Asexuality: The Invisible Orientation

Rembrandt Pearl

Disclaimer: I know I can’t speak for the entire asexual community, although in the following words I will try. This means I may get some things wrong. I will miss some things, and I may offend some people. For that, I apologize.

An Invisible Cloak

If you asked most people to name every sexual identity, they would name asexuality last, if they even thought of it at all. This should come as no shocker, considering we live in a sex-obsessed society and considering that asexuals go virtually unrepresented in the media. Nearly every modern TV show has at least one gay, lesbian, or bisexual character, but when was the last time you watched a show with an asexual character? Even by a stretch of the imagination, probably never.
Those of our hypothetical group who did name asexuality probably only know about it due to the decision by certain groups to include an ‘A’ in the LGBTQIAP+ acronym, representing the identity. Even members of the LGBTQIAP+ community don’t frequently think about asexuals, and there’re probably countless asexuals in our country alone who have never seen or heard the term.

A critic would say asexuality is an ‘invisible’ orientation only because of its extreme rarity. They wouldn’t be wrong per se, as only 1.7% of sexual minority adults in the US identify as asexual, according to a study. Consider that less than 10% of the population are sexual minorities, and this becomes a very small number, about 0.1 percent of the population, or 1 in 1,000 people.
However, this is likely an underestimate, for two reasons; firstly, younger people are more likely to identify themselves as asexual, and as LGBTQIAP+ in general. This means that future polls are likely to see the number of self-identified asexuals increase. Partly, this is likely due to an increase in the usage of the word overall and greater recognition of asexuality as a legitimate sexual orientation (see ‘Myths and Misconceptions’ below).

The other reason is that, even among those familiar with the term and concept, there may be many asexuals who simply choose not to identify as such, or who choose, for a variety of reasons, not to identify as a sexual minority or as part of the LGBTQIAP+ community. These individuals would not be counted in surveys or polls.
They may choose this for a variety of reasons, but one thing I can say is that we simply have fewer reasons to identify ourselves publicly — a lesbian or a gay man may advertise their sexuality in order to increase their chances of finding a romantic partner, for instance, but for asexuals, it rarely comes up, especially for those on the ‘grey ace’ side of the spectrum (see ‘Defining Asexuality’ below.)

Prior to writing this article, I’ve only identified myself as asexual a few times in my life — mostly when I was specifically asked about my sexuality by friends of mine, and once during an LGBTQIAP+-themed event when the question was asked whether there were any asexuals in the room (I believe three people raised their hands).

Defining Asexuality

You might expect asexuality to be as easy as defining homosexuality or bisexuality, but in reality, it proves more difficult. Although it could be defined broadly as a consistent lack of desire to participate in sexual activity, there isn’t necessarily a perfect definition. As with many things in life, asexuality more of a spectrum than a box with clear boundaries.

On one extreme end of the spectrum, you might have people who simply experience very little sexual attraction or desire. People who fall on this side of the spectrum, which sometimes blurs the line between asexuality and other sexualities, are sometimes referred to as ‘grey-ace’.

On the other extreme end of the spectrum, you’ll find individuals who’re not just uninterested in sex, but actively repulsed by the idea. You might term us antisexuals. Although we’re perhaps rarer than your garden-variety asexual (if such a thing exists), we may be a little more visible, due to the fact that it’s harder to ‘pass’ (when you cringe and want to pass out anytime someone talks about sex, it’s a little obvious).

Of course, varying degrees of sexual desire, apathy, and repulsion fall in between, and what qualifies as sexual or not, other than the act itself, can sometimes be vague. Is nudity itself sexual? How about innuendo or dirty jokes? French kissing? Is drag sexual? Now there’s a controversy. To me, personally, it is, but others may not see it that way.

Further distinctions can be made, as well, giving the asexuality spectrum multiple dimensions. For instance, some people may experience sexual attraction without sexual desire. It’s a tricky distinction, but one can absolutely be attracted to a person without ever wanting to ‘get in bed’ with them. What constitutes sexual attraction, as opposed to other types of attraction, could turn out to be a conundrum, as well.

Likewise, some asexuals may choose to pursue romantic relationships, while others have no interest. This is why distinctions such as aromantic, biromantic, or demiromantic are sometimes made. Personally, I have no motivation to seek out a romantic relationship, but my heart and mind remain open to the possibility, should one develop naturally.

Some asexuals may desire physical intimacy other than sex, while others may have no interest in, or even feel uncomfortable with any kind of physical intimacy. As with romance and attraction, physical intimacy itself could prove hard to define, as well.

