We define ourselves by how we have sex. Those who identify as homosexual are sexually attracted to those of the same sex. Those who are heterosexual are attracted to the opposite sex. Those who identify as bisexual are sexually open, attracted to both women and men or perhaps a more fluid, non-binary spectrum of gender. Sexuality is a subject that involves every person, that we each can relate to in our own way.
Even those who are non-sexually attracted, who do not have sexual feelings for anyone, are validated by the outstretching network of sexual identity. This is the asexual identity, an experience often omitted or misunderstood when talking about how people relate to sex. The asexual community occupies a space that is currently adjacent to mainstream queerness, awaiting their welcome for myriad reasons.
While some LGBT organizations like the Trevor Project and the National LGBTQ Task Force formally recognize asexuality, you won’t find this experience included in the main work of organizations like the Human Rights Campaign. Infrequently mentioned, yes, but largely invisible within the agenda.
Sara Beth Brooks works to change this. She, like many asexual activists, has taken on the challenge of making asexuality more visible. Brooks founded Asexual Awareness Week as a means to highlight the asexual community, taking time within October’s LGBT History Month for the underrepresented community.
“I became an advocate for asexuality after I came out as ace,” she noted by phone. “I came out in 2008 and it became painfully obvious to me, quickly, that there wasn’t a place in the LGBT movement for asexual people yet.”
Born out of her work with the LGBT community and California’s fight for marriage equality, Brooks created the week to challenge what queerness means. “As I came out, it became very clear to me that I was going to have to do something to advocate for my own community. In 2010, I started Asexual Awareness Week. We do a week where we make a call for asexual organizers around the world to do a week of education in their own communities.”
Brooks’ work “helps bring a broader awareness to asexuality and asexual issues,” something that sounds easier the queer community is making it out to be. “We started Asexual Awareness Week because the Gay And Lesbian Task Force didn’t think asexual people were a part of their community. We started it to be able to lobby national LGBT organizations like the Task Force in order to include us—and we were very successful with that.”
To understand the work of asexual activism, it’s important to understand the challenges that the community faces, particularly myths related to the experience. “There’s a common myth that asexual people aren’t interested in having sex which is incorrect,” Brooks explained. “There are groups of asexual people who aren’t interested in having sex at all and they don’t make that a part of their life. But there are other asexual people who do want to engage in sexual activity for whatever reason, whether it is curiosity or there is a negotiation in a romantic partnership or something else that causes them to be interested because, perhaps, they are indifferent with sex and sexuality instead of feeling like it’s definitely not a part of their world.”
“Another myth is that asexual people are trying to stop sexuality from advancing forward,” she noted. “I think that asexuality is an expansion of our understanding of sexuality rather than a limit. We get a lot of pushback from the queer community on folks thinking that we’re trying to set queer rights back by engaging in conversations about what it’s like to not have sex in a relationship. Our argument in response to that is that we are exceeding the understanding of what being queer is. There is something quite different than heteronormative standards about having relationships where sex and sexuality maybe aren’t the most important things in a relationship.”
Myths about asexuality stem from societal notions of what a relationship should be and how people should perform sexuality. This is most pronounced in dating as most people have a hard time understanding that a romantic relationship can exist without sex. “I’ve heard stories about asexual people who come out to a romantic partner and the relationship ends or the sexual partner has an investment in sex in the relationship when the asexual person doesn’t. There’s a lot of consideration of the phrase ‘just friends,’ which is applied often to asexual relationships because people don’t have an understanding that a relationship that is romantic doesn’t have to include sex or sexuality as part of it.”
“There’s definitely a pushback,” Brooks explained, personalizing the experience. “In 2008, I was engaged to be married and I came out to my partner and our relationship ended because he thought I was lying and that, because I wasn’t willing to engage in sex with him, that I must be cheating on him.”
“That is a very common thing that I’ve heard,” Brooks said.
The commonality of asexual erasure doesn’t end with simply being dumped either. Many people respond to asexuality by attempting to correct the identity, forcing them into sexual scenarios. This can lead to violent results. Brooks explained: “Many people assume that not being interested in sexual attraction or experiencing sexual activity is a function of broken genitalia, which isn’t the case. There are studies that have proved that.”
“Oftentimes, especially as a girl, I experience the attempt to correct my sexuality. This sometimes takes the form of, ‘Have you seen a doctor about that?’ or ‘Couldn’t you just take a pill to correct it?’ This comes from the assumption that I want to correct it or that it is a problem in my life, which is just not true. It’s not a problem in my life.”
“This can go as far as corrective rape, which happens in our community to a lot of people, for both males and females as well as folks who identify not-on-that-particular-gender-binary-spectrum. That kind of corrective rape leads to a conversation about sexual violence and the way that sex is used as a form or tool of power to attempt to fix someone who has indicated that they are not interested in sex. Obviously this is a huge problem and something that we try to address in the asexual community and something that we are continuing to address.”
While science has validated the asexual experience, barriers still exist making activism for the community a necessity. This might be rooted in a lack of awareness, enabling more confusion for both persons who might be asexual and those who need to be sensitive of the identity. “I’ve had a number of doctors who have spoken to me in multiple ways about my choice to not have sex in my life, to be abstinent. That is a choice that I made that is based on my sexual orientation but that certainly isn’t defined by my sexual orientation.”
“There are groups of people who identify as asexual who don’t have access to information and it’s a matter of having access to good information about sex and sexuality that leads us back to a conversation about better education in high school and in college…Everyone knows what the word gay means. When you say the word gay out loud, everyone knows that you’re talking about a sexual orientation. Everyone knows that you’re talking about people who are attracted to the same gender. When you say the word asexual out loud, people think you’re talking about biology.”
For now, activists like Brooks continue fighting for visibility, sharing stories to connect culture’s notion of sexuality beyond gay or straight. There is a lot of in between—and that’s how asexuality fits into the conversation of queerness.