Do you know any asexuals? It's a question that can seem baffling. Until recently, it probably provoked little more than a dim recollection of middle-school biology. But that began to change about 15 years ago, when a student named David Jay established the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, otherwise known as AVEN.
David was frustrated at the lack of information his college's LGBT office was able to provide about people who don't experience sexual attraction. What he hadn't expected was how rapidly this basic website would grow into a sprawling online hub for people like himself. With AVEN, an online community of asexuals began to coalesce, and with the website came the journalists and academics—curious people like me.
Research suggests you might know some asexual people, even if you don't realize it. It's estimated that around 1 percent of the population is asexual, even if they don't (yet) define themselves as such.
The criterion? Never feeling a sexual attraction to anyone at all. Ever.
I'm a sociologist based at the University of Warwick and first conducted research into asexuality in 2009. Finding the work fascinating, I've been exploring issues related to asexuality ever since. My research was initially concerned with asexual identity, asking how someone might come to identify as asexual, but I soon realized that we can't understand why the identity "asexual'" has emerged without looking at broader cultural attitudes relating to sex.
When I conducted a research study into the thoughts and feelings of asexuals, it surprised me how similar the experiences were of the roughly 200 people who took part. They were all different in so many ways, but were united in having been made to feel there was something fundamentally wrong with them because they didn't experience sexual attraction. They felt "weird," "broken," or "fucked up"—phrases that came up time and time again.
Often, it was people who genuinely cared about them who made them feel that way. Ben (photographed below) explained how his parents laughed at him when he told them he was asexual and how they still, to this day, don't seem to believe it.
In other cases, people described deliberate cruelty. One person who took part in my research described how other students in her college dorm put sex toys in her breakfast cereal. One man, Vincent, says he was reluctant to tell people he was asexual because of his unwillingness to "endure people trying to tell me I'm wrong, too young, or just haven't met the right person yet."
Too many people see asexuality as "alien," something that needs to be fixed. Vincent believes this partly stems from the media. "Asexuality is horribly represented in TV and films," he says. "Most people will cite Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory as their first example, but I don't consider that character to be asexual. In fact, most "asexual" characters in TV actually have some kind of disorder."
Often, people act in hurtful ways because they simply can't comprehend how someone can be asexual. Gareth—an asexual man from Northeast England—says that, since coming out in 2011, he's only met one person who has been knowledgeable on asexuality to the point that they "don't think it is someone who can spontaneously reproduce with themselves or that it is someone who is incapable of having sex." He adds that "repeated questions about masturbation" are a common experience when trying to explain asexuality, too.
Michael from Coventry explained how, prior to coming out as asexual, he often found himself "hugely embarrassed whenever the topic of sex or relationships came up" because of the "lingering question of why I was not and never had been in a relationship, and why I never showed any interest in sex." He was acutely aware of the assumptions that people were making—that he was gay, confused, or just couldn't get a girlfriend—which made being comfortable with who he was even harder.
The problems faced by asexuals have more to do with invisibility than they do with phobia, though. It's painful to feel like society doesn't believe people like you exist. Ben—who finds it "difficult" having to regularly explain himself—doesn't think the general public has very much knowledge of asexuality at all. "It seems to be getting more mainstream, in that more people I talk to have heard of the term, but generally not that much beyond that," he says.
Encountering asexual people for the first time calls into question a basic assumption that most of us hold: that everyone experiences sexual attraction. In fact, many of us don't realize this is even an assumption—it's just that evidence to the contrary seems utterly incomprehensible. It's precisely this sense of bewilderment as to how anyone could live without sexual attraction that has fascinated and frustrated me in equal measure.
The asexuals I've met live just fine, making their way through the world much as any other person does, with all the usual ups and downs. And the coming out experience isn't traumatic for everyone.
Jenni, an MA student in Bristol, had a straightforward experience. She says after starting college and telling people she was asexual, that was pretty much that. "It wasn't a big change to anyone," she explains. "It was just who I was. It was great being able to be confident in approaching relationships knowing that they knew who I was, and if they didn't like it, it wasn't my fault. All of my friends are super open-minded."
Ben thinks there's a tendency for press coverage of asexuality to lean toward a look-at-the-freaks sensationalism and that visible asexuals in pop culture are few and far between. "Really, there's only Sherlock, who is a psychopath and only ambiguously asexual," he says. "And Doctor Who, who is rather inconsistent on the issue." He thinks it might be because asexuality is perceived as too, well, boring. "Being asexual doesn't create conflict," he says.
