The least known letter of all
The last week of each October is Ace Week, an annual international campaign to raise awareness of the issues asexual persons face, share their experiences and views, and tackle acephobia. According to www.aceweek.org, this week was first established under the name of Asexual Awareness Week in 2010 by the asexual activist Sara Beth Brooks with the help of AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network) founder David Jay, the latter being the world's largest online asexual community and archive of resources on asexuality. Originally and primarily targeting the LGBTIQA+ community itself, Brooks’ vision was 'to use her organizational skills and activism experience to support the ace community'. Since then, Ace Week has transformed throughout the years corresponding to the societal developments and the needs of asexual persons as they have gained more understanding and visibility. Since 2019, Ace Week has joined forces with non-profit organization Asexual Outreach, and it has morphed more into an occasion for celebrating ace identities without losing sight of its role to promote ace acceptance, 'by creating educational resources, sharing information on social media, and organizing community events'.
In our previous blog post on intersexuality, I argued that the seemingly endless pluralization of the identities that fall under the acronym LGBTIQA+ does not necessarily translate into greater visibility or inclusivity of the diverse groups that each letter stands for in the alleged ‘community’. The hierarchical relationship among the groups that fall under the acronym casts serious doubt on the taken-for-granted assumption of their equal recognition, visibility, and representation. This has as a result the respective homogenization of their experiences of discrimination and harassment, and hence the flattering of their different -and at times contradictory- political claims. This could not be truer than it is in the case of asexuality, since the latter signifies a sexual orientation where a person experiences little to no sexual attraction to anyone and/or does not experience desire for sexual contact. If gays and lesbians -for example- put forward their political claims based on their different sexual desires that are oriented towards persons of the same gender, the spectrum of asexuality lays its claims in terms of the absence of sexual desire itself irrespectively of the gender.
According to www.acesandaros.org, the term asexual spectrum or umbrella denotes ‘all of the identities related to asexuality, including asexual, gray-asexual, and demisexual’, while ‘the word ace is a shorthand for the identities that fit within the asexual umbrella, and it can also be used to refer to a person who identifies with the asexual umbrella’. Despite the relative popularity of these terms, we should not forget to mention the closely related aromanticism, ‘a romantic orientation where a person experiences little to no romantic attraction and/or has little to no desire to form romantic relationships.’ Correspondingly, the term aromantic umbrella or spectrum describes ‘all orientations relating to aromanticism, including aromantic, grayromantic, and demiromantic’, while the term aro is used as a shorthand to refer to ‘any identities that fit within the aromantic umbrella, and it can also be used to refer to a person who identifies with the aromantic umbrella.’ Despite the overlapping between asexuality and aromanticism as they sprung out of the same social movement, these two should not be conflated as sexual orientation differs from romantic attraction. When it comes specifically to asexuality, this has been conceptualized as a sexual orientation and has begun to emerge as an identity and a movement only since around 2000.
Yet, after almost two decades, a series of hurtful myths or misconceptions that need debunking continues to prevail even among the members of queer community. Firstly, like any other sexual orientation, asexuality isn’t a choice that a person arbitrarily makes. Contrary to abstinence and celibacy, which are both choices to avoid sex, asexuality is a constitutive part of one’s selfhood. Also, asexuality should be distinguished from the Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD) which emerged in the late 1970s with the rise of sex therapy and is currently listed in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. As a matter of fact, this very same distinction between asexuality as a sexual orientation and HSDD as a psychiatric condition has been a key point of the ace movement against the medicalization and pathologization of their asexuality to the detriment of the mental and psychical health of asexual persons themselves. Another myth concerning the more social and interpersonal aspect of asexuality is that ace people do not have relationships, or they suffer from intimacy issues that they cannot overcome. Yet, ace folks may feel romantic attraction or other forms of emotional intimacy, and their asexuality is certainly not a ‘phase that they will eventually grow out of’ since there is nothing wrong with them either psychically or physically.
These stereotypes are much more than harmless stories we tell about others without first educating ourselves. They have a deep and lasting impact on the mental health and lives of ace people as high rates of suicidal ideation and attempts, depression and anxiety, familial rejection, and attempts at conversion by friends and family are reported by ace people. The stigma felt by ace persons is often accompanied by the no less hurtful and harmful dismissal or disbelief they are often met with. For example, expressions like ‘you just haven’t met yet the right person’ further consolidate the invisibility and erasure of ace people.
Media representations add fuel to this fire by insisting on representing ace folks as immature, prudes, broken, shy, machine-like, cold or frigid, emotionless, and insecure, when they don’t get ridiculed or pathologized. Finally, fashion is another industry that not only ignores the existence of ace persons, but it heavily contributes to the dominant ideology that takes sex to be the most authentic, ‘natural’, and indispensable feature of our souls, the implicit condition of what makes us human. ‘Tell me what your desire is and I will tell you who you are, whether you are normal or not, and then I can qualify or disqualify your desire’ as French philosopher Michel Foucault eloquently puts it. Especially regarding the queer underwear market, the over-sexualization of the models as objectified sexual objects available to the sexually desiring consumer to gaze at is the most widespread marketing strategy. In other words, ‘sex sells’.
However, in Ecce Homo, we go to great lengths not to reproduce this trend as we take the ace criticisms to fashion seriously. As a queer underwear brand, we believe that acephobia is prevalent within the queer community as many ace folks are being refused entry to LGBTIQA+ spaces and appropriate treatment by LGBTIQA+ services, while it has also been argued that asexuality shouldn’t be included under the LGBTIQA+ umbrella as it undermines its claims that are based on sexual desire. Asexual and aromantic people may also identify as trans, intersex, non-binary, or gender non-conforming, so they may face multiple forms of discrimination on the basis of their gender. For all these reasons, Ecce Homo stands by the side of ace and aro folks with texts like this one showing its support and appreciation for their fights.