By Shreya Ila Anasuya
When Naqshpa* was a teenager, her friends swooned over Hrithik Roshan’s toned muscles and papered their walls with posters of Rahul Dravid. Meanwhile, they called Naqshpa a ‘kid’ because she didn’t feel that way about anyone. But her friends assumed that she’d catch up to them eventually, and have a crush of her own someday.
Years passed, and that day never came.
At the age of 16, Naqshpa accidentally read about sex in a children’s encyclopaedia. ‘I was immediately shocked and disgusted,’ she recalls. ‘I also realised then that I had never been attracted to anyone.’
Sure, she’d thought that some people were good-looking, but her feelings had never gone deeper than that.
The feeling that she was somehow different persisted, and she wanted to figure out what made her so. It bothered her that romantic relationships were seen as central to people’s lives, and that close friends and even siblings could ‘become secondary, when people started having romantic partners’.
She went online to look for information a couple of times, but to no success.
Seven whole years later, aged 27, Naqshpa read the word ‘bisexuality’ in an article online. One search led to another, and soon she was reading about something called asexuality.
‘Asexual: a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction.’
And just like that, she had a word that she could relate to. It had taken her over a decade, but Naqshpa finally discovered what she ‘was’ — and that she wasn’t the only one who felt this way.
* * *
In India, the crushing weight of sexual love is everywhere — and so are efforts to control it.
Most blockbuster films show some variation of girl-meets-boy (which often translates into boy-stalks-girl): they fall in love, they overcome obstacles, they end up together. At the same time, others screech about ‘love jihad’, how sex education will lead young people astray, and that nobody can help you if your love crosses caste-lines and you’re killed by your family in the bargain.
Queer people are forced into heterosexual marriages. Sexual violence is dismissed because ‘boys will be boys’. People who have disabilities are not supposed to be sexual at all. Neither are women, at least until they get married, after which they have to start popping out babies (for which they presumably have sex, but shh, let’s not talk about that. Let’s watch a journalist attempt to tear down Sunny Leone instead).
We’ve been so busy doing our best to control people’s sexual impulses, that we have left no room for people who might not experience sexual attraction at all.
That’s where access to the internet comes in handy. For people who identify as asexual, the internet has both answers and the space to ask questions. For people who’ve felt different, confused, or alone all their lives, it opens a door into a community.
Like Naqshpa, Avinash also spent his teen years without having a single crush. He comes from a conservative, religious family, so for the longest time it didn’t strike him at all. Plus, he went to an all boys’ school. ‘Chasing girls was out of the question,’ he says.
When his classmates talked about sex, Avinash just played it cool. ‘I would laugh and talk to them as usual. You know how teenagers are.’
But conversations and jokes about sex made Avinash curious. The first time he watched porn, he was with a group of friends. The experience was awkward for everyone, including Avinash, who said it felt ‘very weird’. But when he explored porn on his own several years later later, it was to get off. ‘Raging teen hormones will turn you on, and of course, you act accordingly.’
Despite his forays into porn, though, Avinash still wasn’t interested in another person — either romantically or sexually. The fact that he was single raised lots of questions, which he had no answers to. By the time he reached his late twenties, he was acutely aware that he was a virgin who had never been on a date. He began to wonder if there was something wrong with him.
That’s when he went online. ‘I googled key phrases like Not able to fall in love and Why am I not interested in sex,’ he tells me. As he made his way through the search results, he arrived at a long Tumblr comic that begins with a speech bubble: ‘Hello, I’m Adri, and I’m asexual’.
Adri, a cartoon representation of its creator, goes on to bust tons of myths about asexuality, such as ‘asexuals are cold and loveless’ or ‘asexuals have a history of sexual abuse’. The colours of the comic mirror the asexuality flag: black (for asexuality), grey (for grey-sexuality and demisexuality), white (for non-asexual partners and allies) and purple (for community).
Thanks to Adri, Avinash was overcome by a sense of familiarily and relief. He no longer felt like anything was ‘wrong’ with him.
* * *
Sheldon Cooper is sitting in his favourite spot in the living room surrounded by his best friends. One of them, Howard, refers to a ‘friends with benefits’ arrangement he’s got going on with a woman. Sheldon looks confused. ‘What exactly does that expression mean, friends with benefits? Does he provide her with health insurance?’
His roommate Leonard responds: ‘No. Look, imagine you maintained a friendship with someone you had sex with, but you were free to date whoever you wanted.’
