FOR MUCH OF his life, Sai Kumar assumed that people could seek sexual arousal only through pornography. To him, it was a biological response, something that people would occasionally experience and often be caught unaware by. But to get themselves turned on, he believed, people needed to turn to an external agent. In particular, they needed to watch the act of sex, that mechanical performance on a screen. The performers themselves, let alone others fantasised in sexual roles, seemed inadequate to him. “For those with girlfriends or wives—and in the case of women, their boyfriends or husbands—I knew, it was different,” says Kumar. “But otherwise, I thought to get excited, you watched porn.”
And then, two years ago, on an online forum where people were discussing sexual intimacy among other things, Kumar discovered that pornography is not necessary. “People get turned on by other people,” he says, mimicking his own surprise at the time. “People actually get turned on by other people. They think about each other. They fantasise about each other... Really, I absolutely did not know that.”
Kumar’s mind wasn’t blown away by the finding. His sexual naiveté, he reasons, was the result of his lack of access to frank discussions on sexuality. When it comes to sex, he admits, he couldn’t care less. His interest is only academic anyway.
Unlike most people, sex has never been a central part of Kumar’s life. Not during his adolescence, and not now as a 30-year-old in between jobs. Forget central, it hasn’t even been peripheral to his life. He is among those who are beginning to identify themselves as ‘asexual’. Not heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or any other such, they insist. Simply asexual: with no sexual orientation whatsoever.
If it’s a biological phenomenon, asexuality has perhaps always existed. We just didn’t have a term for it. Back in 1948, when the American sexologist Alfred Kinsey published the first of his two Kinsey Reports, he introduced the concept of the Kinsey Scale, a tool to classify the sexuality of his subjects. While applying this scale, which measured sexual desire in a range from 0 to 6—with zero representing exclusive heterosexuality and six exclusive homosexuality—he came across a group of people who claimed no sexual attraction for either gender and did not fit into the scale at all. This category of people, identified with an ‘X’, is now often cited as one of the first instances of a scientific study chancing upon asexuality.
Several psychologists, however, are wary of terming it a sexual orientation. Academic studies examining it have been few and far between. But asexuals claim that they are neither celibate, who voluntarily abstain from sex, nor sufferers of a psychological or hormonal imbalance that can be ‘corrected’. In 2004, Anthony Bogaert, a Canadian researcher from Brock University analysed the data of a large survey of British residents, both male and female, and found that about 1 per cent of them claimed to have never been sexually attracted to anyone. This, he wrote in the Journal of Sex Research, was a hitherto unrecognised asexual orientation.
Socially, the asexual movement seems to have gained currency in 2001, when a college freshman in the US named David Jay, then only 18 years old, launched a website, Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), dedicated to raising awareness of asexuality and providing a support platform. Since then, with AVEN turning into an unofficial online headquarters of sorts, this micro-movement of asexuals (or ‘aces’) has grown rapidly and given rise to slogans and manifestos, coming-out stories and merchandise. The group has adopted the symbol of the cake, shared within online circles, to represent something better than sex. It has expanded its influence to several countries and has now got a chapter in India as well.
WHEN RITINKAR DAS was growing up in West Bengal, he began to realise that he was getting romantically attracted to other boys. Convinced of his homosexuality, he came out as gay to his close friends and family. But later, when he began to attend college and became friends with the first openly homosexual person he had known, he realised he was still somewhat different. He learnt about asexuality around this time, but was still uncertain of his own feelings. He was attracted to other men and even felt sexual urges, but sex, when it presented itself, didn’t seem to interest him. His orientation, he came to suspect, lay somewhere between homosexuality and asexuality. The final conviction came about two years ago, he says, when another man got physically intimate with him after a date. Though he hadn’t been attracted sexually to him, he let curiosity and courtesy get the better of him. He offered no resistance at first, but found himself repulsed at some point and called it off.
Das now works as an animator in Malaysia. He identifies himself as a ‘homoromantic greysexual’, which means he finds himself romantically attracted to people of his own gender, and occasionally feels some sexual desire. These feelings are complex. So far, apart from one person he had a crush on, he has never been sexually attracted to any of his other romantic interests. However, he has felt turned on by other men at various points of time. But even so, when an opportunity of sex arises, he finds it neither desirable nor pleasurable. The furthest he can go in bed, he says, is foreplay. “For me, [penetrative sex] won’t be much different from having sex with a woman,” he says. “Even kisses with different people at different times have always felt meaningless. I’ll have to say something I have been too scared to admit— kisses always seem to brutally destroy all that has been going on till then, without fail.”
Asexuality, at its most basic level, according to its exponents, is characterised by an absence of sexual attraction. But this, it appears, is a wide spectrum. Some asexuals have romantic feelings. Others do not. Some find the idea of sex repulsive, but others do feel some sexual attraction at times (though less than those who they call ‘allosexuals’, people who are sexually interested and active). Some are single, while others are married or in relationships with sexual people. Some watch porn and masturbate, some do not.
