By Imogen Robinson
In itself, it can be forgivable for someone to be curious about that which they are not. This is partly because it can simply be hard to imagine being any different, or what experiences, thoughts, and feelings other than your own might be like. Problems arise when this curiosity doesn’t consider the (often privileged) position it stems from, or the impact it might have on others.
It isn’t necessarily cool to ask people of different orientations questions about themselves. After all, if you are cis and straight, two things that have always been entirely tolerated and accepted, it’s unlikely people will march up to you asking ‘How do you have sex?’, and rightly so. What anyone does, thinks, or feels about their gender, or sexuality, is no one else’s business.
However, curiosity often kills the cat, and people who aren’t cis and/or straight often find they get bombarded with intrusive, rude, or even outright silly questions. Some will develop go-to answers to help them deal with the situation, others might employ humour or sarcasm to diffuse the situation, and others might turn the question back to the other person to make them realise how inappropriate it is.
An unfortunate flipside of a society that has become more willing to discuss sex openly is that those who don’t have any sexual inclinations find themselves increasingly stigmatised. The upshot is that one group of people who often get approached with silly questions are those who identify as asexual. But what are the questions they most often get asked, and how do they respond?
What does asexuality mean?
Devon, a 20-year-old student who first began identifying as asexual when she was 17, says this is the question she gets asked the most, and for her is the most simple to answer as her brain “switches to autopilot” whenever she is asked.
“I just recite ‘asexuality describes someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction’,” she says. “The tone of the individual asking really influences the tone which I use to answer,” she continues, adding that for the most part she is happy to raise awareness of her sexuality as she understands that sex education rarely covers it.
“However,” she says, “you do get people who don’t want you to answer. Instead, they ask the question in a hostile way, ready to use any answer you give as a jump start for their personal rant about PC culture and dumb labels.”
How can you be sure you’re asexual?
Katy*, a 19-year-old student, says she often gets people telling her she’ll see she’s not asexual when she’s met the right person, especially as she is still relatively young. “I just say something random because I feel like it’s exhausting to explain again and again something that the person asking doesn’t even care about,” she says.
“But I do wonder, are these same people asking 3-year-olds if they have a girlfriend or boyfriend?” she adds, because of course, when you put it like that, the bizarre nature of the question becomes clear. She believes more media attention on asexuality could help raise awareness of the fact that some people just don’t feel sexual attraction.
How can you live without sex?
“I’m always tempted to just reply ‘get over yourself’,” says Devon, “but I’m aware that such a response can backfire on me.” In Devon’s opinion there is a strange idea going round that asexual people can’t or won’t have sex and it’s far from true. “Yes, there are some ace [asexual] people who are sexually repulsed,” she says, “but there’s also others who are completely up for it.”
“When someone tells me that I should try sex, I ask them how I’m supposed to choose who to have sex with when I’m not attracted to people of any gender.”
Thirty-year-old Lucia*, who has identified as asexual since she was 18, also gets asked this question, or variations thereof. “When someone tells me that I should try sex, I ask them how I’m supposed to choose who to have sex with when I’m not attracted to people of any gender,” she says. In any case, she adds, lots of asexual people have “tried” sex.
Interestingly, Lucia says she has had this question from a lot of straight men, and sometimes she finds it helpful to rephrase the question and ask them whether they would have sex with another man, and if not, why not? “Usually they respond with something as simple as ‘the thought just doesn’t appeal to me’,” says Lucia. And there you go — the thought of sex just doesn’t appeal to an asexual person.
Emma, 35, who has been with her partner Ben for 12 years, takes an even more simple approach to this question. “How do you know you don’t like sky-diving if you haven’t tried it?” she responds. “I trust my instincts, and my instincts say ‘ew, no thanks,’ so why would I want to try it? It’s not like I need sex in my life to be happy.”
Do asexual people experience arousal and do they masturbate?
“I always find it funny when people think it’s okay to ask a stranger these questions, so most of the time my answer is that it’s personal and none of their business,” says Lucia. “However, the answer is that some asexual people experience arousal and, as with the general population, some masturbate and some don’t.”
As asexuality is just about whether or not you experience sexual attraction, it doesn’t make a difference whether you get aroused or masturbate. Many asexual people talk about having a libido or sex drive that isn’t directed towards anyone else, and some who masturbate describe it as taking care of a bodily function. “Personally, I just find it relaxing,” says Lucia.
How can you be bisexual and asexual?
“It’s easy,” says Devon. “They describe different things.” Bisexuality describes an attraction to two genders, she explains, while asexuality describes someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction. “Therefore, combining the two, I experience romantic attraction to two genders, men and women,” she adds.
Devon is often asked this question in a sceptical tone, or says that the person asking acts as if they’ve caught her out in a lie. “Most people respond to my answer with ‘that doesn’t make sense’ or ‘that’s rubbish’, so more often than not I don’t answer it,” she says. “When asked I just say ‘It doesn’t matter’.”
What makes a relationship different from a friendship if you’re asexual?
As Devon explains, ‘romantic attraction’ and ‘sexual attraction’ are two different things. The reason asexual people differentiate between the two is because a lot of asexual people do desire relationships which they see as distinct from friendships.
Even if you don’t believe that a sexless relationship fits your own definition of a relationship, it doesn’t mean it’s not a relationship.
“Those relationships may involve deep feelings of love and affection, non-sexual physical intimacy, making a commitment to each other, maybe even raising children together — things that many couples (regardless of sexual orientation) want and have,” says Lucia, adding that many asexual people she knows are in long-term relationships and some are engaged. “My personal view is that people are free to define their own relationships,” she adds.
Even if you don’t believe that a sexless relationship fits your own definition of a relationship, it doesn’t mean it’s not a relationship. “I just find this question so utterly bizarre,” says Emma. “Are there really people for whom love consists of nothing but sexual attraction? Ben and I love to look at each other, we love to kiss and cuddle and have skin contact with one another, we share a bed, we share trust and laughter and emotional support. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.”
Can asexual people have relationships with people who aren’t asexual?
“As with any relationship, it depends on the people involved,” says Lucia. “There are many relationships which break down due to problems with sexual compatibility, even if none of the people involved are asexual.”
However, she adds that asexuality can present some additional challenges, and that some asexual people do prefer to only date other asexual people. However, others will happily date people who aren’t asexual and how that works depends. “As with all relationships, it’s likely to involve a degree of compromise on both sides,” says Lucia.
Do you think I could be asexual?
“Believe it or not, this is one of the most common questions I get, simply because I’m often people’s first exposure to the concept,” says Emma. Her answer is simply that if asexual is a label that feels right to you, there’s no reason you can’t be. “If, down the track, you decide this isn’t quite the right description of your experience, then there’s no reason you can’t change your mind,” she says.
For people confused about any aspect of their sexuality, or who believe they may be asexual, there are plenty of resources that can help. What is Asexuality, is a simple site with useful guides to figuring out if you’re asexual, as well as information for friends and parents. Another great resource is the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, an online community for asexual people.
*Names have been changed
Featured image shows a black and white image of a woman looking at the camera against a coloured, patterned background.