This year’s homage to St Valentine presented us with the usual parade of sentimentalism and saccharine paraphernalia in high streets. Whether or not you were celebrating, it’s worth bearing in mind that a small proportion of Oxford, and the wider global community, felt a greater level of indifference than you.
For those that identify as asexual, a significant other may not lead to a quickening of the pulse and clammy hands. Fundamentally, to be asexual is to possess no sexual attraction towards other people. Rachel Thornton*, an Oxford fresher, identifies as asexual.
“Whenever people would point out someone as being physically attractive, I could never see it,” she shares. “I can appreciate people for having nicely proportioned features, but I can’t see it relating to me. I can understand why people feel attraction but I can’t feel it personally. I like people based on their characters and their personalities.”
Not only is Rachel asexual, she is also aromantic. She reflects that she feels “admiration” for her best friend, but struggles to understand romantic love. “I can do friendship,” she says. “I see it as vaguely intellectual but I can’t really progress beyond that. There are people who distinguish quite strongly between friendship and a romantic partner. I’m not sure where the two divide if you feel no sexual attraction towards them.”
However, not all asexual people reject romance. Mark Lynch*, a current Oxford finalist, describes himself as a “bi-romantic” asexual. He is romantically attracted to people of either gender – and in his case also romantically attracted to those of indeterminate genders. Yet, despite having experienced a serious relationship in the past, Lynch reflects that he “had never really experienced sexual attraction to anyone, even the person [he] was with”.
He chose to have sex with his girlfriend for other reasons. “Well, on the one hand it seemed that that was just something that people did and as such I did it,” comments Lynch. “[I thought] ‘well this isn’t actually enjoyable, I don’t get why people make this fuss about it, I wonder if everyone feels this way and just doesn’t say it’ – and it took me a surprisingly long time to realise that wasn’t the case.”
Unlike celibacy, being asexual does not hinge upon choosing to abstain from sex. Rather, it is an inherent orientation that is unrelated to the physical act of practising intercourse. While this is held as a tenet amongst self-identified asexuals, the rapid expansion of asexual discourse means that the identity is under increasing scrutiny. There is much frustration amongst asexual people when inaccurately accused of having a low libido or having experienced psychological trauma in childhood.
As it stands, a person with no sex drive can be psychiatrically diagnosed with hypoactive sexual desire disorder or sexual aversion disorder. Yet, the fact is that asexuals can possess a libido. Instead of being ‘triggered’ by another person, it can be triggered by body chemistry alone. This finding has allowed Dr Anthony F. Bogaert, a Canadian sexuality researcher, to conclude that asexuality is not necessarily pathological.
Before coming to terms with his asexuality, Mark saw himself as dysfunctional, admitting: “I thought at the time that maybe there was something wrong with me, that I was weird or a freak.” Yet, for Rachel and him, discovering asexuality as an identity and tapping into asexual communities made them feel that they were not anomalies.
The world’s largest asexual community is hosted by the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), a web forum and information portal. It was founded in 2001 by David Jay with the specific aims of “creating public acceptance and discussion of asexuality and facilitating the growth of an asexual community”.
Since then, Jay has been trying to gear asexuality towards becoming a movement and has vociferously argued in favour of its integration with the LGBTQ community.
While debate rages on, it is interesting to consider what light asexuality sheds on mainstream, non-asexual (or ‘sexual’) culture. Indeed, the loaded term ‘sexual’ seems to define the majority in a very Freudian way; it is liable to disarm any but the most promiscuous.
The new polarity between ‘asexual’ and ‘sexual’ will surely force a revaluation of our personal relationships to sex. Can sexuals be certain that the reasons they have sex are based solely, if at all, on sexual desire? And what is the nature of desire itself? Queer theory has forced society to challenge hetero-normativity since its conception. By accepting asexuality as an orientation, we may need to retrace our steps through the sexual revolution in order to reconsider modern culture as sexual-normative.
While AVEN was founded over a decade ago, it has only been in recent years that mainstream media has latched onto the evolving asexual identity. Jenni Goodchild may claim the title as the most prolific asexual Oxonian.
Her inclusion in the BBC3 Documentary How Sex Works early last year rode a growing wave of media interest in the topic and has even generated an online, albeit unsuccessful, meme.
Greater awareness may aid us in clarifying the queries that asexuality throws up. What is certain is that the identity can bring individuals back from the brink of social alienation.
Rachel confides: “Just knowing about the community makes a lot of difference. Before I felt like I was being excluded from my friends because I was missing out on some crucial aspect of life. However, just knowing that it’s not just me being immature or strange: that there are other people who feel exactly the same way, makes it an awful lot easier to accept myself and be accepted.”
Mark concludes: “In an ideal world you don’t need any of these labels for people’s sexual, romantic or gender orientations. But we live in something very short of an ideal world and as a result they are very useful. They can really reassure people.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities.