Foreword: This is going to be a significantly lengthy blog entry. I hope you do take the time to read through it, because increasing your awareness is never a bad thing. Especially when it comes to increasing visibility for sexual orientation minorities so that we can be mindful of how we interact with, describe, or envision people within said community. This piece is a combination of my personal experience/journey as an asexual, my own doctoral research on asexuality, and the knowledge I’ve gained over studying human sexuality for the last 7 years.
CW: discussion of sexual activity, mention of sexual assault
Now that we are in the throes of Pride 2021, I want to take some time to talk about asexuality. I’ve been really quiet about my own asexuality for years because, it’s honestly just easier to let people assume that I’m heterosexual. And it’s wrong, and I know that. I was just tired of explaining my asexuality, and fielding questions about it, time and time again. Or worse, not being believed at my word regarding my own sexual identity and enduring invasions of privacy as a result. Yet, I realize it’s because the wider general population doesn’t even know asexuality exists, and is inherently poised against it. I will get into more on this later.
Asexuality is a sexual orientation where someone doesn’t experience sexual attraction. It should also be mentioned that not all asexuals have a libido*, or desire a romantic partnership*, are sex-repulsed*, or reproduce asexually (I can essentially promise you that no asexual human can achieve this).
In fact, because of the need for nuanced terms to describe a person’s asexuality accurately, asexuality is considered a spectrum label. This means there are many factors that influence the description of an individual’s asexual label such as their romantic preference, their gender identity, or inability or lack of interest in romantic relationships (e.g., trans demisexual, pan ageosexual, bi fraysexual, aromantic asexual, etc.) all of which describe that lack of sexual attraction. Conglomerately, we fall under asexual, or ace for short.
But more recently, prominent asexuality researchers like Anthony Bogaert (2004), who spearheaded the early years of asexuality research suggest that percentage is more likely to be around 3-5%. This means, yeah, we’re on the rare side, but we’re still a large group of people. You may even know an asexual person (other than me, if you’re reading this right now).
In my case, I am a heteroromantic asexual, meaning I am romantically attracted to the opposite sex, while still not experiencing sexual attraction. My asexuality does not impact my ability to emotionally connect with my partner – but in previous relationships (that have obviously failed), my inability to experience sexual attraction has. This is because in our current heteronormative and sexnormative culture, many of us equate the apex of love with sex. Which honestly, is heart breaking and so incredibly limiting in what the experience of love really is. What about the love shared between best friends? Or your family? Or your pet? Are these forms of love any less worthy of celebration, being embraced, and enjoyed? Are these forms of love any less fulfilling? I certainly don’t think so.
I have, sadly, experienced gatekeeping in the past within the LGBTQIA+ community because I “pass as hetero”, have been told that “asexuality isn’t queer enough”, or that “asexuality is a result of trauma”. All of which are really hurtful to hear from others whether LGBTQIA+ or not. Bisexual people also encounter this kind of gatekeeping and discrimination. Just because a bisexual person is in a relationship that “passes as hetero” does not make that bisexual person any less bisexual.
I didn’t learn I was asexual until significantly later in life. Roughly 30 years old (I’m 37 now). And it was only because I happened to stumble across the term on social media. So I dug into it – and so many things made so much more sense about myself in that period than ever in my entire life. It explained my awkwardness, and lack of interest in “romantic” relationships as an adolescent and teen. It explained my struggles with every new relationship I found myself in as an adult. So many otherwise seemingly normal moments in my life, suddenly made sense. It granted me the ability to actualize my difference from peers, colleagues, friends, and family versus just being labeled as “frigid”, “prudish”, “particular”, or “emotionally unavailable”.
My asexuality was never the result of trauma. It has always just been. For as long as I can remember. The years leading up to my asexual discovery were rife with trying to fit into a sexnormative culture and associated gender roles of heteronormative relationships, while assuming that I was allosexual. (Allosexual is the term that the ace community uses to describe people who do experience sexual attraction regularly.) Being told by family and friends that I “haven’t found the right guy yet”, or that I “should consider therapy, because not wanting sex is not normal.” And even to this day, many therapists will feel justified in adjusting clients to traditional gender roles as an appropriate treatment method, which includes rectifying a lack of sexual interest.
