The LGBT movement is making strides in increasing acceptance of non-heterosexual relationships, and it often seems that in general the world is becoming more accepting of different kinds of sex, be it non-monogamous, kinky or anything else. However, one idea which we seem to have more difficulty in accepting is that there might be people who want to have no sex at all. It’s called being asexual, and estimates say one per cent of the population feel this way. Like any other sexuality deemed ‘unorthodox’ by society, asexuality comes with its own stigma.
At first, it can be hard to see why. Whereas homosexual people, for example, want to be able to display affection in public and to have the right to marry their partners, or trans people want to be addressed using the right gender pronouns, what’s to stop asexual people from just… not having sex? Nobody’s forcing them, so why is there any need to campaign for asexual rights?
It comes down to the way society views not wanting sex. While there is some leeway in deciding not to have sex, remaining celibate is by no means a non-controversial decision. First, there’s the image that springs to mind when one hears the word ‘asexual’. People tend to associate not desiring sex with not enjoying other physical pleasures, such as eating or playing sport, with being solitary, with not making friends or not liking people even. However, in actual fact being asexual says nothing about the rest of your personality. Furthermore, both sexuality and emotion can be highly fluid: many asexuals form romantic relationships, with the spectrum ranging from those who enjoy sex after strong emotional attachments have formed, to those who prefer no romance of any sort. The assumption that asexuality makes one in any way cold and distant, while less physically violent than some reactions non-heterosexuality can provoke, is deeply damaging to asexual people who come up against it. The campaign for asexual rights includes campaigning for the right not to be stereotyped.
Asexuality is also often not taken seriously. When told that someone is asexual, many people will tend to assume that they mean they haven’t met the right person, that they’re very shy and scared, or that they’ve had some kind of traumatic sexual experience which has made them think that sex is unpleasant, but that they could be healed by true love. To have people constantly assume that they understand your ‘confusion’ better than you do, or that they can ‘fix’ you, while you yourself are sure you are simply asexual, is something asexual people can do without.
Finally, while celibacy, unlike homosexuality, has never been illegal, we do live in a culture that puts a lot of emphasis on its importance. It’s supposed to be a wonderful experience that everybody should enjoy; people are supposed to be ‘sexy’ and to entice others, and those who are desirable are successful. In such a culture it must be quite hard to admit that you just don’t care for this thing that everyone else claims to love and sets so much store by. Due to different gender stereotypes, men and women may struggle with this problem in different ways. For boys and young men in particular, there is tremendous pressure to be always ‘on the pull’, competing with friends to be the most sexually experienced and successful. To admit, as a boy in this kind of environment, that you had no interest in competing, must be a difficult thing, and we should not underestimate this when assessing the seriousness of discrimination against asexuals. Women may find their sexuality not taken seriously for different reasons. During one programme about asexuality on Fox News, the female presenter remarked, ‘We’ve known about the phenomenon of “asexuality” for a long time. It’s called being a woman.’ Some people may assume that female asexuality is simply a result of ‘hang-ups’ or of not wanting to ‘give it up’, which is damaging to sexual and asexual women alike.
Overall, I would argue that it is important to improve the social status of those who identify as asexual. They currently face negative assumptions about their personalities, are patronised or pathologised, or are laughed at for not desiring the act to which we attach so much importance: sex. However, this problem should not be complicated to fix. All it takes is the step, both simple and difficult, of understanding and accepting that others’ desires may be very different to our own, and that that is OK.