By Kate Barber
CN: Hypersexualised media, sex-repulsion
I was about 16 when I realised that other ‘normal’ people actually felt sexual attraction. It’s difficult to realise that you’re different when the only thing about you which is different is something you’re missing. Acknowledging my asexuality was something of a watershed moment in terms of my self-identity and my self-visualisation.
Our acceptance of the importance of intersectionality in understanding mental health is still ongoing. We are just starting to examine how experiences are shaped by race, gender, disability, sexuality and many other factors. It is generally recognised that LGBT+ people are much more likely to experience poor mental health. However, the people amongst the LGBT+ community who identify as being on the asexual spectrum are often forgotten. Whilst this is statistically understandable, given that only a reported 1% of the population self-defines as asexual, it is vitally important to recognise that asexual people do experience a significant impact upon their mental health as a result of living with their sexuality in our society.
We must be aware that society has a very sexual focus. It’s impossible to miss. Advertisements are a key example of the constant, and frankly unnecessary, barrage of sexual images and themes. Products ranging from insurance comparison websites to cream cheeses have all been subject to hypersexualised advertising campaigns. As someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction their prevalence in situations which are completely nonsexual can make you feel isolated, confused, and broken. When everything seems to revolve around sex it’s hard for asexual people to understand exactly where they fit in. Many feel as though something is wrong with them if they don’t share sexual desires. In a discussion on an AVEN (Asexuality Visibility and Education Network) forum one user perfectly encapsulated this feeling: ‘I’ve honestly always felt both jealous of and alienated by it’.
“Advertisements are a key example of the constant, and frankly unnecessary, barrage of sexual images and themes….their prevalence in situations which are completely nonsexual can make you feel isolated, confused, and broken”
One of the most damaging aspects of the media’s portrayal of sex is how it is portrayed in the context of romantic relationships. In almost all film and television sex is deemed integral to any romantic relationship, with no relationship complete until it has been consummated. One example has stuck with me personally. In one episode of Grey’s Anatomy a fan-favourite couple broke up because the sex was not as good as they expected. According to the show, this signified that the characters couldn’t have real chemistry without a stellar sex-life and therefore could not possibly work as a romantic couple. Even stranger than seeing this on TV was realising that many people think this way in real life. I’ve even heard a close friend tell me about friends of hers who broke up with their partners because of sub-par sex.
This deeply affected me as a teenager. After coming out to myself and closer family and friends, I began to feel pressure that I should develop sexual feelings in order to ever hope of having a normal social life. This is not to say that sexual freedom in general is negative, but rather that it can be damaging if sex is shown as the be-all-and-end-all in a relationship. I spent many hours lying awake at night, anxious that nobody would ever want me and that I would end up alone with about fifty cats. Dealing with a reasonably high level of sex-repulsion, I felt saddened and panicked at the thought of needing to sleep with someone in order to have a functioning relationship. If people ever asked I would always say that I was waiting until marriage despite not being religious. I hoped that I could somehow miraculously overcome my terror at the thought of sexual intimacy.
I have never experienced what I would define as a mental illness, but there have been times in my life when I have struggled with my mental health. My sexuality or lack thereof, has definitely been a factor in this. I would never change my sexuality and I feel that I would be a very different person if I did. It has greatly defined the way in which I see myself but also contributed to my insecurities and self-doubt. At a stage in your life where everyone is trying to work out where they fit into society and discover who they are, it can be lonely and disconcerting not to fit neatly into any of the standard labels. Asexual people who aren’t covered under the letters L, G, B, or T can feel lost in space, especially if they don’t feel supported by their loved ones.
My experience is only one within a diverse community of people with varying levels of sexual and romantic attraction. Perhaps this is the point: that sexuality is so diverse and can so easily affect us. There are a myriad of different experiences which can affect our mental health, and the statistic of 1% should not be used as an excuse to sweep the experience of asexuals under the rug.