What is asexuality and what legal rights do activists want?

Wednesday, 22 November 2023 11:10 GMT

Yasmin Benoit holds an asexual flag in this undated photograph. Yasmin Benoit/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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As a new British report shows, asexual people often face challenges at work but some authorities are moving to protect their rights
  • First UK report on lives of asexual people published
  • It reveals challenges faced at work and in society
  • Rights activists call for more legal protections

By Lucy Middleton

LONDON, Nov 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Britain's first report into the lives of asexual people has triggered a national conversation about the difficulties they have in coming out at work and raised the question of whether they should be legally protected.

The research, carried out by Stonewall and asexual activist Yasmin Benoit, calls for the orientation to be specifically named in legislation aimed at protecting LGBTQ+ people from discrimination.

Here's what you need to know:

What does it mean to be asexual?

Asexuality is described as the quality of experiencing little to no sexual attraction. An asexual person may still experience romantic attraction and in doing so could also use other terms - such as straight, lesbian or gay - to describe their orientation.

According to a 2023 survey, conducted by polling firm IPSOS, an average of 1% of adult respondents across 30 countries said they identify as asexual. 

There are 28,000 people in England and Wales who identify as asexual, according to the 2021 census, published in January this year. 

What challenges do asexual people face?

Asexual people are vulnerable to conversion therapy practices, experience difficulties in accessing healthcare and are likely to be discriminated against when they come out in a work environment, Stonewall's report said. 

Young asexual people in the United States were also found to be more likely to encounter higher rates of depression and anxiety compared to their LGBTQ+ peers, research by The Trevor Project showed in 2020. 

Other research has shown that asexual people are often stigmatised due to societal presumptions that all people experience some form of sexual attraction, making it more difficult for them to come out than it is for other sexual minorities. 

Just 17.6% of asexual people said they had received "only positive" responses after coming out at work, according to Stonewall's analysis of Britain's 2018 National LGBT Survey. 

Asexuality currently remains pathologised under the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, meaning asexual people are at risk of being directed towards medical intervention if they consult their doctor or GP.

A campaign by activists led to the disorder being amended in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 2013 to protect asexual people from being misdiagnosed in the United States. 

"Conversion therapy usually starts off coming from GPs; it often comes from gynaecology and particularly smear tests, and the lack of provisions for people who haven't had penetrative sex before," Benoit, who co-authored the Stonewall report, told Openly.

"That process can often lead to the medicalisation of [asexual people's] experience."

Where do asexual people have legal rights?

While asexuality does not face the same criminalisation risks as same-sex relations or gender transitioning, the orientation can fall victim to loopholes in legislation intended to protect members of the LGBTQ+ community.

In Britain, asexuality is not regarded as a sexual orientation under the 2010 Equality Act, which only refers to heterosexual or same-sex attraction. Asexual people were also not included in the government's plans for a conversion therapy ban. 

New York became the first area in the world to specifically protect asexual people in 2003, when it included the orientation in its Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act.

In 2023, Tasmania became the first Australian state to officially recognise asexual people, adding an 'A' to the term LGBTQ+ in government documents.

"We know from our research that asexual people often face harassment and discrimination because of who they are and are often excluded in discussions on LGBTQ+ rights," said Robbie de Santos, Stonewall's director of communications.

"There are widespread societal misconceptions of what it means to be asexual and the issues they face, including a lack of explicit protections."

Related stories:

What is intersex surgery and where is it banned? 

Here's what the 2021 census says about LGBTQ Britons 

UK slams LGBTQ+ conversion therapy but no ban in sight 

(Reporting by Lucy Middleton; editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile. Please credit Openly, the LGBTQ+ news website from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit https://www.openlynews.com)

Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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