The Sexuality of Asexuality

An interview with Yasmin Benoit

Asexuality has always existed, says Yasmin Benoit, but in recent years, it has gained focus in public debates. In this conversation, Yasmin explores what it means to be asexual. We talk about epistemic injustice, the male gaze, labels, and essentialism.

You can see Yasmin Benoit live, debating 'Singles, Sex and Society' alongside Aline Laurent-Mayard and Edward Davies at the upcoming HowTheLightGetsIn Festival, on May 24th-27th. Check out the incredible line-up of speakers and festival programme here.


You have risen to fame with your work for the LGBTQIA+ community and with Stonewall, Pride. You work with many people in the asexual community alongside being asexual and aromantic yourself. What does it mean to be asexual, and how has your involvement in the community informed your understanding of asexuality? How do people in the community define ‘asexuality’ as a label, and do you think this label changes when it reaches people outside of the community?

I have always used the most general and widely accepted definition, which is experiencing little to no sexual attraction towards anyone, regardless of their gender. In my involvement with the LGBTQAI+ community, I have been able to explore how this fits within the spectrum and how romantic orientation also fits within that.

In terms of how our society understands sexuality, there is no distinction between sexual and romantic orientation and attraction. This was also my initial understanding. However, it was only when I began interacting with the community that I understood the difference between the two. Earlier, I did not see the need to use two separate terms for this; I assumed that every asexual person was also aromantic. Later, after meeting other members of the community, I realized the distinction between them. One of the first asexual individuals I met was in a homoromantic relationship, which made me understand that asexuality within the community is more complexly understood compared to the definition across society. There is then an interesting interplay between what the community understands and defines and what filters society-wide.


At that time, it didn't feel like a space where I belonged, as a black woman. All I saw were pink-haired white teenagers, which left me feeling like this label or category wasn't meant for me.


I have had a complicated relationship with the term "asexual" for a long time. Between the ages of 14 and my involvement in activism, there was a 10-year period during which I struggled with identifying as asexual. One of the reasons for this was due to the representation of asexuality. At that time, it didn't feel like a space where I belonged, as a black woman. All I saw were pink-haired white teenagers, which left me feeling like this label or category wasn't meant for me.

As a black woman, identifying as asexual is not easy due to the historical over-sexualization and objectification of black women. Even when I tried to come out in school, people didn't believe me, which made it even harder. I faced a lot of backlash at a young age, so I kept quiet about my asexuality for many years. For me, it's not so much about embracing the label itself as it is about convincing others that it's accurate. I am a black woman who identifies as asexual.

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Given your experience, then, do you think labels limit or empower us? Or do you think this can, in some ways, limit the fluidity of experience, too?

In some ways, I believe it was beneficial that I couldn't use a label for so many years. This allowed me to focus on other aspects of my identity and gave me the space to work on them. I have received messages from young people who are confused about where they fit within these terms. The perceived inflexibility of these labels makes it harder for young people to understand themselves. In some ways, the labels obstruct their self-understanding. If a label doesn't help you articulate your experience, you don't have to use it. It is not a club that you need to belong to. Sometimes, it feels like people think they need to change themselves to fit the criteria instead of using the label that speaks to them.


I have faced backlash from people who have accused me of making this my entire personality. But this is simply one label of the many other words that I associate with my reality: I am from Reading, I like history, and I’m a metalhead.


Having said that, labels are also demonised. I have faced backlash from people who have accused me of making this my entire personality.  But this is simply one label of the many other words that I associate with my reality: I am from Reading, I like history, and I’m a metalhead. Labels are just a way of articulating your experience; we all have them, but some are clearly more politicized than others. Some are clearly in the public discourse more than others. And, because of that, some people’s label use and existence faces more antagonism than others. This is not necessarily a problem of the labels themselves but rather their interaction with society.


Do you think society’s emphasis on sexual attraction shapes our understanding of identity, and how does asexuality challenge or reframe this?

Yes. Absolutely. Look at every form we have to fill out; they always ask for name, age, gender, nationality, and sexuality. So, of course, that shapes our lives and our understanding of our identity. Our sexuality is now a huge component of identity. What is interesting about asexuality is that it challenges this; it is a sexuality (technically) in the same way that baldness is a hairstyle. This challenges our perception of sexuality being linked to identity and prompts us to question whether we need to change the overemphasis of sexual orientation on identity.

