Hanky panky no thank you – the dilemma of the asexual
A rare few New Zealanders have an approach to sex that would confound most people – they don’t want anything to do with it. SOPHIE SCARF talks to a woman who is “asexual”, and to a health professional who has met only two like her in his 20 years of practice.
Pretty 30-something brunette seeks open-minded companion.
Likes: Tango, Scrabble and Depeche Mode.
Jackie Bell admits she is not optimistic at this point.
But there is no desperation here. The 39-year-old administration assistant doesn’t want children and is finding as she gets older, people are more accepting of this.
Jackie points out that she, like thousands of others, thinks Johnny Depp is “beautiful”. She also finds many women beautiful.
But an appreciation for aesthetic beauty doesn’t translate into animal lust. Jackie is a member of the Asexuality Aotearoa New Zealand (AANZ) group.
The website www.asexuality.org.nz defines asexuality as a lack of sexual attraction.
“Asexuals can be defined as people who do not experience sexual attraction or, put simply, people who do not care about sex. Apart from this core criteria, asexuals differ hugely in areas such as relationships, arousal, non-sexual attraction and identity.”
For Jackie, it has been a long and confusing path. She has also been involved in bisexual support groups.
“When I first came across this idea of asexuality, I thought maybe what I am is equally disinterested in both genders, rather than interested in both.”
Three years ago, a friend took her along to a group meeting where she met Chris Coles, asexual “ambassador”, and creator of the AANZ website.
She laughs and says Chris is “as asexual as you could possibly get”. Unlike Jackie, he does not like touch and is not interested in a relationship.
“I’ve always been keen on the idea of romance,” says Jackie. “I like falling in love. I was very keen on the idea of getting a boyfriend, but was relieved to find out it was okay to date women, too.”
She thinks it must be harder dealing with the male stereotype for Chris, and explains: “He was so excited when he found out what he was, and has found it disappointing how hard it is to create a community.”
But she enjoys catch-up sessions with fellow asexuals from New Zealand and abroad. “Every time I think I don’t really qualify I think, well, I just like them too much. And Chris says: ‘you just have to be supportive, not an atypical asexual.’ I don’t go around saying that’s what I am.”
Sex therapist Paul Willoughby (right) has 12 years’ experience as a sexuality counsellor and completed his training with Sexual Therapists New Zealand in 2005. He has worked as a sex therapist for the past four years.
He describes an asexual person as “someone who has never experienced all of the following – sexual desire or sexual arousal and who has no interest in being in a sexual relationship.”
In his 20 years of counselling, Paul has met only two clients who identify as being asexual. “It has sometimes been confused with someone experiencing a loss of sexual desire where there was previously sexual desire. I think sex therapists are now considering asexuality to be a reality for a certain group of people.”
One defining moment for the AANZ group took place on New Zealand television, when Shortland Street character Gerald Tippett, hospital receptionist, proclaimed that he was not gay, nor frigid, but asexual, after stumbling across the term on the internet.
Jackie describes the featured episodes as a “huge deal” and says they have been viewed by asexuals around the world.
She says they were amazed writers had covered all the possible reasons – were you abused as a child? Are you too scared to be gay?
Paul Willoughby: “Asexual clients have expressed a lot of sensitivity about being judged by others and made to feel that they are in some way wrong. Understandably so in this society where there is a lot of emphasis on being sexually active – the asexual person is going to feel that they don’t fit.”
Jackie says the obsession with sex in our culture makes it particularly hard on young people. “The problem with being young is that people tend to think that you’ll get there eventually. It’s such an obscure concept – nobody asks you if you are asexual…a lot of people tend to think you’ll come around.”
She remembers a conversation with one particular and overtly sexual male, who she says just couldn’t grasp the idea. “He really thought they (asexual people) must be in denial or something.
“People just aren’t aware of the possibility. It’s a very new awareness.”
Even for Jackie, it is difficult to define a loving relationship without sex. Engaging in sexual activities is something she has done to maintain a relationship and counts herself lucky because she is not a virgin and she will tolerate it (sex), unlike some others.
It was when partners expressed a need for more that problems arose. One relationship ended when Jackie realised that the man she loved didn’t want the same thing at all, but was suppressing his sexual desire in an effort to keep her happy.
“Sex is a way of people connecting to each other. If there was no sex altogether, it would be a friendship.”
So how does it work, then?
“You hear about people who have been together that just can’t be bothered any more…they stay together.”
She points out that it is also common for people to have low sex drives and says there are plenty of “regular” people who don’t really enjoy sex despite being “sexual.”
So would meeting another asexual be the answer?
“You can’t just make it happen. It seems a bit wrong to hit on (asexual) people.”
But a companion wouldn’t be lost on this thoughtful asexual creature. Ideally: “A relationship where you don’t argue about sex all the time – and someone that doesn’t keep score in scrabble.”