Silenced, erased and forgotten. But asexual activists are trying to bring change.
The great fear since 2016 is that the world is sliding backwards. For the asexual community, there were few steps forward that had been taken in the first place. There had been some attempts at progress but the queer community dropping the ‘LGBT’ to be more inclusive only works if there is examination beyond those identities. So what about asexual activism?
Asexual recognition is rare even within the queer community. The 2015 Rainbow List didn’t include a single asexual (or aromantic) person. In recent years, The Independent changed the name from The Pink List, which focused almost exclusively on gay rights, to The Rainbow List in an attempt to be more inclusive. The list though couldn’t even be inclusive to all queer people, instead choosing only to focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. There was no mention of pansexual/romantic people, the differences between romanticism and sexuality and there was utter silence on the work of asexual activists. The list couldn’t even be queer.
“It would celebrate those actively working to raise visibility and change lives,” the opening statement said, and yet all it delivered was more erasure.
Searching “asexuality” and “LGBT” on Twitter throws up a horrendous number of tweets that are flat out acephobic. Despite this, there are asexual activists carrying out their work and winning progress for a community much maligned.
George Norman was the first out asexual candidate in British history during the 2015 local elections and has worked to raise awareness of asexuality. George’s dissertation focused upon asexual culture. He emphasises that asexuality is a diverse orientation, but that the queer community must do more to ensure that queer spaces are also asexual spaces.
“There’s a priority in making it explicitly clear that LGBT spaces are ace inclusive,” says George. “Specifically, around that ‘A’ stands for asexual and not ally. Not giving any quarter or space to those who see asexuality as a ‘straight orientation’. Challenging that almost with the same passion and excellence that we’ve been challenging those who are trans exclusionary in their politics. Challenging society’s expectations of asexuality and asexual people is really important.”
“There’s a priority in making it explicitly clear that LGBT spaces are ace inclusive”
Asexual and aromantic people are often overlooked. Within queer awards ceremonies particularly, it is allies who are more likely to win plaudits than asexual (and aromantic) activists. It’s a sentiment that brushes over just what asexual people experience.
“Asexual people do face discrimination,” George emphasises. “Those are different discriminations to what anyone in the queer community faces, just as the challenges and discriminations a gay man faces are different to what a trans person faces. LGBT people are shutting out people who are LGBT in that very old fashioned and traditional sense.”
Research by Dominique A. Canning found that queer people make jokes at the expense of ace people, in some instances as an act that could be interpreted as an attempt to reaffirm their own queerness. Julie S Decker is an asexual activist based in the US, and author of The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality. Decker agreed that there was a fundamental misunderstanding in society (and the queer community) of what it means to be asexual and of what ace people face.
“Usually if asexual people are excluded, it’s based on misunderstanding them as celibate straight people (which they are not),” Julie says. “It’s also usually based on the understanding that support is only deserved for marginalised people who have faced danger or specific types of oppression for their orientation or identity. The popular perception among those who would exclude us is that we cannot and do not experience this.
“Discussions and anecdotes from asexual people detailing their lack of acceptance are minimised or even called out as fabrications.
“It’s understandable that some queer folks would feel they’re being invaded and don’t want to share spaces with those they believe to be their oppressors, but relative privilege exists on many axes, and there’s no way to assign each person an oppression score and only let in the bottom half.”
Julie believes that while there are many who are supportive, a reluctance to support asexual people is symptomatic of a wider issue many communities have in accepting intersectionality. And with struggling to examine the different oppressions that people may experience.
“I think this is a problem in many communities – lack of understanding and accepting intersectionality, and tendency to focus on only one ’cause’ as if the other complicating factors are irrelevant. For asexual people, when we encounter those who would rather process us as straight people who want to be special, we experience strongly worded arguments against our inclusion on the grounds that we do not and cannot experience violence, harassment, or oppression in response to our asexuality.
“When The Trevor Project, a recognised LGBTQ youth suicide prevention program, began explicitly including asexual people and incorporating asexuality education into its training programs, there were actually those in the wider community who vocally opposed this, saying asexual people do not deserve to have mental health resources on behalf of the LGBTQ community and we are stealing time and money from them. (I have actually seen online rants about how ‘those cishets’ should just die.) The fact that they were advocating suicidal teens being denied access to support because they’re asexual is a good example of acephobia right there, though of course they would suggest it’s because we’re really straight people trying to steal much-needed resources from them.
“Support would be more willingly offered if they would accept some education about asexuality and understood how what we face comes from the same root as what they face.”
What is impossible right now is to examine the prevalence of acephobia, which means that asexual people are not getting the resources or support they need. Even the leading queer charity Stonewall has been silent on asexuality. There is no data on the hate crimes that asexual (and/or aromantic) people experience, despite the fact that legislation, at least in the UK, is supposed to protect people marginalised because of their sexuality. Yet, we know that all of the factors are present to suggest that asexual people are immensely vulnerable. We know this because we have evidence of the vulnerability of gay, bisexual and transgender people. If they are targeted for their identity, then it is likely asexual people are. There are countless stories which are easy to find online (particularly on Tumblr) where asexual people have revealed they have experienced acephobia, including, violence, emotional abuse, slurs and “corrective” sexual assault.
