Asexuality: 'I realised I wasn't into girls or boys'
When hotelier Francis Brennan said he was asexual, he thrust a marginalised community into the spotlight. We hear from the 'one per cent' who say sex isn't for them
Leanne Kelly started to notice feeling different from her classmates as far back as sixth class.
"All the girls really started to notice boys, and I didn't," recalls the 23-year-old environmental technician from Galway. "They were like, 'do you fancy Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt?' and I was like, 'gross! They're the same age as my dad!' I couldn't pinpoint an exact moment but I do remember thinking, 'oh no, I don't feel this way'. I forget it's even a thing for some people."
So far, so familiar to the many people who discovered that they were LGBT in later life, but Leanne's quest for self-discovery didn't turn up the usual answers.
"Conversations would go, 'you're not into boys so you must be into girls'," says Leanne. "But I realised I wasn't into either."
Like an increasing number of people, Leanne classes herself as asexual; someone who doesn't experience sexual attraction to anyone. One per cent of the world's population identifies as asexual, though it's thought that the statistic is misleading as many people aren't aware of asexuality as a sort of sexual orientation.
Last month, the issue was brought to light in Ireland when hotelier Francis Brennan said: "I've never lusted after anyone. I suppose I'm what you would call asexual. I'm always too tired anyway. So forget that. [Sex] doesn't interest me at all."
In the main, asexuality is largely invisible in the media. In fact, one pair of siblings recently stood out a mile for their apparent indifference to sex. As pop duo Jedward, John and Edward Grimes could have taken full advantage of their teen pin-up power; instead, they have noted in the past that sex isn't even on their minds. "We haven't really had a girlfriend, like a proper girlfriend," John has said. "We don't see girls in that 'oh-she's-hot' way. There's a lot more to girls than just having sex. It's different caring for someone in a mature way. We think sex is a bit amateurish. Lots of girls throw themselves at me and Edward. We could, easily. It's just not us, not our main focus."
But the fact remains: we live in a sex-soaked world. It's not unusual to believe that everyone is at it; others again maintain that sex is as intrinsic to human life as food and water. Time, then, to debunk a myth or two and bring the uninitiated up to speed: where celibacy is the act of choosing to abstain from sex for emotional, religious or other reasons, asexuality is considered by many in the community to be a sexual orientation in itself.
Similarly, asexuals (or "aces" as they're sometimes known) enjoy as dynamic and fulfilling a social life as the wider community: "For as long as I can remember, I've been pretty happy with my own company, but I go out, have friends and am off doing different things all the time," says Leanne. "I don't ever get lonely."
The asexual community is lobbying for visibility, as well as for the right for asexuality to be seen as a sexual orientation. Many maintain that, much like being LGBT, asexuality isn't a choice they've made, it just is the way they are built. It is not the product of a psychosexual factor, and it affects people irrespective of gender, psychological profile and age.
According to research, asexuality has nothing to do with a childhood trauma, emotional abuse or even a hormonal imbalance.
"Celibacy is an action, or a choice not to have sex, but asexuality isn't a choice because it's intrinsic to you," explains Michael Dore, a member of the British outpost of the Aven (Asexual Visibility & Education Network) project team. "Certain asexuals can have a sexual relationship with a non-sexual person, but not many. I'm highly repulsed by sex and won't do it under any circumstances."
While some asexual people identify as "romantic" or "demi" (a person who does not experience sexual attraction unless they form a strong emotional connection with someone), others identify as "aromantic", and have no interest in forging intimate relationships either.
"Some people have said that the difficulties of being asexual can cause some people to get into relationships. Mixed relationships can and do often work but it's not good if [the sexual person] thinks, 'they'll come around'," says Michael. "They can work very well if each person is respecting of the other's position. In the worst cases, sexual incompatibility can be a real deal-breaker."
But even though sexual imagery flies past our faces at a rate of knots in everyday life, it's just not on the radar for Leanne.
"A well-written sex scene can be interesting, but if you throw sex at me straight away, I'm really not bothered," Leanne says. "Some people might be very uncomfortable with it, but I'm just like, 'yeah, whatever'."
Still, the concept is in its infancy. In 2001, American David Jay noticed that there was a dearth of information on asexuality online, and decided to create AveN. Around that time, thousands of others were Googling the term to little avail. According to many testimonials online, once AVEN members (some 70,000 and counting) discovered the site, they finally found somewhere they belonged.
"I found other asexual people by founding a community," explained David. "I started the website in 2001, and as it happened thousands were actively looking for information on this."
Michael heard David speaking about asexuality on the radio and, as he recalls, a "switch went on".
"I think I always knew I was asexual, especially when schoolmates became interested in women," he says. "But hearing David Jay talk about it I was like, 'great, that applies to me too'. It gave me a lot of confidence to be myself."
Still, others experience less of a eureka moment.
"When I heard the word 'asexual' first, I just thought, 'well that might be me'," explains Leanne. "I did a lot of reading up on the issue, wondering if I was demi, but then I realised I was aromantic."
For Dubliner Ben (not his real name), the answer came after a long process of self-questioning.
"Coming to terms with yourself is a slow realisation that you are different," he explains. "Many don't have a word to describe their experiences, and feel like they are simply bad at relationships or sex. I certainly didn't - various unpleasant experiences brought to me the full realisation that I was different, although at the time, I believed what I had been told: that I was broken and needed to be fixed. I hope I never hear someone utter those words again, with the intent of 'fixing me'.
"Beginning to educate myself on these matters was incredibly liberating; the sheer pressure to be sexual and to fulfil people's romantic and sexual expectations of me was crushing, and so to find that there were so many people like me was elating."
Naturally, others have their own opinions on asexuality.
"Some people are like, 'oh, that's cool', some are disbelieving and say, 'well everyone's into someone', while others think I'm covering up being gay," reveals Michael.
For now, visibility is at the forefront of the asexual community's agenda. If more people are aware of asexuality, they reason, their numbers are sure to grow.
Yet they have faced a slight stumbling block: in their bid to be recognised as a legitimate sexual orientation, AVEN have attended LGBT Pride weekends across the globe to raise awareness. However, many people confuse asexuality for celibacy, and mistakenly believe that AVEN are "pushing" a sexless life on them.
"I've been to many Prides and we do get that sort of thing," smiles Michael.
"One man did offer to 'cure me'. But I'm happy to say most places are very supportive of us. But there's still a long way to go."
Meantime, the curious don't have to look far for like-minded types: Ben founded the Irish Asexuality Facebook Page in a bid to bring Irish aces together, both offline and on.
"The purpose of the group is to provide a space for people on the asexuality spectrum to meet up and talk about anything they want; to make friends, and have a place where they are understood without needing to say anything at all," he says.
"It is really important for marginalised, invisible communities to have a community and an outlet to be themselves unencumbered. I would encourage everyone to do a little reading about sexual and romantic orientations, there's so many ways we can express ourselves."
For more information on the Irish asexuality community, see www.facebook.com/IrishAces or for more information on AVEN, see asexuality.org