'Many don't know much about asexuality but there are still stereotypes attached to it' - Meet the men and women living asexual lives
In a society as hyper-sexual as ours, sometimes, saying you have no interest can be the hardest thing of all. Yvonne Hogan examines what it means to be asexual, and talks to men and women who claim the label as their own
"I remember being in the library and someone mentioned that two people our age had had sex at a party. I thought, 'Wow, people do that. This is real'."
Susan, a 22-year-old from the west of Ireland is recounting an incident that occurred during her Leaving Cert year. The then 17-year-old was aware that sex was a hot topic with her peers, but this was the first she had heard of people she knew actually doing it. The first tangible example she had come across that sex might actually be a real thing in real life, and not something dreamt up by marketing executives or Hollywood scriptwriters. Previous to this, she would watch sex scenes on TV and in movies and think, 'That's nonsense, no-one's actually doing that for fun'.
Susan was 11 or 12 when she noticed that her peers started to find others attractive and that it wasn't happening for her. "I wasn't interested in anyone; I wasn't really getting crushes. The narrative was that it would happen for me eventually. By the time I was 15 or 16, it still wasn't happening. I had no sexual feelings at all."
By the time she heard the conversation in the library, Susan had come to the realisation that she was never going to have the same interest in sex as her peers. "For 17-year-olds, having sex and having relationships becomes a massive part of who they are. And you start to realise that the way they are talking about it is not an exaggeration. That's the way they feel things, that's the way they experience their connection to other people.
"The main thing for me was friendship. That's what really stood out. Where other people had sexual desire, I had this really strong connection with my friends. I hate creating that narrative that I was missing something - it was more that while other people connect with people in one way, I connect with people in a different way."
This must have been isolating as a teenager, when everyone else seems to be driven by romance and hormones. Did the friendships change as the others got crushes?
"I will be honest with you, it is quite an isolating thing because it feels like you are standing still and everyone else is moving forward. And everyone else is saying, 'Who do you fancy?' And that classic thing of when you are at the disco, 'Will you shift my friend?' We are in a world where that is what happiness is. That is what connection is. And if you don't go along with that, you are someone who is cold-hearted, who is lonely, who is whatever, so it was difficult."
Did she experience any bullying? "I would have been made fun of in school for - I mean, I hate using this word - but for being 'frigid' and not having kissed anyone. I hate that word so much. That's one of my things - to get people to stop using that word."
It was around this time that Susan began to understand herself as asexual - one who doesn't experience sexual attraction. She had first come across the term a couple of years previously during the campaign for the marriage referendum, while researching the LGBT community. "A lot of people talk about reading the word and the definition and having this movie-type moment where everything falls into place, whereas for me, I read the word and thought 'That's really cool', and scrolled on. Because for me, it was just a word. It wasn't something I had ever encountered in a character in a book. I had never seen an asexual character in a movie. I didn't meet another asexual person until I was 19. It wasn't something I could connect myself with because I had never seen it before."
It also wasn't something she ever discussed with her friends. "I was afraid to bring it up with people as I had no examples of people like me. The obvious assumption was, 'Is there something wrong with me; is there something to be fixed here?' There is a fear of what other people will say if you bring it up.
"And with asexuality - people have not heard of it. Any time you talk about it, you nearly have to bring out the dictionary. There is a stigma around it. There is the stigma of the frigid, the stigma of someone who needs to go to the doctor and have their hormones checked. Someone who is lonely, someone who is repressing who they are."
Moving to Dublin to begin her degree three years ago was a turning point for Susan. She began to tell people she met, friends, that she was asexual. She came out to her parents and her brother, and she describes her family as "incredibly supportive. They raised me, they watched me grow up. I never had any posters of boys on my wall growing up, I never had anyone over. It was kind of clear to them already that this was not a part of my life, so it didn't come as a massive shock."