Further controversies as to what should or shouldn’t be counted as asexual abound. Whether certain sexual fetishes could be included, for instance. For the sake of our readers’ comfort and my own, I won’t go into any detail about that one. You can rule on that for yourself.

Asexuals: Privileged or Oppressed?

It’s a silly question, but I know it’s on people’s minds: are asexuals a marginalized group, or do we get the same treatment as everyone else? Maybe we even have special privileges? The answer, to a certain degree, is ‘all of the above’. As a society, we tend to see things as dichotomies — black or white, right or wrong, privileged or oppressed… But the reality is always more complex.

On the one hand, there will always be the occasional, well-intentioned misunderstanding, and there will always be a few individuals who refuse to understand, as well. Open asexuals seem to experience higher levels of violence and harassment than the overall population, for instance. But on the other, there have never been any specific rights denied to asexuals as a whole because of our sexuality; in other words, there has never been systemic discrimination against asexuals.

For the most part, though, we’re treated the same as just about anybody else; that’s partly because it’s easy to pass as straight, bisexual, or gay — you probably know an asexual person or two, but you may not even realize it. Most of my friends don’t think of me as asexual unless I tell them.

Even the idea that asexuals may be especially privileged has some merits. I, for one, certainly consider it a privilege. As a straight, male friend of mine once said in regards to my asexuality, “damn, that must be nice! Imagine how much more productive I could be…”

It is nice. And productivity is only the start of it. I could name five or ten problems that most people have to deal with, or at least worry about, that asexuals most often don’t; impotence, infertility, STDs, unwanted pregnancies… Accusations of cheating, for asexuals who do engage in a romantic relationship (and who are open about their asexuality).

Some of these problems most of us will probably never have to deal with, while others may simply bear a lot less significance. I could be infertile, for instance, but live and die without ever knowing, or caring, for that matter.

As far as ‘oppression’, most asexuals would probably agree that the most oppressive thing we have to deal with as a group is people’s assumptions — the assumption that sex is an inherent part of a meaningful relationship, that everyone wants to see it in TV shows, that it’s an appropriate topic for casual conversations…

Even assumptions from the greater LGBTQIAP+ community or from the modern feminist movement that not wanting to talk about sex is somehow wrong, or that what makes us uncomfortable isn’t significant, while other topics of discussion are strictly curtailed because they could be triggering to certain people.

Myths and Misconceptions

Unfortunately, asexuals have had to deal with many of the same myths and misconceptions from the onset as have other members of the LGBTQIAP+ community: that asexuality isn’t real; that it’s a choice; that it’s a mental illness; that it’s ‘just a phase’. At least we haven’t had to deal with the idea (as far as I’m aware) that not wanting sex is a sin.

Homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, until the DSM-5, the 2013 update to the manual. However, much like gender dysphoria, asexuality still is, under the names of ‘hypoactive sexual desire disorder’ and ‘sexual interest/arousal disorder’, for males and females, respectively. That’s right: not wanting sex is considered a mental disorder.

Another misconception, just like the gays have had to deal with in their time, is that it’s a choice. Part of this is the idea that we’re just ascetics or pleasure-haters. To drill in the absurdity of this idea, let’s talk about chocolate: most people like chocolate. I certainly do. But not everyone likes chocolate. People who don’t like chocolate are certainly unusual, but would we accuse them of being an acetic? A pleasure hater? Probably not.

Perhaps one myth that’s unique to asexuality is the idea that it must be caused by past trauma. This goes hand in hand with the idea of asexuality as a mental illness, in the sense that they both imply a problem that must be cured or treated. In most cases, asexuality isn’t caused by past trauma, or any specific experience, for that matter. Ask almost any gay person “what made you gay?” That’s about how absurd the sentiment is.

Even in cases where sex apathy or aversion is caused by past trauma or medical issues, it shouldn’t necessarily be treated as a problem, unless it’s troublesome for the individual. And even then, we must ask whether it’s ‘troublesome’ only because of external, social pressures. Personally, I’d like to extend a warm welcome to these individuals into the asexual community.

The idea that asexuality is ‘just a phase’ is a little tricky, because in some cases, it very well may be. There are some individuals who don’t develop sexuality at the ‘normal’ age of 15, 16, 17, but rather in their 20s or 30s. The problem is when the assumption is that it’s inherently a phase, because most asexuals don’t fall into this category.

But perhaps the most pervasive and harmful myth of all is, as I mentioned before, the idea that sex is inherently a part of a meaningful relationship, or even worse, an essential part of life. If you take away anything at all from this article, take away that it doesn’t have to be. At least not for everybody.

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