Thursday, September 23, 2021

Cake, Romance, and the Ace of Hearts: A Conversation with the Asexual Community in Yale-NUS

Story by | Ryan Yeo, Contributing Writer

Feature Image | Ace pride flag & the ace of hearts

When we talk about sexual diversity, many different identities come to mind. We know that people can be sexually attracted to men, to women, and/or to nonbinary people. But what about those who feel little to no sexual or romantic attraction at all?

Asexual people, also known as aces, feel little to no sexual attraction towards other people, while aromantic people feel little to no romantic attraction. Asexuality and aromanticism form the “A” in the LGBTQIA+ acronym.

The asexual pride flag (left) and the ace of hearts, which is one of several symbols used to represent the asexual community. Photos: Wikimedia Commons

Self-Discovery

Aaron ‘23 identifies as a homoromantic asexual. In other words, while they can be romantically attracted to people of the same sex, they do not feel sexual attraction to anyone.

“I identified myself as asexual when I was in Junior College,” Aaron recalls. “I was having a lot of conversations with friends about their crushes and the people they were attracted to. They would always mention the physical aspect of these people.”

“I realized that it was something that I completely didn’t identify with and didn’t really understand to begin with,” they say. “I had literally never considered, or even wanted to consider, that aspect.”

Another Yale-NUS College student, who wishes to be identified only as H ‘21, identifies as a heteroromantic asexual. She recounts: “I realized that while I do feel romantic attraction towards men, I just cannot imagine having any sort of sexual contact.”

“At some point, I realised that my friends were having some kind of sexual relationships. And my reaction was, like, ‘why?’”

The Ace Spectrum

Even within the asexual and aromantic communities, there is a lot of diversity.

Asexuality exists on a spectrum which includes people who identify as “graysexual” or “demisexual.” Graysexual people may experience sexual attraction only in specific cases, or otherwise fall in the gray area of the asexual spectrum. Meanwhile, demisexual or demiromantic people may feel sexual or romantic attraction only with people they have formed close emotional bonds with.

Not all asexual people are averse to having sex. YQ ‘23 identifies as a heteroromantic asexual. She explains that asexual people can be sex-positive, sex-neutral, or sex-averse. “Sex-positive or sex-neutral asexuals are okay with having sex; it’s just not a priority or a desire. If my partner wants to, I’m fine with it. Some asexuals who are more sex-averse don’t like the idea of having sex at all,” she explains.

While sex is not a priority for many asexual people, Aaron points out that a common misconception occurs when people conflate asexuality with celibacy or self-restraint. Unlike celibate people, who actively choose not to partake in sexual activities, asexual people do not feel sexual attraction in the first place.

“It has nothing to do with an active choice,” Aaron says. “I literally don’t feel that attraction to other people. That’s just not the way I work.”

Comic strips designed by YQ on her experience of asexuality and the diversity within the asexual community. These comic strips were displayed at the Queer Together art exhibition at Yale-NUS in 2020. Photo: YQ

Different Kinds of Attraction

While sexual and romantic attraction go hand-in-hand for some people, many asexual people experience a distinction between the two. Asexual people may not experience sexual attraction or feel sexual urges towards other people, but some still experience romantic feelings, such as the desire for emotional or physical intimacy.

According to YQ, another common misconception about the asexual community revolves around this distinction. “A lot of people think that we don’t want to date, or that we are aromantic, which is different from asexuality,” she explains.

Misconceptions around asexuality and romance have posed challenges for YQ when she signed up for the first iteration of the Aphrodite Project, a matchmaking project for students of the National University of Singapore and Yale-NUS. “They asked for our sexual orientation, and I indicated that I was ace,” she recounts. “But they left asexuals out because there were only a few of us. In the final results, I didn’t get a match.”

“I think the problem is that some people believe asexual people should only be matched with other asexual people,” she says.

Although the Aphrodite Project later apologized to the asexual community and allowed them to participate in subsequent matchmaking rounds, YQ still faces difficulties when searching for romance. “I think that most people find sex to be a natural progression in a romantic relationship, which I find intimidating and uncomfortable if done too quickly,” she says. “I often worry about the sexual expectations the other party might have if I get into a relationship with them, and this fear hinders me from wanting to try things out.”

Navigating the Waters

Navigating the pressures of romance is also challenging for Aaron. For them, being asexual also means dealing with societal expectations of love, marriage, and childbearing. Aaron feels the pressure from their family to “get married, have family and kids, and continue the bloodline,” even if they do not necessarily want to.

“The older generation most probably doesn’t understand the concept of asexuality,” Aaron explains. “Since I’m both homoromantic and asexual, I feel like there are many layers of ignorance surrounding my identity. If I ever have the chance to communicate it, especially to the older generation, it’s going to be very difficult.”

For H, societal expectations of how women present themselves make it difficult to navigate her asexuality. She explains: “Sometimes I feel guilty for trying to look nice or putting on make-up. I would think: ‘Isn’t this too provocative? Am I not leading people on?’”

“There’s this narrative that a girl who behaves in a confident way or puts effort into her appearance is trying to appeal to men. But that’s not true; we might do that for our own sake.”

Despite feeling the pressure of asexual stereotypes, H adds: “It was very empowering for me to hear about this asexual activist who is also a lingerie model.”

H is referring to Yasmin Benoit, an asexual and aromantic model and activist. In 2019, she created the #ThisIsWhatAsexualLooksLike campaign to combat stereotypes and promote visibility of the asexual and aromantic communities.

“Every time I ask myself: ‘Do I look provocative?’ I just look at her Instagram, and I see her wearing all this underwear, looking this way, and still saying, ‘I am ace.’”

Yasmin Benoit, an asexual activist. Photo: Yasmin Benoit on Facebook

The Ace Conversation

As part of her own efforts to promote asexual visibility in the Yale-NUS community, YQ made take-home cards, comic strips, and a paper cake for the Queer Together art exhibition at Yale-NUS last year.

Cake is a symbol adopted by the online asexual community, who have humorously proclaimed that they would rather have cake than have sex.

YQ acknowledges that despite these efforts to promote visibility, normalizing asexuality is still a difficult task. She points out that sexual elements are found everywhere, from food advertisements to drama series. “The whole mass media revolves around sex,” she remarks. “Almost everything has a sexual undertone.”

Nevertheless, YQ believes that to be a good ally, one must avoid assuming that everyone is allosexual, a term that refers to people who experience sexual attraction. For instance, she suggests avoiding talking about sex within large groups of people, as not everyone may be able to relate to it.

A paper cake made by YQ for the Queer Together art exhibition. Participants at the exhibition would open up the cake to read the comic strips inside. Photo: YQ

Aaron also believes that allosexual people have a role to play in normalizing the conversation about asexuality. For Aaron, having more frequent and casual conversations about sexuality is important to understanding the role sex plays in our lives, and can lead to a better understanding of asexuality.

“In the Yale-NUS bubble, you talk about sexuality so much more than you would otherwise,” Aaron says. “And I think people should take advantage of that. If you normalize these topics, you would learn so much, and more importantly, you would be more willing to learn.”

To learn more about asexuality, H suggests browsing the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), an online forum and library of resources on asexuality. AVEN, along with other asexuality organizations worldwide, have marked April 6 as International Asexuality Day to celebrate asexual diversity around the world.

While sex and romance have been normalized in our society, conversations about diversity within them have not. When we skirt around these topics, we are perhaps unwittingly upholding sexual and romantic attraction as the norm.

Let us not forget about the asexual and aromantic communities. Let us include them in our conversations too.

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