Exploring the gray areas of asexuality


Hannah Heisler | Staff Photographer

Jacob Mahaffey, who identifies as asexual, first learned about the term through “BoJack Horseman,” an animated comedy series on Netflix.

By Maggie Young, Staff Writer

Asexuality is a sexuality with a wide spectrum that has risen in prominence only recently. Lexi Casanova didn’t learn what asexuality meant until her second year of college. Jacob Mahaffey first learned about it while watching Netflix during his first year.

Both students now connect themselves to the asexual spectrum. According to a study done by Brock University in Ontario, asexuals currently represent about 1 percent of the population. Those who identify want others outside of the community to know that asexuality is an umbrella term, representing a spectrum of identifications. Asexuality is a sexual orientation — different from sexual behavior.

People may associate asexuality with nonsexuality or just a complete absence of sexuality, Casanova, a junior pharmacy student, said. But asexuality is a sexual orientation, meaning a whole spectrum of sexual attraction exists — not just a void of sexuality. Casanova emphasized that this incorrect polarization leads to a misunderstanding of what it means for people to be asexual.

“There’s all this stigma around asexuality. I don’t want to say, like, I’m asexual, and to most people that’s going to mean just non-sexuality. They don’t really know what that means,” Casanova said. “It’s more how other people are going to perceive my sexuality after I say I’m asexual, because I know that how they’re going to perceive it is not how I am or what I mean when I say it. It’s a systemic issue.”

It’s important to imagine a spectrum when thinking about asexuality, Casanova said. Some terms that fall under the asexuality umbrella include demisexuality — meaning someone doesn’t experience sexual attraction until after an emotional connection has been developed — and gray-sexuality, or gray-A, which can include people who experience a low sex drive or only desire sex in specific or limited circumstances, among other definitions.

In addition, Casanova said someone can be romantic or aromantic. Engaging in sexual relationships is different from engaging in romantic ones, and some people can be asexual and romantic, meaning they still enjoy romantic relationships.

Because of the scope of this spectrum, Casanova said she doesn’t like to label herself.

“I don’t like labeling because it’s such an ever-changing thing. Asexuality, just like heterosexuality and homosexuality, is a spectrum. It’s an umbrella term, so there’s different subsets to asexuality,” Casanova said. “At first, I thought I was demisexual, but then I did some more research and I learned about asexual and romantic and aromantic. Now I think that I feel I can relate to all of those at any time. It’s changing every minute of the day.”

Mahaffey, a sophomore film production and communication and rhetoric double major, said gray-sexuality helps others understand that it really is a spectrum of sexual attraction. Someone who is asexual could not want to have sex ever, but it doesn’t have to be the same for everybody or even the same for one person at any point in time.

“The phrase I hear a lot is gray-sexual, because it’s not a black-and-white issue. The term gray-sexual opens it up to the spectrum aspect or you can just be in the middle. It’s not ‘I love sex all the time’ and ‘I never wanna have it ever.’ It’s just that in-between state that’s really cool,” Mahaffey said.

Mahaffey first learned about asexuality in the fall of 2017 while watching the Netflix series “BoJack Horseman.” He thought there was something to describe what he was feeling, but it was while watching the series that he applied asexuality to his own identity.

“Seeing [asexuality] as a viable option that someone could identify as, seeing that represented — it’s not a common thing but it’s a thing nonetheless — it was just really, really nice to be able to see that,” Mahaffey said. “Even if it’s just a cartoon, it’s still really nice to see anywhere.” Mahaffey said.

Aside from “BoJack,” Mahaffey said he has yet to see asexuality represented in movies or television. Casanova said she had never seen it represented in media at all, or if it was, it wasn’t central to the plot.

Casanova and Mahaffey agreed that the absence of asexual representation contributes to the misconceptions about asexuality and general lack of knowledge. Because sex is seen as something that everybody is doing all the time, it can be confusing for an asexual person to not see their thoughts represented somewhere anyone could see it and understand.

“When you don’t have this representation basically saying this is a viable option and it’s okay to identify this way, it’s a sort of pressure you feel from all of our society that sex is something you have to be having, which it isn’t,” Mahaffey said. “I think a big part is realizing that you don’t have to do that. Having ace characters is important in saying this is something you can feel, you don’t have to want to do this.”

Julie Beaulieu, a lecturer in gender, sexuality and women’s studies, said it’s important to know about the variances in asexuality. If people aren’t taught about asexuality, it’s easier for them — asexual or not — to see sex as something they have to be doing.

“Perhaps most vital, teaching asexualities allows us to think deeply about the harm of compulsory ways of being, which can force people into intimacies that are not, in fact, satisfying or completely voluntary,” Beaulieu said over email.

In addition to knowing that asexuality is something many people identify with, Mahaffey said he doesn’t want anything he has said to cause others to pigeonhole his sexuality.

“There are people who don’t wanna have sex, and that’s totally fine,” Mahaffey said. “We just like other things. We’re just not concerned about that. It’s on a spectrum, so if we say we’re ace but we want to do something it doesn’t mean that we’re not still ace. It’s on a spectrum so you may feel some attraction and you may feel none, it really varies from person to person.”