It was at college that she first met another asexual person, and while she describes it as a wonderful, open environment, she has encountered aphobia - people, well-meaning or otherwise, suggesting that she just hasn't met the right person, or that she might need medication - common tropes thrown at people who identify as asexual. While she is not willing to be named in full or have her photo taken, Susan is keen to tell her story to provide support and representation for other asexual people - particularly those struggling in their school years.
"People hear about asexuality and they think that must be extremely sad. I don't feel any sadness. The only sadness I experience is when people misunderstand me. We live in a world where there is one formula to being happy, but there are several billion people on the planet - to expect everyone to be happy in the same way is crazy."
Sex has never been and, she is certain, will never be part of Susan's life. Not having any desire for sex is one thing, but does she feel that she is missing out on the connection that having sex with someone brings?
"I am not missing anything. People think that sex is intimacy. There are a thousand ways to be intimate with people. You can hold their hand; you can hug them; you can hold them as they cry; you can listen to their deepest secrets; you can bake a cake with them. There are so many ways to be close with people and I have experienced many of those."
And what about a family of her own?
"I haven't thought about that," she laughs. "I am too young. But it is not something I would rule out for myself. I have seen through ace [asexual] meet-up groups that there are asexual people with children; there are asexual people who are married and are incredibly happy."
Susan's experience of feeling like an outsider growing up is not something that surprises Dr Brendan Kelly, author and Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin. Asexuality is something that "pops up from time to time" in the course of his work as a psychiatrist and he believes that our hyper-sexual culture - which saturates everything from movies to music to relationship advice in magazines, and is used to sell everything from cars to children's clothes - while it imposes an unattainable and distortive paradigm on society as a whole, amounts to an "utterly relentless alienation" for asexual people.
There are periods of time when people have a strong sex drive and desire for sexual activity and there are times when people will find that [desire] dipping. All kinds of external things affect this and yet, when we hear of someone with no sexual interest, we treat this as something entirely different.
He is equally vehement in his rebuttal of the common misconceptions about asexuals: that their lack of sex drive is due to a past trauma or sexual abuse. "No. That leads to different kinds of problems with sexuality and it is really discriminatory and prejudicial to suggest that people who identify as asexual do so as a result of adverse experience. That just reflects the lack of understanding on the behalf of other people."
Or that they need to get their hormones checked and/or some other medical issue investigated. "No I wouldn't say that there is a medical component to it, it is incorrect to make an assumption that for someone who identifies as asexual, that this can be explained in medical terms. It is incorrect to assume that there are medical tests indicated. This is just who some people are and it is something we must accept as the diversity of humanity."
Indeed, Professor Kelly believes that asexuality, while it is very much a fixed state for Susan and some of the others interviewed for this feature, is something that a lot of us will drift in and out of throughout our lives.
"What's really interesting is that there is a tendency to treat asexuality as something entirely different, but in fact most relationships have something of a mismatch in the desire for sexual activity in the two partners. Most people are familiar with relationships where one person is more interested in sexual activity, at least for a period of time, compared to the other person, and this can vary over time. What we are looking at, where one person has no interest in sexual activity at all, is just an extreme version of the mismatch with which most couples are familiar.
"What happens normally is there is an adjustment and a couple with a mismatch meets somewhere in the middle. But this changes over time. And it can change radically over time. Again, most people, no matter what their level of sexual desire, are familiar with this. There are periods of time when people have a strong sex drive and desire for sexual activity and there are times when people will find that [desire] dipping. All kinds of external things affect this and yet, when we hear of someone with no sexual interest, we treat this as something entirely different. In fact, we are all familiar with this to a certain extent. The problem is this blithe equation of romance with sexual activity, which distorts relationships for everybody, not just people with particularly low interest or a lack of interest in sexual activity."
But, I suggest, the people interviewed for this piece would argue that a period of low sex drive is not the same thing as asexuality, which for them is an orientation, a way of being:
"Asexuality is for some people an orientation, a fixed state that does not waver, but for other people, they can have periods of it. The point that I am trying to make is that there isn't this big wall dividing people who identify as asexual and people who identify as sexual. There is a continuum of some sort and some people are at one extreme end of that and other people move around a little bit."