Because if your sex life is gratifying, your quality of life improves, right? Not for asexuals. It can actually result in significantly more psychological (and potentially physical) harm. In fact, asexuals are 2.5 times more likely to report sexual trauma, including corrective rape versus their allosexual counterparts (Parent & Ferriter, 2018). This is potentially influenced by a number of factors including: the asexual individual believing they are allosexual (due to not knowing about asexuality, not believing their own asexuality, or a myriad of other reasons); cultural, societal, and gender roles/expectations leading an asexual individual to try and fit into situations they are not comfortable with; and partners, family, and friends invalidating asexuals at their word when they are told about their asexuality.
Furthermore, someone who demonstrates a lack of sexual interest, sexual attraction, or sexual desire is likely to be diagnosed with Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD). That is, until the latest iteration of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders was released, the DSM-5. In it, asexuality became a limiting factor for clinicians to consider before diagnosing a client with HSDD. There is still an issue with that: the client has to make asexuality clear precluding the diagnosis.
With how little asexuality is recognized, acknowledged, or talked about, the chances of someone struggling with a lack of sexual attraction knowing about asexuality prior to a potential diagnosis are significantly lowered.
Let me make this abundantly clear: there is a distinct difference between possessing a libido and not experiencing sexual attraction. Some asexuals have a libido. Others do not. How do you know where your ace friend/partner/colleague falls? You don’t. Until you ask. And you don’t ask, unless you are welcome to by that asexual.
My biggest frustration was that I had no idea asexuality existed. If I had known sooner, I could have saved myself years of failed relationships. Before I really knew about my own asexuality, I had partners feel the need to dictate to me that there was something more wrong with me. And for a while, I found myself believing them. So when, I learned about asexuality, my whole world changed. Everything was illuminated. I was now empowered with language, a label that would enable me to communicate with others the label that best described me. It even inspired me to conduct my doctoral dissertation on the experience of male asexuality, because yes, asexual males do exist. Men are no less men for not experiencing sexual attraction, by the way.
When I started talking to the man who is now my husband, it was literally the first thing I made sure to bring up at our first date. Because unlike being gay, my asexuality is not as “easily identifiable”. Unless I tell someone, the status quo is to assume that I am allosexual. Because not being sexually attracted to someone (or anyone for that matter) is usually a deal breaker in most romantic relationships. Silly to think that sexual attraction is the basis of a large portion of romantic relationships, but it is.
Earlier, I mentioned how our current culture and society is inherently poised against asexuality. From a biological standpoint, not engaging in sex is outside of expected human behavior (reproduction and all that). But more so, this aversion for asexual inclusion extends to societal constructs such as law. Many western societies are built upon sexually-based derivatives with laws that are constructed to protect, grant rights to, enforce roles, or to define parameters of sexuality and sexual orientations/identities.
New York state is the only state that extends legal protections against discrimination which explicitly include asexuals (the NY Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act of 2002). Since the asexual identity has emerged more recently than gay or lesbian identities, the asexual community is offered less legal protection than gay, lesbian, or bisexual counterparts.
Aside from the law aspect of things, asexuals are not well represented in media, which feeds into the alienation of our community. People that display a disinterest in sex are depicted as either morally grey (think Varys from Game of Thrones – who asserted his asexuality extended prior to becoming an eunuch), socially awkward (think Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory – while his asexuality was never confirmed, it is joked about multiple times through the series), and in extreme cases an emphasis is placed on physical unattractiveness of the (potentially asexual) individual equating to not being sexually desirable. Hey, news break, asexuals aren’t all trolls that live in a basement.
There’s also a strong intersectionality between asexuality and disability. This is because of early research approaches and the narratives painted by old white cis male psychologists. The first scholarly indication of “asexuality” comes from the Kinsey Scale in 1948, in which 1.5% of individuals involved in the study were categorized as Group X; or “no socio-sexual contacts or reactions” (Kinsey, 1948, 1953; Sell, 1996).
