Low libido: Jo Qualmann describes herself as being in a “committed platonic relationship”.
Two years ago, Dan Ritter, 19, found himself spending most of the summer fighting off a girl's sexual advances. There wasn't anything wrong with the girl, he wants to clarify. He just wasn't sexually attracted to her. In fact, Ritter started to realise he wasn't attracted to anyone. "Slowly, I noticed that I was completely uninterested in sex," he says. Then, in May 2012, Ritter came to an epiphany: "I'm asexual."
It's estimated that 1 per cent of all people have no sexual desire towards others whatsoever. One British study that queried 18,000 people about their sexual practices included the option, "I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all." One in a hundred people ticked the box.
However, that doesn't always mean a lack of sexual drive. In one study, US sexologist Lori Brotto estimated that half of all asexuals masturbate on a fairly regular basis; some have an aversion to all human contact, others need it as much as anyone else. Determining the root causes of asexuality is tricky, as few studies on the subject have been done. And asking asexual people why they think they're asexual - is it the result of sexual abuse? Sexual confusion? A biological flaw? Not finding the right person yet? - becomes an exercise in asking the same horrible questions gays and lesbians have copped for years. Some feel they were born asexual; others identify as "acquired" asexuals. "And if we're happy," one asexual person told me, "why does it matter?"
In 2004, New Scientist said, "If asexuality is indeed a form of sexual orientation, perhaps it will not be long before the issue of 'A' pride starts attracting more attention." By then, though, the asexuality movement was already well underway. In 2001, David Jay - a handsome, articulate American Gen-Y spokesperson - founded the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), selling shirts with slogans like, "Asexuality: it's not just for amoebas any more." And in the last few years, celebrities such as Janeane Garofalo, Morrissey and Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox have all publicly declared themselves as asexual. Asexuality has even been around long enough to have its own stereotypes (asexuals apparently all like Doctor Who and cake).
For asexual people, the fight against stigma and ridicule will be an ongoing struggle. In the meantime, many of them face a far more immediate and practical challenge: finding love. Non-asexuals might find that notion baffling: if you aren't interested in sex, why would you be interested in romance? And while it's true many asexuals aren't interested in sex or romance (identifying as "aromantic" asexuals), others are looking for mates ... without the actual mating.
Enter Acebook, an Australian-based international dating website for asexuals. Acebook's Queensland-based founder and moderator, Lennie P, says it's understandable why non-asexuals might be confused about the site's existence. "It is a pretty common belief that sex is an inextricable part of romantic relationships, so it's understandable that people might wonder why some of us seek partners." But as Acebook's home page patiently explains, "Even though we tend to like cake better than sex, many of us are still interested in romance. Just because we're asexual doesn't mean we should have to be lonely!" Unlike probably every other dating site in existence, new Acebook members are asked to agree to unique terms and conditions stipulating they are genuinely seeking a non-sexual relationship.
In its five-year history, Acebook has clocked more than 12,500 registered members - including Dan Ritter - and has seen members pair up and even marry. If it didn't exist, Ritter says it'd be "way more difficult" to find people he could talk to. He confirms that the main reason he joined it is to find romance. "I've made it a point to stick to dating other asexuals from now on," he says. "If one asexual dates another, things are easier."
Robyn, a 49-year-old asexual woman in Ballarat, joined Acebook for similar reasons. She used mainstream online dating websites - something she found "a demoralising experience" - before discovering Acebook through AVEN's recommendations. "I'm on Acebook for one thing only - the hope of meeting that forever partner. I view it in much the same way as a lottery ticket win - low probability, but you have to be in it to win it." Robyn - who identifies as a bi-amorous femme lesbian with acquired asexuality - says that while she's "not met anyone in person from Acebook", she feels its existence is vital. "At times I've been near suicidal. I've felt so lonely and rejected, with so little hope of finding a partner again. I became like a leper [...] in this sexually focused world."
Other asexuals still find love offline. Brisbane-based Jo Qualmann, a 21-year-old ancient history, archaeology and classical languages student, identifies as an aromantic asexual, but wears a traditional heart-in-the-hand Claddagh ring with the heart's tip pointing inwards, indicating she is taken. Her partner gave it to her. When suggested that outsiders might find her year-long relationship surprising, Qualmann smiles. "I still find it puzzling at times myself."
Before meeting someone through her university department, Qualmann had been happily unattached. She doesn't quite remember how it happened, "but I remember getting feelings ... feelings I hadn't had before. It started out as a 'best friend' feeling, but then it started being a bit more than that. Best friends generally don't get very cuddly with each other. I started feeling things that weren't attraction, but are generally seen as love, for this person. It is very hard to explain."
Qualmann's partner - who prefers not to be identified - doesn't identify as asexual himself, but wanted someone he could love "without the sexual stuff". "Neither of us wants any more," Qualmann says. "Even among people who don't identify as asexual, there's a lot of variation between how sexual someone is." Her partner mightn't be asexual, but he isn't that interested in sex, either. Qualmann says they see themselves in "a committed platonic relationship".
Qualmann is one of the lucky ones. Lennie P says it can be notoriously hard for asexuals to find partners. "It absolutely can be difficult," says Lennie. "The community is still relatively new. And although it seems to have grown in recent years, we are still a very small minority - a bit scattered across the globe."
As a result, long-distance relationships are apparently common in the asexual community. After all, who could be more suitable for an enduring non-sexual relationship than a pen pal?
This article originally appeared in Good Weekend.