When Lola, who uses the pronoun they, was about 15 or 16, they remember hearing their friends from their small all-girls high school talk about going to see the movie “Tarzan.” Lola and some others interviewed for this article asked to be identified only by their first names to protect their privacy. The friends told Lola that the main character took his shirt off during the first five minutes and that they subsequently became so distracted that they couldn’t concentrate on the rest of the movie. Lola didn’t share their excitement — Lola just didn’t get the hype: “I remember being like, I would never go see that movie. It sounds so boring.”
“A friend of mine turned around and said ‘Maybe you’re asexual,’” Lola told me. At first, Lola felt defensive — how could a friend know more about them than they did? But they went home, got on Google, and started reading about asexuality — a sexual orientation that is often described as the lack of sexual attraction or desire. “Yeah, that does sound like my experience,” Lola remembers thinking.
Asexuality is defined as the lack of sexual attraction. Like all sexual orientations, it exists on a spectrum; some asexuals are sex-repulsed, whereas others are simply indifferent. Others identify as demisexual, meaning they might experience sexual attraction after forming an emotional bond with someone. Still others use the term gray-asexual or “gray-a,” which mean they experience sexual attraction sometimes or under certain circumstances. In asexual discourse, people who experience sexual attraction are often called “allosexual,” and people who experience romantic attraction are referred to as “alloromantic.” People who are asexual may or may not experience romantic attraction — Lola, for example, also identifies as aromantic, which means they are not interested in romantic relationships either.
Many of the students I spoke to for this piece have stories that are strikingly similar to Lola’s. Most first discovered asexuality on the Internet, oftentimes on Tumblr, which has long been a home for LGBTQ+ discourse. They all expressed relief at finding the word “asexuality” to describe their experiences. And most began to realize that they didn’t experience sexual attraction in middle or high school, around the same time their peers started becoming interested in crushes, relationships and sex.
Claire said she remembered feeling somewhat alienated from the middle school world of crushes and raging hormones.
“I always felt in middle and high school that I was simultaneously a child who wasn’t at the level of my peers yet and also like a jaded grandmother looking at all these amorous middle schoolers,” she said. “When you describe yourself at age 13 as being uninterested in sex or dating, people don’t believe you.”
Sarah identifies as asexual but panromantic. “I’m very capable of falling in love,” she said. She has been in romantic relationships before and said that, when she was in high school, she thought she might eventually develop sexual attraction.
“And then I was 16, and I didn’t grow into it. And then I was 18, and I didn’t grow into it. And I was like, ‘OK, this is weird. Maybe my body is wrong.’”
As a concept, asexuality is relatively new, but that does not preclude its existence throughout history. Maria Trumpler, a professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies and the director of the Office of LGBTQ Resources at Yale, teaches a freshman seminar called “History of Sexuality.” The first text she assigns in the course is called “Psychopathia Sexualis,” published in 1886 by Richard von Krafft-Ebing. In the text, von Krafft-Ebing makes reference to the lack of sexual desire, which he calls “anaesthesia.” The word has a different meaning today, but it is derived from the Greek word “anaisthesia,” which literally means “without sensation” — in this case, without sexual sensation.
Aromanticism is harder to pin down historically in large part because our intense valorization of romantic feelings and relationships is largely a modern innovation. “That idea that romantic feelings are this important thing that you need to feel, respond to and will really be central to your life is something of the past 50 or 60 years,” she said. Aromantic people almost certainly have existed throughout history, she added, but their lack of romantic desire would not have been really noticeable or as much a deviation from the norm.
Though asexuality and aromanticism have likely existed since time immemorial, Trumpler made the distinction between the phenomenon of asexuality and aromanticism and the identities “ace” and “aro” — short for “asexual” and “aromantic,” respectively — which have come into being over the last 10 to 15 years. The students I interviewed for this piece expressed a range in their levels of identification with the terms. Claire told me that she has sometimes been reluctant to describe herself as asexual because “it comes with a set of connotations and certain kinds of [stigma] that I don’t always want to be carrying with me.” At the same time, out of all the labels, asexuality is the one that makes the most sense to her.
I met Yvonne Ye ’19 in the Berkeley dining hall for breakfast on a Tuesday. Both collected and animated, she wore a rusty orange turtleneck. In her words, she identifies as “super ace.”
