Twenty-four-year-old Joe Parrish is currently running for a seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives. If elected, he would become the first openly asexual politician voted to public office in the United States.
“I wanted to tell the asexual community that I’m asexual and I’m running for office and tell them, ‘Hey, there’s someone like you running for office and it may interest you to know about it,’” Parrish told Gay Star News.
It’s estimated that one percent of the population identifies as asexual—that’s around 3.1 million people in the U.S. If queer people face bigotry and expulsion from their communities after they come out, many asexuals face little understanding of what their orientation even is. Oftentimes their identity is viewed as nothing more than a medical affliction.
In a 2012 episode of TV’s House, the famously dour doctor treats an asexual female patient whose husband also identifies as asexual. Dr. House bets her $100 that he can find “a medical reason why she doesn’t want to have sex.”
“He finds that the man has a pituitary tumor that’s killing his sex drive,” Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory wrote of the episode. “Then comes the ultimate reveal: The wife… is just pretending to be asexual to make her husband happy.”
These depictions present asexuality as “problematic and pathological,” according to David Jay, the founder of Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN)—and he said it’s also been viewed as such by the medical community. Until recently, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders labeled asexuality as a medical condition, Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder.
Starting in 2008, AVEN members began lobbying the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to change the language; the group also presented the APA with 75 pages of research on why asexuality should be expunged from the DSM listing. In 2013, AVEN finally won. The current DSM-5 states, “If a lifelong lack of sexual interest is better explained by one’s identification as ‘asexual,’ then a diagnosis of… sexual interest/arousal disorder would not be made.”
Outside of the struggle to declassify asexuality as a disorder, the orientation is often widely misunderstood as simply having a lowered sex drive—or being “not that into sex.” Instead, AVEN’s website defines an asexual person as “someone who does not experience sexual attraction.”
However, there’s an incredible diversity in the asexual (or “ace”) community. On one extreme are those who experience no sexual attraction whatsoever, while at the other are those who may—at very occasional points in their life—be attracted to specific partners. That category of individuals is known as demisexuals, and according to Wired’s Kat McGowan, those feelings “arise rarely and only from a deep emotional connection.”
Meanwhile, McGowan writes that “gray-asexuals” are those who “roam the gray area between absolute asexuality and a more typical level of interest.”
Many asexuals may never enter a romantic relationship with another person, while others do so for comfort, companionship, and the most universal reason of all: love. For instance, Paul Cox identifies as a heteroromantic asexual, which means he forms emotional, non-sexual connections with women. (The opposite would be those who identify as “homoromantic” asexuals.)
In 2008, he married his girlfriend—also asexual—after the two met online and fell in love. On their wedding night, Cox told the Guardian that the couple “invited all [their] friends to an after party.”
“We played Scrabble late into the night and everyone stayed over and slept on the hotel-room floor,” he said.
Would-be representative Parrish, who identifies as neither homo- nor heteroromantic, said that dealing with the lack of education around asexuality can be the hardest part of coming out to friends and family members. As Parrish told The Daily Beast, asexual people might be asked questions like: “We’re a sexual species, you have to feel something, right? That’s how our organs work, so it wouldn’t make sense for you not to feel something.”
For Parrish, coming to terms with his identity was a struggle, because there are so few resources for understanding asexuality. “I assumed I was straight for a long time because I was working from that rubric,” Parrish said. “I checked box that I thought it was most reasonable to check.”
He believes that the lack of education around asexuality was especially true in school, where his identity was treated as non-existent by the state’s health curricula. “In my sex-ed class, there was no mention of asexuality,” he said. “None that I remember ever seeing. Heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality—those are the three that were mentioned.”
Like many other asexuals, Parrish was forced to turn to the Internet to better understand what he (wasn’t) feeling. If asexuality has been referred to as the “first Internet orientation,” it’s because the Web has allowed asexuals to seek out information about their identity and chat with others like them. Currently, the AVEN website enjoys about 80,000 active, registered users, while Meetup allows asexuals to organize events in their local communities.
But as Parrish explains, finding an IRL equivalent to, say, Reddit—where there are numerous subreddits dedicated specifically to asexuality—has been impossible. “It owes to the general lack of awareness about asexuals that there’s not much of a thriving asexual community,” Parrish told Gay Star News in February. “When I first realised I was asexual, I was in college and I got in contact with the local LGBT group on the campus to see if they knew anything or anyone and they didn’t. It’s… an untapped segment of the populace.”
Meanwhile, according to David Jay, the AVEN founder, the limited spaces for asexuals and the difficulty of finding in-person support networks can lead to “[feeling] isolated and invisible and broken.”
“We are not getting murdered the way trans people get murdered and I am very grateful for that and I do not want to say that homophobia and transphobia are the same as what asexuals experience, because that is not true, but we still have a reason to get together and talk about our experience,” Jay told the Rumpus. “We are still struggling with a lot.”
One thing Parrish believes that the community needs are more role models, as the community has few vocal advocates—outside of David Jay and a handful of out asexual celebrities like Paula Poundstone and Tim Gunn. Even asexual historical figures are hard to find.
“There’s a tendency among historians—if there’s a male figure in history who was not known to be a womanizer or have any kind of relations with women, there’s an assumption this man was a homosexual,” Parrish said. He cites examples like Frederick the Great and Isaac Newton as figures whose celibate personal history is open to interpretation, while speculation suggests that Florence Nightingale, Nikola Tesla, and Emily Brontë were also asexual.
But what other asexuals can do to make the community less lonely is simply to come out and be visible. According to Parrish, most of those who identify as asexual are “young and millennial,” and he believes that older folks may struggle with coming to terms with their identity.
“They probably don’t think of themselves as asexual, because like me, they… didn’t have any notion of it and they were never really informed of it,” Parrish said. “They lived their whole lives with this notion of themselves as asexuals… They’re not as likely to think that they’ve been wrong about themselves for decades and decades.”
But that lack of information may be changing. February was a big month for asexuality in pop culture: Jughead, the crown-wearing best friend to Archie Andrews, was recently revealed to be asexual in Jughead No. 4, the newest edition of the long-running comic series.
According to writer Chip Zdarsky, the decision to out Jughead—who tends to show more interest in food than teenage girls—befits the history of the cartoon character, first introduced to readers back in 1941.
“[O]ver the 75 years of his existence, there have been sporadic moments where he has dabbled in the ladies, but historically he has been portrayed as asexual,” Zdarsky said. “I think something like asexuality is underrepresented, and since we have a character who was asexual before people had the word for it, I’m continuing to write him that way.”
If Jughead can come out seven-and-a-half decades after the character made his first appearance in the Archie comics, perhaps there’s hope for everyone.