Sex Ed(itorial): Unpacking Asexuality

The Forgotten Orientation

  • Graphic Shreya Biswas

Largely misunderstood and almost completely absent from most discussions about sexuality, asexual people are forced to endure discrimination stemming from disbelief, false assumptions, and just plain ignorance.

In a society obsessed with sex and saturated with images of idealized sexual and romantic relationship, asexuals have had to fight to carve out a space that acknowledges their sexual orientation as legitimate and allows them a space to be themselves.

Born into a traditional Lebanese family, Sami grew up just outside of Montreal.

“I had a very normal childhood, I liked school and spent free time riding my bike and playing video games,” he said.

Friendly and outgoing, he did well throughout his studies and now works for the federal government. His last name has been withheld to protect his identity.

But tradition presented an issue. Sami said that for hundreds of years, Middle Eastern traditions have honoured a joint family system. Although the model has shifted from several generations under one roof to something more closely resembling a nuclear family, it still means that one typically goes from their parents’ home to living with a spouse.

A modern adaptation of this custom means that a child lives with their parents until they have completed their education, found a job, and settled on a suitable companion. Naturally, that is what Sami’s parents expected him to do.

When it came time to find the right partner to settle down and start a family with, Sami began to feel aware of hesitations that had been lurking in the back of his mind since childhood. Following a series of unsuccessful dates arranged by his parents, he was struck by the overwhelming sense of relief upon learning that the lack of attraction after his dates was mutual.

Approaching his mid-20s and having to face increasingly frequent inquiries from his mother and father, Sami started looking at things differently. He recognized that he had, at times, felt a certain disconnect from his friends who seemed to express an almost constant preoccupation with sex. Despite going through a period of self-examination, it wasn’t until the age of 27 that he had his “aha” moment.

He was at a party and explained being gripped by a powerful recognition.

“I just suddenly realized everyone was preoccupied with something that had never interested or appealed to me. It prompted me to start doing some research, I wanted to know if other people felt like I did.”

He was pleased to almost immediately discover information and group meetups surrounding asexuality. After so many years of uncertainty, he finally had a framework to address his relationship to sex.

Twenty-seven may seem late to assume the title of a sexual orientation, but because asexuality is so rarely spoken about, it is actually quite common for people to identify later on. In part, this is due to the fact that asexuality concerns a lack of sexual interest, meaning it is not something that asexual people spend a lot of time thinking about it.

“It’s like trying to get a bunch of people who don’t like coffee to talk about coffee,” Sami said. It was only through increasing social pressure and feelings of alienation when confronted with popular culture that the disconnect could no longer be ignored.

Although there are a lot of dedicated individuals working to establish asexuality communities, promote awareness, and provide information, there are still very common misconceptions that continually pop up. One of the most damaging of these is that asexual people are not capable of love or passion.

“I’m extremely sentimental and compassionate,” expressed Isabelle Stephen, a 41-year-old working in video post-production who started the Montreal branch of asexual meetups, Montreal Asexuals.
She explained that one of the most hurtful assumptions she has been forced to confront is that without sex, there can’t be love. She went on to talk excitedly about a relationship she is in now with a man she cares deeply for, but was cautious to clarify that it was not an easy road getting here.

“I remember being a young girl and having my mother, thinking she was being especially open minded and liberal, telling me that I could be attracted to boys or to girls, it didn’t matter. I wish she would have told me I didn’t have to be attracted to either. It would have changed my sentimental life completely.”

Stephen explained how she repeatedly tried to engage in sexual activities because she felt pressured to and just hoped she might learn to enjoy it. Ultimately the pattern was the same: The constant feeling of violation led to resentment, destroying other positive characteristics of the relationship, and ultimately leaving her with the realisation that she had no choice but to leave.

These feelings drew her to films exploring sexuality. Eventually she saw Asexual on Netflix. She felt that this was the closest she had come to seeing an accurate representation of her feelings towards sex in a film. She now identifies as demi-sexual, meaning she is capable of developing sexual feelings in some cases where a very strong emotional attachment exists.

Upon finding a label she could identify with, she made a long post on social media coming out to her friends and family. She said it felt like a “ton of bricks had been lifted on her back.” She received a lot of support when she came out, but there was some negative backlash too.

Stephen, in addition to other asexual people I spoke with, said that one of the hardest things is just not having someone respect your identity, even once you’ve worked so hard to get there.

Despite the open-minded freedom of the multiplicity of sexual orientations that are now socially accepted as “valid,” the desire for sex itself is still largely what informs them.

Asexuals are often forced to confront accusations of mental illness, suppressed memories, or just general lack of experience. Stephen said that several people have suggested she seek hormonal therapy or see a psychologist. She also explained the “magic penis syndrome,” indicating when men have expressed that their exceptional sexual prowess could act as a cure for someone’s asexuality.

Of course challenging a person’s sexual orientation is both disgusting and presumptuous, and as everyone I talked to was quick to point out, asexuality is not a choice to refrain from something. It is not the same thing as celibacy or chastity.

As Megan Amstutz, another young asexual woman I spoke to expressed, “It is certainly not chastity. We do not refrain from sex for purity reasons, we refrain because we are uninterested or harmed by it.”

Amstutz identifies as asexual and sex-repulsed. Sex repulsion, in her own words, means “experiencing physical and psychological discomfort when engaged in sexual activity.”

This has not stopped her from cultivating meaningful relationships and she said that one of the hardest things to endure is witnessing her boyfriend, who does not identify as asexual, tolerate the questioning or comments like how he is “a hero for putting up with that” or that there are “plenty of women out there.”

She said that there is still a physical element to their relationship that involves cuddling and some gentle touching, but she confessed that despite reassurance from her partner, it can still be difficult to overcome the outside pressure that she is not giving him enough.

“It can get dark,” she said. “But when I talk to my boyfriend about these feelings when it gets dark I always feel better.”

Everyone I spoke with expressed having similar moments with regard to feeling insecure about being open about their orientation. By its definition, asexuality draws attention to the fixation we have on sex in our society, which can make people uncomfortable. As Stephen explained, for many, “Sex is so fused with their sense of self that they really can’t envision life without it.”

For Sami, he can’t come out to his parents because “They simply can’t imagine it. They just don’t think it is possible.”

He admitted that he still hopes that they might someday understand, but that in general what we need right now is to “change the conversation around sex so asexual people don’t have to live with constantly justifying their feelings or denying mental illness.”

“Ultimately it’s important to understand that asexuals are just as complex and unique as everyone else,” he continued.

Accepting a way of life that is so systematically dismissed by our society can be a tricky thing to navigate, but in a way that is what makes asexuality so compelling.

Smiling, Stephen said that she is happy now that she can laugh about some of the off comments she has received about her asexuality, but she also stated what an incredible community it has created for her.

As she said: “It’s an opportunity for people to imagine how things could be different.”

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