By Kevin Murphy, Reg. Pract. APPI.
The world around us is a very sexual place. We are sold all sorts of consumer products based on sex, we choose our partners, make conscious choices, and even choices we’re not aware of, on the basis of it. That’s why it is probably hard to imagine a life with little or no sex. Or, to put it another way, to imagine not finding another person sexually attractive.
Yet that is the experience that asexuals have. They are not sexually attracted to other people. Asexuality is a small but growing part of the population and it now has its own online communities. You could say that asexuality, like homosexuality before it, is coming out of the closet.
According to one US online community, the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, asexuality is an intrinsic part of who the person is. “Asexuality does not make our lives any worse or any better, we just face a different set of challenges than most sexual people. There is considerable diversity among the asexual community; each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently,” according to its website.
It also states that asexual people have the same emotional needs as anyone else and, like in the sexual community, vary widely in how they fulfil those needs. Some asexual people are happier on their own, some are happiest with a group of close friends, while others have a desire to form more intimate romantic relationships, and will date and seek long-term partnerships. Asexual people are just as likely to date sexual people as they are to date each other.
For those who believe the world is a sexual place and that all human consensual relationships are based on something sexual, this might sound startling and new. The asexual viewpoint is that, sexual or nonsexual, all relationships are made up of the same basic stuff. ‘Communication, closeness, fun, humour, excitement and trust all happen just as much in sexual relationships as in nonsexual ones,’ AVEN says.
And that is true. For the asexual there is no difference between their emotional needs and anybody else’s. But because the sexual attraction is missing from any relationship they might have, there is a difference no matter what way you look at it. And it is that difference that needs to be understood.
The asexual position – one you will find very well understood by such groups as London organisation Pink Therapy which promotes a healthy attitude to gender and sexual diversity – is that the asexual person is better positioned than anyone to understand how natural it feels to them to have no sexual attraction to another person. In fact, for Pink Therapy, asexuality is itself a branch of human sexuality and if we accept the principle of sexual diversity then that is an argument we would have to go along with. However, the asexual position, equally, is one that is often misunderstood, or not understood at all, by a cultural context in which sexual engagement is arguably the dominant discourse, to the point of saturation. For that reason, the asexual experience more often than not is one of alienation, rejection and discrimination. It is not far removed from the gay or lesbian experience of ten or maybe twenty years ago in this country. And some would argue that the legacy of those prejudices still hang over certain attitudes today.
Be that as it may, the main area of conflict in which asexuality finds itself is in relationships with non-asexuals. A great deal of the asexuals in this country have, for one reason or another, not realised their asexuality and have entered into long term relationships – having children, having sex, doing all the usual things - in which they have had to hide this truth about themselves. But one’s true nature can’t stay hidden forever and so the asexual element has gradually made itself known and this has led to the non-asexual partner feeling confused, hurt and rejected. Admitting to oneself that you don’t experience sexual attraction to others is not an easy thing to do. Nor, once that has happened, is asking one’s partner to accept your asexuality as a part of what they understood to be a physical relationship. Not every relationship survives that experience. Equally, pretending that one’s asexuality is actually a lack of interest in sex, or a lack of attraction for one’s partner, or a result of a too busy schedule, or a headache, or some other diversion tactic, is a recipe for long term deception and conflict.
There are no easy answers for these issues, partly because this is new territory for most people. Academic researchers have only just begun to look at asexuality and among the many questions being asked is why at this point in western culture’s development have we seen a more vocal community of asexuals emerging. It is also asking how we can better understand the position in order to ensure asexuals can live as they wish to live.
• Based on an academic paper entitled ‘The Imaginary and Asexuality – A Consideration of Absence’ presented at the 11th annual conference of Affiliated Psychoanalytic Workgroups, October 11 – 13, 2013, Boston, USA.