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What is it like to be asexual?

Jenni Goodchild and Tim
Image caption Jenni is in a relationship with Tim, who is not asexual

Twenty-one-year-old Jenni Goodchild does not experience sexual attraction, but in an increasingly sexualised society what is it like to be asexual?

"For me it basically just means that I don't look at people and think 'hmm yeah I'd have sex with you,' that just doesn't happen," says Jenni.

A student in Oxford, Jenni is one of the estimated 1% of people in the UK who identify themselves as asexual. Asexuality is described as an orientation, unlike celibacy which is a choice.

"People say 'well if you've not tried it, then how do you know?'" says Jenni.

"Well if you're straight have you tried having sex with somebody you know of the same sex as you? How do you know you wouldn't enjoy that? You just know that if you're not interested in it, you're not interested in it, regardless of having tried it or not."

The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), the main online hub for the asexual community, stresses that emotional needs vary widely in the asexual community, just as they do in the "sexual" community.

There is a difference, for instance between aromantic asexuals and romantic asexuals, says sociologist Mark Carrigan, from the University of Warwick.

Aromantic or romantic?

"[Aromantic asexuals] don't have any romantic attractions, so in many cases they don't want to be touched, they don't want any physical intimacy," says Carrigan.

"[Romantic asexuals] don't experience sexual attraction, but they do experience romantic attraction. So they will look at someone and they won't respond sexually to them, but they might want to get closer to them, to find out more about them, to share things with them."

This is true of Jenni who is heteroromantic, and although having no interest in sex, is still attracted to people, and is in a relationship with 22-year-old Tim. Tim, however, is not asexual.

"A lot of people actually ask if I am being selfish and keeping him in a relationship that he won't get anything he wants [from] and he should go and date somebody like him, but he seems quite happy, so I'd say I'd leave that up to him," says Jenni.

Tim is enjoying spending time with and getting to know Jenni by focusing on the romantic aspects of their relationship.

"The first time that Jenni mentioned in conversation that she was asexual, my initial thought was 'hmm that's kind of odd'," says Tim, "but then I did know enough not to make assumptions about what that meant.

"I have never been obsessed with sex. I've not been one to have to go out at night and have to have someone to have sex with, because that's what people do… so I'm not all that concerned about it".

Jenni's relationship with Tim does have a physical side, as they cuddle and kiss to express their affection for each other.

Asexuality has been the subject of very few scientific studies which has led to speculation about why some people feel no sexual attraction.

"There are people who definitely view it as a disorder and are like 'oh if we give you these pills we can fix it'. Or people who ask you 'have you had your hormones checked', as though that's the obvious solution," says Jenni.

"And then you get people who go one step worse, and I have been asked before if I had been molested as a child, which is not an appropriate question to ask somebody to be honest, and also I haven't been. It was the assumption that 'hey you have something wrong with you, clearly you were molested as a child' is just such a terrible attitude to have."

Carrigan suggests that the lack of scientific research is tied in with the fact there was not really an asexual community until the launch of AVEN.

"Until there were people who were defining themselves as asexual, which didn't really happen until 2001, there wasn't really an object to study," says Mark.

Asexuality is distinct from the condition of people who lack sexual desire but find that problematic.

"There has been lots of research on hypoactive sexual desire disorder, which is classified as a personality disorder, and it is if you do not experience sexual attraction and it's causing you suffering. So lots of people who later came to be defined as asexual either were or might have been defined as having this condition."

Although asexuals do sometimes experience discrimination in society, Carrigan says it is different from the "outright phobia" that lesbian and gay people are sometimes subject to.

"It's more about marginalisation because people genuinely don't understand asexuality," says Mark.

"Fifty or 60 years ago would anyone have actually felt the need to define themselves as asexual or would society have just accepted them not engaging in sexual behaviour? I think there has been quite a profound change.

"The 'sexual revolution' has been a hugely valuable change in how we deal with sex and how we think about it as a society. Research has left me with a sense that there is a degree of oversexualisation in society, the fact that people just don't get asexuality."

Relationship, sex and behaviour expert Dr Pam Spurr admits not receiving many inquiries about asexuality.

"In the few times as an agony aunt or in my other work I have had questions about it, people often feel incredibly secretive about it because it's so rare," says Spurr.

She says people feel comfortable talking about high and low sex drives, but that asexuality itself is not a subject that is widely discussed.

The question that fascinates Carrigan is the future effect of a visible asexual community on people who are not asexual.

"For instance there wasn't a concept of heterosexuality before there were homosexuals," says Carrigan. "It was only when there were people calling themselves homosexuals that it made sense for anyone to think of themselves as heterosexual."

"If it is true that up to 1% of the population are asexual and more people are aware of them, will that change how 'sexual' people think about themselves, because there is not really a good word to refer to people who aren't asexual."

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