Posted inOpinion

Hidden Aces: The lack of asexual representation in the media

Illustration by Evie Craggs

With more and more mainstream programmes exploring queer experiences and queer identities (see Heartstopper, Euphoria, Sex Education and more), LGBTQ+ individuals are becoming more seen than ever before. Yet, in amongst this great progress in representation, there is a pointed lack of exposure given to asexuality. I can count the number of asexual identifying characters I am aware of on one hand.

This means that most people are not aware of asexuality as they have never come across it. Simply put, it is an umbrella term for anyone who experiences ‘little to no-sexual attraction’. The term encompasses a lot of different experiences, from despising the very idea of sex (called sex-averse), to not minding sex (sex-neutral) to enjoying sex but continuing to feel no attraction (sex-positive). Some will only experience sexual attraction alongside intense emotional attraction (demisexuality), and some, though not all, will continue to feel romantic attraction towards others. A lot of asexual people shorten the term to ‘ace’.

I realise the irony of ‘simply’ explaining asexuality and then creating a huge list of identities and different characteristics. It can be confusing. Yet this does not mean these different labels are pointless or irrelevant. Using specific language to describe someone’s life experience can be hugely validating for many queer individuals, including aces. Having a label that fits your experience can feel like being seen for the first time in your life, realising that there isn’t something wrong with you, and that there is a community ready to accept you with open arms. In a highly sexualised world, where fulfilling sex can be idolised as the peak of human experience, being ace can feel lonely, and strange. For many aces, giving them the right language to describe their feelings through a book or YouTube video, has been the beginning of a path to acceptance.

Florence, in the popular Netflix comedy, Sex Education, is one of only 3 characters I am aware of having made it into mainstream media.

She opens up about her asexuality by talking to sex therapist, Dr Jean Milburn, not really knowing herself, the meaning of what she is saying. She says:

“I don’t want to have sex at all, ever, with anyone. I think I might be broken.

Jean replies with the moving and validating line:

“Sex doesn’t make us whole. And so, how could you ever be broken?”

Jean touches on a range of asexual identities and makes it clear that this does not necessarily mean a disinterest in romantic relationships (known as aromanticism). This emotional moment has been hugely validating for the asexual community; numerous ace activists and content creators have shown their support with how it responds to asexuality with acceptance, kindness and sensitivity. Hearing these labels and seeing an ace character in such a popular programme, has not only made asexual people feel seen and not ‘broken’, but introduced the term to a much wider audience.

Moments like this increase visibility and understanding of aces’ experience. One poll from 2019 showed that, although 53% of people believed they could define asexuality as an identity, 76% were wrong or didn’t know at all. There is a lack of understanding that aces even exist, let alone that they can be perfectly happy, fulfilled human beings without sex, or even romantic relationships. This lack of understanding, caused by a lack of real and informative representation, means that when aces make the brave step in coming out, people aren’t aware of how to be a good ally, and instead invalidate the person by telling them they ‘haven’t found the right person yet’ or they ‘need to go to a doctor’. Aces are made to feel like their identity needs to be cured.

This takes a more serious turn when conversion therapy becomes involved. Asexuality is not a disorder but has been treated as such. Examples include being prescribed with hormones or talking therapy which can pressure individuals into sexual acts with their significant other. This obviously causes huge physical and emotional damage to those who experience it. Asexual people are at a higher risk of conversion therapy than gay, lesbian and bi individuals, with 10% undergoing or being offered conversion therapy in the UK, according to Stonewall.

Society will not stop understanding asexuality as a negative, ‘thing to be fixed’, until it realises that sex is not the only route to intimacy, love or joy; that friendship, and purely romantic relationships can be equally as fulfilling. Good representation, such as that of Florence, opens up wider conversations about our cultural assumptions of the necessity of sex to live a fulfilling life. Once this is more normalised, more aces will be able to find their own acceptance within themselves, their families and the wider community. They could receive understanding from informed loved ones, who will be less likely to push them down the path to conversion therapy.

It is so fundamental that asexual people are included when we talk about increasing representation for queer people. Asexuality may be hidden in the ‘+’ section of LGBTQ +, but I hope one day we will see ace protagonists visible right at the front of page and screen.