Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “So, when will you find a girlfriend?” “NBSB (No Boyfriend Since Birth) ka lang kasi.” “You just haven’t found the right person.” “Gusto ko ring magpaka-halaman.” “Buti ka pa, maraming time.”
These are some actual remarks directed at asexuals. They may strike you as playful banter, but to someone on the asexual spectrum, they may be dismissive, invalidating and downright absurd, showing how little-understood the sexual orientation is.
The Philippines has made great strides in terms of LGBTQ+ awareness, with pride marches attended by an estimated 25,000 people and policy changes reaching well outside Metro Manila. But for people who identify as asexual, theirs is an entire group that has remained largely invisible, despite more and more people becoming vocal about the advocacy.
It’s of note that of our six interviewees who identify as asexual, five have opted to remain anonymous. Specific reasons vary, but the general sentiment is that they cannot come out because they anticipate the lack of understanding from family, friends, and most of all, internet strangers.
We’ve enlisted the help of Mac, Freya*, Space*, Leona*, May*, and Cole* to better understand asexuality.
It isn’t a passing fad
For aces (a widely-used term for those who identify themselves as asexual), there is a point in which they encounter the concept — for instance, from their friends or from the internet — and then slowly realize that their experiences fit the bill.
Asexuality is a sexual orientation, defined by the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) as an individual who does not experience sexual attraction.
As a concept, asexuality has been explored in academia ever since the 1940s, starting with Alfred Kinsey’s reports of human sexuality. in his 1948 research of the human male, Kinsey mentions a category for people who experienced “no socio-sexual contacts or reactions.”
Freya* is an 18-year-old student who has opted to remain anonymous because people constantly invalidate her orientation. She says, “Asexuality isn't just simply a trend, or us being pretentious and acting clean. We are also not asexual just because we haven't found the right person yet; we are asexual because we are asexual.”
It doesn’t automatically mean zero romance
Gender has moved from being viewed as a binary to a spectrum to give visibility and representation to those who do not conform to heteronormative gender roles. Asexuality, in turn, has its own spectrum, and this is the part where several misconceptions stem from. At this point, it’s important to grasp that attraction can be either romantic or sexual.
“People think we don't get romantic feelings, but we do,” Freya explains. She identifies as a heteroromantic asexual, which means that she experiences romantic, but not sexual attraction.
On the other end of the spectrum, 23-year-old artist Mac Arboleda identifies as asexual and aromantic, which means that he doesn’t experience romantic attraction. It was a cumulative realization that he was always not interested in pursuing relationships, but he recalls identifying with the word celibate when he came across it, even if it is much different from asexuality.
“When I rethought the word [celibate], I kind of connected [with] it. I once had a girl confess to me at a pool party and my clumsy response was, ‘Sorry, I'm a celibate!’ Later on, I would discover and fully understand asexuality while lurking random Wikipedia articles, seeing Tumblr posts about it, and eventually finding AVEN's website.”
Space*, a 21-year-old college fresh graduate, identifies as gray-asexual or gray-ace. Gray-asexuals are situated in between the spectrum of sexuality and asexuality. Space explains, “People have different reasons why they identify in this part of the spectrum. In my case, I am someone who has weak and quickly passing sexual interests.”
It doesn't necessarily mean zero sex
A person’s actions do not dictate their sexual orientation; rather, who they are attracted to dictates their sexual orientation. Leona*, a 21-year-old university student, explains, “A misconception [about] asexuals is that we hate sex. We don’t necessarily hate it. We just don’t see it as a need. It’s just an optional thing, and we can continue living happily without it.”
One can abstain from sex, but still experience sexual attraction. Conversely, an asexual person may have sex but still feel zero sexual attraction.
Cole*, a 26-year-old pharmacist, expresses their frustration at the misconceptions about this: “One problem is the all or nothing mindset people have. Just because I have had sex with people and I have regular sexual encounters with my boyfriend, doesn't stop me from identifying myself as an asexual person.” They identify as demisexual, a subset of gray-ace, which means that they don’t start feeling sexual attraction to another person unless they have a deep connection with them.
“I think it's not that hard to be kinder to an ace. If we tell you that we're not looking for sex in our romantic relationship, we are not ‘playing hard to get.’ We are being honest.” — Cole*
Sexual orientations aren't set in stone
As sexuality is fluid, one may have previously identified with another sexual orientation, but found that asexuality better articulated their truth. Leona used to consider herself as bisexual before slowly coming to the realization of her asexuality. Now she identifies as gray-ace.
