By: Louise van Oel
Photo Credits: @rocknwool on Unsplash
As a young teenager, I found out about a mysterious force that pervades the world of human relations. It’s a bit like gravity: an inescapable pull that guides things together, with the ultimate goal of bringing about physical contact between bodies. (And that humans feel it is meant to be a simple law of nature, not optional, applicable to all.) This pull—also known as sexual attraction—is meant to be one of the quintessential human experiences.
However, coinciding with the years that saw the rise of science fiction in the literary world, people were beginning to prove that this particular ‘law of nature’ had always been breakable. As late 19th century authors were beginning to imagine stories in which humans used spacecraft to defy gravity, always considered inescapable, social scientists were starting to notice a group of people who didn’t feel sexual attraction in the way that was assumed to be universal. People who defied the established categories of heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual.
German sexologist and reformist Emma Trosse provided the first definition of what would become known as asexuality in her 1897 work Ein Weib? Psychologisch-biographische Studie über eine Konträrsexuelle (A woman? Psychological-biographical study of a contrary-sexual), terming it “Sinnlichkeitslosigkeit” (“asensuality”). She also wrote, “The author has the courage to admit to this category."
Books have always been great vessels for overthrowing established truths.
1907 saw the first recorded use of the term ‘asexual’ when Reverend Carl Schlegel advocated for equal rights for “homosexuals, heterosexuals, bisexuals, [and] asexuals.”[i] Before Trosse and Schlegel, asexual people (“aces”, for short) were certainly already around, and just lived their particular experience without having a term with which to describe it. I always say that if I had been born in the medieval era, I would have simply run off to become a nun.
All this to say, asexuality is not a modern phenomenon, so no one should be able to claim that it is an identity invented by special snowflakes on the internet—though, unfortunately, that doesn’t stop them.
It’s just a fact of life that in the same way opposite-sex and same-sex attraction exist, so does no-sex attraction. Asexuality doesn’t mean lack of libido, it doesn’t mean a blanket unwillingness to have sex, and it certainly doesn’t mean being incapable of love—romantic or otherwise. If you are an allosexual (non-ace) person, just picture someone you’re not attracted to (this works even better if they’re considered conventionally attractive). Now try to imagine that’s how you feel about everyone, all of the time, and you may get an approximate idea of what the asexual world looks like.
It’s difficult for me to explain it better—as Angela Chen says so well in her book ACE, “To explain asexuality and what it means to not experience sexual attraction, aces must define and describe the exact phenomena we don’t experience.” (19) It would be like if everyone had an extra sense of smell that gave sunshine its own scent, but you’d never even considered that sunshine could smell like anything until someone assured you that it did, and that you must just not be sniffing hard enough. Then they try to make you describe exactly what it doesn’t smell like before they will consider believing you.
Shari, an LA filmmaker in her forties quoted by Chen in her book, puts it like this: “I feel like other people put out a certain energy when they want to attract someone, and I still have no idea what this energy is.” (30)
Finding out about asexuality when I was fourteen, that this “energy” skipped over others like it did me, probably saved me a boatload of internal struggles during my high school years. As someone who was already an introverted bookworm, I could easily have taken my lack of sexual interest, celebrity crushes, or much of a desire to ‘put myself out there’ and interpreted them as signs that I was just inherently a boring person. Someone who didn’t know how to have fun like everyone else, and should be forced to learn.
However, because I had embraced being asexual so early, my lack of sexual attraction didn’t affect my self-confidence as it could have. Anyone who knew me in high school—and those who know me now—can attest to the fact that external confidence is one thing I’ve never lacked. I don’t remember exactly when I first encountered the term asexual, but I can still clearly recall the joy I felt when I did, the shock of recognition, the eureka of finding a clear explanation for what it was that made me feel different.
This is why diverse representation is so important—in books, movies, and real life. Giving people the opportunity to recognize themselves in others is not about facilitating the process of finding out what flag they’re supposed to wear at pride parades—it gives them the chance to learn that they’re not alone in their lived experience, that there are others who understand how they feel. That they’re not making it up.
I found out about asexuality through the internet, but an even better way for as-yet-oblivious aces to learn that they aren’t alone is through literature and film. Seeing or reading about three-dimensional, positively portrayed characters who are like us is so much more validating than reading a Wikipedia page. At long last, our representation is beginning to move out of the territory of nonhuman robots, cold aliens, and villains who are ace-coded because they’re meant to be portrayed as unlovable.
To name just a few examples of ace characters done well: Heartstopper, the popular Netflix series based on graphic novels by Alice Oseman, has a lovely ace character named Isaac. Loveless, a novel also by Oseman, explores in great detail its main character Georgia’s experience discovering her asexuality (and aromanticism) when she starts university. The protagonist of TJ Klune’s novel In The Lives Of Puppets is also asexual, and I cannot wait to read it (Klune’s work can best be described as book-shaped hugs, and I could never recommend him highly enough). Yes, things are looking up for us in the fictional world. Then there’s also Varys from Game of Thrones, but I guess you can’t win them all.
Having diverse LGBTQA+ identities represented in media also just helps to avoid some unnecessary (but not necessarily harmful) confusion. Before I knew about asexuality, I thought I was bisexual for about a year and came out to a few people as such. That label never fully felt like it fit my experience, though, and I was worried for a while that I was just trying to be special.
I would later learn that identifying as bi first is actually an incredibly common experience among asexual people: because there is more awareness of bisexuality as a sexual orientation that exists, aces take our lack of sexual attraction toward people regardless of gender and interpret that as the same kind of ‘equal attraction’ bi people talk about. For a while, ace people were actually embraced by the bi community precisely because we technically do also experience equal attraction to multiple genders (that equal number being zero), which I find very cute. I humbly offer the bisexuals a collective fist bump for that.
One last thing before I go: this week, October 22nd to 28th, is Asexuality Week of 2023! Until recently it was called Asexual Awareness Week, but I can only assume that that was changed because it makes asexuality sound like a rare disease.
Asexuality is not something we need to raise awareness for in the sense that we’re trying to fund a cure. God, no; much the contrary. Ace Week exists for essentially the same reason this article does: to spread the word that the asexual community is full of so much love, and any ace who finds it won’t ever need to feel broken again.
Chen, Angela. ACE: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex. Beacon Press, 2020. Klune, TJ. In The Lives of Puppets. Tor, 2023. Martin, J.R.R. A Game of Thrones. Bantam Books, 1996. Oseman, Alice. Heartstopper, Volume 1. Hachette, 2019. Oseman, Alice. Loveless. Scholastic Press, 2022. Trosse, Emma. Ein Weib? Psychologisch-biographische Studie über eine Konträrsexuelle. Max Spohr, 1897.