What Is Asexuality? Understanding the Least Understood Sexual Orientation.
“I spent a considerable amount of time when I was, o, adolescent, wondering why I was different, whether there were other people like me. Why, when everyone else was fascinated by their developing sexual nature, I couldn’t give a damn. I’ve never been attracted to men. Or women. Or anything else. It’s difficult to explain, but while I have an apparently normal female body, I don’t have any sexual urge or appetite.” ~ Keri Hulme
Sex. The mechanics of it are responsible for human life, and it is considered one of our most basic needs. Throughout history, there have been few aspects of human characteristics as contested or controversial as sexuality.
It is only over the past few decades that we have come to recognize human sexual orientation and gender identity for what it is—not a binary, black-and-white system as previously supposed, but rather a wide spectrum on which each individual person falls at different points.
Living in a society that is so explicitly sex-focused, we are exposed to traditional ideas of sexual orientation and attraction from a very early age. But in recent years, the barriers against the expression of one’s sexual identity have experienced a dramatic shift.
Terms such as ‘demisexual’—in which one is only sexually attracted to those that one has developed romantic feelings for—or ‘aromantic’—a person who feels no romantic attraction to others—have only recently been coined, and many nuclear communities of people who identify as various sexualities have come into existence.
However, unsurprisingly, asexuality is one of the least understood of these labels. And rightly so: how can we really be expected to believe that any human can feel no sexual attraction whatsoever?
What is Asexuality?
The direct definition of the word ‘asexual,’ as it applies to human sexual orientation, is the absence of sexual attraction or desire to act on attraction. However, this does not bar romantic attraction. For example, a ‘biromantic asexual’ would be someone who is romantically attracted to both sexes, but does not feel sexual attraction for either gender.
Under the umbrella of asexuality fit other, similar sexual identities, such as ‘gray asexuality’, in which the individual very rarely feels sexual attraction towards others or any desire to act on it, or ‘autochorissexuality’, a subset of asexuality defined as disconnection between oneself and the object of one’s arousal. This category of human sexuality—or lack thereof—has only recently come into the spotlight, and those who classify themselves under the broad umbrella of asexuality often feel marginalized or ignored, even by fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community.
According to AVENWiki, the Wiki site of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, approximately one in every 100 people is asexual, a statistic that surprises most people. And yet, we very rarely see asexuals represented.
Living as an Asexual
It was very difficult for me to admit that I didn’t want sex. Growing up in a sexually-charged society surrounded by images of who I should be did nothing to help the fact.
But the fact remained: no matter what I told myself — I realized that I simply did not enjoy sex.
Not one bit.
It did nothing for me. My eyes were open during my first kiss, and while it was obvious that he wanted to keep going, all I remember was staring at the wall behind his head and thinking, “Just do him this solid.” And so that’s what I did.
And that’s what I continued to do for years, expecting myself to feel something eventually. I couldn’t understand why the idea of any sexual activity with another person immediately put me off.
However, I didn’t know how to reconcile this with the fact that I did experience arousal, so long as the situation didn’t actually involve me and another person.
It was only a few months ago, in researching what seemed to me to be my singular sexual quirks, that I found myself on a website defining autochorissexuality.
“Too often, asexuals, or suspected-asexuals, are depicted as ‘damaged goods,’ as in the 2004 film “Mysterious Skin” in which Brian Lackey is repulsed by sex after being sexually abused as a child.”
Having believed up to that point that I fell into the category of gray asexual, I found myself rethinking my decision completely as I did more research into autochorissexuality.
Essentially, the seven-syllable mouthful of a word means that one does not feel the need to act on any sexual impulse or engage in sexual activity with others, and can even be repulsed by the idea. However, autochorissexuals can still be aroused by sexual content or imagery that does not involve them.
When I read up on exactly what autochorissexuality was, I remember having a sense of belonging and relief wash over me. I felt like I was not alone, that there were people, however few, out there that recognized how I felt, and that there was a name for what I had been feeling my whole life.
Another thing that is unique for anyone on the asexual spectrum is the ‘coming out’ experience. I personally have expressed my sexual identity to very few people — not because I’m ashamed or afraid, but because I believe that one’s sexual orientation is on a ‘need-to-know’ basis.
Not to mention that there is no obligation to share personal information with people who wouldn’t accept it or, worse yet, put me under a microscope to see what’s ‘wrong’ with me. Who needs that negativity?
In reading up on asexuality when I first started identifying as ace, I found that the most common reaction to an asexual coming out was to not be taken seriously, or dismissed with “You just haven’t met the right person yet.”
To me, this speaks volumes on how relentlessly the idea of humans being sexual creatures has been driven into our minds — so much so that we can’t trust our loved ones to know for themselves whether or not they feel sexual attraction.
Asexuality is often called ‘the invisible sexuality,’ which is ironic in that if it is invisible, it is only so because some people refuse to see it.
Sexuality as a Spectrum
I don’t know what it is about humans that makes us so partial to categorization, but let me tell you, it is satisfying. Putting a label on something I had always had a sneaking suspicion of was endlessly appeasing.
And the more I found out about the loud and proud asexual and LGBT+ community, the more I found that I had been missing out on the absolute smorgasbord of human sexual and romantic inclination out there.
The sheer variety of information was staggering. And the more I delved into this world, the more I discovered the importance of these labels, these little communities of people like me out there who felt that their feelings and experiences made them ‘freaks of nature’.