Asexual rights campaigner and co-founder of Movement for Asexuality Awareness, Protection, Learning and Equality (MAAPLE), Stephen Broughton, highlights the lack of protection under the law for asexual people.
“Asexual people are not protected by the Equality Act 2010 within the ‘sexual orientation’ protected characteristic. To paraphrase, the law protects individuals that are straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual from discrimination, harassment and prejudice. Accordingly, hate crime legislation also fails to protect asexual spectrum people,” says Stephen.
“Asexual people are not protected by the Equality Act 2010 within the ‘sexual orientation’ protected characteristic”
There is also no recognition of romantic orientations under the legislation.
“I think these were oversights when the legislation was written, rather than anything malicious or borne out of discrimination and malice. It has to be said, though, that it’s bitterly disappointing that it remains the case that we are not protected and effectively aren’t acknowledged by the country. Through MAAPLE, we hope to catalyse a review of this law — not just for asexual people, but for the much wider community of identities that are just as deserving of protection.”
Julie also believes that acephobia, at least in the US, is regularly confused and conflated with other forms of hatred.
“I would say that the hate crimes we experience are so frequently conflated with other types of oppressive systems that they are not recognised as asexuality-specific hate crimes,” says Julie. “For instance, when I have described multiple experiences of sexual harassment that occurred specifically in response to my declaring my asexuality, one of the most common responses is: ‘He didn’t do that to you because you’re asexual. He did it because you’re a woman. This was misogyny, not acephobia’. That happens frequently for lesbians, too – when men attack them sexually as a punishment for not being sexually interested in them (or an attempt to ‘turn’ them), they’re told it’s a problem of male entitlement to female bodies, not a problem that is happening in response to them being lesbians. In fact, it’s both; you cannot separate a gay woman’s lesbianism from her being a woman, so that intersection will always be there. Similarly, you cannot take an asexual woman and say the only reason she gets harassed sexually is that she’s a woman – that her orientation is always the least relevant part of anything that happens to her.”
Stephen also points to another area of legislation where asexuality is overlooked in the UK – our marriage laws.
“Asexuality is also at odds with marriage law to some extent,” says Stephen. “A marriage can be annulled if it is never consummated — indeed, it is on that basis that King Henry VIII had his marriage to Anne of Cleves annulled. It is also true that choosing not to have sex with a spouse is considered ‘unreasonable behaviour’ and is sufficient grounds to petition for a divorce.”
It seems ludicrous that not having sex with a partner can be considered “unreasonable behaviour”. Furthermore, those who wish to remain single (including asexual and aromantic people) are not entitled to the same tax breaks as married people. Stephen though hopes that the belief from one study that asexual people make up 1% of the UK’s population, which as he points out outstrips the combined populations of Glasgow, Cardiff and Edinburgh, will push politicians to see that asexual people deserve recognition under the law.
Asexuality is in the shadow of progress. While certain movements have gained more visibility, there are many elements to asexual activism that are still silenced in society. Even in history, asexuality has been erased, such as The Spinster Movement. There is simply no information, except through online communities, about being asexual or on the struggles many ace people face. Julie emphasises that she wants asexuality to be more widely understood and for young people to be supported to explore their identities and whether they are asexual. Stephen too wants more acknowledgement for young people that asexuality exists and is a wide spectrum, and not a binary identity.
Joseph De Lappe, a social movement theorist and a researcher who has specialised in asexual activism, has focused upon what asexual people face and agrees that not enough is being done to support young asexual people.
“Almost every single participant I interviewed talked about being invisible, broken and in need of fixing” says Joseph. “That begins with what they see on TV and the family, but the big place it begins is in school.
“In school, we teach kids a developmental model of sexuality. They have no sexuality or gender from the age of four. They’re like pure little angels and then suddenly at 16 they develop into perfectly developed sexual beings. We are supposed to be trying to change this [attitude] in Britain but there’s a lot of resistance. We used to think they developed into heterosexual beings but there’s been a little bit of progress. We still completely believe that they will turn into sexual beings with sexual drives. The signal that sends to asexual youngsters is that they’re broken and can’t be fixed.
“Every single person I spoke to repeated that. The only way to change that is to start the process in schools of saying it is perfectly normal.”
Joseph highlighted that even within the ‘purity model’ there was an assumption that asexual people would find someone, and essentially be ‘cured’ – that one day, they would be allosexual. Asexuality is seen as temporary, reversible and as an emotionless state. Joseph also revealed that one of his respondents reported being compared to an ‘android’ in his youth due to his sexuality.
