As a young teenager, Yasmin Benoit couldn’t connect with her friends during conversations about their crushes, sexual desires or first romantic dates. She constantly faced questions about her evident lack of interest in anybody. Later she was interrogated about her sexual orientation; if she doesn’t talk about boys, probably she was interested in girls. But she knew she wasn’t lesbian.
Then her friend introduced her to the website Tumblr, where she started to read about the experiences of young people that were relatable to her. She was asexual. Today she is a world-renowned asexual activist, model, writer and speaker.
Asexuality refers to a lack of sexual attraction to others, or a low interest in sexual activity, regardless of gender. It is considered a sexual orientation, similar to identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer (it is the “A” in the LGBTQIA acronym). But many people aren’t aware of what it means to be asexual.
After being described as “the unlikely face of asexuality” by Cosmopolitan Magazine because of her modeling work, she started the #ThisIsWhatAsexualLooksLike movement to show the diverse community of asexual people and co-founded International Asexuality Day which falls on April 6.
This year she is one of the key speakers at the International Human Rights Conference, organized by Civil Rights Defenders, as part of the EuroPride 2022 which is taking place in Belgrade from September 12 to 18.
Yasmin gave a lecture on “Debunking the Myths of Asexuality,” and highlighted some of the main issues and challenges asexual people (or “an ace”) face as one of the most underpresented and missunderstood groups in the LGBTQIA+ community. She talked about the need to understand asexuality similarly to other sexual orientations, as a spectrum full of nuances. For instance, if a person isn’t sexually attracted to a specific gender, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want a romantic relationship, or that they will never experience sexual relationships. Asexual people can experience romantic or platonic attraction, sensual or aesthetic attraction, as well as other types of attraction that have nothing to do with sex.
According to Benoit, asexuality is often diagnosed as a medical problem, rather than a sexual orientation. Photo: Igor Čoko / K2.0.
According to Benoit, 1% of the population falls within the asexual spectrum, or over 70 million people.
“That’s more than the populations of many countries,” she said.
Yasmin launched the U.K.’s first ever asexual rights initiative in partnership with Europe’s biggest LGBTQIA+ rights organisation, Stonewall. The “Stonewall x Yasmin Benoit Ace Project” is researching the issue of asexual discrimination in the U.K.
After her presentation at the conference, K2.0 caught up with her to talk about misconceptions, representation, discrimation and all things asexual.
K2.0: Yesterday at the conference, you had a very well-received presentation where you debunked many myths and misconceptions on asexuality. But if you were to highlight one of them, which would you consider the misconception that is most harmful to asexual people?
Yasmin Benoit: The main misconception is probably that something is physically or mentally wrong with you because all the misconceptions center around the idea that there are either physical or psychological problems.
If it is physical then it is something that probably is hormonal and probably can be handled with medication, or something to fix your libido, something to fix your hormones.
And then if it is psychological, people think that it is some kind of mental illness, or societal effect or something, whether it is trauma, or whether it is just having a bad personality or bad experience.
We rarely encounter people who identify as asexual, or even hear much about this experience that would create a broader understanding of asexuality and asexual people. That’s why I am interested in your journey of discovering yourself and self-acceptance.
People always try to work out what was wrong with me. I would get asked almost on a daily basis about what my sexuality was; people were trying to work out why I wasn’t reacting to things the same way other people were. And I never had the language for it. I would sometimes say I am straight but I don’t like guys, which is kind of my way of nullifying it and when people were asking if I am gay, well, I don’t like women either.
Eventually one of my friends suggested that I might be asexual because she spent a lot of time on Tumblr and she has heard about it because that is where the conversations where happening at that time. And that is what made me more inclined to look.
