So imagine what it would be like to live in this sexed-up world and yet never experience sexual attraction. We're not talking about lapses in libido, or a decline in desire. We're talking about asexuality. Although the visibility around it has ...
Sex sells. Whether you're getting it or not, it's hard to avoid it.
So imagine what it would be like to live in this sexed-up world and yet never experience sexual attraction.
We're not talking about lapses in libido, or a decline in desire. We're talking about asexuality.
Although the visibility around it has increased in recent years, the first time I learned about it was when I met my friend Steph in 2015.
She is asexual and aromantic — which means she doesn't experience sexual or romantic attraction.
Steph learned she was asexual seven years ago at the age of 19. After a confusing and upsetting adolescence, it all clicked into place.
"I knew straight away when I heard of it that that was me," she says.
"I remember exactly where I was, I was driving home from uni. They were talking about it on triple j and it hit me, right there."
In more recent years since Steph's coming out, there has been some representation of asexuality within popular culture — indeed, there's been more discussion around diversity in the media in general.
But, she says, plenty of people still have no idea that asexuality exists as a sexual identity.
"I'm pretty sure if I came out today I'd probably get the same response from my brother as I did seven years ago — he thought it was a rort," Steph says.
"It would never have entered his little bubble. For some people, it has to come up and smack them in the face before they find out about it."
'Asexual organisms with more than one cell don't exist'
What is widely considered one of the first "online gathering" of asexual individuals was in the comments section of an article entitled My Life as an Amoeba in 1997.
"As far as the rest of the world is concerned, asexual organisms with more than one cell don't exist," wrote the author Zoe O'Reilly.
"That makes it quite difficult to come to terms with your lack of sexuality."
Steph says she often has to convince people asexuality is real.
Supplied: Lazy Bones
Twenty years later, asexual individuals have created entire online communities, the most popular of which is AVEN — the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network.
It's a collection of forums dedicated to just about everything, populated by asexual identifying individuals, as well as their partners, friends and family looking to learn more.
"Lots of people on there still aren't sure if they are asexual, and there can be some who respond to that uncertainty with judgement. I guess there will always be some arseholes," laments Steph.
"Asexuality covers a huge spectrum — and that's just how most people in the community want it to be.
"AVEN offers a safe space to talk about that stuff."
Coming out draws confused responses
Once Steph realised she was asexual, she spent a lot of time on AVEN and eventually decided to come out to her friends and family.
"I just walked down to the kitchen one morning and said to my mum: 'Mum, I'm asexual'," she said.
Steph vividly remembers her mum's response, peering over her book, cradling her coffee cup in one hand, and muttering in confusion: "But you're not an amoeba...?"
Asexual relationship teaser
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After Steph explained in greater detail, she says her mum grew to understand what it meant, and has been wholly supportive and understanding ever since.
"When we talked about it later, she said that it did make sense — when I was a kid if we ever watched TV with kissing or romance, I'd have to get up and leave the room. Or I'd just mock it in this bizarre, over-the-top response," laughs Steph.
"I was frustrated because I couldn't relate to it.
"Now I'm a bit more mature I'm more comfortable with it, I just look at it as part of the narrative.
"I don't hate [romance] as a concept — but imagine if something you aren't interested in got shoved down your throat every day. You'd get a bit over it."
But Steph emphasises this sort of response to sexual and romantic content isn't universal among the asexual community. Some just draw an emotional blank, or they can enjoy it the same as everyone else does, she says.
She introduced me to her friend Elyse, who also identifies as asexual and is frustrated about representation of sex in media.
"It's just seem as the be-all and end-all, especially in coming of age stories. But it's like that in real life too," Elyse says.
"It's as though it's some kind of marker of adulthood — and that expectation just carries on."
Elyse also had a mixed response from her family when she came out to them several years ago.
"When I told my sister she laughed at me, and that pretty broke all trust I had in her. It did pretty significant damage to our relationship for a long time," Elyse says.
Steph says the invisibility around asexuality can make some aspects around social interaction difficult, and sometimes distressing.
"When people ask me if I have a partner, and I tell them I'm asexual, I always go through this moment of, 'Oh no, am I going to have to explain this?'" Steph says.
"Am I going to get asked weird questions? Am I going to have to get into an argument to defend my own existence?
"That happens a lot — people will argue that you don't exist. You have to fight for yourself, your own existence. It's exhausting."
Elyse echoes this: "I get really frustrated because it's not just a matter of saying, 'I'm asexual', it's being prepared to answer all the questions that come with it.
"It's expected that I am the voice and the explanation: the authority on all things asexual. It gets very tiring."
Stigma from unexpected places
As well as confusion and denial, asexual people can face outright stigma. And it can come from places you'd least expect, Steph says.
Steph and her some of her asexual friends became heavily involved in revitalising the Australian Asexuals Group (AAG) a few years ago, and have marched in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in an effort to increase visibility.
"We didn't get a great response from everyone — lots of people looked very confused, and we got some pretty disparaging comments. I think a lot of people thought we were there to say no-one else should have sex — which obviously isn't right."
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This sort of confusion and denial around their identity — and existence — is why Steph and her friends put so much work into AAG in the first place.
They are working together to organise meet-ups, create educational resources and ensure adequate representation within queer communities and events.
They'll be making an appearance at the Sydney Mardi Gras Fair Day to speak to people face to face and provide information.
"When I think about asexual teenagers not even knowing what this huge thing about them is — I just want them to grow up without that stress.
"Being a teenager sucks already — but not knowing what's going on, on top of being so confused and so angry — I don't want any other young person to have to go through that."
Dr Chloe Warren is a science writer with a background in cancer research.
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