Twenty-nine-year-old Grace Singh’s bio on Tinder states that she’s a ‘demisexual’ (someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction unless she forms a strong emotional connect), which is a bit of an anomaly for a dating app that’s famous for facilitating hook-ups.
“Surprisingly, I’ve met some great people who understood me, while there were others who asked what the term meant. I don’t hesitate before explaining. I own my sexuality completely,” says the Delhi-based healthcare professional, who started a Facebook page called Indian Aces in 2014.
Singh has recently returned from a trip to Bangalore where she was awarded the Orange Flower award from Women’s Web for building the online platform for the Indian asexual community.
And if you thought Singh’s orientation is among a minority, you’re wrong.
Across India, a growing section of individuals are discovering asexuality and are gradually coming out – to themselves and to the world. And the anonymity that the Internet allows for seems to be a great first step.
Sex doesn’t sell
So what is asexuality? Simply put, it’s when a person does not experience sexual desires. It’s a sexual orientation – much like homosexuality and heterosexuality – but also a widely misunderstood one. Given that we live in a hyper-sexualised world, where most of what we consume in pop culture from TV shows and films to books and memes has erotic underpinnings, asexuality may seem like a fallacy.
In 2007, when American asexual activist David Jay appeared on The Montel Williams Show , he was grilled on why he felt that way – was he abused as a child or had people expressed a disinterest in him? “Sometimes, it can be difficult to be an asexual in a world that’s so focused on sexuality,” Jay had said at the time. Ten years later, the conversation around asexuality seems to have finally gathered steam – recent research in the Archives of Sexual Behavior states that asexuality is not a disorder.
Jay founded AVEN (The Asexual Visibility and Education Network), the world’s first platform for asexuality awareness, in 2001. Today, it has around 90,000 members from the English speaking community – including a whole bunch of Indians – and is the largest archive of resources on asexuality. “I spent years struggling to accept myself as asexual, and when I finally did, I wanted to find other people like me. Many of us are told we can’t be happy or form meaningful relationships without sex, and I wanted us to be able to come together and share stories that proved otherwise,” shares Jay, in an email interview.
In fact, it was at AVEN that Poornima Kumar, a women’s studies student in Mumbai, met business executive Sai Kumar in 2015. The duo started Asexuality India, a platform like AVEN, last year. “When I got talking to Sai, I realised that every asexual has a different experience. And because we’re Indian, we also had a different baggage of culture. There was a need for a more local presence,” says Poornima.
While Asexuality India has registered members, its Facebook page has emerged as a popular platform, with people reaching out to discuss their sexuality. “Many write in with their experiences, and ask us if they are asexual. While we don’t straight up tell them what their orientation is, we help them figure it out,” she adds.
As fluid as it can get
For years now, there have people across the world who have questioned sexuality as a social construct – are we supposed to live our lives bound by the binaries of gender or hetero/homo definitions? While the late David Bowie brought queer culture into the mainstream four decades ago, celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Kristin Stewart have opened up about their discomfort with labels. Asexuality too is a spectrum and not entirely fluid – within it come other definitions like demisexuality and sapiosexuality, among others.
Harshita Narasimhan, an English Literature student from Delhi, identifies herself as a demisexual. “This means that while I can develop sexual urges and desires, it’s only after I form a strong emotional bond with a person. Sexual attraction is rare for a demisexual, but not impossible. What’s important thing to understand is that asexuality is a spectrum and cannot be defined in white and black. It has lots of grey, and every asexual is different,” she says. Like demisexuals, sapiosexuals look for an intellectual connect.
There are other lesser known terms, like autochorissexual, an orientation Trivandrum-based Arul Ganesh identifies with. Autochorissexuals may experience sexual fantasies or even arousal (with pornography or erotica for instance), but lack the desire to participate in the activity. Ritinkar Das, an animator working in Kuala Lampur, identifies as a homoromantic greysexual. “Homoromantic is same sex attraction. While I do feel sexual desires and experience arousal, the actual act is neither desirable nor pleasurable for me,” he says. Pune-based Naqshpa Zainab calls herself an aromantic asexual – she wouldn’t like to see or get involved when it comes to any kind of sexual intimacy.
