Although the term LGBT is widely known to mean Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, the extended acronym of LGBTQIA+ has caused some confusion in recent months. ‘Q is Queer, I is Intersex, A is… allies? Anyone else?’ Wrong! A stands for asexual, and all of its subcomponents.
Often overlooked or used insultingly, the term ‘asexual‘ denotes a person without sexual feelings or desires towards other people. Similarly to ‘queer’, asexual is an umbrella term that can be broken down into further categories; asexual, grey-asexual and demisexual, all of which feature on the asexual spectrum.
Sexuality is not fixed, but is instead based on a spectrum. At one end of this spectrum are the sexual orientations, which receive the widest attention: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual and pansexual. While many people are aware of the Kinsey scale, which addresses the balance between hetero- and homosexuality, many people are unaware that at the opposite end of the spectrum is asexuality, and its sub categories. You can view a useful infographic of the asexual spectrum on The Huffington Post website.
For asexuals, sexual attraction does not occur, although attitudes towards sexual behaviour can vary; some asexuals find sex disgusting, others are just not interested, and some will engage in kissing and other intimate acts, while others will not enjoy kissing at all. Sexual behaviour is here a separate term from sexual attraction; while behaviour can be controlled, attraction is not something you can force yourself to feel. This distinction is important to note when people insist that not wanting to engage in sexual behaviour is natural and not related to asexuality. Asexuality is about not feeling a sexual attraction to someone, rather than simply not engaging in sexual behaviours.
Therefore, it must be noted that similarly to the sexual orientations, asexuality covers a wide range of attitudes towards sex and intimacy, as well as relationships. For asexuals, sex is just not on the radar. Rather than engaging in sex, asexuals would much rather stay in and cuddle, watch Netflix or perhaps bake a cake. However, there is a common misconception that all asexuals are the same; that because they are all uninterested sex, they all dislike masturbation or porn. Just as all heterosexuals aren’t the same, nor are all asexuals. Some asexuals are uninterested in masturbation, whereas others find that they enjoy it, and feel another person would just get in the way, or that they don’t need another person to achieve what they can achieve alone.
For many asexuals, they realise that they think about sex in different terms to how everyone else thinks about sex. Rather than looking at it as the be all and end all, they’ll analyse it in an anthropological or physical way. An asexual might watch porn and consider the dialogue rather weak, rather than thinking about the actual physical act, or wonder why a TV show has included a sex scene that adds nothing to the plot. Asexuals often realise that while their peers are obsessed with the pursuit of sex, and that culture perpetuates the value of sex, they have no interest in it. It doesn’t mean they’re naïve or uneducated – they just don’t place the same importance on sex that the majority of people do, because it just isn’t interesting to them. Just as those who aren’t interested in football don’t find it as engaging as a football fan does, asexuals don’t have an interest in sex.
Many asexuals report feeling confused and alienated in their teens, due to a lack of interest in sex, and therefore feel isolated from their peers during conversations about sex. They may wonder what all the fuss is about, feel broken or like they don’t fit in. Sex is such a normalised part of our culture that not experiencing sexual attraction in the same way that others do can add a significant amount of anxiety to the already difficult teenage years. While everyone else is obsessed with ‘sexy’ clothes and fantasising, asexuals might look at a ‘sexy’ outfit and just think ‘well that looks uncomfortable, he/she must be cold’. Furthermore, at some point, many asexuals think that everyone else is just pretending to be interested in sex too, because they themselves feel the need to pretend to be interested, in order to fit in with their peers at school or college. Then realising that other people are sincerely interested in sex may be upsetting, as it can lead to more feelings of isolation.
The asexual spectrum can be split into three primary categories: asexuality, grey-asexuality, and demisexuality. While asexuals can be broadly categorised as not feeling sexual attraction to anyone, grey-asexuals, or grey-aces may occasionally feel sexual attraction towards a specific person, but not to all others. Demisexual people can be distinguished from grey-asexuals as they do not experience sexual attraction towards a person until a lasting, deep emotional connection has been established between them, thus a demisexual person would have no desire for casual sex.
Both of these categories are less widely known than asexuality itself, which is often overlooked or played for laughs in the mainstream media, such as the character of Sheldon in Big Bang Theory. Sheldon does not experience sexual attraction towards his girlfriend, while his friends chastise him for not understanding ‘what girlfriends are for.’ This reduction of a relationship to sex, rather than an emotional connection based on trust and understanding, means that many asexuals find it difficult to seek relationships and or even come out, feeling that they will be judged for not wanting a ‘proper’ (i.e. sexual) relationship. Many asexuals are told that they’ll ‘meet the right person and then experience sexual attraction’. Although for grey-asexuals this may be true, for many asexuals this devaluation of their sexuality is extremely upsetting. Many asexuals feel pressured into having sex because they ‘should’, and thus pretend to enjoy it in order to maintain the façade and try to belong.
Asexuality is not a joke, or a phase, or a lifestyle choice. It is part of the sexual spectrum, similar to the more widely known sexual orientation spectrum, and should be treated as such – rather than being used as a comedic plot point or an insult.