What do the Archie comics, Netflix original Bojack Horseman, and a soap opera from New Zealand all have in common? They all feature characters who identify as asexual, or “ace”.
Asexuality, as defined by the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network [AVEN], is not experiencing sexual attraction. Some asexual people are interested in romantic relationships, others have no interest in relationships. Unlike celibacy, which is a lifestyle choice, asexuality is an orientation.
Asexual people make up an estimated 1% of the population, but while the representation of asexual people in fiction is growing, many people are still unaware of the asexual people in their real communities.
So, what does this 1% look like? Three asexual Australians talk about their orientation.
Bec, 25, ACT
“Being a mum and being asexual are two big parts of my identity. I’m glad they both fit within me.”
Bec is a loss consultant and mother to an 11-month-old girl. Like many asexual people, Bec knew from a young age that she didn’t feel sexual attraction, but didn’t have a word for it.
“I never was able to relate to my friends in the way they felt during puberty. I just accepted that I was different and would never feel the same,” she says.
It was when she revealed to her partner that she wouldn’t be interested in having sex, and he found “asexuality” through a Google search, that Bec finally had a word for her feelings. She identifies as asexual and biromantic, meaning she is romantically attracted to men and women.
For Bec, a big part of coming to terms with her asexuality was reconciling her “sex repulsion” with her desire to become a mother through natural conception. Some asexual people looking to become parents, like AVEN’s founder David Jay, choose adoption. But Bec says that wasn’t part of her dream.
“Surprisingly, the biggest challenge was convincing my partner. Our whole relationship I’ve told him I can’t and then all of a sudden, I was telling him we have to,” she says.
“Emotionally it was hard to ask him for something he knew I didn’t want.”
During her pregnancy, Bec’s friends and family sometimes questioned whether she could really be asexual if she was pregnant. But Bec feels these two parts of her are not at odds with each other.
“I have talked to a couple of people online about how they realised they were asexual after having children,” says Bec.
“This made me glad I realised before, it made the dramatic changes that come with pregnancy slightly easier than if I hadn’t realised.”
Orion, 17, Victoria
“I am asexual and that's who I am.”
Orion is a high school student who identifies as non-binary and asexual. The lack of awareness about asexuality means that it’s often left to young people like Orion to teach others about their orientation.
“There were a number of people who misinterpreted what asexuality is and refused to listen to any different,” says Orion, “I felt a responsibility to educate others on my identity.”
Orion says they first learned about asexuality through Tumblr where they saw a post titled “Am I Ace?”. A lot of the “signs” mentioned were things Orion had been feeling all their life.
Young asexual people who come out are often faced with denial and told they are “too young to know”,but Orion avoids this by keeping the company of supportive “young, queer, trans, and asexual” people.
“The people I'm out to being people who have to deal with the same issues means that they do not dismiss me,” Orion explains.
In a 2015 AVEN survey, around 30% of asexual respondents identified as a gender other than male or female. Orion says coming to terms with their asexuality helped them come to terms with their gender identity.
“Coming out as nonbinary was, and still is, one of the hardest things I've had to do, it was definitely easier because of the supportive groups I had immersed myself in because of being asexual.”
Shay, 25, NSW
“I had to unlearn a lot. But now I'm proud to be who I am and I'm happy.”
Shay is a user interface product designer. They identify as gender neutral and “grey asexual”, which means they only rarely experience sexual attraction. Shay is romantically attracted to women.
Like Bec, it was being in a relationship that helped Shay to realise their orientation.
“I didn't have much success with relationships and after breaking up with my long-term partner, I realised how I rarely experience sexual attraction,” Shay explains.
“When I realised what asexuality really was, it was a lightbulb in my head, almost.”
Shay is back together with their partner and says that coming to terms with being grey asexual has helped the pair find a way to make the relationship work- an open relationship where both of their needs can be met.
Shay’s Vietnamese background also made coming to terms with being asexual difficult. They think in Vietnam there is more stigma around singleness and less visibility for minority orientations than there is in Australia.
“There's no education or much activism. Much more isolation in that way,” says Shay, who adds: “if you grow up and stay in that environment, there's no guarantee that you would understand yourself fully.”
But Shay believes activism can make a difference, both in Australia and Vietnam.
“There's still much work to do but I'm not sure [what] to do but talk about it with people as much as I can. And then fight the fights here as well.”
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