While many of these aces battled uncertainties and confusions in the absence of support systems, platforms like AsexualityIndia and Indian Aces are helping them embrace their sexuality by enabling discussions, allaying fears and letting them know that they’re not alone.
Myths and misconceptions
For non-asexuals, many of whom attach a biological reasoning to sex, asexuality can be plain absurd. Aces are often snubbed for they’re thought to use the term as a façade for low or non-existent libidos, an inability to have orgasms, or not finding anyone worthy enough. “People conflate sex and intimacy. If I say ‘I don’t want to have sex with anyone’, many people hear ‘he doesn’t want to form an emotional connection with anyone,’ which is a big misunderstanding. While it’s true that asexuals do not experience sexual attraction, it’s also not true that they have never had sex, or can’t,” says Jay.
Shambhavi Saxena, a Delhi-based writer, who actively campaigns for asexuality and has also written a host of articles on it, finds it belittling that people invalidate her sexuality because of their own ignorance. “People who don’t do enough reading or research think asexuals are just heterosexuals who are too overwhelmed by the idea of partnered sex, or are conscious of their bodies,” she says, adding that another big myth is that it’s a phase, that eventually aces will “see reason” and become sexual. “This idea alone is enough to justify things like corrective rape.”
There there’s the theory that asexuality can be “cured” through mediums like aphrodisiacs. “That’s missing the point because you’re making someone have sex against their will. Their body may respond automatically as a reaction to sensory stimulation, but their mind won’t. It devastates them psychologically. Imagine a homosexual person involved in a heterosexual act or vice versa,” says Das.
But mostly, there are cultural implications and stereotypes attached to asexuality. “You’re perceived as very ‘sanskari’, who hates eroticism of any kind. Many people have asked me that if I’m an asexual, how can I talk dirty?” says Prajakta Bhave, a student in Mumbai.
In October last year as part of Asexual Awareness Week, a global event that aims to educate and sensitise people towards asexuality, Asexuality India tied up with online spaces like Feminism in India and Gaysi Family to foment discussions around the subject. A month later, Singh’s Indian Aces held their first public event, by setting up an asexuality awareness stall at the Queer carnival in Delhi. “For many, identifying themselves as asexual is one thing, but discovering where you fall on the spectrum is another ballgame altogether. Engagements like these cultivate a sense of belonging,” says Poornima.
While the conversations around the LGBTQ movement today have acquired a tag of legitimacy, asexuality still has a long way to go, especially in a country like India where discussions on sexuality are not encouraged. Marriage is another seeming hurdle. “There has been some scepticism about how asexuals figure in the discourse of marriage, but it’s a situation unique to every asexual. Some aces have ended their marriages because they found the pressure to consummate their marriage to be overwhelming, while some don’t get married at all. Still others have been able to lead happily married lives because of the support of their spouses,” says Narasimhan.
For a generation that so actively consumes all things pop culture, representation in books, music, films, TV shows or even Internet memes will help bring asexuality into the mainstream. Last year, Archie comics revealed that Jughead, the goofy, crown-wearing character who loves burgers more than anything else, was in fact an asexual. The revelation signalled a big step for the community. Sheldon Cooper, the nerd protagonist in CBS’ popular show The Big Bang Theory is also widely speculated to be an asexual. If the show’s writers confirm the theory, it would be a revolutionary moment.
While they navigate their own battles, aces are also helping take the movement forward. Poornima has infused her experiences in academia – she’s done a group presentation around the identity in college and is currently working on a paper, titled The Complexities of Asexuality as an Individual and Collective Identity. Singh is planning to build a website for Indian Aces and work on making Platonicity – a match-making platform she founded for asexuals – more structured, and possibly, into an app, through a Kickstarter campaign. “More people need to own their asexuality. It can get frustrating to answer the same questions but keep at it,” says Singh.
For Saxena, comprehensive sexuality education is a good place to begin. “There will be better acceptance when there is better understanding of sex – not the biological processes alone, but the entire system which rests on it, like marriage, guilt, shame, pleasure, consent, and rights. Prepare them from the school level itself, so when they meet someone who’s different, their reaction is one of compassion and acceptance,” she says.
(With inputs from Aasheesh Sharma)
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From HT Brunch, March 19, 2017
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