With its barrage of teddy bears, flowers and heart-shaped candy, Valentine’s Day can be a stressful time. You might think it would be even more challenging for asexuals – people who do not experience sexual attraction.
But members of this increasingly visible community see the day as a chance to celebrate and communicate their conception of love.
“Because it’s not explicitly sexual, Valentine’s Day is about the only time society thinks about romance,” says Ben Carter, 19, an asexual student at Oxford University. “My vision of romance is more idealistic because it’s about emotional intimacy and mutual trust rather than sex.”
Such visions are shared by others. Surveys have found 0.5 to 1 percent of British people feel "no sexual attraction," while the international society Aven (Asexuality Visibility and Education Network) has grown to more than 70,000 members. The organization will hold a month of social events following Feb. 14, ahead of a major conference in Toronto.
Asexuality has broken out of its Internet ghetto, according to Carter, who now enjoys a small "scene" at Oxford.
“There are about 10 of us,” he says. “People know what asexuality is here so it’s easier to be integrated and find the type of relationship you’re looking for.”
Relationships are complex and varied in the "ace" community. Asexuals can be "romantic," feeling affection and warmth, or "repulsed" by physical contact. Some asexuals date non-asexuals, with one or both going against their orientation, and Aven has even formed a "partners of asexuals" support group. There are also "gray" and demisexuals, who experience reduced levels of attraction.
Mark Carrigan, a researcher into asexuality at the University of Warwick in the U.K., says relationships between different types can be hard work.
"There is a common distinction between romantic and sexual attraction – they may negotiate rules such as being open sexually but not romantically," Carrigan says.
Asexual groups have broadly aligned with LGBT campaigns, having also been stigmatized and seeking to be recognized as a normal variation of sexuality.
“Every asexual has the experience of being told: 'No you’re not,'" says Carrigan. "It’s often assumed something is wrong or broken, such as that they were abused as children."
Two factors have helped asexuals be recognized and accepted, says Aven founder David Jay: “There is greater cultural understanding of sexuality diversity in general, and the Internet has helped to develop the community.”
At a time of growing isolation in wider society, with technology dependence linked to declining birth rates in much of the developed world, Jay believes the asexual community can contribute.
“We’re figuring out how to form relationships on our own terms outside the old scripts," he says. "At a time when it’s harder for everyone to build human connections, we are committed to respecting relationships and fighting isolation.”
Jay says he will enjoy Valentine’s Day. He has a partner, a dog, and a book, and he’ll celebrate all three.