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Life without sex: a state of horizontal denial

Sarah Tierney asks an asexual chap about life without the urge

Published on November 30th 2009.


YOU have heard the slogan 'glad to be gay' but can you say the same of 'glad to be A'? Nowadays, most sexual orientations are widely recognised and, in lots of places, widely accepted. But asexuality has long been the odd one out.

“Society’s obsession with sex doesn’t bother me, I’m inured to it as well as understanding and accepting the reasons for it.”

Unlike other minority orientations, asexuals don't have their own bars, or their own style mags, or their own distinct culture. It means that many people don't understand what asexuality is – is it celibacy under a different name? Is it people who haven't met the 'right person' yet? Is it just a phase Morrissey went through when he was younger?

Mark, an asexual who acts as a spokesperson for AVEN – the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, clarifies what the term actually means:

“Asexuality is an orientation where an individual doesn’t experience sexual attraction towards other people – essentially the opposite of bisexuality. Celibacy is where someone chooses not to act upon their sexual desires, whereas an asexual person doesn’t have those desires in the first place.

“As well as inherently asexual people (people who are born that way), some people can be rendered asexual by a number of factors. These might be physiological (such as disease), psychological (such as abuse), medications which can affect libido, and simply old age.

Although these people are distinct from inherently asexual people, they face many of the same life issues.”

It's estimated that around one per cent of the population is asexual, though some believe that this figure is too low. Asexual people are less likely to stand up and identify themselves as such because unlike homosexuals, bisexuals or heterosexuals, they have no particular biological need to do so. Says Mark: “They don't have to announce themselves as asexual because they don't need to find a sexual partner.”

Some people might see this as an advantage in life. Mark certainly doesn't feel like he's missing out because of his asexuality, saying he “has a freedom that most sexual people don't have.” But like many minority groups, asexuals have to deal with being excluded from what everyone else accepts as the norm.

Mainstream and alternative cultures assume that everyone has sexual desires of one form or another. Images of sexual attraction are everywhere in the media, and state and religious

institutions are built around the notion of sexual partnerships. To an asexual person, this can be isolating and perplexing – as if you're the only person who just doesn't get what all the fuss is about. And it can be difficult to maintain self-esteem in a world that sees being sexually active as one of the basic components of happiness.

It's why David Jay, an asexual from California, set up AVEN in 2001. He wanted to create an asexual community who could share their experiences and increase understanding of their orientation.

Says Mark: “It got significantly easier for me after I discovered the actual existence of other asexual people on 14 October 2004. I’d long since ceased to measure myself against mainstream society’s established indicators of success, like the size of your house and salary, the car you drive, sexual performance and so on. Society’s obsession with sex doesn’t bother me, I’m inured to it as well as understanding and accepting the reasons for it.”

As well as helping people become comfortable with their asexuality, AVEN is a forum where asexuals can meet like-minded people and form friendships that sometimes lead to couple relationships.

A common assumption is that asexuals must have no interest in romantic relationships. Says Mark: “There’s a lot of variation amongst the asexual community, from those who experience no attraction for other people, aesthetic or emotional, right up to those who seek intimate, romantic relationships, just without the sex bit. Some asexuals are capable of sex but don’t particularly enjoy it and lack the need or desire to do it – like the famous Boy George quote: 'I’d rather have a cup of tea.'”

So if this description rings true with you, what advice would Mark give? “Firstly, you’re not alone – there are others out there like you. Secondly, asexuality is a little known and uncommon but naturally occurring orientation, so there’s not necessarily anything wrong with you.

“On AVEN (asexuality.org) you'll find a comprehensive FAQ, including sections with information for friends, partners and family, as well as forums where a large number of people of all ages with a wide range of experiences would be happy to answer your questions and offer advice. You’d also be welcome to come along to a meet-up and meet other asexual people face-to-face. There are meet-ups in various places in the UK [including Liverpool] and, currently, a regular (but informal) one in London, held every other month.”

Go to www.asexuality.org to find out more.

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