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Saturday, 30 April 2016
Identity 2016: What's it like to date someone who's asexual?
Sophie and George are young, in love and asexual. But dating without sex is not without its complications.
Sophie Jorgensen-Rideout had been friends with George Norman for about five months before they met up to watch the film How to Train Your Dragon, and one thing led to another.
"We kissed," says George. "I realise that to other people saying that usually means something else."
The 21-year-old undergraduate is among the estimated 1% of people in the UK who identify as asexual. But it took George until his first year at the University of York before he started openly identifying as such.
"This always entertains other asexual people but throughout most of my childhood, I kind of thought that everyone else was like me. I just assumed they were hiding it better than I was."
Asexuality is not a choice like celibacy. George has never experienced sexual attraction but, like many people in the asexual community, he is in a long-term romantic relationship.
Their first kiss came as something of a surprise. "I was firmly under the notion that George was homoromantic," says Sophie. "But that really illustrates just how fluid romanticism can be."
An estimated 1% of people in the UK are thought to be asexual
Asexual people do not experience sexual attraction
Asexuality is distinct from the condition of people who lack sexual desire but find that problematic
There is a wide spectrum between absolute asexuals and 'sexuals' and many people identify somewhere in between
Many people who identify on that spectrum have decoupled sex and romance
For those that do experience romantic attraction, some identify themselves as hetero or homoromantic
Someone who is homoromantic feels romantically drawn towards people of the same gender.
It's just one of a whole range of terms being used to describe how much romantic attraction a person feels towards others.
"I don't find sex and love to be at all connected. It just confuses me, this idea that they have to be," explains Sophie.
"I think sexuality is fluid and diverse and so is romanticism, so that it's unlikely that you'll ever fit into a box."
Sophie's preferred identity is "grey asexual" or "grey-ace". It's a term she says she stumbled upon by browsing through the vast number of Tumblrs, blogs and the online forums of Asexual Visibility and Education Network - the main online hub for the asexual community.
There is no set definition for the term grey asexual, but it usually describes someone who places themselves somewhere on the wide spectrum between being sexual and completely asexual.
For Sophie, it means that she has on rare occasions experienced sexual attraction. "It comes and goes. Sometimes it's there but I can just ignore it, brush it off and go about my day."
The huge variety in the asexual community is often misunderstood. People within the community often face questions that imply that they are just confused or labelling normal feelings unnecessarily.
"There's still a lot of stigma and and misconceptions," says Evie Brill Paffard, who identifies as demisexual and is in a relationship with three people.
"Asexual just means a lack of sexual attraction. It doesn't mean lack of anything else. It can be interpreted in so many ways."
The demisexual label tends to be used by people who only feel sexual attraction after they have formed a close emotional connection. This is not the same as choosing to abstain. Evie feels no sexual attraction at all until a strong romantic bond is already there.
"The idea that you can look at or meet a person and feel sexually attracted is something that a lot of people experience and that's fine, but I don't experience that."
Evie met her first partner at a student fetish society. "Ace people can be kinky," she says. They might not be interested in the sexual side of it but they can still enjoy the "hedonistic thrill".
Evie tends to tell people that she is in several relationships - she is polyamorous, or poly - before she tries to explain that she is demisexual.
"I think with the poly community, there are various obvious misconceptions. Because they will think it's all about swinging and having sex with everyone. But for me, I just love a lot of people."
It's not an image that fits the usual stereotype of asexuality. Research suggests that asexual people are viewed more negatively than people with other sexual orientations. Out of all of the groups studied, they were also the most dehumanised - seen to be both "machine-like" and more animalistic at the same time.
"I think that's the attitude people have towards relationships and people whose existence and identity makes them question their own actions and assumptions," says Nick Blake, who is not asexual.
He has been in a relationship with Liz Williams, who identifies as demisexual, ever since they met at a New Year's Eve party two years ago.
"It's like having a conversation about breathing. It makes you super aware of your own breathing and you get the feeling that it's weird and uncomfortable," he adds.
"I think that's where some of the confusion and dismissal come from."
Some people are particularly dismissive of the idea that a "sexual" person could be happy in a relationship with someone on the asexual spectrum. Liz argues that this attitude ignores the fact that all relationships involve some amount of compromise.
This is the case even in asexual relationships because of widely varying attitudes towards sex. Some asexual people are repelled by the idea, others simply uninterested and some do have sex, often for the sake of their partner.
"They're the same issues as in any relationship really, because you never know what someone is or isn't into and you should probably have that conversation before you have sex," says Liz.
"I think that's the case in all relationships; it's not going to work if you don't communicate."
Liz's asexuality has never been an issue for Nick. "I thought that if the relationship was really fulfilling then it wouldn't really matter if sex was involved or not. Two years later, I feel kind of vindicated.
"Once you stop viewing things in the old default kind of way, life becomes a lot more interesting."