CW: corrective rape, queer*phobia
“You are flesh and blood, you have feelings. You must have … impulses.” – John Watson to Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock, 2010)
So many teen movies emphasise sexuality as a topic of exploration, and for many young people these films are ways through which they explore themselves and decide where they ‘fit’. Am I straight? Or gay? Maybe bisexual? When should I lose my virginity? How much sex should I have? And the questions go on.
The rise of the internet brought a new source of questions and answers, and the influence of social media on our understanding of sexuality grows exponentially. Like many teens, my experience of sexuality was confusing. I had no preference regarding gender, which led me to assume I was bisexual, but I was largely apathetic towards sex and relationships in general. I longed to discover myself, and I put myself through a myriad of different sexual and romantic experiences hoping to find a description that fit me. Sexual relationships were nice, but not particularly exciting, and given the opportunity, I would have much rather been re-watching Harry Potter for the billionth time. Romantic relationships, on the other hand, were claustrophobic and uncomfortable.
It is difficult to define what romance is. The importance of romantic feelings differs from person to person but is often entwined with sex. It’s often left as an unquestioned part of sexuality, but it’s hard not to question it when it is something you know you do not feel. While seeing the happy romances of others did not repulse me, not did having romantic feelings directed at me, the expectation that I would reciprocate brought a tightness to my chest. Holdings hands and gazing lovingly into another’s eyes felt disingenuous. I dreaded the expectation that my romantic relationships somehow meant more or should be prioritised over my friendships, and I didn’t understand why I felt so hurt to find that this was the norm. I tried so hard to feel what others around me seemed to feel, but the progression from friendship to romance always ended in disappointment. I was frustrated with my lack of understanding, lonely in my inability to connect with the experiences of others, and pushing myself into relationships I thought I should enjoy but never could. This, however, changed when I first discovered the terms asexuality and aromanticism.
The more I explored the concept the more I was given vocabulary that I could use to describe and better understand myself. More importantly, I came to discover there were other people like me in the world!
Asexuality is a sexual orientation characterised by a lack of sexual attraction. Unlike celibacy or abstinence, which refer to a self-imposed lack of sexual activity, asexuality is a lack of attraction not a lack of action. Asexuality also differs from libido, which refers to a desire to feel sexual pleasure, as opposed to attraction towards a person. Asexuals (or aces) can have a variety of different feelings towards having sex. A sex-averse ace might find sex-related things unpleasant and might not want to participate in them, however, a sex-favourable ace may desire sex despite their lack of sexual attraction. A sex-indifferent ace, such as myself, may neither want sex nor be repulsed by it.
Aromantic (or aro) refers to a lack of romantic attraction. Confused? Don’t be. Rather than simply using a binary model to label sexuality – think straight or gay – some people like to use the split-attraction model, where you differentiate between sexual and romantic attraction. For example, a person who isn’t sexually attracted to others but is romantically attracted to women might describe themselves as asexual and homoromantic.
My discovery of asexuality and aromanticism came through the internet. I remember the joy of finding labels that finally seemed to fit. The more I explored the concept the more I was given vocabulary that I could use to describe and better understand myself. More importantly, I came to discover there were other people like me in the world! There were people who shared the experiences I had – I wasn’t alone. I can’t help but think, however, of how much suffering I could have escaped if I had role models to look up to and characters who felt that same as I did growing up. Single women in the media are portrayed as either sad, lonely and desperate for a relationship, or happy but regarded as failures by those around them (oh to be a crazy cat lady). People who don’t desire sex are ‘frigid’, ‘broken’, or lying to themselves. It is rare to find characters in film or television that are asexual, and rarer to find asexuality expressed explicitly and without the association of harmful stereotypes and dismissive dialogue.
The media, now more than ever, has the potential to enable a future in which different sexualities are portrayed authentically and without prejudice, embracing diversity and intersectionality.
Take Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. It is repeatedly shown that he is averse to sexual activity, however, this part of him is routinely dismissed and mocked by his friends, and he is characterised as cold, uncaring, and (to be frank) a bit of jerk. While plenty of aces might be cold and uncaring, to have one of the only representations of asexuality in popular culture be portrayed this way can create harmful stereotypes about asexuality. I think of myself as a warm person and I have many intimate and loving friendships, and many aces have fulfilling romantic relationships. In later seasons the show even has Sheldon being encouraged (or coerced) into a relationship he did not want in order to be ‘normal’. All in all, perhaps not a great representation of the asexual experience.
It is important to acknowledge that while aces and aros do not experience discrimination or oppression in the same way as those with other sexualities and gender expressions do, they are nonetheless impacted by their invisibility and erasure in society, and can be subjected to violent forms of oppression such as corrective rape. Much of the discrimination aces and aros experience is rooted in misunderstanding and ignorance. Many asexual and aromantic people who are able to come out to their friends or family must first educate their loved ones on what these orientations actually mean. This often met with dismissal. “You’re too young”, “You just haven’t found the right person” and “This is just another one of those fads” are all ways in which asexuality and aromanticism are commonly dismissed by those closest to us. Perhaps more importantly, the invisibility of asexuality and aromanticism leaves many people unaware of their orientation and unable to truly understand themselves and have fulfilling relationships.
Though my experiences do not reflect that of all aros or aces because my inherent privileges allow me to openly discuss and exercise my sexuality, there is a universal need for better representation of such marginalised groups. In such an increasingly interconnected world, we have the opportunity to spread awareness of the struggles of marginalised groups and foster understanding and acceptance. The media, now more than ever, has the potential to enable a future in which different sexualities are portrayed authentically and without prejudice, embracing diversity and intersectionality.