Asexuality in Sex Ed
By Tania Molinar-Castillo, Youth Advisor
November 3, 2016
In last week’s blog, we talked about why we have to start teaching pleasure in sex ed if we want to teach youth about consent. But there are risks with discussing pleasure in sex ed – namely, the risk that you might exclude or shame asexual students. So how can you talk about pleasure in sex ed and be inclusive of asexuality?
First, we need to know our terms.
What does it mean to be asexual?
Just like any other sexuality, asexuality is a specific term we use to describe a broad topic. One definition of asexuality cannot fully encapsulate every asexual person’s experience. However, a general, working definition of asexuality is that asexual people do not feel sexual attraction or sexual desire toward anyone. It isn’t a conscious choice that people make, like with celibacy or abstinence. Asexual people don’t choose their sexuality, just like hetero- or homosexual people don’t choose their sexuality. The difference is that with asexuality, there is a lack of sexual attraction to other people.
It’s important to be careful here: the lack of sexual attraction to other people doesn’t mean that asexual people can’t feel sexual pleasure, can’t have romantic attractions, and can’t be in romantic – even sexual – relationships. It simply means that they don’t desire to have sexual contact with another person, or to share their sexuality with another person. This doesn’t mean that they can’t – just that they don’t have any desire for it. A helpful way to think about it is when you feel full, but your friend wants to get an ice cream with you. You’re probably fine with getting an ice cream – you might even enjoy it – but you aren’t going to crave or desire the ice cream. It’s the same with asexuality. An asexual person might have sex because they’re curious, because they know it’s important to their partner, because they want to get pregnant, or any one of a number of reasons. They just won’t desire it.
It’s also helpful to think of the distinction between sexual arousal and sexual attraction. An asexual person might feel sexual arousal from a sexual fantasy, or from masturbation. However, they will not feel sexual attraction to another person; that is, they won’t want to share their arousal with a partner, or feel aroused by the presence of a partner.
Asexuality and sexuality are not fixed categories with no flexibility in between. Just like all sexual orientations, they exist on a spectrum. Some asexual people find that the label gray-asexual fits them better because they sometimes feel sexual attraction to other people, but so rarely that they don’t identify as sexual. Or they sometimes enjoy or desire sex with another person, but only under extremely specific circumstances.
Okay, so why does this matter in sex ed?
According to sexuality researcher Dr. Anthony Bogaert (one of the few researchers looking into asexuality) about 1% of the world’s population is asexual. That means 1 in 100 U.S. students is probably asexual – and most likely they’re not getting the information they need. Since many asexual people are never educated on what asexuality is, they face shame, confusion, and stigma as their peers develop sexual attraction and they do not. In a world obsessed with sex, being asexual can be extremely isolating.
While Bogaert’s research shows that 70% of asexual people are women, the harmful messages we discussed in last week’s blog can hurt asexual people of all genders. Asexual women who receive messages about their responsibility to provide pleasure to their partners may feel pressured into having sex they don’t want. Asexual men who are told that sexual attraction is an integral part of masculinity may feel ashamed or ostracized. And asexual people of all genders are given hurtful messages, like that lacking sexual desire is abnormal, or that they’ll just grow out of it eventually, or that they haven’t experimented enough in bed. These messages invalidate and shame asexual youth.
Furthermore, asexual people can and do enter relationships with sexual people. If we don’t provide asexual youth with information and tools on how to express their wants and needs in sexual or potentially sexual relationships, we are not providing them with the information they need to be empowered in their relationships and to engage in sex consensually.
So what can we do?
One of the most damaging experiences asexual people deal with is the feeling that they are abnormal, or that they are alone in their experiences. So the simplest thing we can do in sex ed is acknowledge asexuality as a completely normal sexual orientation, just like any other. We can include asexuality when discussing sexual orientations, and make sure to explicitly tell students that some people don’t want sex or don’t enjoy it, and that’s okay. Furthermore, instead of invalidating asexual youth by telling them that they’re “too young to know,” we should respect them enough to take their word for it. After all, we wouldn’t tell a young heterosexual person that they’re too young to understand their own sexuality!
Another thing to keep in mind is that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about why someone identifies as asexual or does not experience sexual attraction. Sometimes, we can jump to the conclusion that there was an external experience that led a person to identify as asexual instead of acknowledging that it is simply another sexual orientation. This can lead to the assumption that youth who don’t experience sexual attraction need help of some sort. So if a youth comes to you and tells you they are not sexually active and have no desire, respect them enough to believe them. Listen to them.
We can also avoid using broad, universal language when describing sexual attraction. For example, instead of saying “At a certain age, you’ll start to develop feelings for other people,” try “Some people will start to develop sexual attraction toward other people as they hit puberty, and some people won’t. Both are perfectly normal.”
And finally, we can distinguish between romantic attraction and sexual attraction. Just because a person is asexual doesn’t mean that they can’t have healthy romantic relationships. Remind your students that while many romantic relationships are sexual, a relationship doesn’t have to be sexual to be romantic.
Sex ed should always be about empowering young people by acknowledging and respecting their real, lived experiences and needs. Asexual youth are no different; sex ed should empower them, too. So as we’re talking about pleasure in sex ed , let’s not forget to be inclusive of our asexual students!
Want to learn more on asexuality? Check out these resources:
The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network: http://www.asexuality.org/home/?q=overview.html
An educator's guide to asexuality: http://www.whatisasexuality.com/educators/guide