Misrepresentations of asexuality
By Sam Juric
“I can’t begin to understand your reluctance to have sex,” Julie Sondra Decker reads from the letter she holds in her hands. Her facial expression quickly descends into a look of incredulity. The ignorance almost permeates from the sheet of crinkled white paper as she opens her mouth to speak. Her eyes are fixed on the camera in front of her as her voice pours out unwavering. She is not confused or traumatized. She is just disinterested in sex. To asexual YouTubers everywhere, she is known better as “Ivy” and this is her series called, ‘Letters to an Asexual.’
Over a period of seven years, the channel has garnered over 5,000 subscribers to its online attempt at dispelling the stereotypes and poor media representations asexuals are often at the receiving end of. One of the more popular segments is called, 5 Things People Get Wrong. It is a callout to the media, slamming the creepy serial killer, the traumatized and the infantilized 40-year-old virgin asexual clichés.
Jessica Milloy’s face is illuminated by the blue glow of her computer screen as she is willingly sucked into a Tumblr vortex bursting with the usual, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Who images. It is one of the only spaces in which she is successful in connecting with the asexual community. At 23, this media studies student, is all too familiar with the stifling effects of the lack of media representation of her community.
“A lot of people when they hear someone is asexual (or ace, as members of the community have come to refer to themselves as) think back to what they learned in biology class about single-cell organisms. They envision a boring, devoid of life, lonely amoeba. But we are just as curious as anyone else,” says Milloy.
Asexuality is defined by a lack of sexual attraction for other people, says Dr. Anthony Bogaert, a sexuality studies professor at Brock University. While some aces don’t experience sexual desire at all, others have a sex drive, he says. It’s not uncommon for asexuals of the second variety to masturbate, watch porn and even accept invitations to orgies for the sake of curiosity. They just don’t have a sexual desire directed towards other people, he says.
Could it be that the picture of asexuality is being distorted? The dominant representations of asexuals in the media are limited and stereotypical, Bogaert says. They ignore the complex and rich experiences of asexuals.
“There is research to suggest that people are more negative to asexual people than they are towards other sexual minorities. There is a certain degree of foreignness that is attached to asexual people that give them a kind of stigma.” Bogaert says.
While the LGBTQ community uses the word pride as a means to dissolve damaging traces of shame, aces have claimed the term visibility to counter the invisibility the community feels has been imposed upon them says David Jay founder of The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN).
Since 2001, AVEN has been a sanctuary for aces worldwide along with the various corners of Tumblr.
It is on a morning, seemingly like any other in 2004, that David Jay, founder of AVEN woke up to a barrage of voicemail messages and emails from the British media desperate to talk to him about what it is like to be asexual. It was a mass reaction to the magazine article, Glad to be Asexual published in New Scientist Magazine in 2004, featuring Jay.
Many of these media interactions leave Jay feeling puzzled, “A lot of stories would talk about me being attractive. There was this sense that the expectation was that as asexual people we would be unlikable people who are not interested or capable of intimacy,” says Jay.
Sondra Decker has found herself in similar uncomfortable and at times, down-right offensive run-ins with the media. She has been featured in dozens of print articles and has been interviewed on several podcast shows on her experiences of being an asexual woman.
“There’s been so many times that I’ve been misrepresented,” says Sondra Decker. Sometimes it’s an honest mistake but other times it is not, she says.
“Asexual people are so afraid to seek counseling because of the likelihood of counselors to assume that sexuality in a traditional sense is going to be an important part of a person’s human interaction and they’re going to take this as a symptom [of an illness] even if it might not be.”
Inciting sexual people to read about the experiences of aces has been a question, stumping the collective mainstream media for over a decade. Sondra Decker has reluctantly become an expert on things the media should not do when trying to stimulate interest towards aces. Included in her list of ‘media don’ts’ are: don’t acquire private Facebook photos of aces in their bathing suits. Don’t slap on headlines that read, ‘Men say I need a good raping’. And don’t feature the aforementioned headline in a 2013 article in The Daily Mail, a publication in the United Kingdom.
Sondra Decker is also troubled by the lack of intersectional aces seen in television, film and print. More than anything, she wants to see a diversified representation of the community. She worries about what her white middle class female presence in the media says to the sexualized world about what it is to be ace.
“In all senses except being asexual I’m pretty relatable. I’m relatively uncomplicated to understand. It gives a whitewashed version of what it means to be an asexual person,” says Sondra Decker.
Nineteen-year old Canna Liang, often finds herself bombarded by images of vaguely asexual, Asian characters in anime. The medium is flooded with characters who often default to either infantilized or hyper sexualized stereotypes, she says. As a Chinese-Canadian, Liang is frustrated as are many other aces of colour.
She finds herself tightly jammed between two stereotypes that don’t reflect the intersecting elements of her identity – growing up as an Asian female who identifies as a bi-romantic ace. She is waiting to one day see fewer white males as the dominant images of asexuality. More colour. More females. More LGBTQ, she says.
“We’re the minority” within the invisible orientation, reflects Liang on her experience of being an ace of colour. She is optimistic to one day witness a character on television come-out as asexual. It would be so helpful for people who are still figuring-out their asexuality, she says.
Moments of sadness and isolation cling to Liang, triggered by not having access to empowered, ace figures and themes in the media. “It makes you feel like you’ll never be able to find someone [like you],” she says.
Milloy, is at peace with her ace status. She wears a black ring on her middle finger as a symbol of her asexuality, a small token recognized by aces everywhere. It is a bold daily declaration to herself, to her community and to the sexual world.
She also professes her joy for chocolate cake. This might seem unusual at first glance, but it is actually a saucy ace symbol that says to the sexual world, “I would rather eat cake than have sex.”
But Milloy can’t forget the years she struggled with her identity. The lack of resources and the absence of aces in media made it even worse to fumble through her sexuality, she says. She remembers only one moment during her childhood where she encountered a resource on asexuality, in the form of a small article in Teen Magazine.
She stored the information in the recesses of her mind. The lack of resources and ace media presence prevented Milloy from being honest with her sexuality and her personal limitations, she says.
“I think I would have stopped lying to myself if it was more open. I wouldn’t have put myself into situations that I was uncomfortable with,” she says.
It could be in part the lack of ace media presence and false representation by the media of the broken asexual, which has caused many aces to become discouraged and avoid seeking out medical attention when it comes to their mental health, says Bogaert.
“Asexual people are so afraid to seek counseling because of the likelihood of counselors to assume that sexuality in a traditional sense is going to be an important part of a person’s human interaction and they’re going to take this as a symptom [of an illness] even if it might not be,” Sondra Decker says.
“It’s important for asexual people to find themselves in media,” she says.
Why wouldn’t aces feel like the sequestered sexual orientation when the most prevailing portrayals of anything resembling asexuality is what is known among aces as the ‘classic television trio’: Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory (nerdy white guy), Sherlock Holmes (another nerdy white guy) and, Dr. Who (a nerdy white guy who isn’t even human), says Jay.
There is also the additional option of Dexter Morgan, a serial killer portrayed as being asexual during the first season of the eponymous series … but also a nerdy white guy. They all perpetuate this idea that aces are either broken in some capacity, less-than-human or foreign, Jay says.
It is this geeky-white-male paradigm that both Sondra Decker and Jay want to bring to an end. “There isn’t just one ace narrative,” Sondra Decker says.
She uses her writing and her alter ego “Ivy” on her YouTube channel to slay these stereotypes and the damaging representations that follow.