Asexuality: Recognizing the Invisible

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We live in a sex-normativity scenario incapable of challenging clichéd phrases like “sex is health”

by Vivyane Garbelini cover image Michael Davies translated by Carolina Walliter revised by Tracy Miyake

On TV, on magazine covers, and on news portals; at the pub and in conversations between friends. It’s everywhere. Sex seems omnipresent and it is common to hear that “sex brings happiness.” How many times have you read “sex is life?” Putting it this way, is it possible to live happily without sex? Asexual people guarantee us that yes, it is.

Asexuality is the term used for someone who does not feel sexual attraction in general. However, lack of interest in sexual intercourse does not prevent an asexual person from developing emotional or romantic ties with other people.

Is asexuality a disease? Despite its history of being treated as a pathology, no. It is neither a mental disorder nor a consequence of any abuse suffered in the past. The absence of sexual desire may indeed be a clinical symptom of some medical conditions, but in asexual people it is simply a characteristic.

A fotógrafa Laia Abril faz retratos de pessoas assexuais
The photographer Laia Abril takes portraits of asexual people

Asexuality is increasingly understood as a sexual orientation. Some believe this is not a good definition, but (almost) everybody agrees that this characteristic has nothing to do with a mental or biological “defect.”

Asexuality does not manifest itself in only one way. For example, let’s say that on the one end of the spectrum is full asexuality, the total absence of sexual and romantic attraction. On the other end is sexuality, with the complete presence of sexual and romantic attraction. It includes the sexual orientations we recognize: hetero, homo, bi, and pansexuality. Between these two extremes is a gray area where asexual diversity is found. We can picture several shades of gray that represent different types of personal experience.

Asexual SPectrum

The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) is the best-known international reference on this topic, and was founded in 2001 by David Jay. AVEN was once a space to welcome asexual people and foster asexual pride; today it is a center to produce knowledge and systematize information.

As cores da bandeira assexual
The colors of the asexual flag

For Cammie (as she asked to be identified), who is asexual heteroromantic, David Jay is a hero. She describes how liberating it was to discover the community and realize she was not alone. She used to be afraid to talk about this issue and be labeled as a homosexual, something that often happens to many in this group. Cammie, who is 22 and comes from Minas Gerais, Brazil, explains why she decided to help promote the cause:

“In most cases, the asexual people are portrayed as sick, radical or people who abhor sex.”

But in fact, as Júlia Fioretti (21, demisexual, arts student) reminds us:

“They are perfectly normal people whose bodies work properly.”

Lack of understanding and struggle

Asexuality is neither celibacy nor abstinence. In these situations, people feel sexual desire and repress it for some reason, whether voluntary or involuntary. And you know what? Asexual people are not necessarily virgins. Actually, many of them have had sex, and this was exactly what made them realize their genuine lack of attraction. In short, asexuality is not about being unable to have sex, but not wanting to do it. Some other details… Some asexual people use pornography, others don’t. Some masturbate, others don’t. Some are in relationships, others aren’t.

Utilizado em comunidades, a figura do bolo simboliza "algo preferível ao sexo".
A common reference in the asexual community, the cake represents “something better than sex.”

Everyone is unique and has different experiences. This seems easy to understand, but there is still a lot of prejudice, intolerance, and lack of respect out there, so activists are mainly fighting for social visibility and to remove asexuality from the list of pathologies.

This group frequently suffers violence and oppression. There have been many cases of “corrective” rapes that are allegedly meant to “fix” the victim. And there’s more: asexuals face hostility from different groups, even including the LGBT movement, which could be expected to accept this group since they also are a minority.

Ignorance of this subject leads well-intentioned people to say things like “you haven’t found the right person yet,” and “it’s just a phase.” Asexuality is continuously mistaken for depression, attention-seeking, or false morality.

The rise of debate

asexual parade

In São Paulo, the “First Asexual Parade” took place in 2015 with an amusing “distribution of hugs,” an activity aimed at debunking the common misconception that asexual people are cold. For Fioretti, this demonstration is important because it can create repercussions across the community:

“We are still very few, but I believe that this activity will make more asexual people identify with asexuality — since many don’t even know it exists.”

Social networks have been playing a crucial role in this effort, hosting political debates, mutual recognition, and strengthening the feeling of belonging to this group, which has strong cohesion in the digital world.

Despite the strong online mobilization, the lack of research and statistics on this segment of the population is still notable, only around 1%.

In 2012, the researcher Elisabete Oliveira officially started the discussion in Brazil at the academic level with her dissertation entitled “Minha vida de ameba” (My Life As An Amoeba), in which she explores the subject.

“The academic community must approach and follow this type of topic. Science is still very biased against asexuality,” says Gabriela Lyrio, 21, undergraduate student in psychology. She is asexual and currently identifies herself as aromantic, but points out that while the classifications are very rigid, the existential experience is far more flexible. For her, who already experienced demisexual phases, “contemporary life should at least make us question how to deal with ourselves and the reality beyond us.”

Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes

In pop culture, asexual characters are appearing more frequently in movies and TV shows. Sherlock Homes, Doctor Who, and Valentina Dunacci of the comedy series Sirens, for example. In Brazil, the teenage soap opera Malhação, by the Rede Globo, brought the issue to light in 2010, with the character Alê. Steven Morrissey, former lead singer of The Smiths, has also declared himself asexual.

Consciousness-raising is essential to understand asexuality. This reflection leads us to question the sex-normativity in which we live and makes us uncomfortable repeating clichéd phrases like “sex is health.” You don’t need to be asexual to be interested in the subject; empathy is always welcomed. Solidarity from people who are not part of this spectrum is paramount, since acceptance is a social gain.

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Go further

Tab Uol

The UOL portal has created a special page for the subject. The interactive content includes a video, a quiz, and lots of relevant information. Check it out!

Blog "Assexualidades"

The perspective of an academic researcher can explain a lot about this universe. Teacher Elisabete Oliveira shares her findings in her blog.

“Visibilizar” Series

Capitolina magazine has launched a series on diversity and published articles covering the subject of asexuality.

Time Magazine

Article with excerpts from the book The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction To Asexuality, by Julie Sondra Decker

Blog “Sobre o Cinza”

It is paramount that asexual people tell their own stories. Natalia Caldeira, 21 and demi-sexual, writes the blog "Sobre o Cinza" (About Grey), created to address the lack of Brazilian content on the subject.

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