Asexual Presence in Media

Panelists in “The Asexuality in Media: The Good, the Bad, and the Invisible” discussed all things asexuality for a packed room of con goers on Friday at 11:30AM in Hyatt Hanover AB. Asexuality is defined as an absence or lack of sexual attraction. Approximately one percent of the American population identifies as asexual. The panel covered various topics related to asexuality as well as various appearances of asexuality in mass media.

The panel included moderator Brian Doob, Bethany Kesler, Sue Kisenwether, Shayna Adelman, Niki Veasey, and Helena Isis. Panelists kicked off the hour with an introduction to the split attraction model. This psychological model distinguishes between a person’s romantic attraction and sexual attraction to others. For most, these two types of attraction are aligned. For asexual individuals, romantic attraction may or may not be present, but sexual attraction is nearly or completely absent.

Over the years, asexuality has become less of a niche label. Generation Z is more likely than previous generations to identify as asexual and to ascribe to personal identity labels. Kisenwether noted that labels tend to encourage community and understanding rather than impose restriction upon their claimants. Claiming the asexual identity was validating for her. Kesler commented that finding the asexual community helped her feel less alone. Knowing that there were others like her helped her realize that she was not “broken.”

Although some asexuals seek out partnerships, some eschew them. Isis remarked that, much to the surprise of those around her, she is happy being alone and uncoupled. (A cat may join the household at a later date.) Kisenwether noted that society urges people to pair off in what she termed “the expectation of coupling.” Immense social pressure discourages people from being alone in the long-term. Some manifestations of this phenomenon include tax breaks for married couples filing jointly, a lack of standalone single-person housing, and normalization of matchmaking for singles from loved ones.

Kesler has opted to form a platonic couple for practical reasons. More akin to two friends than two lovers, Kesler and her partner live together, pay bills together, and socialize together. Neighbors don’t quite get that these two partners are not interested in being a traditional couple but go along with the arrangement anyway.

As an asexual Black femme, Isis faces discrimination and marginalization. She recalled an incident in which someone criticized her from taking attention away from another marginalized group by speaking out about her own identity. She opined that the resistance she faces from others is tied to the hypersexualization of Black women in popular culture. When a person stops being a “prospect,” she noted, others may become angry that they have been refused a chance.

Kisenwether touched on the false (but commonly-held) notion that intimate activity can “cure” asexuality. Kesler remarked that her family long believed that she just needed to meet the right man, so she endured years of unwanted matchmaking.

Adelman asserted that asexuals face persecution on social media. From infighting within the asexual community to a lack of acceptance with the general public, the obstacles are manifold. The panel concurred that asexuals must answer to themselves before they answer to others and shouldn’t feel obligated to justify themselves to strangers.

Some detractors argue that asexuals shouldn’t be included as members of the queer community because they face less oppression than certain other queer groups. Asexuals, by virtue of not being heterosexual, are inherently queer. Further, queerness should not necessitate suffering. The panel looks forward to a future where presently marginalized people no longer face oppression.

Doob noted that, although asexual characters exist in media, they remain relatively rare. Jughead Jones (Archie Comics) and Gwenpool (Marvel Comics) are explicitly stated to be asexual within the works in which they appear. This sort of representation is valuable for members of the asexual community but is still rather rare. Often, characters are alleged to be asexual because they have certain unusual traits associated with neurodivergence or a lack of humanity. Kisenwether commented that sexuality is used as a humanizing force for many characters, giving the implication that a lack of sexuality is strange, inhuman, or childish.

One example of bad asexual representation in media cited was Sherlock Holmes from BBC’s Sherlock. In 2014, Benedict Cumberbatch stated, “He’s asexual for a purpose. Not because he doesn’t have a sex drive, but because it’s suppressed to do his work.” Kisenwether emphasized that constrained sexuality was not a lack of sexuality and bemoaned the implication that asexuals are simply sexually repressed.

As the panel closed, questions were taken from the audience. Attendees shared personal experiences as members of the asexual community and asked panelists for their perspectives on the future of asexuality in media. As the asexual community grows, it is hoped that asexual representation in media grows as well.

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