Lillian Huebner forgets where they first heard the word. It might have been while reading a book. Or scrolling through Tumblr accounts.
What the 20-year-old University of Oregon sophomore does remember is this: Huebner was 18, living at home in rural Missouri, when they read the word and felt something unlike anything they had experienced before: Relief. Excitement. Curiosity. Finally, they had the ability to define what they knew was always there. Or, rather, what wasn’t.
Huebner was asexual.
Up until then, Huebner had just made excuses to explain their lack of sexual attraction: The pool of potential partners wasn’t large enough (they graduated with a class of only 80 students). They liked country music, Huebner didn’t. They were conservative, Huebner wasn’t. Huebner didn’t like porn — in fact, they found it hilarious — but, surely, there were others who didn’t, either.
“In that moment, I finally didn’t have to find a mate and explain to myself why I didn’t have a desire to go out and start a family,” Huebner said. “I just don’t want a sexual relationship. And that’s all.”
THE INVISIBLE ORIENTATION
For Aidan Grealish, it’s the invisibility that hurts most.
Like Huebner, Grealish is a UO sophomore who identifies as asexual. But according to people at her high school, Grealish was homosexual. That’s because asexuality was something you talked about in reference to plants. Not humans.
The media didn’t help either. The only characters she saw who weren’t having sex were either non-humans or humans portrayed as socially inept: Emotionless robots in movies or awkward Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory.
Even in a 1994 United Kingdom study in which one percent of the 18,876 respondents reported “no sexual attraction toward anyone,” the participants didn’t claim an identity.
It wasn’t until around 1997, when a first-hand account of life as an asexual, “My Life as an Ameoba,” written by Zoe O’Reilly and published by StarNet Dispatches, and the first asexual online community arose from its comments section.
And it wasn’t until 2001 that the world’s largest asexual organization — the Asexual Visibility and Education Network — was founded by asexual activist David Jay. According to AVEN’s website, the organization has helped over a million asexuals find community.
One of those people was Sara Beth Brooks.
“I WASN’T BROKEN”
Growing up, Brooks was never into kissing. She didn’t worry too much about it, though. She figured a “switch would turn on” eventually.
It never did. Not when she went on her first date in high school. Not when she got engaged to a man who was sexual. And not when she began seeing a therapist and a gynecologist and taking progesterone and testosterone on and off for about a year.
Everyone told Brooks she was broken, and she believed it — that is, until one night when she was in her early twenties and was Googling alternative ways to end a marriage ceremony. Instead of ending it with a kiss, Brooks wondered, perhaps a hug or handshake would do. That’s when she came across the word “asexual.”
She spent the whole night reading, tears streaming down her face.
“Suddenly, I wasn’t broken,” said Brooks.
The night marked the beginning of asexual activism for Brooks. Soon afterward she got in touch with AVEN’s founder and came up with “Asexual Awareness Week” — an online community that would dedicate one week each year to asexual rights and awareness.
“It was so empowering and liberating,” Brooks said. “Many people describe feeling broken like I did. I wanted to give that relief to others, too.”
HELPERS AT THE NEST
That some people don’t feel sexual attraction could have an evolutionary basis. At least that’s what Klaree Boose, a UO graduate student in the anthropology department who specializes in primate behavior, thinks. There are a number of species in which certain members of the community don’t reproduce, she said, and instead help raise their kin’s offspring.
In biological anthropology, these members are called “helpers at the nest.”
“We see it in bees, for instance,” said Boose. “The queen bee is the only one who reproduces and the workers help raise the family. We also see it in other species. So, I think it’s totally possible that asexuality is an evolutionarily stable strategy — also, that it’s just part of the continuum of human sexuality.”
A certain kind of continuum also exists within the asexuality community. Tastes vary among asexuals, said Grealish. Some are interested in relationships, cuddling and romance. Others are aromantic and have as little desire for romance as they do for sex.
Grealish identifies with the latter. For now, at least, she’s not interested in romantic relationships.
Huebner, on the other hand, is open. Though they’ve never had a relationship — just a “somewhat romantic friendship type thing” — they like cuddling and watching movies and kissing and just “feeling nice.”
And although it might seem counter intuitive, some asexuals masturbate. Sometimes it’s purely physical — something they do because it feels good — and other times, they masturbate using outside stimuli (such as pornography or erotica). But one thing always remains: They don’t want to act out these desires with another person.
PUTTING THE ‘A’ IN LGBTQA*
For Brooks, Asexuality Awareness Week means asexual activism through multiple realms: The medical community is one of them.
After all, it wasn’t until the most recently published Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, said Brooks, that a disinterest in sex didn’t mean that you had hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). In 2013, a footnote was added to the manual that stated a lack of sexual attraction doesn’t necessarily mean deficiency, but, perhaps, asexuality— and that this lack of attraction need not have a pathological cause, unless symptoms caused distress.
And although Brooks found a particular alliance with the trans community during the beginnings of Asexual Awareness Week — Brooks refers to the community as asexuals’ “first cheerleaders” — she sees the LGBTQA* community as another she would like to further engage when it comes to asexuality awareness.
After all, it’s not always the case that the “A” in LGBTQA* refers to asexuals. Oftentimes, it refers to allies, instead. In fact, it wasn’t until last week that the staff of the University of Oregon LGBTQA3 voted unanimously to include asexuals and aromantics in their acronym — thus making the group the “LGBTQAAA Alliance.”
That’s not to say that Brooks thinks the asexual community has suffered the same as other sexual and gender minorities.
But that’s not to say they haven’t experienced any, either.
Brooks doesn’t feel comfortable coming out at her place of employment. And she’s experienced prejudice from several human sexuality professors over the years: When Brooks asked if she could speak to their classes about asexuality, some said no. They told her they didn’t think the orientation was a “real thing.”
For Grealish, the prejudices are more subtle.
“A lot of people think: If you’re not sexual, you’re not human,” said Grealish. “There’s this expectation that the desire to hook up and have children is biological. You wonder where you belong in it all.”
AN ASEXUAL MOVEMENT?
When you ask Grealish if she thinks there is an asexual rights movement, she’s a bit reluctant.
“I think movement implies choice,” said Grealish. “There have been gender queer people since the dawn of time. So, it’s less of a movement and more of a statistics and awareness thing.”
Even if it might not be a movement per se, Brooks believes we will see a change: That there will be more asexual characters in fiction, in love stories and on television. And that there will be a stronger engagement — politically and socially — overall. After all, she still gets emails from high schoolers thanking her for what she does.
“In the end, it’s just a matter of taste,” said Brooks. “I like rock climbing, other people don’t. I don’t like sex, others do. It’s as simple as that.”