Six years ago, I was lying in bed with my then boyfriend. I still had my trainers on. Everything was about to fall apart. I knew he was going to ask me why this was the first time, after four months of dating, that he’d been admitted into my apartment, and why we had not had sex, and why, when he put his tongue in my mouth, I had recoiled. How do you tell someone that when they kiss you, it feels like someone is putting a scarf over your face and pulling it tight? That you feel sheer panic? I thought, “Tell him now, because when you say it is because you’re asexual, he’s going to leave.” So I did and he did.
My friend Sarah, 28, works in marketing and is now in a happy relationship with a non-asexual man. This year, she ‘came out’ to me as asexual. Asexuality means a lack of sexual attraction towards anyone. Initially, I was shocked, not least because she’s in a relationship. A 2015 survey suggested that Brits in relationships have sex three times a month, on average. I had assumed Sarah and her boyfriend were no different.
Being asexual is not like being forced to sit at a banquet, starving and salivating, with your jaw wired shut. As Sarah puts it, “You don’t like mushrooms, right?” I stick my tongue out to show distaste. “But if someone you loved wanted to eat them all the time, then you might, say, let them put some in a risotto and you’d swallow them down. That’s what an active sex life is for me.” I probe further, “Do you mean, then, that you occasionally have sex?” Sarah pauses. “Only very, very occasionally, and that’s preferable for me to giving oral sex. But yes, that’s a hyper-rare compromise I make.” She pulls a disgusted face.
Living without desire is difficult to conceptualise using our Freudian understanding of psychology. We’re a civilization built on the presumption that everyone constantly wants sex. Take the maxim ‘sex sells’, still the pillar on which most advertising is built, from Wonderbra’s ‘Hello boys’ to Diet Coke’s window washer: sex is everywhere you look.
Not until 2004 did Canadian academic Anthony F Bogaert’s paper propel the term ‘asexual’ into common use. He established the idea that one per cent of the British population were asexual**. Of that figure, 70 per cent were women. Thanks to online communities, such as AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network), awareness is increasing. But with such powerful stigma surrounding asexuality, it’s safe to assume more people are asexual than we are aware of. Conversations around gender have been rife recently, with many people from Generation Z calling themselves gender-fluid (oscillating between gender and non-binary identities) or pansexual (not being limited in your sexual choices by gender or sex). Celebrities like Miley Cyrus, a pansexual, and Amandla Stenberg, who is non-binary, are heralded as role models. But I can’t think of a single asexual icon.
I’m told that asexuals are often asked whether they’ve been diagnosed or if there’s a ‘cure’, which suggests it’s a term we’re still not fully clued-up on. I ask mathematician Dr Michael J Doré, 33, who is asexual and joined AVEN in 2009, to explain what asexuality means to him. “Everyone has certain people they aren’t sexually attracted to. For asexuals, everyone falls under that category.” He was quick to add that “asexuality is a sexual orientation, not a disease, choice or pathology.” We’re just like gay or straight people. It’s like any sexual preference.
Take my friend Sarah, who is able to maintain a loving relationship with a non-asexual man and occasionally have sex. I ask her to tell me more about how she makes the relationship function: “It’s hard at times. It helps that he travels a lot and I relish having my own space.” And the sleeping situation? “We share one large bed. We kiss, but not passionately and not for long. Occasionally, I like to be hugged. We hold hands in public.” Is that for show? “It was when I ‘came out’. Now I like it because he does.” Have other people been judgmental? “I got fucking sick of the you-need-to-meet-the-right-person rhetoric,” she says. “I’m fine with sex being a tiny part of my life, as is my partner. Don’t pity me. We make love—rarely, but it’s enough for us.” Does she worry about him cheating? “I know he watches porn. It’s fine. He’s committed to me and I don’t angst over it.”
Sarah wasn’t always so self-assured. “When I was 18, the Internet wasn’t even a thing. There were no books about asexuality in the library. My adolescence was rough—I felt like a freak.”
For Sarah, there was a wake-up moment at school. “My first memory of being different is from a sex-education lesson. There was this graphic visual of intercourse and I felt dizzy. It snowballed; sex was all my friends spoke about. I stopped reading books for fear of the sexual parts. I kissed someone for the first time at 19, because I felt my sexuality was a source of suspicion. I hated it. I’ve blocked out losing my virginity. I didn’t have sex again until I met my current partner.”
Campaigners such as Maria Munir, the 20-year-old from Watford, who publicly came out as non-binary to Barack Obama at a London meeting of youth leaders in 2016, are effecting real change. By e-mail, Munir introduced me to George Norman, a 22-year-old student who, in 2015, became Britain’s first openly asexual parliamentary election candidate. “I got to university and realised people weren’t acting. This thing that seemed so alien to me was really important to them. I was 19 when I heard the word ‘asexual’—it made sense of my feelings.” I ask him where he found the courage to publicly identify as asexual and why he felt it was necessary. “I had fears, but people have been supportive. We’ve got to make sure no one feels like I did, as if there was no one in the world like me.”
Jess, 29, works in fashion and is living secretly as an asexual. I know her because she’s famous for her outlandish style, and I see her at industry parties. Even as a teenager, Jess knew she was different. “I hated people in my space and became chronically shy.” I tell her she seems the opposite of shy. “Maybe I’m not shy with women, but there’s no threat and it’s part of my job to pretend I’m not. I developed huge breasts early and people commented. Men’s eyes wandered. I hate men looking at me in a sexual way.”
Eventually I broach the subject of a family with Jess. I imagine that, for women, it makes identifying as asexual even more burdensome. “I fear the future. I come from a religious family who put a lot of emphasis on having children and getting married. They will not understand.” Sarah, who thinks she might want children, says, “If I decide to have kids, sex will be a topic that’s hard to avoid. I’m a loving person who desires emotional connections. So kids are at the back of my mind.”
Dr Doré explains, “Some asexuals are in relationships and some aren’t. Some don’t mind having sex sometimes, whereas some don’t have sex at all.” The desire to group asexuals into one homogenised ‘type’ has brought about other false stereotypes: “Cold, emotionless and out to trap a sexual person in a relationship”—Norman ticks off an imaginary list. While his story is particularly hopeful (“The people I date accept me”), there’s still much ground to be gained so that people like Jess can live without the fear of being misunderstood.
Campaigners like Norman and Munir are seeking a second sexual revolution, one that says people should be free to have sex with whomever they want, even if that is no one. Both are emphatic about the need for acknowledgement of the multifaceted and complex remit of sexuality.
As I continue my conversation with Jess, her voice cracks. “I’m terrified I’ll be like this forever, and I’m not sure if I’m okay with that,” she confesses. I tell her about the activists I have spoken to and she looks pleased, but exhausted. Unwittingly, we’ve sustained a culture that diminishes alternative ideas of what love might look like. It seems like an obvious statement, but to understand the broad spectrum of human desire, we must also begin to accept the absence of it.