“My friends are very open when it comes to discussions about sex, sexual orientation, gender identification, et cetera. Through our discussions, I realized that I may not be like them,” says Leona. “I wondered why I rarely have the same urges as them. I rarely thirst for sex. I hardly see it as a necessity. I won’t mind engaging in sexual intercourse, but it’s not something I really have to do.”
On the other hand, one might also still be in the process of discovering themselves — and that’s perfectly okay. Even if your sexuality is an important part of you, there is no pressure to immediately identify or label yourself, nor any pressure to do so at all.
It is clear to May*, a 27-year-old business analyst, that she is asexual but still needs time to explore where she is in the romantic spectrum.
“In terms of sexuality, I'm asexual and I don't experience sexual attraction to people,” she says. “I'm still figuring out where I am in the romantic spectrum, because sometimes I think I am aromantic due to how I have no interest in romantic relationships at all, or if I'm the complete opposite and I'm panromantic because sometimes I want to have a special connection with someone.”
It isn’t a disorder
Dr. Elizabeth Protacio-De Castro, a doctor of psychology, says that the basic assumption of Freud, and in general, is that everyone is a sexual being. Since asexuality is not the “norm,” it is often pathologized or confused as a symptom of dysfunction. But disorders need to meet the criteria of causing marked distress or interpersonal problems, which is worlds apart from conscious self-identification with a sexual orientation.
The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, used by mental healthcare professionals to diagnose mental illnesses, confirms this: in entries relating to sexual dysfunction, it is stated that “if a lifelong lack of sexual desire is better explained by one’s self-identification as asexual, then a diagnosis would not be made.”
It isn’t something that can be overcome by “finding the right person”
“I think it's not that hard to be kinder to an ace,” says Cole. “If we tell you that we're not looking for sex in our romantic relationship, we are not ‘playing hard to get.’ We are being honest.”
There is a common misconception that one’s asexuality can simply be changed. Some people even take it as a challenge to change one’s mind about matters regarding sexuality. Imagine being told that you aren’t who you are, and being pressured into being something else completely.
This is the toxic mindset most invalidating comments have, and at worst, the mindset that harassers use to justify persuading aces to do something that they don’t want to do. Mac elaborates, “I think one of the biggest challenges is that people don't understand — yet one of the most important things to understand — is that a person's sexual orientation shouldn't really matter, as long as there's full respect and consent.”
It isn’t being “halaman”
“Halaman ang tawag sa mga taong walang feelings, landi or kalibog-libog sa katawan,” explains comedian Ramon Bautista. An entire account is devoted to sharing relatable quotes on the topic.
In the Philippines, the term “halaman” often gets conflated with asexuality. It’s used often on social media, but there isn’t much discussion on the term. Its usage is vague and doesn’t delineate whether it is by choice or not (e.g. “Magpaka-halaman na lang tayo,” implying that it’s something that can be turned off at will).
Though meant as a playful remark, this can be unintentionally insulting, and does not fully explain the nuances of asexuality. “In the Western world, an ace being equated with a plant is an insult,” says Space. “What people need to note is that aces, unless they are aromantic, [can] still want to have romantic relationships because they still experience romantic attraction. So, ‘halaman culture’ may not be a good thing to compare with asexuality.”
The Philippines does have a growing number of ace initiatives
There are still very few avenues of discourse and representation for the local asexual agenda, but there are efforts slowly coming together for this heretofore silent part of the LGBTQ+ spectrum. In fact, back in 2016, Metro Manila Pride hosted AceSpace, an event specifically for those who identify as asexual. There are also online groups based in the Philippines, such as Asexual Philippines, which Cole says promotes the asexual identity to the Facebook community.
At the end of the day, what’s important for people to remember about asexuality is that it varies from person to person: some engage in sex, while some don’t; some would love to be part of an asexual community, while some don’t feel the need to.
Mac has pondered on where he stands in the broader group of minorities: “You ask yourself if you belong in the LGBTQ+ community, if you should join the Pride March, when you see that one of their fiercest advocacies is sexual liberation. It's also difficult to not look like a conservative, in a country like the Philippines, just because you're not into sexual things. It's like, guys, I'm on the same side. Sometimes you try to disregard that feeling of alienation because when you're an aromantic asexual cismale, you're ‘straight passing’ and therefore have no reason to feel different.”
Space says of having to constantly explain herself, “I just want people to let this be. I don't want to have to explain and defend myself all the time, especially to people who aren't even my friends. My sexuality is an important part of me, but I don't want people to just equate my entire being with it. I'm me, you know?”
*Names have been changed upon the request of the interviewees.
With reports from various administrators of the Asexual Philippines Facebook page.