More people are openly identifying as asexual, but the complex world of asexuality is still misunderstood by the mainstream
Asexuals are everywhere. We’re taking over the BBC, holding conferences and (perhaps) even appearing on the television, depending on how you feel about Sherlock. You can’t toss a box of prophylactics these days without hitting an asexual, which is leading many people to start talking about asexuality and wondering where we’re all coming from.
Asexuality, defined as the absence of sexual attraction, is hardly anything new, but what is new is that people are discussing it in public. Historical figures who were possibly or probably asexual didn’t have a framework for talking about their orientation and lived in an era where asexuality, like homosexuality, would have been regarded as an aberration rather than a natural human variation. Today, that’s shifting, which means more people are openly identifying as asexual, from the sadly deceased artist Edward Gorey to fashion critic Tim Gunn.
Studies suggest that about 1% of the world’s population identifies as asexual. So that accounts for a large number of people who don’t experience sexual attraction, but who do experience relationships in a variety of ways. Some of us are romantic and interested in intimate relationships. Others, like me, are aromantic and more solitary in nature. Some of us have a sex drive though it isn’t directed at anyone, and others don’t. The complexity of asexuality remains largely unstudied, something that I hope to see changing over the coming years as it becomes more widely recognised as an orientation in its own right.
Researcher Anthony Bogaert has claimed this week that the sexualisation of society accounts for the rise in asexuality, but I’m not inclined to agree, on two accounts. I’m not sure asexuality has actually increased, rather leaning towards the belief that it’s simply more visible. Much as homosexuality was largely hidden before, activists proclaimed that they were here, they were queer and the world was going to have to get used to it – asexuality has always been here too, it just hasn’t been acknowledged.
And that visibility also explains the apparent rise, as it leads people with more amorphous sexual orientations towards an eventual identification that describes themselves and their feelings. Ten years ago, I knew nothing about asexuality, other than as a term from science classes that referred to some plants and animals. It was a term we sometimes used jokingly to describe friends who weren’t in relationships or didn’t appear interested in them. That changed when I started becoming immersed in the asexual community, and learned about its vibrant and diverse world.
Suddenly I had a term to describe who I was and how I felt about the people in my life. I, like many others, discovered that I wasn’t alone in the world, that there were other people like us, and that there was a term we could unite under. I started identifying as asexual but it didn’t mean that anything about my sexuality had changed, simply that I now had a word to describe it.
Many other asexuals describe this moment of enlightenment, when they stumbled across organisations like the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (Aven) and understood that they were not isolated or freakish. For many of us, it’s a turning point that helps us feel more comfortable in our own identities, and consequently, we start talking about it to increase awareness and reach out to others who might be struggling with their sexuality as we once did.
Is the growing sexualisation of society contributing to the numbers of asexuals? I don’t think so, but it is forcing us to become more visible, to talk about our experiences, to counter some of the social attitudes about sex, intimacy, relationships and worthiness that push us to the margins. Sexual people are largely unaware of asexuality, which forces us to become more vocal. While this might convey the impression that there are more of us, it’s more accurate to say that we were always here, and sexuals just started noticing.
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