In the grand scheme of sexuality research, this development appears particularly late when considering the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” were coined in 1868 – 80 years earlier by Karl-Maria Kertbeny (Drucker, 2015). Following the Kinsey Scale, multiple articles emerged which associated a lack of sexual drive, interest, or sexual motivation with disability because not experiencing sexual attraction, or having little interest in sex, wasn’t expected. These articles investigated and addressed the perceived expectation of normalcy concerning sexual desire, sexual attraction, sexual behavior, and able-bodiedness.
Many articles do not mention asexuality directly but instead refer to “sexlessness”. A 1991 study based on government data from 1986 found that a lack of sexual desire or want for sex was often associated with disabled individuals (Hanna & Rogovsky, 1991). The study sought understand others’ perception of disabled men and women, but highlighted asexuality as a myth, further supporting the notion that asexuality is more likely the result of mental illness or disability (O’Toole, & Bregante, 1992).
The findings, assumptions, and undertones of this early research has essentially bled into the general perception of asexual individuals (compounded with the rigidity of heteronormativity). And it’s still something that we’re struggling to correct in continued asexuality research. It has improved in the last decade, where research is taking a more humanistic approach to learning about asexuality. The early research led us to the mindset that asexuals are all broken, or that something is very wrong, or that we are sub-human. I can assure you that an asexual person is perfectly capable of leading a happy and fulfilling life. We are just as much human as any other person on this planet. These negative assumptions, depictions and discriminations need to stop. They must stop. They’re doing so much more harm than you realize. Asexual people deserve respect.
I want to close this blog entry with: Asexuals belong at Pride. We deserve recognition, respect, visibility, and the ability to openly identify as asexual. Not just from the LGBTQIA+ community, but from all allosexuals. 2021 is the year that I’m done subtly hiding my own asexuality, because we need more voices. And I will shout for those who aren’t ready to.
“First and foremost, this work is dedicated to all asexuals who have endured and persevered through everything that sex driven cultures have cast at us. This is for all the asexuals who have endured instances where allosexuals attest that you can be fixed, that you need therapy, or that you “just haven’t found the right person yet.” This is for the asexuals who have experienced LGBTQ members telling you that you shouldn’t be included in queer space because you “can pass as hetero.” This is for the asexual who has yet to embrace or is struggling to embrace their asexuality – You are not alone, you are not broken, you are not sub-human. I strongly believe through research and education the explicit and underhanded alienation will cease, and we will be accepted at our word regarding our asexuality without having to experience violations of our privacy. Acceptance is not finite – to accept one does not equate accepting another less.” (Mandigo, 2021).
POST NOTE: To any aces or those questioning whether they are ace, and are unsure where to learn more about asexuality visit the following websites to learn more.
AVEN—The Asexual Visibility & Education Network
The Trevor Project
Alternatively, feel free to send me a DM on socials, or an email if you need someone to talk to. I’m here for you and I’ll share my resources with you.
Bogaert, A. F. (2004). Asexuality: Prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample. Journal of Sexuality Research, 41(3), 279-287. doi: 10.1080/00224490409552235
Drucker, D. (2015). Marking sexuality from 0-6: The Kinsey Scale in online culture. Sexuality & Culture, 16, 241-262. doi: 10.1007/s12119-011-9122-1
Kinsey, A. C. (1948). Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders.
Hanna, W. J., & Rogovsky, B. (1991). Women with disabilities: Two handicaps plus. Disability, Handicap & Society, 6(1), 49-63. doi: 10.1080/02674649166780041
Mandigo, D. M. (2021). Exploring asexuality: A phenomenological study of male asexuality. (28419394.) [Doctoral dissertation, Capella University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses.
O’Toole, C. J., & Bregante, J. K. (1992). Disabled women: The myth of the asexual female. In: Klein SS (ed.) Sex Equity and Sexuality in Education. 273-301. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Parent, M. C., & Ferriter, K. P. (2018). The co-occurrence of asexuality and self-reported post-traumatic stress diagnosis and sexual trauma within the past 12 months among U.S. college students. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 47(4), 1277-1282. doi: 10.1007/s10508-018-1171-1