Origins and Birth
Elizabeth Rose (LGBTQIA+)
Edited by Co-Editors in Chief
Born this way? Considering asexual erasure and essentialism
The ‘A’ in the old alphabet soup is often neglected. There is negligible asexual representation in mainstream TV and cinema, precisely none in marketing, limited and largely negative references in medicine and, even in the best and busiest of queer book shops, the space devoted to ace and aro literature is, well, tiny. Since a lack of representation and understanding is cyclical, the first step to remedying these dismal statistics is better informing people about the existence and nature of asexuality, increasing accurate representation in the media, and to emphasise that, some people really are, in the words of Mother Monster, “Born this way”. Though essentialising (sexual) identity as something inherent and unalterable that you are born with is somewhat contrary to queer theory insofar as essentialism rests upon the ideas of fixed and static identity as opposed to the flexibility, fluidity and avoidance of binaries that queer theory advocates; when levied strategically, essentialism can be a powerful tool to unite and achieve queer goals (see, rights!) and defend against harmful and dangerous practices such as conversion therapy. In this article then I want to highlight some key facts and misconceptions about the ace community, reflect on how essentialism interacts with (a)sexual identity, highlight the need for greater varied representation and challenge the pervasive concept of compulsory sexuality.
Around 1% of the world’s population identify as asexual (Bogaert, 2004). What this means, generally, (since, as with any part of the queer community, identity and attraction are far from monolithic even among those who identify under a common term) is that a person experiences little to no sexual attraction. There are, however, as many ways to be asexual as there are asexuals, and even within the community there are dozens of more specialised terms: graysexual, demisexual, and sex ambivalent, sex-favorable, sex-indifferent, and sex-repulsed aces to name a few. Asexuality does not mean (necessarily), that someone cannot become sexually aroused, it does not mean someone cannot enjoy sex, it does not mean that someone is celibate – this is something entirely different – it certainly does not mean that someone does not want meaningful romantic connection (though under the “A” umbrella of LGBTQIA+ such Aromantics aros, exist and thrive). Asexual simply means a person does not experience sexual attraction in the same way or to the same extent, if at all, as allosexuals (allosexuals being those who, comparatively, do experience sexual attraction). The very existence of ace/allo terminology to articulate this full range of the sexual spectrum is incredibly important, since language is the foundation of our thoughts and the framework of our communication. Without this lexicon – which has largely developed over the last twenty years since the foundation of AVEN (the Asexual Visibility and Education Network) in 2001 by David Jay – we wouldn’t have the tools to challenge the pervasive concept of compulsory sexuality. This being the idea that desire for sex is universal and the only “natural” default, and that failure to experience or desire sex is subsequently unnatural or a problem in need of fixing. Being able to find a term with which you associate and identify can not only be incredibly affirming and validating for marginalised and overlooked members of the queer community, but further, only after having linguistic tools and terms to refer to something can you create a meaningful dialogue around it and advocate for it.
This is particularly important because, since it is predominantly definable by what it is not, asexuality can be an elusive concept to those who don’t identify as such. This is why, even today, there are prevalent and perilous misconceptions about those who identify as ace which render asexuals 10 percent more vulnerable than other LGBTQIA+ members to being offered or undergoing conversion therapy - the “harmful and degrading practice” of trying to “cure” someone of their deviation from comphet (@lgbt, 2021). This statistic is telling of widely held societal assumptions of compulsory sexuality, for example that, asexuals are in some way lacking or broken and in need of fixing so that they conform to societal norms. The phrase compulsory sexuality, is similar to Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory heterosexuality” (often now shortened to comphet) - the idea that heterosexuality is not an innate position but a political institution created and upheld to facilitate and enforce patriarchy, by rewarding conformity and punishing deviation, and as such must be challenged. However, whereas interrogating comphet challenges the socialised direction of desire, interrogating compulsory sexuality challenges the assumption of universal desire itself - this the first step to increasing ace understanding and acceptance.
To put the urgency of this necessity into perspective, a 2018 study found that members of “LGBTQIA+ youth who had undergone conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to report having attempted suicide multiple times” (@lgbt, 2021). Further, around one in three aces identify as trans or nonbinary (@asexualawarenessweek, 2019) making them even more vulnerable to marginalisation and medical misconduct. Further many people are not familiar with the concept of asexuality, resulting in the fact that many who “might otherwise identify as asexual are especially vulnerable to sexual pressure” (Chen, 2020). The concept of compulsory sexuality lies at the root of all these issues, since it insists on one single universal way to experience (hetero or homo) sexuality, creating an imagined model of normal or healthy behaviour and maintaining this through shame, patriarchal patterns of gender performance, medical judgments, and in extreme cases, conversion therapy.
The assumption of compulsory sexuality isn’t a problem confined to heterosexual discourse either. LGB communities are also liable to hypersexualisation almost as a means of overcompensating in insistence of validity in the face of so much past and present adversity. Sexual liberation, when perceived as a binary opposition to repression, can be wrongly used to insinuate that not to partake in “liberated” sex is a decision owing to failure to break free of repressive and shameful thought prisons that patriarchy encourages in women and queer people - invalidating ace experience entirely. Consequently, gay and homoromantic members of the ace/aro community are liable to feel doubly ostracised. As such, the politicisation of sex as an indicator of feminist and queer empowerment, does not resolve issues of sexual shame and stigma, it only shifts the focus of this shame onto those who for whatever reason don’t desire sex. “The goal of ace liberation is simply the goal of true sexual and romantic freedom for everyone” (Chen, 2020), as such, true sexual liberation means queering our ideas to encompass, enable and respect all choices, and normalising these free of judgement or boundaries of conformity.