DCU student Derek Moore, (26) from Kildare, is familiar with Professor Kelly's analogy of the couples with the mismatched libidos. A homoromantic asexual - "Gay without sex, to put it bluntly; I can do the romantic side of things but the sexual side of thing just doesn't do anything for me" - he has had two serious relationships in his life.
"Neither of them worked out for various reasons. With one of them, it was because they viewed the asexuality as a phase, something that could be cured or corrected, and their view was that because I was tactile, I was just inexperienced or shy about it. Which is a common issue - this idea that you just haven't met the right person. Unfortunately the relationship did fold after about a year - for other reasons, but also because they were more focused on the sexual side of things."
Student Derek Moore describes himself as a homoromantic asexual Photo: Frank McGrath
With both partners, Derek was clear from the outset that he was asexual. "At the start they said, 'OK, yeah, fair enough' and then wanted to test the water. I don't mind kissing or hugging, but once it goes below the waistline, it's like, 'Really...?' I am apathetic. It is a rather complicated issue - someone should never take control of your sexuality and you shouldn't control anyone else's but when you are in a partnership and there is a give and take, there is a lot of ground you have to cover very quickly in terms of boundaries and consent.
"You have to balance what you are willing to do, but also that you don't inadvertently harm the other person. Because it would be heart-breaking for the other person to put all this emotion into the sex when you are completely disinterested. It is a tricky one. Both sides have to be very open and very willing to work with things."
And has he had sex? "Yes, I have actually. People often say, 'You haven't tried it, so how would you know?' But I have. So there's your answer!"
Derek describes himself as having an all but absent libido. He does masturbate when the need arises, which is very rarely, maybe once or twice a year, and according to him: "It isn't directed outwards. It is almost more like a health thing."
"Issues can arise in relation to relationships because there is an assumption that if you become involved in a romantic relationship, by default it becomes a sexual relationship.
He understands that people might find this confusing, the fact that an asexual man can get an erection. "People assume the physical reaction is connected to an emotional reaction. But for me, the emotional connection is totally unrelated to sex. For asexual people, sex and romantic love works differently."
He would like people to know that asexuality is normal, and for anyone who is exploring asexuality to know: "You are not broken. There is a big feeling of something not working, or something not right. But it's OK. It is just you. You are not damaged. A lot of people feel that because they can't project this sexuality on to themselves that there is something wrong or they need to be fixed."
Trish Toal is a psychotherapist who specialises in gender identity and sexuality and has asexual clients. Some come as individuals to explore fully what to be asexual means for them and others as part of a relationship try to negotiate issues similar to those outlined by Derek.
"Issues can arise in relation to relationships because there is an assumption that if you become involved in a romantic relationship, by default it becomes a sexual relationship. Asexuals can have very strong romantic feelings, and asexuality is on a continuum - some asexual people can have a sexual relationship with someone they are in a relationship with, but they have to have a very strong romantic collection.
"At the other end of that continuum is people who have no interest in having a sexual relationship but they are interested in having a very strong committed relationship with somebody. For couples, you help them to negotiate boundaries and talk about the expectations from each person and how they can be met and managed."
And has she seen happy relationships where one partner is asexual?
"Absolutely," she replies. "As long as you are with someone who respects you, who gets you, wants to be in that relationship with you, there is absolutely no reason why someone who is asexual cannot have a full and happy relationship. Sex isn't the be-all and end-all."
Jennifer, a 33-year-old professional from Dublin, hopes Trish Toal is right. She is currently exploring her sexuality in the context of asexuality, although she is not a fan of labels. "I like the idea of the new version of queer where you don't have any sort of label, it is just how you feel."
