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What does asexual mean – really – and why is it being discriminated against?

A new report by LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall calls for greater legal protection for the ACE community.

Written by Becky Hardy
Published 11.11.2023

LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall and activist Yasmin Benoit have launched the first ever report and policy proposals to protect and improve the lives of ACE people within the Equality Act and Healthcare, following ACE Awareness Week in October.

The Ace in the UK report uncovers the shocking experiences of healthcare, workplace and societal discrimination that ACE people face in the UK and the need for better legal and policy protections.

We delved a little deeper into what it really means to be ACE, what a lot of us don’t know about asexuality and why the ACE community are the target of discrimination within our society.

 

WHAT DOES ACE MEAN?

Those who identify as ACE are people who experience little, fluctuating or no sexual attraction.

This includes those who identify as asexual – someone who does not experience sexual attraction to anyone – but also includes those who experience sexual attraction rarely, under only specific circumstances or only after developing a strong emotional bond with someone.

It’s important to remember that ACE is an umbrella term, with asexuality existing on a spectrum. And being ACE doesn’t mean you don’t desire emotional, intimate relationships.

What is asexuality

Asexuality isn’t:

  • Abstinence because of a bad relationship
  • Abstinence because of religious reasons
  • Celibacy
  • Sexual repression, aversion or dysfunction
  • Loss of libido
  • Fear of intimacy
  • Inability to find a partner

Similarly, ACEs might:

  • Want friendship, understanding and empathy
  • Fall in love
  • Experience arousal and orgasm
  • Choose to engage in sexual activity
  • Choose not to engage in sexual activity
  • Be of any gender, age or background
  • Have a spouse and/or children

Top takeaway: Asexuality, or being ACE, is a sexual orientation – just like being bisexual, gay, lesbian or pansexual.

WHY DON’T WE KNOW MORE ABOUT BEING ACE?

ACE people make up between 1 – 2% of the population, but their experiences are not well understood by the general public.

This is perhaps because ACE people are less likely to be open about their orientation to friends and family, with analysis of Government data showing that only one in four (26.1%) asexual people are open about their sexuality with friends.

At work, half of ACE people (49%) weren’t out to any of their colleagues, more than twice the rate of all LGBTQ+ respondents (18%). And of those who were out, only one in six (17.6%) had a universally positive experience – again, half the rate of wider LGBTQ+ respondents (40.8%).

Asexual pride flag

And it’s not only in a cultural setting that those who are ACE feel cowed into the closet. In healthcare settings too, the Ace in the UK report found asexual people are around 50% more likely to have never told staff about their asexuality, with a quarter (24.3%) citing that they were afraid of a negative reaction, and 8.4% citing that they had had a bad experience in the past.

Indeed 18.1% of ACE respondents said a disclosure had a negative impact on their care.

WHY ARE ACE PEOPLE NOT COMING OUT?

In a lamentable catch-22 situation, it’s our general lack of knowledge and understanding about being ACE that seems to be a contributing factor towards the distinct aversion, dismissal and lack of empathy asexual people face when they do decide to be open about their identity.

When ACE people come out, more often than not, they become subject to sexual harassment, disbelief and inappropriate curiosity from those around them.

This is particularly problematic in the workplace, the report found, where ACE people face discrimination and harassment from colleagues.

Hostile environments towards ACE people are also prevalent in healthcare settings. Intrusive questions about their sexuality and delays to vital healthcare are par for the course for many who identify as ACE, with barriers predominantly formed around their reproductive health, including smear tests, and inappropriately having their asexuality assessed as a mental health condition.

pride flag

The Ace in the UK report also found that, even within LGBTQ+ spaces, ACE people are too often overlooked and their concerns ignored.

It’s little wonder, then, that those who identify as ACE choose to keep their orientation to themselves. But as a society, that simply is not good enough.

There’s a clear need for action on discrimination and harassment across the board, specifically in the workplace and in healthcare settings, and for greater protection of ACE people so that they can feel empowered enough to simply be themselves.

HOW ACE PEOPLE FEEL

As part of the Ace in the UK report, Stonewall organised a series of focus groups and interviews with a number of people who identified as ACE.

These are some of their comments on how being ACE – and the public reaction to their sexual orientation – impacts how they live their daily lives.

What is asexuality

‘I’ve tried to explain to someone that I am asexual, and they said: “You know, there’s something wrong with you. You probably need to pray about it.” I remember feeling inferior.’  

‘I was quite excited to tell my best friend about it. And her response was: “Oh, you just haven’t met the right person yet.”’  

‘I have definitely had plenty of intrusive questions. You know, things like: “Do you masturbate?” “Do you watch porn?” And then there was: “How do you feel when a sex scene comes on television?” You just think that you wouldn’t ask anybody else that question, any other kind of sexual identity. So why ask me?”

What is asexuality

‘I’ve tried therapy and everything to see if it was a mental problem.’

‘I felt like in school… the message was that everyone’s going to have sex. Sex is a natural part of life. And that is like, basically, what my sexual education was. There were no alternatives.’

‘It was a relief that there isn’t something wrong with me and I’m not this weird, broken person and that I know I can have this different life and that there are other people who have that as well.’  

‘For me, it’s more like I haven’t felt comfortable myself when I haven’t been happy with my sexuality. And it definitely is getting easier now and it is because more people do know about it. So, it just makes it so much easier when you don’t feel like you’re a bit of a caged animal in the circus, where everyone’s asking you all these questions.’

WHAT THE ACE IN THE UK REPORT RECOMMENDS

The Ace in the UK report shows that, for this minority orientation, which is less known and less understood within society, the onus is firmly on asexual people to explain their lack of sexual attraction to others.

Because of this, they often meet resistance and dismissal from those closest to them.

This is not an uncommon experience for minority communities, particularly as societal awareness grows but lacks official recognition or protection.

From Stonewall’s experience, improved and clarified legal recognition and protection play a powerful role in creating legitimacy around people’s identities and experiences as real and valid. Passing significant progressive legislation – like same-sex marriage – can be a painful process that ultimately shifts public understanding and support.

‘We believe that officially recognising asexual identities as a minority sexual orientation could help improve understanding and support, including through equality law, hate crime law, and guidance on teaching about LGBTQ+ identities in school,’ says Robbie de Santos, Director of Communications and External Affairs at Stonewall. 

For the first time in history, Stonewall are urging the government to amend the Equality Act and Healthcare to include policies that better protect and improve the lives of ACE people in the UK.

Among a range of recommendations, the Ace in the UK report urges the World Health Organisation to end its classification of asexuality as a mental health condition, as it did for homosexuality and trans people, to include asexual people in the Statutory Guidance for the 2010 Equality Act, calls for increased training on supporting asexual people in healthcare settings, and reiterates the need for a ban on conversion therapy to attempt to ‘cure’ ACE people.

‘This report shines a long-overdue light on the barriers that ACE people in the UK face,’ Robbie continues. ‘It’s vital that all LGBTQ+ people are allowed to go about their lives free from discrimination and prejudice.  But – as our findings show – there are widespread societal misconceptions of what it means to be ACE and how to best support ACE people at work and in healthcare settings.

‘We hope that this important project will further people’s understanding of the very real challenges that ACE people currently face and we urge political leaders to adopt our recommendations to better support ACE people to get their basic needs met and thrive as themselves.’

 

To find out more about the Ace in the UK report and for more support, visit the Stonewall website

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