People say it is just a phase. But it is much more than that
Kumar may be termed an ‘aromantic asexual’, someone who experiences neither romantic nor sexual attraction. And if Das is a homoromantic greysexual, there is an entire spectrum of others. Homoromantic asexual, for example, feel romantic towards people of their own gender, but not sexual; heteroromantic asexuals, likewise towards the opposite gender; panromantic asexuals, towards both genders; demisexuals are those who can experience sexual attraction only towards people with whom they share a strong emotional bond; and greysexuals explore the grey zone between absolute asexuality and a more typical level of sexual interest. There are others as well, and the boundaries often appear blurred.
Poornima Kumar, a researcher at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, has spent much time pondering the fluidity of her own asexuality. In the past, she has been romantically attracted to a man and a woman. “People say that it is just a phase,” she says, “but it’s much more than that.” During a class discussion on sexuality last year, her professor touched upon the topic of asexuality. It set her thinking. She and another friend even got talking about it and they both even ended up revealing to each other how close their feelings felt to asexuality. “It was like an ‘oh-my-God-I-fit- into-it’ moment,” she says. Later, during a presentation in class, Poornima opened up about identifying herself as an asexual. She also told her mother and sister.
Along with Sai Kumar, whom she met on an AVEN forum, Poornima has set up Asexual India, a similar platform for asexual Indians to connect with and support each other. They believe that people at large need to learn about asexuality. The group also holds meetups for one another. After one such gathering, along with three other asexuals, they went about asking people on the street for their views on asexuality.
Sexuality pervades modern lives, be it mass media or social settings. Asexuals say this often makes them feel non-human or inadequate, as if there is something wrong with them. “Sexuality is such a big deal, really, for almost everyone. There is this assumption about sex, that all humans must be having it or must be interested in it,” Sai Kumar says. “And for us asexuals, that is terrifying. For us, it’s not like that at all.”
In India, where sex is still hush-hush and pre-marital abstinence a virtue, being asexual might appear to be socially acceptable. But this is not the case. Often, asexuals are pressured or forced into marriages, and then there is a premium placed on consummation. ‘Take Indian law for example,” says the Asexual India website, ‘All Personal Laws in India consider marriage invalid if it has not been consummated and can be used as grounds for divorce.’ Sai Kumar whose family is unaware of his asexuality, is currently being pushed towards marriage. He and Poornima speak of several asexuals having been forced to marry allosexuals.
Some are willing to go ahead with it for the companionship. “I don’t consider sex to be an essential part of a marriage,” says a 29-year-old ayurvedic doctor based in Mumbai, “[But] if I get a partner who is always with me, I am willing to adjust. Even sex out of marriage will not be objectionable, as far as trust is maintained. I would say it’s like a head massage. ‘You like it and you want it, okay, pay for it’; ‘Go there, take it and be back when done’.” When he was growing up, he never understood why everyone was so interested in sex. “It was weird during adolescence. Sex was one of the main topics of discussion. I was like, ‘What’s the big deal?’” He was a good student, inclined to be religious, and kept off all things sexual. “There is social pressure in India to stay away from the opposite sex and talking about sex is taboo. I was too innocent to believe all this,” he says. But then as he grew older, he realised something else was at work. He had never been attracted, sexually or romantically, to anyone else. When his friends—who would also religiously stay off the subject of sex—began to get married and have children, he began to wonder about himself. About three years ago, much to his relief, he realised that there were many others like him online. “[Before that] it was quite difficult to understand what was wrong with me,” he says.
Apart from Asexual India, there are other online spaces devoted to asexual as well. Grace Singh, the pseudonym of a 28-year-old researcher from Delhi who identifies herself as a demisexual, was one of the first to form a Facebook page, ‘Indian Aces’, for Indian asexuals back in 2014. She revived it last year, when she began to see more activity in this space. “[Closet] asexuals were creating separate Facebook accounts to join these groups so others from their personal life would not know about it,” she says. To extend the platform, she has come up with something called Platonicity, a match-making forum for asexuals and other sexual minorities who want relationships or marriages of convenience. For instance, Singh explains, if a gay person needs to marry someone of the opposite sex (for some reason), s/he would be better off marrying an asexual who also needs a dummy wedding.
If asexuality is inborn, as research suggests and asexuals insist, it raises tantalising questions about human sexuality and evolution. Much of our social behaviour, from the care we take in our grooming to something as simple as dancing, is said to be a kind of sexual competition. We are all supposed to be in contention with one another for mates, the biologically encoded aim being to perpetuate our genes. From an evolutionary perspective, sex is pleasurable for the purpose of procreation and continuation of the species. But what about those for whom sex is one big yawn?
Not all allosexuals are convinced of asexuality. Some time ago, Sai Kumar and other asexuals noticed something strange on asexual online forums internationally. Heterosexual men has begun to join them. How come? “They were hitting on asexuals,” Sai Kumar says, “I think they were hoping to get laid or something.”