Asexuality is sometimes called ‘the invisible sexuality’. For many asexual people, this rings true as resources are hard to find as information about the sexual orientation is not exactly widespread. Asexual spaces have emerged on the internet and allow people to find out about and explore their sexuality.

But before that, asexual people were left to wonder what exactly made their experiences differ from that of their non-asexual peers. Lily and Emily, two asexual friends, talk about what it was like to grow up without resources and how they started to make sense of their sexuality.

Within Western societies, sex has become a rather public topic. Advertisements make use of the sex sells sentiment, apps like tinder shape modern dating, people are hosting sex toy parties and the overall attitude towards sex makes it out to be a vital part of a happy and successful life. But what if you just don’t care?

Most people have no idea what the term asexuality means. It is very likely they haven’t heard it at all. Those who have usually link it to plants and primitive life forms like amoebae. The idea that humans can be asexual is a strange concept to the majority of society.

London Pride 2018
The asexual section at London Pride 2018. Black, grey, white and purple are the colours of the asexual pride flag.

For Emily and Lily (who both asked me to change their names) it is their personal reality.

They both are in their late twenties and identify as asexual. They both came to realise something about their experience was different from that of their peers when puberty started to hit.

“I first realised I was different when I was about 13 and suddenly all the girls in my class started to be interested in boys. There was all this talk about which celebrity was the hottest and I didn’t understand it. I just thought ‘But they are all so old? How can you think they are attractive?’ Later I also considered that I maybe was attracted to girls but that wasn’t the case either” says Lily.

Emily adds “There was a kind of trend among the girls to crush on a boy in our class but it changed by the week who was considered the cutest. No one believed me when I said, that I don’t have a crush and I couldn’t keep up with the guy of the week so I just started making things up from there.”

Emily and Lily belong to the one per cent of humanity that is asexual, meaning they don’t experience sexual attraction to anyone regardless of gender. While one per cent may sound low, it means that there are about 50.000 asexuals living in Ireland. Some researchers suggest the numbers might be higher as asexuals might not partake in surveys about sex and most people are not aware of asexuality.

This unawareness is the core issue for asexual activists who advocate for more visibility and information. They started the international Asexual Awareness Week, which has celebrated its fifth anniversary on 22 October 2018.

Visibility is highly needed. There is close to none asexual representation on the media and only a little research. Even the renowned sexologist Volkmar Sigusch admitted in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel in 2011 “I have the utmost respect for people who are asexual. I didn’t believe that they existed at first. But they do exist, and their numbers are growing.”

Mostly the asexual community, or ‘ace’ community as they sometimes call themselves, is growing and connecting online. And this is also where most people start to make sense of their experience.

“If you want to learn more about asexuality, you have to actually know the term, first. Otherwise, you won’t find, what you’re looking for.”

“The lack of information on asexuality makes it very difficult to explain to people. They often think you’re a prude or something has to be wrong with you. I certainly wondered if something was wrong with me and I went and got my hormones checked. But everything was OK. Things started falling into place when I stumbled upon resources online. Suddenly my feelings made sense.” says Lily.

Emily also found the community by accident. “If you want to learn more about asexuality, you have to actually know the term, first. Otherwise, you won’t find, what you’re looking for. I discovered the asexual community purely by chance. This is why we need visibility. I think it would also help to clear up some of the confusion around the term.”

Ace Pride Ring
A black ring, worn on the middle finger of the right hand, is sometimes used as a symbol by the asexual community.

One source of confusion about asexuality is the difference between sexual attraction and the act itself. Asexuals may engage in sex because it feels good, they want children, or to make their partner happy. Some are indifferent towards sex and some are repulsed by sex, some masturbate, some don’t.

“Initiating sex doesn’t cross my mind but it can feel good for me. It’s best to see sexuality as a kind of spectrum with asexual on one end and sexual on the other. In between you can find a lot of different experiences.” says Emily.

