The 22nd to the 28th of October is Asexual Awareness Week. For this occasion, I asked a couple of questions to Valérie Reding, an asexual, panromantic, queer and feminist multimedia artist, to know more about this sexual orientation that we don't hear enough about.
This portrait is the first of a series that will give us a first-hand point of view of the great diversity of identities, gender expressions, sexual orientations and attractions that color our world.
Could you give me a short presentation of yourself? What name and what pronouns would you like me to use?
My name is Valérie Reding, originally from Luxembourg, I am now living and working in Zurich. I am an asexual, panromantic, queer and feminist multimedia artist.
I work at the intersection of performance, dance, photography and video and use my body to explore the potential of empathy, vulnerability, transformation and drag in order to question norms and stereotypes of gender, sexualities and identities. I had been trained in ballet and contemporary dance and received a BA in Media Arts at the Zürich University of the Arts.
I know that this is a touchy subject and that it is emotionally and politically very charged, but from a personal point of view, I honestly don’t care what pronouns you use to describe me. I am aware that I speak from a very privileged point of view, however I personally don’t really care, how I’m read by society. So, you can use they/them or she/her.
How would you explain what asexuality is to someone who doesn't know this term?
I would like to take this opportunity to explain some concepts that are very occulted and confused in our society, but that are actually very simple:
asexuality: Asexuality is a sexual orientation that describes a person who does not experience any sexual attraction to anyone or anything. The sexual orientation of a person describes to whom or what they feel sexually attracted to. Other examples of sexual attraction are heterosexuality, homosexuality, bi-sexuality, pan-sexuality...
attraction: Attraction refers to a strong mental or emotional force, that draws people together. In mainstream culture, we mainly talk about sexual and romantic attraction, but there are many different kinds of attraction, for example aesthetic, intellectual, sensual and platonic attraction - just to name a few.
Asexual people can potentially experience all these different kinds of attraction, except for sexual attraction. There are however people on the asexual spectrum, like grey-asexual and demi-sexual people, that can experience sexual attraction in certain very specific circumstances.
Although heteronormative mainstream culture wants us to believe that sexual and romantic attraction do always align perfectly, in reality, this is not always the case. For example, one person can feel romantically attracted to both sexes (=bi-romantic), but only feel sexually attracted to the opposite sex (=heterosexual).
libido/sex drive: The libido or sex drive describes a person’s physical desire or need to feel sexual pleasure (with or without one or more partners). Whether someone is asexual or sexual, the libido can vary in strength (or be completely inexistent) depending on the situation.
Some asexuals do have a libido, but don’t experience (enough) sexual attraction to relieve that feeling with someone. Some asexuals don’t have any (or very little) libido. However, not having any or having only a very faint libido is not exclusive to asexuals! People with any sexual orientation experience varying intensities of libido and their libido often fluctuates with time/age, stress level, sleep schedule and hormones to name just a few of the factors that can have an influence on the libido.
sexual arousal: Sexual arousal is an involuntary physical reaction of the body that prepares itself for sexual activity of some kind. Arousal is the state where the sexual organs become active. There are many triggers that can provoke the body to get aroused. This can happen to any human being, no matter what their sexual orientation is. Therefore, when someone who is asexual gets aroused, this does not mean that they suddenly feel a sexual attraction and would want to have sex with someone - it just means that their body displays its functionality.
For you, is asexuality part of your identity? Are you open about it with your friends, close-ones, colleagues, etc.? Or is it more something that is only linked to your sexuality/relationships?
Personally, I have a huge aversion towards labels and categories, because I find them limiting and restrictive. In my artistic work, I always try to challenge stereotypes and norms and especially hegemonial heteronormative concepts of gender identities and sexualities, because I believe in a more open and fluid concept of gender and sexuality, leaving enough room for multiplicity, for development and failure, for inconsistence and ambiguity.
So yes, I do identify as asexual and panromatic and these descriptions are part of my identity, because they have an influence on how I perceive the world, our society and how I interact with other people. But they are just one small aspect of who I am, since they do only describe my sexual and romantic orientation.