Asexuality, when actually discussed, is painted as a dramatic departure from the norm. But the idea of what it means to be "sexual" is left weirdly undefined in our culture today. For instance, what do we call people who aren't asexual? I've tended to switch between saying "non-asexual people" and "sexual people," despite the former feeling clunky and the latter strangely broad.
Asexuality is still dismissed by many as a "confused" phase, and yet I've become more and more convinced that it's actually we non-asexual people who are confused about sexuality. We find it much easier to talk about actually having sex—with whom, in what way, how often—then we do about actually being sexual. As the psychologist Leonore Tiefer puts it, there's now a widespread belief that "sexual functioning is a central, if not the central, aspect of a relationship."
We see sex as the defining feature of romantic relationships and struggle to imagine how those relationships could exist without it. But they do, all the time. It's our hyper-sexual culture that has led people to view a sexless relationship as something that has gone wrong and needs fixing, which is where online communities like AVEN come in. So many of the asexual people I talked to agreed that talking to other asexual people helped them to accept who they were. Gareth, from Newcastle, would encourage "any asexual, whether they are young or old, confused or content, to take a look at what AVEN does," and believes it changed his life.
Gareth also found coming out overwhelmingly helpful. "Don't pick a time, don't pick a date, just let it be organic," he says. "It can be a very stressful process, and the "right" moment with the "right" people may never come. You'll know when the time is right. You will feel relaxed, and you'll realize that this is the opportunity. It is then that you should let it out."
Michael agrees. "To anyone thinking of coming out, do it in your own time and in an environment where it's safe and comfortable. If it's difficult talking to close friends or family first, try it with other acquaintances." He recommends connecting with other asexual people first, for tips from people who are going through or have been through the same thing, and says the only time he'd recommend coming out "for definite" is when starting a new romantic relationship. "It's only fair to both parties to let them know where the relationship stands."
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Michael, photographed in Coventry: "I identify as asexual and aromantic. I recently gave a talk on asexuality to a group composed mostly of pensioners. I was a little nervous about it because of the stereotype that older people are less interested in sex so simply wouldn't care about asexuality and would see it as a non-issue—but I was completely wrong. They found it fascinating and wondered why there wasn't much more coverage. I think we need to reach out to all ages, including middle-aged people and pensioners, though it would be fantastic to get some proper asexuality education into the schools."
Mark, photographed in Reading: "The best reaction was from my (heterosexual) brother, who said, "You lucky bastard." He was going through a relationship breakup at the time, though. The majority expressed curiosity, wanting to know more about asexuality. I haven't had a negative reaction thus far. Being able to tell others was the icing on the cake to the epiphany I experienced when discovering the actual existence of others like me."
Gareth, photographed in Newcastle: "I hear more and more stories about sensitive doctors, nurses, and therapists, and stories of people nervously coming out and being met with words of understanding. That understanding and knowledge is certainly spreading, but it may take a while longer before it's something that most people can accept."
Christof, photographed in Liverpool: "Knowledge about asexuality is a bit more widespread among those who are interested in sexual rights and sexual/gender equality, but it's a bit of an internet bubble. The large majority of the population would still likely just say, What?"
Vincent, photographed in Plymouth: "I still prefer the label demisexual—it's very specific and matches how I experience attraction. However, I just tell people I'm asexual or not interested when I don't fancy explaining myself. I haven't really gone out of my way to tell people, so only the few people I'm close to actually know. My sister is gay, so she was open to the idea of orientations that aren't hetero, although I don't think she fully understands it. My mother can't seem to wrap her head around it, or thinks it's just a phase (even though I'm 28 now). My ex was confused about it, as that was a core component of a relationship for her. I've told a few friends, and it's mostly the straight ones who find it weird."
Jo, photographed in Camden Town: "I currently define myself as asexual, aromantic, agender, and trans. People react differently when I tell them I'm asexual. I've had both positive and negative experiences. Recently, I interned for a queer-theater organization that knew next to nothing about asexuality. Everyone there was curious, and I ended up giving an office-wide 101. Around the same time, I also came out to my dance teacher, and her response was to recommend a whole bunch of relationship-advice books. I haven't figured out how to respond to that yet."