Jennifer has been going to sex therapy, on and off, since her 20s to try and resolve her issues with penetrative sex. "I am positive towards sex," she says, "and I enjoy parts of it, but when it comes to the penetrative sex it just doesn't interest me." It was in a therapy session that she first heard the word asexual - not in relation to Jennifer herself, but her therapist had mentioned it in the wider context of sexual orientations.
"I shrugged it off as 'I can climax, I can turn myself on' so I didn't think that it was anything related to me," she told me. "But the longer I struggled with penetrative sex and relationships, the more I wanted to explore it."
"There are things that come up about asexuality that I relate to and that is where I lean towards it. I don't know if I will ever get to the point where I label myself as asexual, because the issue, with me, is the label. The word asexual."
Would she feel that being labelled asexual would make her feel that she was missing out on something? Or closing off possibilities?
"I think in some ways, yes," she says. "Because everything is about sex so I feel there is something everyone else gets, but I don't get, and that is frustrating. Rather than missing out, it is more a frustration."
And would she like to have a family some day?
"I suppose not knowing whether or not to label myself as asexual is stopping me from starting a family. Half of that pressure to have children is society and half of it is that I want it. I have kind of made a promise to myself that I won't give up that hope."
Natalya Price, Dublin-based sex therapist with Mind and Body Works, shares Jennifer's resistance to asexuality as a label.
"If we really go by the label 'asexual' and we look at it as an identity, it limits us from actually exploring people's lived experiences," she says. "Sexuality is all about diversity, and asexuality is also very diverse. There are as many experiences as there are people. So if you lump them into a term or a concept, it really limits what can they have, what is it like for them, what can they enjoy and what are they not willing to do."
Having worked as a student counsellor before specialising in sex therapy, Price is particularly cautious about labels for those in their teens and early 20s.
"There is a real need for them to find who they are, validate their experience, and belong to a group, so they are on a major mission in search of their identity," she believes. "If they are struggling socially, to find a partner, or be sexual with anybody, a lot of the time they find asexuality is a place to hide. There is a place for people to know there is asexuality, but I don't subscribe to the idea that should be thought of as an identity for the rest of your life. It might fit your experience right now, it might fit your experience for the rest of your life, but sexuality is very rich and complicated. Staying open is really important."
Indeed, in her work as a sex therapist, Price says she has witnessed change over time: "I've seen people in their 30s and they have told me that they had no sex drive in their 20s, it has just taken them a lot longer to get to that place and start feeling certain feelings. I had a client who said to me, 'I am asexual, always have been, and now I have two people at work that I am attracted to, what is that about?' We all have our developmental path as well, somebody gets sexual when they are 12, and some when they are 27. Who is to say what's right?"
It is understandable that most of the people who spoke to me for this article opted to remain anonymous. Asexuality is all but absent in our culture. As Susan outlined previously, there is a dearth of asexual representation in literature or cinema. There is however, quite a lively online movement with many Twitter, Instagram and Facebook groups uniting asexuals, which can be traced back to 2001, when a 20-something from San Francisco named David Jay set up the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (Aven). Like Susan and Derek, David realised as a young teenager that he, unlike his peers, had no interest in the watercooler conversations about who was hot, and who fancied whom.
All the dominant narratives told him it would happen for him eventually, or that there was something wrong with him. His mission with Aven was to raise visibility and educate people out of the notion that asexuality was a medical or a psychological condition, and into the understanding of it as a part of the spectrum of human sexuality.
He had particular issue with the conflation of asexuality with pathology and the condition Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD). When he noticed that many asexuals who connected with Aven were being misdiagnosed with HSDD, he began lobbying the medical community to have asexuality removed from the definition of the disorder from the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the diagnostic bible for mental-health practitioners; for context, it was 1987 before homosexuality was removed completely from the DSM having been similarily amended in a previous edition).
