Prejudice and discrimination against marginal groups is still rife in society. Verbal abuse, harassment, threats of violence or even physical attacks still affect people simply because of who they are. One group whose plight is made worse by the lack of protection in law are asexual people.
Asexuality is a sexual orientation which describes people who do not experience sexual attraction. This does not mean that asexual people cannot or are unable to have sex, but that the reasons they have for having sex are not to do with experiencing attraction sexually. Asexual people may engage in sex because they want to have children, please their partner or simply to pleasure themselves. Roughly one to five per cent of the globe’s population identify as asexual – which means around 150 to 750 students at the university.
George Norman, a third year history student, is the YUSU Asexual Convenor. He looks after asexual students that make up the university’s LGBTQ Network. Part of his role is to promote and organise asexual events, and last week he was in charge of the Asexuality Awareness Week.
This week is a seven day period of events that aims to highlight asexual people and their growing movement to be recognised. It is a week of films, discussion and debate all around the theme of asexuality and people who do not experience sexual attraction.
It’s day two of the Asexuality Awareness Week and I’m inside an event documenting the history of asexuality, called Taking the Cake. Norman stars in the film and it discusses the ignorance surrounding asexuality to the need for greater understanding and education in schools. At the back of the room I meet a third year biology student named LM, who is also transgender. LM tells me that they are still on “a path” of self-discovery but began considering they were asexual at the age of sixteen. “I really enjoy sex, and assumed that ruled me out,” LM says. “It’s only more recently that I’ve come to work out that my enjoyment of sex is unconnected to stimulation, it’s a sensual experience for me.”
On the desk at the front are decks of cards. One with the message: “Asexuality is not a choice. It’s an orientation.” Since asexuality is rather unknown, there is a lot of misinformation and ignorance. This can range from the belief that asexual people cannot have sex, that asexuality is celibacy, just a choice or to an outright denial of asexual people’s right to exist. Weeks like the Asexuality Awareness Week help to challenge this.
“A lot of people try to be allies, but often that means not finding out more out of fear of “saying the wrong thing” given there’s very little understanding on how to talk about it,” LM says.
“When I think about talking to people about it based on my own experiences I feel forced into being an asexual representative because it’s so likely I’d be the first and only person ever to talk to them about it. If I’m out looking to start a relationship or hook up with someone, I imagine casually dropping in the word “asexual” would send them running.”
There are about 10 students who are in attendance at the film. Many discuss their orientation and the reaction they received when they told people they were asexual.
Psychology graduate Ellie is one of those. She was a student at the university up until this year, and began understanding that she may be asexual during her second and third year of study. Ellie is a homoromantic grey asexual. This means she desires romantic relationships with people of the same sex, but in incredibly rare circumstances she can also experience sexual attraction. She believes it is this reason that stopped her understanding she was asexual sooner. “I actually had been thinking about my identity for a while and a conversation with a close friend about the ace spectrum meant I said it out loud for the first time,” she says. “I felt good that I had finally found a label that fit how I felt but I was also scared and also just confused. Coming to terms with my identity was difficult for me and I found it hard to accept as I was worried what people would think. However in time I begun to accept it more and embrace it more.”
Arriving at York to a university culture of sex was difficult for Ellie. Since she has been ‘out’, she has had positive experiences, which she pins down to the acceptance of her close group of friends. But nights out for Ellie have been particularly tough. “If you say you are asexual a lot of people tend to ask questions like ‘what’s bad experience has made you that way?’ or ‘you clearly haven’t slept with me – I’ll make you sexually attracted to people’ or ‘how do you know if you’ve not tried it?’,” she says. “It’s like people seem to think it’s the same as celibacy – this is not a decision I made, it’s an orientation, and as such no ‘bad experience’ has made me this way.
“I don’t like the assumption I have never had sex either because I have – there is no rule to say asexuals can’t or have never had sex, some have and some haven’t and both are okay, and both groups are still asexuals. Some people have also started going on to me about ‘my poor girlfriend’ as she is sexual and I am asexual but we have made it work and it’s not anyone else’s place to try and guilt me for my identity.”
Both LM and Ellie believe the lack of awareness and understanding surrounding asexuality partly stems from an enormous focus on sex at university which starts at Freshers’ Week. “From talking to the STYCs, to jokes made by the sabbs, to sports initiations, I see so much expectation for us all to be wanting sex all the time,” LM says.
“And the only time it’s challenged is when people say “remember, some people might not be ready or might not feel like it”… and that very much feels like a footnote that people are only saying because they know they HAVE to. It’s very “us and them” in YUSU, the staff and the student body.
“There are “some people” who don’t want sex, but it’s never treated like that could be anyone you know. It’s often associated with being shy, young, or inexperienced.
“It’s never stated that for many people it’s not lifestyle choice it’s expression of their sexual orientation. If it’s not made clear that YUSU and the uni recognises it’s an orientation, it’s not made clear that you’ll be protected from discrimination based on it.”
Ellie says: “I think student attitude, especially in freshers is very sexually focused. I feel like YUSU need to make sure that STYCs make it clear to students that not wanting to be involved in that culture is completely okay. I know I felt pressured by the culture of sex and forced myself to do things I wasn’t comfortable with in my first year.”
Camila, a third year physics student, agrees. She tells me she found Freshers’ Week “isolating” and “confusing” because of the focus placed on sex. “Asexuality is such a misunderstood and little known orientation,” she says. “Many people don’t have any idea what it is or think asexual people are ‘like robots’ or ‘plants’.”
YUSU’s Asexual Network do help students who are struggling to come to terms with their identity. This can involve helping them settle in to helping them meet other asexual people. The group has been in existence at the university for around three years and provides support to the 50 students signed up.
But Ellie tells me she was initially “too worried” to use any support system as she felt asexuality was an “invisible identity”. “I felt like my only option was to turn to the internet for support,” she says. “When I realised there was an Ace Network at the university that did make me feel more supported knowing there were people I could talk to who would understand. That has made me feel a bit better.”
Despite the Asexuality Awareness Week being on campus and celebrated nationally and internationally, still very little is written to highlight the difficulties faced by asexual people. Camila hopes that will change. She says: “This week for me is important because it is great to be able to have conversations with people about asexuality and to engage with them in conversations about something they may have had no idea existed.
“It also gives me hope that asexuality will no longer be an ‘invisible’ orientation and that everyone in the ace spectrum will be shown the respect they deserve.”
Norman, Britain’s first openly asexual election candidate, believes that the week is important to show asexual people are accepted in society and on campus. He says: “Asexual people can feel perfectly normal, happy and contented about their orientation. The reaction of society against asexual people and communities is what makes asexuals feel isolated, lonely and put upon.”
For further information on asexuality or to be involved with the network, please contact George Norman via [email protected] Some names have been changed.