Let’s get something straight (or, rather, queer): The “A” in LGBTQIA stands for asexual. Not ally.
Asexuality is an identity in which a person experiences little to no sexual attraction.
“Unlike celibacy, which people choose [not to engage in sex], asexuality is an intrinsic part of who we are,” according to AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. “Asexuality does not make our lives any worse or any better, we just face a different set of challenges than most sexual people.”
Lauren Jankowski, 32, spent the majority of her life ashamed and closeted about her asexuality and aromanticism. An author and feminist, Jankowski had a former mentor tell her that she cannot be a writer because of her asexuality. “He told me I would be unable to connect to others through my writing,” Jankowski said. “He also told me I would be upholding the patriarchy if I insisted on being asexual, because it was a made-up way to repress and control women.”
Asexual people often experience non-asexual people telling them how they should identify, or denial and disbelief of their experience.
“Before I discovered what asexuality was, I started having panic attacks because I felt alone. I felt like I wasn’t experiencing the same things as everyone,” Jankowski said.
In 2015, Jankowski started the website Asexual Artists to promote visibility and community connection for asexuals and asexual artists. Her audience includes 1,000 followers on Tumblr. The website now has almost 700 interviews with and features by or about artists of varying mediums and identities across the asexual spectrum.
For one such artist, James Hastings, 21, asexuality has never been a source of negativity or strife. Hastings is a Canadian cinematographer and sound designer whose asexual and gray-romantic identity is never in question. “It’s seen as normal for a guy to be focused on his career,” he said. “People just assume I am more focused on my work than on being in relationships.”
Malgorzata Pronko, an aromantic, gray-sexual Polish cinematographer, feels the same. “I’m not interested in any relationships besides mentoring support,” Pronko said. “I just don’t feel the need to have that in my life right now. Dating someone might disturb my work. Or my nightly reading,” Pronko said, laughing. “Maybe I’m just selfish.”
However, Hastings acknowledged that his experience is affected by his other identities. “I know I had a pretty good deal with [my asexuality], because I am a cisgender white male. Nobody ever questions me, or they make a lot of assumptions.”
In contrast, for Pronko, her feminine gender expression is an outlier in the male-dominated film industry.
“I’m usually met with more disbelief that I am a woman in cinematography, a girl in a flower dress, than that I am asexual,” Pronko said.
When her asexuality has come up, Pronko has had positive reactions. Years ago, she dated a cisgender heterosexual man who “was very open-minded.”
The most negative reaction came from someone in the queer community. Pronko was working on a documentary by a gay Canadian cisgender man about drag queens in Denmark when her sexuality came up in conversation.
“As soon as I mentioned asexuality, I was ridiculed and accosted for something they didn’t understand,” Pronko said. One drag queen told Pronko: “I would ‘sacrifice’ myself and [have sex with] you so you could see that you’re wrong.”
Pronko said she was stunned by the irony.
“One moment, he is crying about not feeling safe walking the streets in Copenhagen, about the lack of acceptance in the gay community, and a moment later he is doing the same to me – someone who is helping tell his story,” she said.
One barrier to understanding asexuality is the conflation of sexual activity, sexual arousal and sexual attraction. For some asexual people, there is no desire for (and/or active repulsion to) sex. However, many asexual people do have sex. Some aces might feel indifferently toward the act but choose to engage in sex to please their sexual and romantic partners. Some asexual people have high sex drives; thus they engage in sex and/or masturbation. Some asexual people may even enjoy having sex.
But this is not the same as sexual attraction. Think of it this way: People who masturbate may watch pornography to arouse themselves. They are sexually attracted to that porn. Similarly, a closeted cisgender gay man may be married to a cisgender heterosexual woman. He may have sex with his wife every night, but it does not mean he is sexually attracted to her. Sexual activity does not equate to sexual attraction.
Just as queer and transgender people of color face violence and marginalization at higher rates than those who are white, asexual people of color experience unique challenges.
Jai Morgan, 22, is a genderqueer, mixed-race black, Native American and Caucasian multimedia artist. They are aromantic and asexual.
In high school, Morgan felt pressure from friends who would try to convince them that asexuality was just a phase, or cisgender men who would do and say anything to convince them otherwise. Additionally, Morgan feels that their racial identity comes with a lot of expectations.
“Especially for a black mixed-race person, I feel like we are often sexualized or fetishized,” Morgan said. “Along with the traditional expectations of becoming the wife for your man kind of thing. I hate that.”
Morgan’s race and gender are correlated with how their asexuality is harder to accept in a world of racist, misogynistic attitudes that often conflict with the reality of asexuality.
Morgan asserts that acceptance is hard, even from those with shared identities.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of understanding of the LGBTQA spectrum within the black community,” Morgan said. “Even in oppressed groups, I think there can be a large amount of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. If you are a marginalized person, that doesn’t mean that we fully understand other marginalized people.
“At this point, if someone doesn’t accept or understand my identity, I’m not going to force them to understand me,” Morgan said.
Adam Pawlus, executive director of NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, does not know much about asexuality, but he says he is willing to learn and understand.