‘I’m sorry, I can’t imagine any of that,’ says Sheldon.
The hugely popular US sitcom The Big Bang Theory revolves around a group of scientist friends, including theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper. Sheldon does not want to date, have sex with, or even touch other people. His discomfort with intimacy is one of the major plot points of the show, and we, the audience, are constantly reminded via a pre-recorded laugh track to find this hilarious.
Eventually, Sheldon begins a romantic relationship with a neurobiologist named Amy. Five years into their relationship, involving a great deal of reluctance on Sheldon’s part, they end up having sex.
This was a Big Event in the trajectory of the show, and entertainment websites responded accordingly. ‘Sheldon and Amy finally have sex!’ they screamed, as though a great wrong had been righted.
They finally did it. This inevitability points to a cultural imperative where being sexually active is ideal; an end goal. But it becomes a really big problem when this standard is imposed on people who identify as asexual.
Take 26-year-old Ritinkar, for instance. He figured out that he was gay pretty early on. His first crush was on a straight boy, and in college, he fell in unrequited love with one of his friends. But several years later, when Ritinkar first got physically intimate with another man, he was disappointed by the experience.
As Ritinkar learned more about asexuality from the internet, he figured out that he was ‘grey-asexual’: somewhere on the spectrum between being sexual and asexual.
Explaining this to other people, though, was a nightmare. ‘If repetitive coming out was not annoying enough, here there is the added annoyance of the long explanations expected of you,’ he says. He lists some responses he’s gotten over the years: ‘You mean like an amoeba? Are you abstaining? Waiting for the right one? Afraid of committing sin? Are you a virgin? Wow! So pure! Are you impotent?!’
As Ritinkar grappled with being grey-ace, one truly affirming experience he had was finding someone with the same orientation online. He met a woman via an asexuality Facebook group, and when they began chatting, they realised it was the first time either of them had spoken to another grey-ace.
‘Before talking to her, everything seemed to be theoretical, rather than an actual possibility. We talked about our experiences and our specific sexual desires — what’s ok with us and what’s not.’ Ritinkar believes that the conversation helped them both realise that what they were feeling was alright.
‘There is immense relief when you see that there’s someone else just like you.’
* * *
Mohana knew she was asexual since a young age, but she was confused about the specifics. Could she like-like someone without wanting to sleep with them? Did that even ‘count’? ‘I couldn’t stand the mainstream media idea of what’s romantic — holding hands, having a candlelit dinner, celebrating Valentine’s Day… I’d probably barf,’ she tells me.
Mohana recalls how she had an intense crush on a straight woman friend when she was 19, but couldn’t ever imagine having sex with her. ‘Even if I tried to [imagine it], I would get the feeling that something’s wrong.’ She also spent years feeling left out after her friends started experimenting with sex.
One day, Mohana heard a professor use the word ‘asexuality’ in a classroom. She went home and looked it up online. ‘It was a kind of eureka moment for me when I found AVEN,’ she recalls.
AVEN, or the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, was created by American ace activist David Jay in 2001. Today, it describes itself as ‘the world’s largest online asexual community’, home to tons of resources, personal stories and forums, through which aces from all over the world are able to talk to each other.
For Mohana, this was life-affirming. ‘The online space is definitely the only space we’ve had where we can have conversations safely. People who are not out as asexual to their friends and families are able to talk to each other about it.’
For many aces, online spaces have been crucial in their ability to provide human connections. Nadia, a 19-year-old nonbinary ace from Karachi, says she grew up with a lot of ‘nervous panicking about why I didn’t feel straight, while also not feeling gay.’ When she was 17, she figured out she was asexual via a series of online searches, and today she derives a great deal of comfort from the virtual spaces she’s found for herself.
‘In all honesty, it’s a space that’s very meaningful for me because I don’t have any other way to be in touch with other asexual people,’ says Nadia. ‘So it’s very reassuring and comforting to interact in a space where you know that everyone else can relate to you, at least somewhat.’
The ace community is as diverse as its large, loose membership, and Mohana says that this is one of the biggest lessons that the internet has taught her: that asexuality — like gender, and like sexuality — is a spectrum, rather than a fixed point.
Some aces experience attraction, some don’t. Some are repulsed by sex or don’t masturbate, while others find pleasure in porn and erotica, get aroused, and may even have sex for various reasons. Some can only have sex after they’re emotionally attached to somebody, while others only experience romantic feelings, not sexual ones.