Queerness is often associated with sex and sexuality, but it encompasses other aspects of life as well. Whether or not you are sexually active, your queerness still affects how you view the world, interact with others, and perceive yourself. Therefore, it is important to examine how queerness is expressed beyond sexuality. By doing so, we can broaden the conversation around queerness and explore its various dimensions.

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Do you think that overemphasis on the sexual aspects of queerness is a deliberate move to essentialise and demonize the queer community?

It’s complicated because when you look at the community itself, it has focused on that ‘sex’ aspect of queerness. But that is because this is the part of queerness that was demonised and criminalised. During the AIDs crisis, speaking about and normalising gay sex was an important aspect of activism to ensure that it wasn’t demonized. Pre-70s, our society was very puritanical, and so it was important to both liberate and open up conversations on queer sex to legitimise an important aspect of the lived experience of queer people. I would, therefore, never be someone to say that Pride is too sexual because of that steeped history of sexual criminalisation and oppression.

People outside of the community continue to demonise this. We’re called ‘corrupting’ and ‘going against nature’. This is, thus, still used to oppress us; therefore, we have to keep talking about it. On the other hand, diversifying activism to include elements which move past the sexual is also important to push back against the notion that queer people are solely sexual beings.


Alongside your work in LGBTQAI+ activism, you are also a lingerie model. How do you think the male gaze affects the lived experience of the asexual community?

This varies depending on who you are within the asexual community. If you are a man who is asexual, you are less likely to be out as asexual because sexuality is so tied to masculinity.


This is why I face such a backlash for being asexual and also a lingerie model... the issue is that they find me attractive and I'm not sexually available to them and that makes them angry.


For women, there is an odd contradiction. On the one hand, we have this idea that women are supposed to lie back and think of England; we’re not supposed to enjoy or desire sex. But it is also expected that women be sexually available to men, and if you take that off the table that’s a problem. I think this is why I face such a backlash for being asexual and also a lingerie model. When you read between the lines of the hate comments the issue is that they find me attractive and I'm not sexually available to them and that makes them angry. They don’t seem to understand that the way I dress is an aesthetic choice which does not relate to my sexual orientation. 


For the HowTheLightGetsIn festival, you are on the Singles, Sex and Society panel. I wanted to explore how this relates to your experience as an asexual. How does society’s emphasis on romantic and sexual attraction, particularly about partnership, affect the lived experiences and relationships of asexual individuals? What are the potential harms to asexual people as a result of this?

If you are asexual, because romantic relationships are seen as the pinnacle of human connection, your relationships aren’t seen as fulfilling as romantic or sexual ones. Cohabiting with a friend doesn’t have the same weight as marriage – not just socially or culturally but economically, too. You get tax benefits for being in a marriage that you don’t get for living with a close friend. Even small things, like health forms and causal sayings such as ‘more than friends’, all place romantic relationships over platonic ones.

There are, in fact, many terms and phrases which perpetuate the narrative that romantic and sexual relationships are the highest form of human connection. For example, being in an intimate relationship is always conflated with being in a sexual one. Or when people ask, ‘Are you in a relationship?’ what they really mean is, are you in a romantic or sexual relationship? What this does, though, is create the idea that the relationships that I am in are not intimate or meaningful. Thus, changing these narratives to create a more inclusive understanding of what it means to be in an intimate or meaningful relationship is important.

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What does the future of asexuality look like to you?

Awareness and education. These are the two things we need to work on to create a society which understands and accepts asexuality. People don’t even understand what the words mean. We can’t have any meaningful conversation without first understanding what we are talking about.

Self-analysis is also critical. I don’t think that people would struggle so much with the concept of asexuality if they looked inward and analysed the myriad of different types of relationships they have with other people. Often, people struggle with the idea that you can be romantically and not sexually attracted to people, but this happens a lot! Think about all the times in history when people have come out as gay but also loved their wives. Sexuality and romantic attraction do not always line up neatly.

Of course, we also need to make changes legally. In the report I produced alongside Stonewall, we highlight that asexuality should be removed from the World Health Organisation’s International Classifications of Diseases, asexuality should be a sexual orientation-protected characteristic in the Equality Act Statutory Codes of Practice, and health services should offer asexuality as an option on demographic monitoring forms under sexual orientation.

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