexuality.” Clearly, for some asexuals, entering a romantic relationship with a sexual person can be riskier than for sexuals.
Most importantly, these media reactions shrink asexuality to invisibility, silence, and gross misunderstandings. Another AVEN user, S. says, “I personally am choosing to remain in the closet about it because I don’t think I could handle people questioning me on it.” S. is not alone in that decision. The media portrayal creates negative ideas about asexuality and makes it significantly harder for someone who is asexual to share.
The asexual community is incredibly varied. I am still learning about the different asexual identities, but AVEN has a great list. I think of sexuality as something that could be plotted on multiple axes. The degree of attraction varies independently from the type. For example, some people are asexual homoromantic, meaning that they are not interested in sex, but they are interested in same-sex romantic relationships. Some people are demisexual or grey-asexual which means they rarely experience sexual attraction, and usually require emotional attachment. S. believes the variety of different types of orientations within the asexual community is the most important point to draw attention to. “Let [sexuals] know that the asexual community is very diverse. It would be great if more people knew what it was…”
For asexual romantic people, relationships are possible. Sometimes people on the asexuality spectrum will seek others, but finding asexual partners is a nearly impossible task. Instead, many asexuals choose to compromise, dating understanding non-asexuals. Every June, the LGBT community from around the world celebrates sexual diversity and raises awareness through parades, big parties, and public visibility campaigns. This Pride Month, millions of people are wondering where they fit in. By having honest conversations about asexuality, people who feel alone or broken are more likely to find a community that shares their experiences.
Kirstin Kelley is graduate assistant at The WIP who is completing her master’s degree in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.