By Shambhavi Saxena:
I was eleven when the first mention of the term ‘asexual‘ came up during my biology class. As expected, we were all tittering behind our books. The teacher tread carefully through a chapter on reproduction. Of course, in the sanitized, exam-oriented environs of the classroom, with a chalk diagram of a flower’s naughtier parts on display before us, there was going to be no discussion of sex or sexuality. In fact, we were all avoiding the ‘S’ word as best as we could. It was the same year that most of us were getting the initial doses of those angst-provoking hormones. All of a sudden a book of unwritten courtship codes was being passed around in a flurry of whispers and giggles and furious rumour mongering. While the others were charting the complex map of heterosexuality, I was feeling more and more left out and confused. Towards the end of high school, I decided to tell my friends that I might be gay. And by the end of undergrad, I had figured myself out.
I look at my journey out of compulsory heteronormativity and possible homosexuality into comfortable asexuality with a massive sense of relief. There was no name-calling or bullying, thankfully, but I was conflicted, sitting on a fence of the hetero/homo binary, unable to bat for either team. At the same time, I was dealing with invasive questions and assumptions about dating, marriage and children – none of which appeal to me. The outside world was projecting its idea of heterosexuality onto me. The queer spaces that I had sniffed out weren’t talking about people like me. The ‘I’ stored safely inside my head was becoming progressively more despairing. My closest friends were as bewildered as I was. Then, a few months into college, the internet came to my rescue.
The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) was founded by David Jay in 2001 and is “the world’s largest online asexual community as well as a large archive of resources”. The home page boldly declares: “An asexual person is a person who does not experience sexual attraction.” Finally! Here was a word I could put to myself, or at least to this one aspect of who I am! An Indian equivalent does not exist yet, to address our culture specific issues. The few Facebook groups I joined, though welcoming enough, were starved for conversation. But all the same, I finally had something to go on! Just like any community, asexuals active online have produced shibboleths of sorts, in shared jokes and terminology. For example, “asexual” has been softened into “ace” – shorter, less clinical, and infinitely cooler sounding. Another little joke that’s been going around, is the use of cake as the unofficial symbol for the asexual-ness. In the 2011 documentary, (A)sexual, ace vlogger Swank Ivy explains cake was a sort of early meme that came up in response to the question: “What’s better than sex?” To me, it was like finding kindred souls on the scary first day of school.
People generally do not view online forums as a source of education, but the asexual community flocks to the internet. The democratized nature of online publishing has carried the voice of the marginalized where print or visual media just won’t, and that includes marginalized orientations, gender alignments and identities (MOGAI). We write our own stories because no one else will. In another time, that sentiment would have been empowering, but today, when sexuality studies are of growing importance, it’s rather disappointing to see only the L, the G and the T of the acronym LGBTQIA+ being discussed.
Gay, Lesbian and Transgender studies are an actual thing, which is fantastic, because it’s about time! But there are those subsections of the queer community that are simply invisible, both within and without the queer community. Bisexuality, Asexuality, Demisexuality, Agenderism, Gender-fluidity and others in the expanding sexual spectrum are terribly under-researched and misunderstood. In the two years that I trawled the internet for qualitative and quantitative information, I came across a grand total of one paper: Nicole Prause and Cynthia A. Graham’s “Asexuality: Classification and Characteristics”, which was, of course, culturally removed from me.
We’re the inconsequential “miniscule minority” inside the other inconsequential miniscule minority, and it’s easier to pretend we don’t exist. Maybe it is. It’s easier to maintain hetero-patriarchal power-structures built on centuries upon centuries of subordination and carefully constructed social practices preserved by exploitative institutions that are peopled with crooks and bigots. That whole circus is much easier than understanding that sexuality and gender are a spectrum and are experienced differently by different people, and it’s really no cause for alarm.
The asexual community anywhere in the world faces the danger of assumed insignificance. Homosexuality has been quickly coopted by popular culture. A sassy gay character on a sitcom sells better than the ‘bland asexual’. Teenage girls crave ‘gay bffs’. All of this is problematic of course, but that it exists at all to be discussed is more than us aces can say about ourselves. Our very own Baba Ramdev has already (incorrectly) contested the role gays and lesbians have played, and wouldn’t he just love to sink his teeth into asexuality the same way?
Manuel Castells’ ‘The City and the Grassroots‘ perfectly spells out the San Francisco gay community’s history as well as socio-economic usefulness – in addition to bringing business to the American economy, they were also responsible to a grand extent for renovation and preservation works of the city’s old Victorian buildings.
Aces have offered nothing to the national economy, and have instead upended the age-old institutions of marriage and succession. In India, though we may come off as prudish about sex, sexuality is a highly profitable commodity, and the asexuals are here to ruin it. It’s easy to see the kind of threats that exist, then – from constantly insisting on sexual relationships to labelling us as ‘unnatural’ to assuming we’ve been broke somehow, to measures like corrective rape. Perhaps even worse is the constant suggestion that this is all ‘perceived persecution’, coming from people who are obviously not a minority group.
Anonymity for the ace community provides its own safety. You’re spared the trouble of coming out only to have yourself reduced to your sexuality. You’re spared the headache of being everyone’s primary educator. But you’re also kept from living life on your terms, from being comfortable in your own skin, from watching the bigots walk right out of your life, while the friends and family who count and who can be counted on stay firmly by your side. Moreover, it keeps you from the battles that shape you as a person, and that are paving a less treacherous way for somebody else. After all, what’s living if you can’t do it authentically?