Having lived all over the world and met with a wide variety of people, I consider myself to be an open-minded individual; this experience left me feeling like I had been viewing the world through a blurry lens. Most striking to me was the distinction between types of attraction. Arguably the most difficult part of distinguishing one’s sexual inclinations is the fact that one’s romantic and aesthetic desires do not always align. The distinction between romantic, sexual, aesthetic, and sensual attraction are explained in detail in this AVEN thread under “Can I be asexual and still find people attractive?”
Essentially, the difference between the aforementioned types of attraction is very difficult to distinguish, and unique to each individual. In exploring the asexual spectrum and finding where one fits, it is difficult not to feel a certain level of confusion regarding the type and level of attraction one feels.
Even a few years ago, it would have been difficult to find any material regarding asexuality. However, the times, they are a changin’, and the resources available to those looking to find out more are wide and varied. This is mainly due to the efforts of asexual researchers and advocates such as David Jay, who was instrumental in founding AVEN in 2001.
Barring the very recent developments within the asexual community over the past decade, one of the first to recognize asexuality as a legitimate sexual orientation was Alfred Kinsey in his publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948).
Kinsey is credited with developing the first comprehensive scale of human sexuality with his creation of the Kinsey scale, in which he placed individuals on a spectrum of 0 to 6 based on their sexual history, with 0 meaning exclusively heterosexual and 6 being exclusively homosexual.
Kinsey, in his research, found that there were a group of individuals who did not experience sexual arousal in any case, a group so prevalent that he came up with a label for them outside of the spectrum: ‘X.’
“The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories… The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. ~ Alfred Kinsey“
Since then, asexuality has been referred to as ‘the invisible sexual orientation,’ and rightly so. Not much more has been added to our scientific knowledge of asexuality, although since the creation of the Kinsey scale, over 200 other scales– such as The Klein Sexual Orientation Grid and the Storms’ Scale — have emerged, attempting to measure not only sexual orientation, but masculinity, femininity, and transsexualism, among others.
Scales like these attempt to pinpoint the exact nature of an individual’s sexual inclinations, and have succeeded in cementing the idea of human sexuality as a large spectrum into modern society.
Kinsey himself states in his introduction to his study that “the world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories… The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.” (Kinsey, et al. (1948) pp. 639, 656).
Luckily, this concept has been spreading over the past few decades with the emergence of the transgender and homosexual communities.
Representation of Asexuals in the Media
While the asexual community has begun emerging into the public, there is still a lot of stigma around the idea that a person can feel little or no sexual orientation. This is apparent in the representation of asexuals in the media.
I remember watching an episode of House a few years ago, in which House, in his typical childish manner, bets Wilson that he can figure out what is ‘wrong’ with a married patient of his who tells him that she and her husband both identify as asexual.
Eventually, House discovers that her husband has a benign tumor inhibiting his sex drive, and that his wife was only identifying as asexual out of sympathy for him.
At the time, I thought nothing of it, but in retrospect, that rather condescending perspective was the only information about asexuality I had had in my life, until I began to do some research on the topic on my own.
This is a typical trope that asexual characters are placed into in the rare appearances that they make in film and media. Either they are ‘broken’ and need to be fixed, or they just ‘haven’t met the right person yet.’ This article I found gives a few examples of this common misconception. Although there is an alarming lack of openly asexual characters in films and series, some fans have speculated that Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who, of the popular British television series, are both asexual. It is also worth mentioning that John Irving’s character Wilbur Larch from The Cider House Rules also exhibits strong asexual tendencies, and is one of the few suitable representations of an asexual in literature.
However, but for these two examples, there are very few positive asexual role models. Rather, asexuals, or suspected-asexuals, are depicted as ‘damaged goods,’ as in the 2004 film “Mysterious Skin” in which Brian Lackey is repulsed by sex after being sexually abused as a child.
The last article I linked to also points out another stereotype perpetuated by the media — that asexuality is a phenomenon experienced solely by “attractive, cis white women” and not by people of other races or genders.
This not only casts a negative light on people of color who come out as asexual, but also plays into the idea that asexuals are there to be ‘converted’ by cis heterosexual men, and therefore must be aesthetically and sexually appealing to said men.
This is illustrated in the series Sirens, as one of the coworkers of a self-proclaimed asexual character by the name of Voo Doo repeatedly attempts to seduce her.
This perpetuates the idea that asexuality is a choice, similar to celibacy, and subliminally suggests that corrective rape is a suitable method of ‘converting’ an asexual.
Media representation like this invalidates asexuality and needs to be stopped. For a more comprehensive list of asexual characters in various forms of media and the arts, take a look at this TVTropes.org article.
The Future of the Ace Community
As discussed, the asexual community has worked towards visibility over the past few decades, but there is still a long way to go. While the transgender community has experienced a boom in visibility and support over the past few years with transgender activists such as Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner coming into the public spotlight, the asexual community still faces considerable backlash from the LGBT community.
At a time when we are discovering more about human sexuality and gender identity than we have ever known, it is important to keep in mind that the LGBT+ acronym is a constantly expanding one, and prevent exclusionary practices and mentalities within the community, as well as outside of it.
As a self-identifying asexual, it is my hope that the human race will one day develop past identifying human beings by who they are (or aren’t) attracted to.
Until then, it is up to each and every individual to do their part to call out stigma and discrimination of members of the LGBTQIA+ community.