‘Each one of us is different, and none of us are on the same page about every single detail,’ Mohana says. ‘People are often confused about where they stand on the spectrum. Talking to each other helps us understand that it’s okay to be confused.’
* * *
Nine months ago, two Indian aces decided to get together and launch Asexuality India: the first ever web resource for Indian aces.
One of the founders, Praveen, tells me, ‘I went on a Reddit forum once and read about an [Indian] ace woman who had been forced to marry. I wanted there to be a space for people to reach out if they needed to figure out why they felt the way they did. With awareness, they would perhaps be more able to fight back if they found themselves in these kinds of situations.’
The Asexuality India website has a delicious looking homepage — the background is a huge picture of a colourful cake topped with pink icing. The welcome text on the page says:
‘Where anything is better than sex, but we prefer CAKE!…every Ace is unique and different. So if you identify as one or are still figuring things out, welcome home.’
Inspired by AVEN, Asexuality India already has 79 active members, as well as resources, forums and articles. The blog has a number of news updates as well as posts from members, including stuff like ‘Inside the head of an aromantic asexual’ and ‘Asexuality needs to be recognised as its own, unique orientation.’
Spread across Asexuality India, a number of closed Facebook groups, and other social media platforms like Twitter, the online Indian asexual community is also a crucial space to help aces deal with the stigma and stereotyping they routinely face.
Shambhavi, a 23-year-old writer who identifies as ace, says that moderators of ace Facebook groups in India usually vet people’s profiles before letting them in. ‘Most spaces are aces-only,’ she tells me.
Naqshpa met a few Indian aces online, and after chatting with them, decided to form a closed Facebook group. ‘It took me 11 long years to know the term asexual. Online groups made me realise that many people don’t know they are ace and try to fit into society’s norms, which makes them feel emotionally distressed. And with the arranged marriage scenario in India, it’s very important that there is awareness.’
A page on the Asexuality India website reads
‘As the Indian youth tumbles into…marriageable age, that’s when the “real fun” begins. Getting married is an extremely important milestone for Indians…and the thought of not wanting to be married or not starting a family can be as scandalous as talking about sex.’
This is precisely what many Indian aces are up against: a society in which marriage and the family unit are seen as critical.
Ritinkar says that although he’s perfectly content being single, he is open to having a romantic relationship in the future. Naqshpa, Avinash, and Mohana, on the other hand, say they aren’t looking to get married at all. Avinash’s family has started putting pressure on him to get married soon. He is trying to buy time by telling them he needs to focus on his career right now, but he knows that this argument won’t work forever.
Shambhavi explains that things often get uncomfortable when she tells someone that she’s not having sex or that she doesn’t want a partner or a child in the future. ‘The unasked question is: “Well then, what value is your life?”’
Another common misconception is that asexual people just have to ‘try it out’ and they will magically turn into sexual beings — something lesbian women also often hear in relation to having sex with men.
‘I have been told that this is “just a phase” which will pass — because, again, everyone has to be sexual,’ says Ami, a 22 year old student living in a large Indian city. ‘I used to feel incomplete or broken when I only felt emotionally [and not sexually] connected with a person.’
For Ami, who identifies as grey-ace, the online ace community has been a crucial space to help her counter these remarks. She says that being able to explore her grey-ace identity with members of the Indian ace community has helped her not to feel ‘abnormal’. She cherishes the community’s work of raising awareness around asexuality, and has herself taken part in this by writing anonymously about her own experiences as part of Asexual Awareness Week. ‘I always find the asexual community the most inclusive community because it believes in fluidity,’ she writes.
Whether it’s articles, blog posts, or forums, online spaces have proven to be hugely important for several aces. But the large digital divide in India means that many others who could benefit from being part of this community miss out on what it has to offer. This is a problem that Praveen has tried to tackle.
‘We’ve tried to organise offline meet-ups, but very few people show up,’ he says. ‘There are a number of constraints we have [to overcome] before reaching a much larger number of people. Plus, a lot of the content is in English, and there’s very little media coverage around asexuality.’’
Given that it is still very difficult to speak openly about any sexuality in most physical spaces in India, the internet is the only place where digitally-connected aces can safely (and anonymously) speak about their experiences.
Like Shambhavi says, ‘If you’re having a shitty day and some bigot has just told you your orientation is not valid, you can reach out to your community and share your story and people will get it and give you the support you need.
It’s that one place where you don’t have to be on the defensive about who you are and that is incredibly comforting and liberating.’
*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals
Originally published on Deep Dives.