So, I learnt about it because people would always quiz me and ask me about what my orientation was. It wasn’t something I had an answer for, but it made me more inclined towards analyzing myself. And there wasn’t any kind of representation of it, like in the mainstream media…
A lot of teenagers were using the internet, creating their own content, and there were a lot of personal resources, people sharing their stories. I found these stories and testimonies about other people’s experiences and I realized that they sound so much like my own. And this was how I discovered the terminology but I still didn’t feel entirely comfortable using it, because all the information was in the first person and that made me question whether it was a legitimate orientation or just an experience that a certain group of teenagers were having.
There are many variations of acronyms used to group sexual and gender identities. And over time the established LGBT abbreviation has acquired extra letters in order to acknowledge the variety of experiences. What does it mean for asexual people to have the letter “A” in the acronym?
I think it is important to include the “A.” I don’t mind it in a casual conversation, I often say Q+ because it is shorter. But I think when it comes to organizations and stuff, it kind of shows the level of commitment to the community. And there is no reason for them to not hold themselves to the standard of being inclusive because they have explicitly committed to this.
So when you include the “A” you are saying I know what this means, I know what this community is going through and I am going to do something about it.
Benoit has worked to increase public understanding of what it means to be asexual. Photo: Igor Čoko / K2.0.
In your presentation you presented some very concerning statistics, saying that 89% of asexual people are in closet. What are the main reasons that make them hesitant to come out and choose to not be identified as asexuals in public?
I think the main reason why asexual people are staying the closet is similar to other sexual orientations. It is the fear of the backlash, the fear of not being accepted, and not being understood and being perceived as weird and abnormal, or broken or ill. Because even if people still don’t know what asexuality means, they still have a lot of opinions about it. Because we are taught to see not having sexual attraction as a bad thing, whether you understand asexuality not.
So I think people fear what people might say, fear being perceived as strange and getting a million questions.
How does discrimination against asexual people play out? What do asexual people often face?
For example, when it comes to healthcare, asexual people, 10% undergo conversion therapy because we have pathologized the orientation as “hypoactive sexual desire disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and International Classification of Diseases. So if we were to go to a healthcare practitioner and describe asexuality to them, they would tend to think that you are ill and give you medication, and give you therapy and try to make you straight, instead of just understanding you were an asexual person, and that’s your orientation.
That’s similar to what other orientations go through and have gone through.
Then, in the workplace we don’t have the same protections in terms of equality acts, particularly in the U.K.
All the things that have been harmful to the queer community are also harmful to the asexual community.
Hate crime laws there have no provisions for protecting asexual people, even though we still experience hate. We still experience backlash. We still experience attempts to fix us in the same way.
One of the main concerns that is clear in the research about asexual people is mental health. Similar to other LGBTIAQ+ identities, asexuals are often met with disbelief or dismissal. They are often told “you just haven’t met the right person yet.” Some even try to pressure asexual people into having sex, mistakenly believing it will change their lack of sexual attraction. How does all of this is translated into emotions and feelings of asexual people?
It is a pretty alienating and isolating experience because no one else really gets this aspect of who you are. Like your asexual orientation is one of the key characteristics regardless of who you want to be. And it is meant to tie in to how the rest of your life is supposed to turn out, how your future is supposed to be.
And you are told if you don’t fit a certain model you probably are going to have a difficult future and that can be a very alienating experience. And then you also are not meeting people like yourself, and not having access to people in real life, to be around examples of what your future looks like. So that just adds to people being more depressed and more anxious because humans are social creatures and it is hard to be as social and open as you want if people don’t understand or relate to you.
Heteronormativity and problematic ideas of “family values” and the nuclear family, provide a basis for discrimination towards people with non-conforming sexual orientations or gender identities. This discrimination exists because homophobic and transphobic people envision a society that doesn’t have space or empathy for gay or trans people. Heteronormative beliefs discriminate against anyone who is not heterosexual and anyone whose gender identity and biological sex don’t conform. But it seems asexual people might manage to avoid a specific type of this discrimination. Does this cause rifts between asexuals and other people who fall under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella?