“I don’t know any asexual people or asexual journalists,” he said. “As a cisgender, gay, white man, I know I have a lot to learn.”
Pawlus is unsure about the prospect of adding an “IA” for “intersex” and “asexual” to the acronym in the name of the organization. “It took a long time to even get the ‘Q’ added. There was a lot of pushback from older folks who still view queer as a negative thing,” Pawlus said.
“However, we remain committed to fostering an inclusive environment. We want to include these voices in discussion, even if, historically, they haven’t been included.”
Pawlus is unaware of any asexual journalists in NLGJA. “However, that does not mean they don’t exist,” he said.
Angela Chen is an asexual journalist. As a biromantic gray-asexual and cisgender Chinese-American woman, Chen’s experience in coming to terms with her asexuality has been quite different.
“Being an Asian woman has affected my perception of asexuality, because there are a lot of stereotypes that have to do with being submissive and fragile,” Chen explained. “From an early age, I didn’t see submissive as good.”
Chen felt doubly bound by the stereotypes of docile Asian women and the pressure to prove her feminist liberation through sex.
“In a feminist culture that deals with slut-shaming, there’s a lot of glorifying of sex. There’s this idea that people who have a lot of sex are liberated; people who don’t are more repressed.”
But despite these racial and gender marginalizations, Chen believes her privileges have allowed her to have a relatively easy time living with her asexuality.
“I present pretty femme, and my relationships so far have all been with men. I know that we pass as a straight, heteronormative couple,” said Chen. “I’m never going to walk down the street and have a target on my back when I’m holding my boyfriend’s hand.”
Another privilege, in Chen’s opinion, is having flexible and open-minded editors who have allowed her to publish complex stories about asexuality.
“When you have non-ace journalists that are not very connected to [the ace community], you keep getting the same stories. ‘Can you be in a relationship and not have sex?’ ‘Do asexual people masturbate?’ I want to get past that,” Chen said.
She acknowledged that aggressive and invasive questions from non-asexuals is not a new phenomenon. Although Chen believes that increasing information and visibility is important, there are often risks of disclosure for asexual people.
K* is a 29-year-old, gray-asexual panromantic, Chinese-American massage therapist in Philadelphia. K asked to remain anonymous to protect her safety.
“I do not feel safe being out in the workplace,” she said. “It’s already a potential issue as a massage therapist as a woman. If people found out I was asexual, weird questions and things might happen.”
Although K identifies as genderqueer, she presents mainly as a woman, because she does not feel safe presenting as a man or as androgynous.
Many asexual people are not out due to a combination of the stigmatization they face from non-asexuals, and lack of a visible community.
“I wish I knew more asexual people,” K said, who has never seen an asexual person in media whom she feels she can relate to.
“It’s already hard to find Asian Americans in media, unless they are doing kung fu or martial arts. But the few representations I have seen of asexuality are both white and men. And they are portrayed as broken, or as jokes. The few people I have met on the asexual spectrum have also been white.”
Allyzah Allene, a Filipino, non-binary, homoromantic and sex-repulsed asexual, agrees. “The media representation [of aces] does seem very, very white,” she said. “Usually aces are presented as white, androgynous, skinny.”
As an artist, Allene is working on a webcomic that will feature an ace main character. She hopes to increase the representation of asexuality in media.
Allene is an Asian-American who typically presents very feminine. She feels she has experienced marginalization due to both her gender expression and her race.
“I’ve gotten called exotic,” Allene said. “I’ve experienced yellow fever all the time, which to me is rooted in fetishization and sexualization.”
Kris Holodak, an aromantic and asexual filmmaker and professor at Marquette University, also believes there is a problem with representation of asexuality in film. She has never felt the urge to make an explicitly asexual character or film. However, she doesn’t make characters explicitly sexual, either.
“Certainly I’ve never written a sex scene. And there’s not likely to to be a sex scene in anything I’ve ever created. I don’t want to direct that,” Holodak chuckled. “But you know, most of my characters are probably asexual. It just doesn’t come up in the scene. And that doesn’t mean they aren’t real people.”
Kris Holodak returns to the content of her stories. “I don’t tell romance stories. Is that because I’m asexual? Maybe. But I think we are all so much more than that. I write stories about finding happiness in your job life. About wanting to belong.”
Belonging is perhaps the key to shared understanding and acceptance of asexuality among non-asexuals.
Despite their diverse backgrounds and identities, Jankowski, Hastings, Pronko, Chen, Allen, K, and Holodak all agree on two things: the lack of representation of asexual people in media is a problem, and misrepresentation of asexual people can be damaging – especially for asexuals of color.
An increase in fair and accurate representation of the asexual community may come in time, but not without a combination of allyship and affirmation, according to Jankowski.
“If you’re not asexual and you’re going to write an ace character, that’s great! But at least know of a few ace authors you can boost when you get attention for your ace character,” Jankowski said.
“Ultimately, we really need more of our own voices. We need to represent ourselves.”
About the Author
Kiana Schmitt, a senior at University of California, Berkeley, is pursuing a degree in rhetoric with a concentration in public discourse and a minor in LGBT studies. Learn more about them here.