We live in a hyper-sexual culture. Sexual imagery is everywhere. It is a cornerstone of advertising, TV and film. Such is the dominance of sex, it is no wonder that asexual people are seemingly non-existent in day-to-day conversations – let alone in popular culture. A person who doesn’t want or have sex is a nightmare for our capitalist culture. It rails against the primal impulses that lazy organisations target. Surely everyone must be motivated by sex?
From yoghurts to beer to perfume, sex is used to sell everything. Its presence in TV is just as dominant. It is no surprise then, that those who live an asexual lifestyle are not represented, or even mentioned in the vast majority of our media. They challenge the simple, primal, often heterosexual, narrative that sex underpins human behaviour. In our culture at the moment, we live in a time where the atavistic attitudes and philosophies are still very much dominant, despite significant progress being made to erase them. There are vast swathes of the population who are underrepresented, and institutionally discriminated against. Yet, the underrepresentation of asexual people is significant not just because of its unfairness, but because of what it tells us about society.
When exploring human relationships, film and television ignore the topic and by doing so this habit reflects how societal forces shape these concepts. In film and television centred around everyday life, more often than not, everybody is involved in either looking for, maintaining or leaving sexual relationships, most of which are heterosexual. It’s not just the importance placed on sex as being integral to everything, but it is the sense of purpose that this instils that is worrying. Sex is presented on TV as something that you have to get, and basically can’t live without. I can distinctly remember a joke in Friends, where Ross tells Joey something that he finds ridiculous about him, who responds by saying ‘And I find it ridiculous that you haven’t had sex in six months!’ An ashamed Ross sucks up the studio audience laughter. It’s a throwaway joke, but the point of it, and a point that remains a constant throughout the show, is that it’s ridiculous that you should go half a year or even more without having sex. Now, in fairness, this is a show about dating, but this is exactly the point. Not only is the idea that one could have an emotional, romantic connection without sex not considered, it’s ridiculed. This perpetuates, and is thus reflective of mainstream romantic attitudes.
The only adult fictional character I can think of who could be asexual is Sherlock Holmes – a sociopath. In fact, the only time I can recall seeing non-sexual attitudes towards relationships expressed was on First Dates, a reality show that features real people on real dates. Still, the man in question was expressing his Christian views on consummation, more a temporary celibate stance than an asexual one. It is one based on choice. Yet it just goes to show just how rare it is for these beliefs to be shown on screen.
With such little attention given to asexual people, information online, such as from The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (www.asexuality.org), is vital. Here, asexuality is described as not a choice but an ‘intrinsic part’ of life. This is not the refusal to engage in sexual activity, but simply the lack of any sexual attraction. This is not to be confused with sensual (cuddling, kissing or hugging), aesthetic or romantic attraction, the only attraction asexual people do not feel is explicitly sexual. Many asexual people may experience any of these attractions. It stresses that asexual people have just the same emotional needs as everybody else.
This applies to their approach to relationships, too. Sexual or nonsexual, all relationships are made up of the fabric of interpersonal connection. Communication, closeness, fun, humour, excitement, and trust are all just as important in nonsexual relationships as in sexual ones. Asexual people who desire romantic relationships may have fewer cultural scripts to rely on, but they are still seeking an emotional connection of shared romantic love. For asexual people who desire romantic relationships, the dating pool for other asexual people is very small, as we are a very small minority of the population. In addition to that, asexuality is often invisible and has a shorter history as an identity/community than other minority sexual orientations that may have established cultural venues of courtship. Due to this, many asexual people end up in mixed relationships with sexual people. Mixed relationships face challenges that often require compromise.
Most asexual people have been asexual for their entire lives, although perhaps have not been aware of the term or the community for as long. Just as people will rarely unexpectedly go from being straight to gay, asexual people will rarely unexpectedly become sexual, or vice versa. Another minority of people in the asexual community may only think of themselves as asexual for a brief period of time while exploring and questioning their own sexuality, typically in younger years, when exploring their gender identity, or surrounding major shifts in interpersonal relationships.
It is unfortunate that, like countless other minority groups, asexual people are barely mentioned in popular culture. If they were, it would benefit not only those who are asexual, but our hyper-sexualised society as a whole. It is important to give a message to young men and women that sexuality is just a part of life (or not), and that it’s not an aim or goal to strive for, as it’s so often portrayed.