Asexuality is a relatively newly recognised identity. Although it was first recognised in the 1890s by a clinical sexologist writing at the time, Magnus Hirschfeld, it wasn’t until 2001 that the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) started to bring together asexual people from around the world.
23-29 October is Ace Week – a week in which asexual people can celebrate their identities and others can learn and better understand what it means to be Ace.
A history lesson
Asexuality is one of the least well-known and understood identities. Many people can’t even comprehend a life where sexual attraction and activity isn’t a feature. Unfortunately, as with other sexual identities that fall outside of the culturally expected norm, asexuality has been pathologised for many years.
Conversion therapy, most commonly thought of as an experience endured by gay people, is reportedly most commonly offered to or used on asexuals. In a 2018 UK government report1, 7.6% of gay and lesbian respondents to a questionnaire reported having been offered or given conversion therapy compared to 10.2% of the people who identified as asexual.
It is still very common to hear a number of myths about asexuals that used to be commonly heard about gay and bisexual people – that being ace is a phase, that it’s a mental illness, that ace people are immature and don’t know how to have ‘real’ relationships. None of those things is true. Being asexual is a variation in human experience. Nothing more, nothing less.
What does it mean to be Ace?
Another common misconception about being asexual is that you never want sex or a relationship with another person. Lots of asexual people have and enjoy sex. But that confuses a lot of people. Why would you call yourself Ace if you have the one thing you’re supposedly against?
As with so many things, people’s experiences are on a spectrum, and can even change over time. The diagram below may be helpful in understanding the different aspects that can make up asexual experience.
So, you can have a sex drive, but not feel any attraction to other people. You might think that sex is great and be happy for other people to have as much as they want, but find the idea of doing so yourself repulsive. You can be attracted to people, but those attractions might be romantic or aesthetic rather than sexual. So many ways to be Ace that don’t mean never having sex or not being in relationships.
There has been some unfortunate discussion around the validity of asexuals as members of the queer community. Some prominent queer figures have repeated some common misconceptions about asexuality that used to be heard about bisexuality or even being gay – that being asexual is a choice, that people aren’t discriminated against for being asexual and that they aren’t queer enough to be included.
In truth, many asexual people have other queer identities. People may be trans, romantically attracted to people of the same gender as them, or enjoy sex with people of any gender because they aren’t particularly strongly attracted to particular genders.
Even if an asexual person is cisgender and prefers relationships with people of the opposite sex, they are still queer if they want to be part of the community. As with people with all kinds of queer identities, the way their different identities intersect will colour their experience of the world and the privileges and disadvantages they may experience. While being able to hide your identity can allow people to live their lives with less experience, the stress that comes from not being visible, fearing detection or feeling excluded from groups of your peers can have serious impacts.
Here for you, if you want
Not everyone feels comfortable claiming an identity. The feeling of being an impostor and taking something that does not belong to you can be powerful. Not everyone feels comfortable aligning themselves with queer communities. But if any of the above feels like it helps to describe your experience, there is a place for you in queer communities, if you want it.
1Government Equalities Office (2018). National LGBT Survey: Research Report. Government Equalities Office (accessed 28/10/2022)