It was a somewhat successful endeavour as when the fifth edition of the DSM was published in 2013, the definition of HSDD differentiated between lifelong lack of sexual desire and other forms of the disorder, such as a temporary or a specific lack of desire. While it still designates asexuality as a condition to be diagnosed and thus solved, it was considered progress: "Eventually, the goal is for asexuality to not be considered a disorder at all," Jay said at the time. "But this is still a victory. It'll provide us with the ammunition that we need to engage with mental-health professionals and to change the experience that [asexuals] have in a clinical setting."
The asexual movement was gaining some traction in local US media. Jay appeared on local talk shows and in newspaper and magazine articles, and in 2012 he took part in a documentary that appeared on Netflix titled (A)sexual.
"Asexuality is simply a lack of sexual attraction, there are still asexuals who have sex for whatever reason, there are asexuals who have children, and there are asexuals who don't do any of that.
Last year, on this side of the Atlantic, 24-year-old UK model Yasmin Benoit injected new energy into the online community when she started the #ThisIsWhatAsexualLooksLike movement by posting pictures of herself under the hashtag and calling on others to do the same. Benoit, who identifies as aro-ace (aromantic asexual, not interested in romantic relationships and doesn't experience sexual attraction), says that the campaign resulted in people from all over the world of all genders and ages reaching out to her:
"Despite the range of people, the experiences are often quite similar," she tells me. "An issue we are all dealing with is invisibility and the misconceptions surrounding asexuality. #ThisIsWhatAsexualLooksLike was a direct response to people telling me that I don't 'look' asexual. While many don't know much about asexuality, there are still stereotypes attached to it. I wanted to show that there is no one asexual look or demographic, and give the agency back to asexual people so that we can represent ourselves."
David Jay's Aven has continued to grow since 2001 and works closely with Irish asexual groups here. According to one activist who also does not wish to be named, while conventional wisdom asserts that just 1pc of the population are thought to be asexual, studies Aven has conducted with various universities indicate that the proportion might be as high as 3pc to 4pc. This amounts to 250-300 million people globally and possibly 300,000 people in Ireland alone.
David Jay, from San Francisco, set up the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network
"This includes people who aren't even aware themselves that they are asexual," the Irish activist continues, "Because although the terminology surrounding asexuality has become a bit more common in the past few years - every day, there are people of all ages, some in their 80s or 90s, coming across the term and realising that it applies to them."
There are regular meet-ups in Dublin, Galway and Belfast for anyone who identifies as aromantic or asexual, and while they are mainly attended by younger people - from teens to late 30s, there have been attendees in their 40s and 50s, with a mix of singles and those in relationships.
"There's a common misconception that asexuality is the same as celibacy, which it isn't," according to one of the meet-up organisers. "Asexuality is simply a lack of sexual attraction, there are still asexuals who have sex for whatever reason, there are asexuals who have children, and there are asexuals who don't do any of that. It's not just a one-size-fits-all situation, we're a nuanced bunch of individuals, just like everybody else."
Pauline (29) realised that she was asexual last year, when her lack of interest in sex led to the failure of another relationship. She began researching to see if there were others like her and came across the Dublin meet-ups. "The first meeting I went to was in a coffee shop and I arrived and saw at least 20 people and I thought, 'This is not my group, it's just not possible'. But it was. One man was in his 50s, there were a lot of 18-20s and a lot of people in their 30s - a whole range of people, and it was really nice. The guy who was 50 said he only discovered it recently. He had been married and had not thought about doing anything else. He had never considered that there were other ways of living in society, that marriage was not the only way to live."
Originally from France, Pauline finds Ireland an easier place to be herself. "Society is pushing people to marry and have sex and people don't realise there could be something else. In Ireland it is OK, but in France if you are not married with children before you are 35, people will look at you weirdly and ask you what is wrong with you. That is why I like Ireland. They don't look at you and judge how you are living. They just accept you the way you are. It is a great country."
For more information, see asexuality.org. Anyone looking to get in touch with or join an asexuality group in Ireland should send a message to facebook.com/IrishAces