On Friday 29th October, Asexual Awareness Week wrapped for another year. Founded by the social pioneer Sara Beth Brooks back in 2010, it's hard to believe that there has been a whole week dedicated to asexuality, now in its sixth year, and yet it's still massively misunderstood.
Historically the term asexual was wildly misinterpreted and misused. If you were still a virgin and a few years above the age of consent [a late bloomer would be a good euphemism for it] your friends might have described you as asexual. Rather more extreme, asexuality was often grossly mistaken as a mask for homosexuality. In both situations, the term was attributed to people who had opted out of any sexual activity - branding asexuality a behavioural decision rather than a bona fide sexual orientation.
Now, however, the world is gradually starting to recognise that asexuality is a sexuality in the same way that the likes of homosexuality, heterosexuality and pansexuality are. In Her, the largest app for LGBTQ+ women, nearly 1% of the user base identify as asexual, about the same volume as those who define as 'questioning'. In the UK, it's estimated that 1% of the population identifies as asexual.
The asexual flag. Source Wikimedia Commons
So what is asexuality?
Many people that identify as asexual - often called aces - experience no sexual attraction. However aces still engage in relationships and live romantic lives.
River, who identifies as asexual, summed it up nicely in a comment thread on Her:
"It simply means you don't have sexual attractions. It doesn't mean you don't love or can't have sex. It just means you don't look at someone attractive with lust. You're with them because you have amazing chemistry in all other aspects; the ones that matter most in the end".
But asexuality, like any other identity, is complicated. Sophie, who works for HER and identifies as asexual says that some aces do feel sexual attraction, but may see it as uncomfortable or a distraction. Or perhaps the act of sex itself does little to nothing for them. Some asexuals do still have sex, often to make the person they love feel happy and loved in return, even if it does nothing for them themselves. Asexuality is then, just like any other sexuality, and just like every other sexuality, asexuality needs to be expressed in order for aces to live open and free lives.
Surprisingly then, there is contention surrounding the fact that aces feel the need to "come out" to family and friends in the same way that people identifying as anything other than heterosexual have had to. Why the surprise? Perhaps people believe that a lack of sexual activity requires no form of identification - why must you express a sexual preference if you don't desire the actual act? But like every other human on the planet, an ace's sexuality is an integral part of how they define themselves and it's important that the wider world understand that asexuality is a sexuality, not a form of behaviourism.
Asexual community walking in Pride in London. Source Wikimedia Commons
And it's a sexual orientation that many share. On the last day of asexual awareness week, the Guardian published a short article authored by an anonymous ace. The subheader read "I don't judge you for wanting to have sex, so why is it okay for you to write me off as weird?"
It's a fair point. The asexual community have wrongly been written off in that way before, and you can understand their frustration because in reality we share more commonalities than differences. Aces have relationships and romantic preference play a factor in these relationships, in exactly the same way that it does in sexual relationships. Often, there just isn't the physical act of having sex.
In fact there are lots of similarities between asexual people and other sexualities. For example, people that identify as asexual have had a very similar journey to those that identify as homosexual. Societal pressures have, until recently, kept asexuals firmly in the closet with other outsiders. And many doctors assume that their lack of sexual attraction is a disorder to be cured rather than simply who they are. It's not difficult to draw comparisons with old and ignorant attitudes towards homosexuality i.e. it's unnatural and there must be something wrong with people who 'choose' to live their lives in this way.
Of course the lack of understanding towards asexuality isn't just down to the denial that it's a sexual preference; many just don't know that much about it. A quick survey on the meaning of asexuality with some of my non-industry friends drew a lot of blank faces, yet the same groups are fully aware of what it means to be pansexual or fluid.
Kaitlynn on Her comments "I constantly have to reaffirm my sexual orientation in a way no one else does, that I naturally don't feel sexual attraction in the same way most people do. If we openly communicated more about it without initial prejudice, we'd be able to reach a better understanding of each other".
Perhaps this is because sex is deeply rooted in human views about love, romance and relationships. It's understandable that it will take some time for people to comprehend that romantic relationships exist without sex and that these are not platonic.
Things are changing though. In fact, drawing from our last blog, the Ace community are even starting to feature in TV and film (check out Todd in Bojack Horseman). And that's thanks to the likes of Asexual Awareness Week and the voices of many asexual identifiers who are sharing their stories worldwide.
Todd in Bojack Horseman has recently been identified as an asexual character. Source Flickr
As with many other sexualities, boundaries are fluid and aces don't always stick to dating other aces. Within the asexuality spectrum itself there are variations: grey, aromantic, demisexual and so on. The asexual community still get married, some still have kids and most have very romantic lives.
"So many people assume that because I'm ace. I wouldn't love a romantic relationship," said Bev, an asexual member of the HER community, "and that's just not true!"
The truth is we are all constantly learning, whether it's learning things about ourselves or each other. And the more we learn about sexuality and romanticism the more we are realising just how fluid human identity really is.
We'll never all be able to fit into a box. And who would want us to?
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