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Asexuality: An Introduction

By Laura Bradnam: laurab@equaliteach.co.uk

EqualiTeach has recently run a programme of work entitled ‘Free to Be’, supporting 30 London schools to create LGBT+ inclusive environments, embed LGBT+ equality into the curriculum and effectively recognise and respond to Homophobic, Biphobic and Transphobic (HBT) bullying. Recent feedback from many ‘Free to Be’ staff training sessions indicates a lack of understanding and confidence around asexuality. This blog aims to deliver clarity and equip school staff to respond to questions and incidents effectively and knowledgeably. Recent focus on social media on bisexuality (e.g.#bivisibility #bipride) has fought stigma and erasure, so hopefully providing space for other identities can achieve the same. Last year, Childline reported that they ran over 6000 counselling sessions about gender and sexual identity; 12-15-year olds were the most common age group to contact Childline about gender and sexual identity but 409 of the sessions were with 11-year olds or younger. This highlights the increasing need for inclusive LGBT+ education and signposting in schools (NSPCC, 2019), of which asexuality and other sexual orientations should be a part.

The most common misconceptions from staff in training sessions are:

  • That asexuality is a choice
  • The term is used for people who cannot decide who they find attractive
  • Asexual people are “just fussy people”
  • Asexual is simply another word for celibacy

What is Asexuality?

“Asexuality is a sexual orientation characterized by a persistent lack of sexual attraction toward any gender…  At least 1% of people [in the UK] are asexual (Bogaert, 2012). Asexual people are sometimes called “aces.”  

Although asexual people may enjoy sexual stimulation, people identifying as asexual do not experience a sexual attraction to others (Bogaert, 2012). Aces may engage in sexual partnerships in a quest for romantic intimacy, as this is often the expectation within relationships. O’Sullivan (2018) has noted that this may change once wider recognition of asexuality is achieved, as Aces may feel more able to communicate, enact and seek asexual relationships more easily. Here we can see the importance of understanding this sexuality, particularly when discussing enthusiastic consent and choice with young people. As with all sexualities, no identity is a binary, and sexual attraction (or lack thereof) will vary according to individual and circumstance.

It is also important to remember:

  • There is no ‘type’ of asexual person. Asexual people may be any sex or gender, ethnicity, religion or class
  • Although asexuality may be viewed as ‘different’ to other sexualities, it is simply another sexual orientation
  • Asexuality is not the same as abstinence or celibacy, which is often a choice or dictated by religious beliefs.
  • Dating, sexual activity, marriage and having children do not contradict asexuality.

Why is it important to address asexuality in schools?

There may be students who are asexual who may not be aware that this orientation exists – most education about sexual orientation focuses on heterosexual, gay or bisexual identities. If this recognition is not provided, young people may feel confused and that they are not doing sexuality ‘right’. By addressing asexuality schools will be able to provide an environment of support and self-discovery. Although this may seem like an additional pressure for those with many responsibilities and a seemingly unrelenting workload, if we do not provide this space, young people might feel erased or as though they do not matter. This is particularly important during puberty as many of their peers could be experimenting and discovering their sexuality, which might encourage or pressure young asexual people to engage in damaging behaviours to ‘fit in’ or to ‘fix’ themselves and be ‘normal’. Although a sex positive environment is enriching when teaching sex education, including asexuality, will reassure Ace students and show everyone that asexuality is a legitimate and real orientation. This may also help reduce bullying or negative peer pressure.

How to approach asexuality in secondary schools:

  • Explain that not everyone enjoys or desires sex. This idea is crucial for asexual pupils to hear, but it is also valuable for non-asexual students, too. For example, it may bring up conversations around pain during sex including Vaginismus. There is often an assumption of universal interest and enjoyment of sex which can be alienating or detrimental to those who do not experience this.
  • To approach this in a positive way – rather than as something ‘lacking’ –ask what ways there are to express affection other than sexual acts and explore other reasons apart from desire as to why people might engage in sexual acts; such as love, closeness, affection, habit or reproduction.
  • Emphasise there is nothing ‘wrong’ with people who are asexual
  • Do not separate asexuality out from other identities, introduce all sexualities as part of a spectrum during sex education.
  • When creating a list of terms, include asexuality
  • Include books, assemblies and general discussions where possible (EqualiTeach’s upcoming Guide for Educators ‘Free to Be’ can help with this.)
  • Respect this identity. If students make negative comments, deal with them appropriately. Sexual orientation is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. Asexual people are protected from discrimination and harassment under this characteristic (see this previous blog).
  • Avoid universal statements, like “when you’re older you will all want to have sex” or “when you hit puberty, you will develop feelings for other people.” Instead, use phrases like “most individuals will want to have sex when they’re older, but not everyone” or “when you hit puberty, you probably will start to develop feelings for other people, but if you don’t, that’s okay, too.” Small adjustments in language can make all the difference.  Less absolute language creates space for asexual people and is generally a useful habit to get into for all equalities work.
  • Abstinence or celibacy are unrelated, as these are a choice to intentionally refrain from sexual activity that is desired. Individuals of any sexual orientation can practice abstinence. Asexuality is a sexual orientation where individuals do not experience sexual attraction, which often (though not always) means that they are less likely to be interested in sexual activity
  • Do not depict asexuality as somehow morally superior – it is not a ‘purity pledge’ (which has derogatory linguistic implications for those who are sexually active) or a moral stand
  • Don’t presume that someone who says that they are asexual is ‘too young’ to know. It is dismissive to assume someone does not know their identity.
  • As with any identity, the most important thing is to have an open, accepting and supportive approach. Young people in particular will be questioning their identities and may be discovering their own feelings for the first time. Providing them with clarity and information is key

Related Identities

These identities are often deemed to be closely related to asexuality and are part of the ‘ace spectrum’. Recognising and validating all identities is very important. Additionally, recognising there is a spectrum of identities rather than a binary, is very helpful when thinking about most identities and questions.

Gray-Asexuality Closely related to asexuality – the person may feel this is more appropriate if they seldom experience sexual attraction or are uncertain if they have.
Demisexuality When someone only feels sexual attraction when they have established an emotional bond. This is not the same as refusing to have sex unless the person is in love. It is a description of attraction, and not about what someone does or is willing to do. Additionally, the emotional bond may not be based on love.
Aromantic Some people may describe themselves as “aromantic”, which is the romantic orientation characterised by a persistent lack of romantic attraction toward any gender.  It is analogous to sexuality, but the two concepts are not equivalent.  It is possible for a person of any sexual orientation to be aromantic, and many asexual people are not aromantic.

Source: (An Educator’s Guide to Asexuality)

References

https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2018/09/22/what-is-bi-visibility-day-and-why-is-it-important/.

Accessed 23/02/2020.

http://www.whatisasexuality.com/educators/guide/.

Accessed 23/02/2020.

https://shadesofnoir.org.uk/asexuality/.

Accessed 23/02/2020.

Bogaert, A. (2012). “Asexuality and Autochorissexualism (Identity-Less Sexuality)”. Archives of Sexual Behavior. .41(6): 1513-1514.

O’Sullivan, L., and Allgeier, E. (1998). “Feigning sexual desire: Consenting to unwanted sexual activity in heterosexual dating relationships”. Journal of Sex Research. 35: 234–243.

Smith, L. (2018). What is Bi Visibility Day and why is it important? PinkNews. Accessed 04/12/2019.

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