There are still a lot of misconceptions that not only affect the mental health of asexual people, but their physical health. “It’s not the problem with being ace—it’s a problem with how the world views you”
By Alanna Rizza
Madeline Sialtsis was in Grade 12 when she had her first appointment with a psychiatrist. As she sat across from him during her first session, she told him about her asexuality. She hoped that he would be respectful and accepting. Instead, he told her she would get over it and would eventually enjoy sex. “You’ll get there someday,” he said.
When Sialtsis came to Ryerson, she immediately found student groups for LGBTQ2A+ engineers and built a strong community of people who understand her. The now fifth-year aerospace engineering student still sees the same psychiatrist, but she’s never brought up her asexuality again during her appointments. While she gets the care she needs, she can’t help but think back to her first session, feeling invalidated by him, as if her identity isn’t real.
Asexuality means experiencing little-to-no sexual attraction towards others. While asexuals can still be attracted to people, it can take other forms, such as romantic attraction.
Their relationships can still be loving and intimate—it just may not include sex. There are still a lot of misconceptions that not only affect the mental health of asexual people, but their physical health. “It’s not the problem with being ace—it’s a problem with how the world views you,” says Michael Doré, an organizer with the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN).
Asexuals, also known as “ace” people, often feel isolated in a hyper-sexualized society where not being interested in sex is considered abnormal. Some asexual people do have sex, but even if they don’t, they are in need of sexual health care like anyone else.
Morag Yule, a Toronto-based sex therapist, says ace people tend to experience more mental health issues because they are a sexual minority. In a 2013 study, Yule and a team of researchers found that asexual participants were significantly more likely to report “mood or anxiety disorders” than straight and “non-heterosexual” participants.
Ace people are often perceived as lonely or that their lives would be more fulfilled if they had sex. It’s common for healthcare providers to assume that if their patient is ace, they don’t need the same sexual health care as someone who is non-ace. These providers sometimes see them as a patient who needs treatment, reaffirming that it’s unnatural to have no sexual attraction.
Sam Rita* finds herself disgusted with anything sexual since she had her first kiss at a Grade 9 party. Since then, she’s struggled to explain her repulsion toward sex, to guys she has met on campus or to potential Tinder dates.
As a woman, she feels pressured to make her partners happy sexually, so she’ll end up feeling guilty about her asexuality. She even encouraged one of her partners to have an open relationship so he could hook up with other people, but he wasn’t into it, and they eventually broke up.
“He didn’t have the education to realize that my sexuality is separate from him as a person,” she says.
While asexual visibility is increasing, so are conversations of consent in ace and non-ace relationships. While some ace people are repulsed by sex, others are indifferent towards it and partake because they know their lover wants it. Navigating consent for aces can get tricky, but having the conversation is necessary to ensure the health and safety of both partners.
Sialtsis has had times when she didn’t personally care to have sex, but did anyways because she knew it made her partner happy. While some advocates might express concern about consent, Sialtsis says it’s completely consensual. They are indifferent to sex, but can consent to it.
“He didn’t have the education to realize that my sexuality is separate from him as a person”
The first documented description of asexuality emerged in the 1940s through Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s sexuality scale, which referred to people who have “no socio-sexual contacts or reactions,” as an “x.” Asexuality wasn’t explicitly mentioned until the late ‘90s with the rise of the internet.
It was discussed in chat forums and blogs such as the popular 1997 post, “My life as an amoeba” by Zoe O’Reilly. In 2001, David Jay posted the definition of asexual online, which led to AVEN. Tony Bogaert, author of “Understanding Asexuality” and a Brock University psychology professor, then published his research on asexuality in 2004, leading to a significant increase in ace visibility.
Asexuality was then seeping into storylines of popular television shows. Fans have speculated that some of their favourite fictional characters are asexual, like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory,but few characters in pop culture are explicitly asexual, like Todd Chavez from Bojack Horseman.
It’s also being increasingly talked about in Canada. Ryerson held its first asexual awareness week in 2014. Last year, Simon Fraser University in British Columbia became the first institution in the world to offer a full-length course in asexuality studies, according to AVEN.
“What does it mean if I don’t like sex?” Sebastian Yue typed into a Google search around the age of 17. I’ve had sex and I’ve tried all these different sex acts, so why don’t I like any of it? Will my partner take it personally if I tell them how I’m feeling?
Yue, who is East Asian, soon realized that being a person of colour further complicates their asexual identity. They also identify as trans and genderqueer and says they are seen as submissive and feminine, which makes it harder for them to navigate a hyper-sexualized society.
Brian Langevin, executive director of Asexual Outreach, says asexuals who are racialized or who have a disability often struggle with their ace identity because of stereotypes associated with their appearance.
It is assumed that people with disabilities don’t have sex, so identifying as ace can be difficult to explain and validate. Black women are often hypersexualized, so being asexual is often met with confusion or disbelief. Langevin says this further isolates ace people and makes them feel as if there’s something wrong with them.
When Yue had sex during high school, they couldn’t help but feel different from their classmates.
Growing up in a small school where everyone knows each other’s business, Yue didn’t tell anyone how they were feeling. So they continued hooking up because they thought they would eventually start liking it. Yue worried they were going to be single forever, and daydreamed about how their life would be different if they weren’t asexual.
For about four years, Yue found community on Tumblr blogs, where users would share their experiences being ace or questioning. After coming to Canada in 2012 from the U.K., Yue attended a World Pride event at Ryerson in 2014. They were hoping to learn more about the intersection of asexuality and race, but couldn’t find anything. When they reached out to the organizers, Yue was asked to speak on the topic.
Speaking at the event, they finally found an ace community in person. Being able to see the faces of people with the same identity made Yue feel accepted.
Now in a loving, intimate relationship of about two years, Yue and their partner show affection by spending time together and giving each other gifts. Yue is not lonely and they are not alone.
*Name has been changed to respect anonymity.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Brian Langevin was the executive director of Asexual Outreach. The Eye regrets the error