“I just don’t care about sex. Most of the time I forget it exists,” adds Lily. “When I finally had sex it was out of curiosity. I was in a relationship and the idea of sex didn’t bother me. It also didn’t excite me but I wanted to try it at least. It was pretty underwhelming and didn’t get any better.”

“I just don’t care about sex. Most of the time I forget it exists.”

For many aces this difference in the need for sex between what they call sexuals and asexuals can make it hard to build a lasting romantic relationship.

“People will think you will come around eventually and complain about your lack of interest. Sometimes they will suffer in silence because they don’t receive the validation, they are used to from sexual relationships. Other times it’s outside pressure and the idea that you owe your partner sex and are somehow keeping them from true happiness. All of this can put a strain on relationships between sexual and asexual people. But relationships can work out.” explains Lily.

The mix up of asexuality with a choice to abstain from sex can also cause conflict with other sexual minorities. Emily explains “At pride events some people can get uncomfortable because they mistake us for some hard-line religious group preaching celibacy and shaming LGBT people for their sexuality. This is absolutely not true.”

“Asexuality is not linked to any religious or personal ideologies and choices. I cannot choose to be asexual. And I certainly don‘t want to take away the empowerment of LGBT people that comes with expressing their sexuality.”

It is also possible to be asexual, not care about sex and still have a sex drive. “I guess this one is difficult to understand,” says Lily. “Some of us have a really low sex drive or none at all but many do get horny. It is just arousal without an actual object of desire.”

But I think many non-asexuals sometimes get horny without wanting sex with a specific person. It’s just a bodily function like hunger. You can be hungry but not have an appetite for anything. And you can have a libido without wanting sex.”

This doesn’t mean that asexual people don’t like physical contact. Just like any other person they might like hugs, kisses or touching other people. “We are a diverse group. We come in all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and what not. Some of us like physical contact, some don’t. Just like anyone else.” explains Emily.

How do asexual people fall in love? The short answer is ‘just like anyone else’. The longer answer can be a little bit more complicated.

First of all, there is a difference between asexuality and aromanticism. Asexual people don’t experience sexual attraction. Aromantic people don’t or only rarely experience romantic attraction, which means they don’t form intimate romantic relationships.

Lily wonders if she is on the aromantic spectrum, as well.

“I’m approaching 30. I had one intense crush and have been in one short relationship years ago. I’m happy to be on my own or spend time with friends and family. But I don’t think that I’m completely aromantic. I know I have been in love before. I might fall in love again. As it is, I call myself asexual most of the time because it is a little bit easier to understand for most people.”

Emily adds “It took me a long time to figure out that I actually like men and women. It’s not exactly easy if you don’t feel sexual attraction. But I eventually realised that I have had feelings for guys and girls. For some people like myself, ‘asexual’ is a modifier to their orientation. I’m bi but also ace. For Lily, ‘asexual’ best describes her experience so she only uses one term to describe her orientation.”

“There was nothing. Not even a centre for LGBT people in general. Now there is one in the next bigger town, but when I was growing up – nothing.”

“There are people of all ages and genders within the community. Asexuality is not a thing young people made up and are now hyping. It is just that we finally have a word and the means to share our experiences” says Emily.

Lily adds “Ireland has lots of rural areas and I grew up in a small village. There was no place near me to get information from. Not even a centre for LGBT people in general. Now there is one in the next bigger town, but when I was growing up – nothing.”

“Being LGBT in such a space leaves you without resources, but, if you are lucky, you might at least know a word for your orientation. For asexual or aromantic people these words were out of reach up until very recently.”

Slowly asexuality is making its way into the public sphere. Around the world asexual groups march at pride events and research is starting to take place. Irish asexuals can find fellow aces either on the Irish Asexuality Facebook Page or join the international community on AVEN.

“Realising there are so many other people with similar experiences is great. Growing up ace without knowing that this even is a possibility can be extremely difficult and lonely. I’m glad that teenagers finally have access to reliable sources on the topic.” says Emily.

Lily adds “Aces finally have a place to explore their identity and share their experiences. We are developing a community with in-jokes, symbols and terms to describe what we are feeling. We are finally starting to be seen.”