When the word “asexual” comes up in conversations, one might imagine a single man or woman living as a solitary unit their entire lives, or maybe an individual devoid of personality – a blank canvas of a person. Or maybe it would be hard to imagine anything at all since the word itself does not come up much unless as a very obscure theory to describe couples in a gossip session on sexless marriages.
Even more common is the disbelief many have in individuals who lack any sort of sexual attraction, which is the general definition of asexual.
“Is that even possible?” Yes, it is.
“Maybe because no one is attracted to them.” That is mean.
“No sexual attraction? They’ll grow out of that phase.” When will you grow out of the sexual phase, then?
“Have they tried sex?” Really? This question?
I cannot pinpoint the first time I had a conversation with Ira. She has always been a constant presence for me, ever since I started becoming more involved in the white-fist-against-red-background movement.
There is warmth in the way she welcomes conversation about literally anything, from her cat Lembu to her never-realised plan of going to the hot springs somewhere in Semenyih, to the way she is adjusting to life in the peninsula after migrating from Sabah.
She is also the first person I have ever known to be asexual. Although I was aware of asexuality before I met her, having an asexual person as a friend is a further exploration into the topic of sexual diversity, particularly regarding a community that lacks visibility, unlike the rest of sexual minorities.
“Some people think we are freaks. I guess for some people, sexual attraction is their sixth sense.”
Many remarks have been made about aces – a term for asexual people – and Ira has learnt to accept that not many will understand her experience.
Ira has faced dismissal by her Malay Muslim community as well as in movements advocating the rights of sexual minorities.
In a hypersexualised community governed by sexual attraction as a form of social transaction, fitting in as an ace means being neither in the sexual norm nor with the sexual minorities. There is a certain struggle in being outside the majority and the minority’s majority.
Ira recalls a few beliefs that the sexual minority community has about aces.
“Some don’t believe we can truly ace, some don’t recognise that we are a minority, and some don’t believe we face discrimination because we are ace.”
Dismissal and a deliberate lack of acknowledgement makes it harder for aces to be visible and included as part of the sexual minority community.
But visibility is also key to efforts to be recognised. Ira believes that there might be many aces out there, but that many of them will never know they are part of a community due to the lack of awareness on it. Some could even mistakenly attribute their lack of sexual attraction to circumstances instead of recognising it as an orientation.
Ira was once one of these people. She only realised about being an ace when she was in college. A drive at night made her wonder why she felt lonely and yet had very little desire to engage in relationships. While she knew she was attracted to the opposite sex, she had no interest in going through the stages of socialising within the frame of sexuality. She joked with the idea that she might be lacking in sexuality, an “anti-sexual”, as she called herself. Then it struck her that she had never really explored the topic of sexuality other than the common concepts.
As she delved deeper into the concept of the anti-sexual or asexuality, she became more comfortable with the recognition that she was part of the ace community and would never be alone on her path.
While a lack of sexual attraction defines aces, asexuality is deeper and more varied than the general understanding of it. As people tend to correlate sexual attraction with romance, there is a common misconception that aces are incapable of it.
However, it is still possible for aces to be romantically involved with other people.
Sexual attraction and romance can coexist, but neither is a must in experiencing the other. With Ira in a relationship with a straight allosexual (having sexual attraction) man, connectivity and relationship are more subjective than how she may have perceived them to be. For now, Ira considers herself more as demisexual, meaning that while she may lack general sexual interest, she may still form a sexual attraction with her lover.
There are aces who can still derive pleasure from sexual acts even without any sort of sexual attraction. Some can even become sex workers. There are also aces who are repulsed by sexual acts. There is also the asexual couple that had been in a sexless marriage for 20 years and ended up divorcing as the wife developed a sexual interest after menopause.
“People can’t accurately be described in only one category. Sexuality is fluid and able to change. We can all step out of that unspoken mould we were made to believe in and live up to if we take the time to learn more about attraction, sexuality, love and even human psychology,” Ira says.
Progress is ongoing in knowing and understanding more about sexual minority communities. But there is still an undeniable lack of acknowledgement and even hostility towards the ace group within that community.
Many will struggle in pursuit of belonging. With neither the majority nor the minority, the lack of awareness about their identity will keep them from actualising contentment in life.
There is a paradox for aces in reaching for widespread recognition. Ira knew that visibility is key to awareness, yet an awareness of one’s own identity is also needed in being visible.
In a Malaysian community with the strong belief of singularity in sexual attraction and romance, aces may face a significant challenge in being both visible and aware.
But one thing can be assured: they exist.