One of the challenges of asexuality, Ye said, is that “ace people have the superpower of invisibility.” This has its benefits — she emphasizes that asexual people typically experience significantly less discrimination than other LGBTQ individuals. “The flip side of that is that you get constant erasure,” she added.
Despite an occasionally fraught relationship, many asexuals have allied with the LGBTQ community for this reason. Many of the students I talked to mentioned that they sometimes are not sure whether or not they belong within the queer community, both at Yale and at large. Claire said that coming to Yale, she asked if asexual people were included in an LGBTQ group chat and received a range of answers. “Because I have never felt at risk because of my sexuality, I was willing to understand the perspective of people who are inside that community,” she said.
Ye concurred. “Obviously it would be great if my voice could be heard; my voice is not the voice in most danger right now.”
Lola, who now serves as a peer liaison for the Office of LGBTQ resources, said that they were not quite sure at first whether or not asexuality fit into Yale’s LGBTQ community. Now, their asexual identity is part of their work as a peer liaison, and they described it as “heartwarming” when asexual students came up to them at Bulldog Days to say, “Hey, me too.”
“Something that’s kind of tricky about asexuality is that it’s defined by what it isn’t,” they said.
KJ Cerankowski, a professor at Oberlin College, is teaching a class this semester called “Sexual ‘Absences.’” The course involves discussion of virginity, chastity and asexuality. Cerankowski’s research on asexuality itself is focused on alternative narratives of the orientation. They call the story I heard over and over from asexual students at Yale an “essentialist” narrative of asexuality. This account, Cerankowski said, is valid — but in their research, they became interested in asking deeper questions about asexuality and exploring the orientation within the context of themes like race, feminism and queer histories.
“There’s this idea that sex is helpful, everyone wants sex, and if you don’t want sex, there must be something wrong with you, and you must have been traumatized and abused,” Cerankowski said, elaborating on a narrative that the asexual community has historically pushed back against. “I became concerned with this question of ‘What about people who did experience some kind of trauma or sexual abuse and are also asexual?’”
Cerankowski co-edited a collection of essays called “Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives” with their colleague, Megan Milks. Cerankowski mentions one essay, an ethnographic study by Christine Labuski, of mostly heterosexual women with chronic genital pain. The women were from a clinic trying to facilitate their return to sexual experiences. Some of the women, Cerankowski said, had this as their goal, but many of them found a surprising freedom in its absence, even though they had come to asexuality through their experiences with chronic pain.
Multiple students I talked to also described asexuality and the experience of discovering the term “asexual” as liberating. But what does it mean to carve out space at a place like Yale as someone who is uninterested in sex, dating or both?
Those I spoke to said being asexual didn’t influence their social lives in significant ways. A story that comes up often is a feeling of disconnect with the party scene and hookup culture — but no one I talked to said they felt entirely alienated by the social scene at Yale.
Claire said she has felt “incredible license” to participate or not participate in the party and hookup scenes at Yale.
Ye mentioned that the cast parties thrown by her dance groups frequently involve playing the party game hot seat. The questions that usually come up are often sexual in nature. “I’m like, ‘Guys, you can keep asking these questions, I’m not going to give you any juicy details, because I don’t have any,’” she said.
Rebecca Goldberg ’21, a production and design staffer for the News, said that, because she’s not actively looking for a relationship, the sexual saturation of the party scene at Yale doesn’t really bother her. “I feel like for someone who maybe is asexual but looking for a relationship, it’s more difficult because of how sexualized the scene here is.”
Sarah said that her asexuality has sometimes been a source of friction in her relationships and that sometimes those relationships have ended because her partner wanted a sexual relationship, and she didn’t. She said that she sometimes worries about the long-term because she would like to get married one day. “There are so few of us. … What if I don’t like somebody out of the five of us that I’ve met?”
Many of the students I interviewed emphasized the intimacy of their relationships with friends and family — particularly when there is no romantic or sexual relationship to put on a pedestal, as is so often the case. Lola says that in the past, they avoided platonic physical contact with friends but that, recently, they have opened up to it. “The language and the physicality that are associated with romance and sexuality are not limited to people who are allosexuals or alloromantics,” they said. Asexuality and aromanticism do not preclude closeness and intimacy. The two are not wedded to sex or romance.
Talia Soglin | firstname.lastname@example.org .