Research has found that asexuals (of all sexualities studied) were the most dehumanised, and were both seen as “machine-like” and “animal-like” by heterosexuals in particular. Asexuals then were viewed as cold and emotionless and yet also as unrestrained and impulsive. Asexuals also received more negative attitudes and associations from heterosexuals than other sexualities (including gay and bi sexualities).
The representation of asexuality too has been harmful. One study has found that negative (or absent) representation in the media can have an impact on the self esteem of children. If we don’t see positive depictions of ourselves, then it erases our sense of worth.
“As asexuality is becoming more widespread [in terms of awareness], asexual women are presented as frustrated and faking it and just in need of a good man,” says Joseph. “Asexual men have essentially taken the place that homosexual men had 30 years ago. They’re on one hand effeminate and functional and on the other hand they’re predatory and dangerous. On the one hand they’re to be laughed at, and on the other they’re to be killed because they’ll infect you – that’s how it is presented. You can’t assume that’s not having an impact.
“Hypersexualisation is a real issue in our society. We don’t really understand what it means in our society. We find the notion of people who don’t feel sexual attraction to other people such a foreign concept.”
Joseph emphasises how research itself has pathologised asexuality and points to how swathes of asexual research has focused upon proving asexuality’s existence, and even respected sexologist Kinsey (who is often admired by the queer community for his work around same gender sexual relationships) disregarded asexuality as it simply didn’t suit his model.
But why is asexuality also maligned in a community that has fought for other oppressed sexual identities? In 2014, the asexual resource, AVEN, conducted a major survey which found that 14% of ace respondents said they didn’t feel welcome within the queer community for any reason at all, and 17.9% felt they were only welcome within the queer community because they had another queer identity. Only 11.5% said they felt unconditionally welcome in the community, despite 52.1% saying they felt part of the queer community and 88% stated that asexuality should be part of the LGBTQ+ umbrella.
The survey by AVEN also found that the majority of respondents do consider themselves to have a sexuality, contradicting any idea that asexuals are without a sexual identity. Additionally, even more respondents stated they would not change their sexuality. Asexual people consider themselves queer and yet the queer community is not a safe space for many asexuals. Joseph cites one queer asexual he interviewed who said “when I’m with my queer friends I can’t be asexual and when I’m with my asexual friends I can’t be queer”.
Joseph describes how there are often four meanings of the word ‘queer’ which are used interchangeably. The definitions of queer are generally considered: if they’ve had to fight a sexual norm, an ideological commitment to a radical sexual or gender politics, espousing an alternative sexuality or gender, or when an umbrella term is sought but there is discomfort with the historical baggage “LGBT” has. Under at least the first definition, asexuals fit what constitutes as queer. Language is also ever evolving. Definitions of queer may rapidly change, but Joseph says that the issue of asexuals presents wider debates about who uses the label within the community. The biggest question is over the acceptance of asexual cisgender heteromantics, to whom the community (and even some asexuals) are resistant to offering space too. Yet, if cisgender gay people are accepted into the community despite not being trans, and transgender straight people are queer without being gay or bi then anyone who has a facet of queerness must be allowed.
Activists, however, live by the codes they learned when they first entered the queer movement, which is proving to be another barrier towards ace acceptance.
“I think it will require a younger generation of queer activists who will simply say ‘that doesn’t work for us’,” says Joseph. “All of the evidence is that the way it works with sexual and gender activists is the set of rules that you learn as a young activist are the set of rules that you play by for the rest of your life. Curiously, for a movement that talks about people constructing their identity, once people are in activist rules they’re very rigid for the rest of their lives. Gay activists who learned rules in the 1970s are what they hold onto for the rest of their lives. HIV activists who learned rules in the early day of AIDS, those are the sexual rules they hold onto. It’s as true of queer as anything else. Those are their ideological frame tools and they hold onto them.”
“I think it will require a younger generation of queer activists who will simply say ‘that doesn’t work for us’”
This also goes some way to explaining radical feminist myths around the abolition of gender which so often descend into transphobia. Yet, Jospeph believes that it will be young asexual activists that will start to bring change. However, he underlines that the ace community must be more intersectional to achieve this.
“What they need to do is be more intersectional. They need to get off the internet. They’re almost too online. They need to embrace those sections of their own community who are not late 20 something/30 something, white middle class, educated but they need to embrace those other sections of their community. They need to embrace asexuals of colour, older asexuals, disabled asexuals and bring them more in.”
AVEN’s survey also found that the majority of their connections were online with Tumblr and AVEN dominating, while only 4.6% relied upon Facebook showing a lack of platforms even online. Asexual people are relying on a handful of online communities to connect in a world that silences asexuality, but more outreach must be done to support those with limited online access.
Young asexual activists are starting to bring awareness into the mainstream. There are still huge amounts of work to be done, but asexual activists are banging down the gates which are trying to keep them out. When the queer revolution comes, it will be young asexual people leading the charge.