Yes, that is happening, and it happens also within LGBTQIA+ community. There is a strange mentality that is very much like oppression olympics; in essence that you need to have faced a certain amount of discrimination to count. I don’t think this is a good way to quantify the significance of orientations, or how worthy or important certain experiences are. There are gay people that live comfortable and privileged lives, and that doesn’t make them any less gay. It doesn’t mean their experiences are less important.
And all the things that have been harmful to the queer community are also harmful to the asexual community, and what’s harmful to us is harmful to queer community.
People would always say to me, "you don't look asexual." And I said, "what does asexual look like?"
Heteronormativity has impacted the asexual community. If you dismantle it for us, you dismantle it for everyone. If you dismantle it for them, you dismantle it for us. So it is all part of the same cause.
You created the hashtag #ThisIsWhatAsexualLooksLike and encouraged other people on the asexual spectrum to use it. In your presentation yesterday you said that the hashtag came as a consequence of whitewashing you have faced often. Did you feel that people don’t believe you are asexual because you don’t fit this persistent narrative that sees black women as hyper-sexualized?
It was a combination of things. People would always say to me, “you don’t look asexual.” And I said, “what does asexual look like?” I am what asexual looks like.
Because they didn’t really perceive black women as being asexual, and I always was judged based on my appearance.
And at the same time when I was spending that time on the internet I noticed that asexuality was very much represented by very similar white American teenagers and I thought that that can’t be everybody. When I have the opportunity to meet asexual people in real life I realized that it doesn’t represent everybody, it is just who we tend to see.
And I just thought by creating that, it wouldn’t only help to give agency back to the asexual community so they can represent themselves, it would also provide a resource so they can see that there is diversity in the community, because the asexual community, we are kind of small.
Lots of people never met an asexual person in real life and I think it is unhealthy to be part of a community that you’ve never seen. And you can just type the hashtag in and scroll through and see people of different ages, nationalities, genders and races. It is a helpful resource, not just for asexual people to see themselves, but also for people outside of the community to see how diverse the community is.
I read that because of the lack of media representation many people confuse asexuality with celibacy, which is the choice to abstain from sexual activity, rather a sexual orientation. Do you believe that there is shift in media portrayal of asexual people and asexuality?
I think our visibility is getting gradually better and better, but it hasn’t improved drastically compared to other orientations. We only have been talking about being transgender for the past ten years or less, and now everyone knows what it means at this point.
It is a big topic of conversation. It is all over TV, it is on the news, TV shows. And when you consider how the asexual population is very simliar to the number of transgender people, but it hasn’t really been included in the same way. So I think while there are some asexual characters in some video games, and books, TV shows, but in comparison to what we see, this explosion from all other orientations, it hasn’t progressed that much.
It is still in the introductory stage, but then trangender rights are at an introductory stage and there hasn’t been a huge amount of progress given that there was a lot of progress for the other orientations in the last few years.
Why it is important to have International Asexuality Day?
It came from me, because I thought all the other attempts to do that weren’t inclusive. They were significant dates in specific people’s cultures, not taking into consideration the international aspect. All of our resources and visibility tends to come from the U.K. and U.S., tends to come from English-speaking people, white people.
The way we discuss how it fits in culture is very specific to a specific culture. And there is a big asexual community in India, Brazil, there are asexuals in Nigeria and they are not included in how we talk about things.
So the purpose of International Asexuality Day is to expand your thinking and amplify the voices from different countries, and hopefully extend our resources to different cultures. Even here while we are talking in Serbia, I was speaking to someone earlier and they said that it is hard to meet asexual people here and that the conversation isn’t going in the same way as it is in the U.K. And I have spoken in countries, in Romania and Czech Republic… it is different everywhere. I think it is very important to highlight what these differences are and sort of tailor things to specific cultures and countries.
This article has been edited for length and clarity. The conversation was conducted in English.
Feature image: Igor Čoko / K2.0.