The Sunday Times
Years before she unsettled the LGBT lobby with her views on the transgendered female, Germaine Greer offered an opinion on the unattached heterosexual man. ‘The unmated male’, she writes in Sex and Destiny (1984), ‘is more likely to wind up in prison or in an asylum or dead than his mated counterpart’. So where does that leave unattached asexual males and their female counterparts, then and now? A group that’s part of the ‘fourth orientation’ when it comes to sexuality, and one that has also incurred the wrath of the LGBT lobby. Asexuality was once the preserve of ameobas and aliens - or so we believed. But now asexuals- many choose the collective tag ‘Aces' - have become an embryonic movement of men and women seeking a voice in the mainstream. At the last major head count in 2004 they made up one per cent of the population, according to a survey of British residents published in the Journal of Sexual Research. That’s just two percent below the estimated (openly) homosexual quota of the time. The veteran activist Peter Tatchell has said - in a subtle volte face - there now exists ‘a league table of oppression’ as so many vie for the prize of most oppressed minority. As a minority intent on playing the Ace card, asexuals face strong competition in this infantilised atmosphere of safe spaces and trigger warnings.
This official head count, even a decade ago, overlooks asexuals that may not be aware they fall into this category. Others may be closeted in sexual relationships or simply unwilling to ‘come out’. The appropriation of this term and that of ‘queer’ - used in the more general sense, to mean anomalous - has irked gay rights activists. Something that David Jay, the founder of the online Asexual & Visibility Education Network (AVEN) is aware: ‘A lot of people in the queer community have fought so hard for sexuality, they can't understand how we’re connected to what they’re doing’. Jay, 34, launched the network in 2001 while a student at university in Connecticut. 'The first thing I felt, before I understood anything else about myself, was that there was this expectation of sexuality that was being put on me by society, and I knew it wasn’t there’. Just as AVEN has provided the movement with a nucleus, a book published two years ago raised the profile of asexuals, partly because it was the work of an insider. Julie Sondra Decker’s ‘The Invisible Orientation’(2014) defines asexuality and dispenses with the myths that surround it. Unlike celibacy, it is not self-imposed. Asexuals may be reluctant to indulge in sex, or repulsed by it but all share an absence or a lack of - depending on the research you tackle - physical attraction to others. (Although many admit to indulging in that last word in self-sufficiency - masturbation. Which sceptics argue is in fact ‘sexual’ activity ). Decker, who describes herself as an aromantic, asexual woman, was aware of her orientation early on, and open about it. But even now she’s confronted by people attempting to ‘fix’ her: ‘They develop this completely inappropriate obsession with my sexual and romantic life, which can manifest itself as anything from aggressively propositioning me for sex or searching what ‘really’ is wrong with me'.
It’s in the US that the asexual lobby has made headway in finding its voice. In the state ofNew Yorkasexuals are protected by legislation exclusive to other minorities regarding discrimination and the nebulous ‘hate crime’. All of which has contributed to a debate with the LGBT lobby online that Vice magazine describes as ‘all out war’.
The internet has been instrumental in connecting asexuals globally, and highlighting the lack of scientific research around the issue. Even if the asexual quota in the UK remains around the one per cent mark it’s a figure that makes a dent in a country of 65,000,000 and rising. Yet the concept of asexuality is something that many fail to grasp. That’s the conclusion of Mark Carrigan, a researcher at the University of Warwick, who has written at length on the subject.’ Offering asexuality as an account of themselves’, he says, ' asexual people are instead told that it can’t exist.’ Even when acknowleged, asexuality is seen as a passing phase for late developers, a state of limbo for the mature. But that also applies to all of us whose brief sexual or romantic liaisons barely fall into single figures and occurred a long time ago. We started late and finished early. Even in this enlightened age there is an insistence that completion and contentment comes with a sexual relationship or a sexual act. The theme of the recent Yorgos Lanthimos film ‘The Lobster’, in which unattached adults are rounded up in the city and dispatched to a hotel, where they're allocated 45 days to find a partner. Those that don’t are transformed into an animal of their choice and released into the wild.
‘People often wrongly assume that because people are asexual, they are not capable of emotional intimacy’, David Jay has said. This again is more a comment on the general fixation with sex and sexuality. Ironically, as the rainbow collective of minorities have become more accepted, or at least accommodated in society, they have moved on from the original equal but different approach; they've departed from the notion of sexual fluidity and bender blurring. As they seek the right to marry, adopt children, and be legally cast in the gender they choose rather than the one their saddled with, those not defined by sex and sexuality emerge as the ‘queer’ outsiders. But obviously without the history of stigma, abuse and discrimination that would propel them towards the top of the aforementioned league table of the oppressed. Nevertheless, asexuality does have a history. It had a cameo in the Kinsey report when it made sex a talking point in 1948, highlighting the sexual behaviour of men (women had to wait until 1953 for their report). The biologist and sexologist Alfred Kinsey's category ‘X’ classifies the 1.5 per cent of the male population of America with ‘no socio-sexual contacts or reactions’. In short, asexuals.
Julie Sondra Decker agrees the culture has now become so hypersexualizedthat it's impossible to imagine 'a sexless or unpartnered life being fulfilling’. The absence of high profile asexuals past and present doesn’t help. Citings are rare and unconfirmed. Currently they are fictional curiosities and caricatures that come in the form of Sheldon from ‘The Big Bang Theory’ (if the rumours are true), and 'Jughead Jones', outed by Archie Comics in February. Last year, when former Prime Minister Ted Heath became the latest deceased, defenceless public figure facing accusations of paedophilia a long-term associate attempted to rescue his reputation. There was no hint of sexuality about him ‘whether it was in relation to men, women or children’, he said. What if so many high profile male and female figures in the past that opted for celibacy and the single life were asexual? From Descartes down it’s an an impressive list. Historically, the single, sexless state was thought to be syonymous with achieving greatness - politically, intellectually, artistically, spiritually. A fact that prompted the philosopher Francis Bacon to write: ‘Certainly the best works, and of greatest merit to the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless man’.
This lack of representation 'is a contributing factor to our isolation and difficulty coming to terms with our identity’, says Decker. Some asexuals have taken to wearing a black ring on the middle finger of the right hand to recognise each other. The movement itself has defined itself with a flag since 2010 - available from Amazon in 'heavy bleached cotton with brass grommets' - and stages its own pride marches in the US. In this, and the way it's currently perceived in the wider world, the movement has at least something in common with the early days of the gay rights lobby. As the author Edmund White said recently, recalling his experience of that era: ' I was at Stonewall, and it seemed silly to us. That here we were, these “sickos” claiming our rights. It seemed hilariously funny. People don’t realize that now. But it was like the first comic revolution’. These days the plus sign now appears as a chaser whenever LGTB is mentioned in a bid to be more inclusive and bring ‘allies’ into the fold. Asexuals fall into this category but they continue to campaign for shared billing and similar status to the featured minorities.