The Invisible Orientation

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By: Carson Aft and Michael Land

“I started using the word ‘asexual’ when I was about 13 or 14. … Everyone around me was experiencing things that I wasn’t, and it was scary and disorienting. I assumed there was something wrong with me. Something broken.” –David Jay

According to modern understanding, human sexuality is best understood as a spectrum. Alfred Kinsey first proposed such a model in 1948, when he assigned people a number ranging from 0 (purely heterosexual) to 6 (purely homosexual). However, he also assigned an “X” to a small percentage of people who lacked any “socio-sexual contacts or relations.” It is now believed that Kinsey was describing asexuality.

Asexuality is a sexual orientation defined as the lack of sexual attraction toward other people, regardless of gender. Asexual people, or “aces,” may still form romantic relationships with others, and may identify a romantic orientation in addition to their sexual orientation.  For example, those who prefer to form romantic attachments solely to people of the opposite gender will identify as heteroromantic rather than heterosexual. It is possible for asexual people to form successful romantic relationships with sexual people, though the disharmony in sexual preferences can cause problems.

Because of the discrimination faced by all sexual minorities, it would seem as though the asexual community and LGBT advocates would be natural allies. Since the creation of AVEN (the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network) in 2001, founder David Jay has advocated for inclusion in the LGBT community. According to Jay, 90 to 95 percent of asexuals consider themselves LGBT or LGBT allies. This alignment, however, may not be quite that simple.

While some LGBT communities are fully accepting of asexuality as a non-normative orientation, others have accused asexuals of trying to co-opt the gay rights movement. Controversial gay rights activist Dan Savage has drawn criticism for his statements about asexuals: “…you have the asexuals marching for the right to not do anything. Which is hilarious. Like, you didn’t need to march for that right. You just need to stay home, not do anything.”

Though he is an outspoken voice in the LGBT community, Savage does speak for his entire movement. On a local level, attitudes toward asexuals have been much more positive. In February 2014, UGA’s Lambda Alliance updated its constitution to include asexuals as a recognized sexual minority. The organization now prefers to use the term LGBTQA in order to reflect the diversity of its members. Nationally, asexual activists have shared similar sentiments. “Asexuality is very much a part of the broader conversation in our society about gender and sexual diversity. [It’s] certainly queer, and it’s certainly part of the LGBT community,” said activist Sara Beth Brooks. But there are difficulties beyond inclusion.

In addition to the inherent difficulties of forming romantic relationships with sexual people, asexuals often face challenges because of the lack of public knowledge about their orientation.

The 2011 documentary “(A)sexual” explores people’s experiences with asexuality. The film opens with interviews of random passers-by. Most people associate the word “asexual” with bacteria and/or plants, and some assert that there is no such thing as an asexual person. Such responses are quite common, and many asexuals describe similar reactions after attempting to come out to their families and friends. Problems such as these necessitated the creation of organizations for support.

In 2001, activist David Jay founded AVEN with the goals of facilitating the growth of an asexual community and creating public acceptance and discussion about the orientation. Today, the website hosts the world’s largest forums on asexuality, and serves as a resource center for asexuals, friends, allies, and researchers.

Unfortunately, ignorance is hardly the only issue that asexuals face. When she was 19, blogger and asexual activist Julie Decker was sexually assaulted by a male colleague. Decker believes that her experiences are indicative of a wider problem faced by the queer community: the belief that asexuals and other sexual minorities are “broken” and that having sex with the right person (consensually or not) can “fix” them. According to Decker, “We are perceived as not being fully human because sexual attraction and sexual relationships are seen as something alive, healthy people do… People who perform corrective rape, they believe that they’re just waking us up and that we’ll thank them for it later.” Regardless of the relatively low level of media attention given to these issues, they are still real problems that impact thousands of people.

In an attempt to understand these issues, researchers at Brock University published a groundbreaking study regarding prejudice against sexual minority groups. This was the first known study to compare discrimination against asexuals with discrimination against homosexuals and bisexuals. According to the authors, heterosexuals are likely to discriminate against asexuals in a way that strongly correlates with their discrimination against other sexual minorities. This trend is particularly strong among religious and social conservatives. Along with other sexual minority groups, asexuals are often viewed as lacking characteristics that make them “uniquely human,” and can be seen as mechanistic and cold. Furthermore, the study indicates that discrimination against asexuals has significant consequences; heterosexuals are significantly less likely to employ or rent an apartment to someone who identifies as asexual. Despite these detriments, inclusion within the prominent rights movements is still often difficult.

“There are a lot of gay folks who get angry when we suggest asexual people belong [in the LGBT community],” said Julie Decker. “And that’s primarily based on the supposition that asexual people do not experience oppression and that any prejudice, discrimination or discomfort we experience is not ‘as bad’ as theirs, which I think is odd because queerness is not – or should not be – defined by negative experiences.”

As Decker states, negative experiences are a poor metric upon which to base a group identity. The strength of the asexual community should be derived from the positive experiences of its members. As asexuality becomes more widely recognized, the community will face further challenges on the road to full social equality.

Ultimately, the major hurdle to equality lies within visibility and understanding. Ignorance often denies aces of their romantic identity, creating dangerous cultural issues. The movement is not without hope, however. As more men and women identify as asexual, the pressure on culture to change grows, as well as the potential for true equality. Inclusion and acceptance still lie at the end of a long road, but no race can be completed without the first step. The invisible sexuality must no longer remain invisible.

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