It is plain to see that misconceptions and misunderstanding around the ace community are only exacerbated by the near total absence of asexual characters in popular media. The visibility brought by accurate and varied representation in media, like TV, would be invaluable to the ace community. Not only would accurate representation provide asexuals long overdue validation and appreciation, but it could provide familiar characters for them to reference when coming out, and provide allosexuals with a better understanding of the right language to use when discussing asexuality.
However, to this day, there is virtually no ace representation on screen. I can only think of Todd Chavez from Bojack Horseman, Varys from Game of Thrones, Spongebob (an icon, but why is a literal sponge the best we can do?) and maybe (HOPEFULLY) Tolya, from the Grishaverse books. There are also maybe thirty seconds devoted to an ace character in the excellent Netflix series Sex Education - but this is hardly a lot. Asexuals need some representation asap. How many coming of age or teen films can you think of where ‘getting the girl’ (or boy), or having sex, isn’t the end goal? The implication in all of these movies is that sex is cool, sex is what will make you cool, and sex is what will make you a man or woman, rather than a highschooler.
If all stories posit romantic/sexual fulfilment as the ultimate goal and unpartnered or unsexual people as losers or unhappy owing to their lack of partner, what message does this send? Such narratives, perpetuate the idea that lack of participation in sex is somehow shameful or lame, and invalidate ace experience. Just as mainstream culture is (finally) beginning to feature more representative and complex LGBTI characters, we need some varied A(sexual) representation too. This means moving (far) away from narratives of lonely third-wheelers, bitter and unwanted spinsters and “either closeted or emotionally stunted” bachelors (Chen, 2020). We need to see ace characters as varied as ace individuals are, presenting the full spectrum of ace identity and demonstrating the wealth of human experience, relationships and connection that exist beyond the realm of sex. This is especially true because, by creating characters that people can relate and identify with, representation has the power not just to reflect, but to affect reality.
Asexuality also offers a particulalry interesting lens through which to consider the queer essentialism paradox. By nature, queerness and queer theory is all about challenging immovable and definite definitions, contrastingly essentialism rests on the pillar of an unchanging essence which defines the self. Claiming that aces (or any LGB+ people) are ‘Born this way’ is to assent that your sexuality is an innate part of your identity, it is your essence - it becomes “not merely what you do, it is part of who you are” (Chen, 2020). This idea has been encouraged by science-based research which, from the mid-20th century, has sought out a “gay gene” to prove that there is a biological reason that people are born a certain way. Asexuality, since it is also not considered the “ideal” is subjected to intensified scrutiny as to whether its origin is nature or nurture, whereas, sexuality, as too with heterosexuality, has been the assumed default, no questions asked. Several queer theorists, Foucault and Butler among them, have critiqued such biologically essentialist studies into queerness, on the basis that seeking to find biologically determinist factors only serves to create new binaries, instead of working towards an understanding of identity without them. Angela Chen has even argued that the ace movement in part developed in “opposition to this idea that sexuality must be a cornerstone of both identity and existence. Though asexuality has become a sexual identity itself, it can also be understood as a way of living that simply refuses to care about personal sexuality” (Chen, 2020).
Undoubtedly though, essentialism has certain strengths. One being, as implied by Lady Gaga
in the lyrics:
Don’t hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself, and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way.
that by subscribing to an essentialist understanding of your sexuality you can reach a level of self-acceptance founded in the innate validity of yourself, impervious to the challenges and intolerance of a conformity-obsessed society. Such a position is particularly useful for fostering solidarity and building community when your perceived sexual identity deviates from an idealised norm - heterosexuality, specifically. The unifying potential of an essentialist outlook was noted and termed ‘strategic essentialism’ by the postcolonial and feminist theorist, Spivak. Applied to queer theory, strategic essentialism comprises the idea that it is sometimes advantageous for marginalised groups to temporarily “essentialise” themselves: stressing their group identity in order to achieve their goals, or prevent forced conformity through assimilation at best and conversion therapy at worst. For example, strategic essentializing by LGB groups has allowed them to unite, agitate and claim spaces and rights that they were previously denied. Especially because they exist further from the narrow binaries of heteronormative conformity, the TIA+ queer population need the same.
To conclude, (though really this is just an introduction!) whether or not you subscribe to essentialism, aces exist, and deserve better - both in terms of representation, visibility and defence against constant invalidation. I hope that the topics considered here prompt you to query (and queer) your perspectives on identity, the omnipresence of sex in Western society, and, indeed, asexuality. I personally believe that (sexual) identity is more fluid and unpredicatble than a theory of biological essentialism allows, however I also don’t think that the “essence” of essentialism is the enemy, rather that its application is. That is to say, that the heteronormative, amatonormative assumptions built on a foundation of compulsory sexuality that are popularly conceived of as the only “normal” way to be born, reinforced by a media monopoly, are the problem, not the idea that a person is born with a propensity to experiencing (a)sexuality in any given way. What do you think? Were you born this way?
@asexualawarenessweek on Instagram
@lgbt on Instagram
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