I do not scream these labels into people’s faces since I want them to perceive me as a human being first. But if the conversation falls onto the subject of sexuality or sexual orientation, I am very open and even publicly talk about it. I don’t know, if it is linked to my asexuality, but I have absolutely no shame and no inhibition when it comes to the subject of sex, bodies, relationships and love and I do deal with theses subjects in my artistic work a lot.
When and how did you first start realizing that you were asexual?
For as long as I can remember, I was well aware of the fact that I don’t feel any sexual attraction and that I had no interest to engage in any sexual activities, besides perhaps a slight curiosity. I never felt broken or lacking in something. I did not and still don’t need to put a label on myself to know who I am. I just felt different, accepted it, moved on and learned only in my early twenties that there is a word, that describes what I feel: asexuality.
I am very lucky in that way, that I am a very independent and solitary person. I am not someone who needs to be in an intimate, romantic relationship with another human being in order to „feel complete“. So „feeling different“ from most people was never something that made me feel alienated or that l suffered from. I never felt pressured to engage in romantic relationships or sexual activities in order to „fit in“. And I actually took some pride in being „different“! ;)
However, I know that I am very lucky and that many young people on the asexual spectrum suffer from feeling different in this hyper-sexualized society that we are living in and that makes people who do not fit into the heteronormative norms feel like they are broken!
We live in a society where sex is everywhere. How does it affect asexual people?
As an asexual, panromantic person, who is not sex-repulsed, it does not really bother me to be surrounded by sex.
It sometimes makes me laugh and wonder, why people attach such a big importance to sex and why they would invest so much time into it.
It sometimes makes me laugh and wonder, why people attach such a big importance to sex and why they would invest so much time into it. However, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for someone that is sex-repulsed to live in our hyper-sexualized society and getting constantly confronted with sex.
Since I am basically never thinking about sex, I do sometimes wear things, say things or behave in a certain way, that many people would feel is sexually charged or „asking for it“, even though it did not even come to my mind that it could be read as such! This „blindness“ to the sexual meanings associated to certain objects, actions and body language can get us asexuals sometimes into very sticky and potentially dangerous situations, since we live in a sexist society that perpetuates rape culture and does not teach people the concept of consent.
Currently, what do you think are the primary needs of asexual people to feel more included in our hyper-sexualized society? Do you have practical tools that non-concerned people could use?
Asexuality is completely underrepresented in mainstream society - and even in LGBTIQ+ communities. There are so many myths that are being perpetuated about asexuality. Just to give you a few examples: Many people believe that asexuality is an illness or mental disorder caused by a hormonal imbalance or by trauma, or they believe that asexuality is „only a phase“ that someone will grow out of, or they believe that asexuality is the same thing as celibacy or that a „corrective rape“ can transform an asexual person into a heterosexual one. These myths are not only completely uneducated and annoying, but they also endanger the mental health and physical safety of many asexual people.
What we need most is visibility, representation in the mainstream media and an open dialogue in order to educate people.
What we need most is visibility, representation in the mainstream media and an open dialogue in order to educate people. This will help people understand and respect asexuals, their sexuality and their needs as well as prevent them from pathologizing asexuals. But, something that I think is also really important to note, is the fact that having these conversations about asexuality, makes people of every sexual orientation think more deeply about the structures of their own sexuality and intimate relationships. So it is a win-win situation for everyone!
There are several good online resources to learn more about asexuality - for asexuals and allosexuals (=sexual people), such as AVEN Wiki, Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) or Aromantisches und Asexuelles Spektrum Schweiz.
Do asexuals have sex?
There are some asexuals (and also people from any sexual orientation), that do experience sex-repulsion or sex-aversion. These people won’t engage in sexual activities in most circumstances.
But those asexuals that are not sex-repulsed nor sex-aversed, might decide to have sex for many different reasons. Sexual attraction is only one of the forces that makes people want to engage in sexual activities. Other reasons could be for example wanting to share an intimate moment with someone, wanting to sensually explore one’s body, engaging in kinky power play or role play, feeling romantically attracted to someone, wanting to give another person sexual pleasure, wanting to have children, ... Of course, sex can be pleasurable for asexuals, just as it can be for sexuals. And yes, asexuals can also have orgasms, just as any other human being can. To sum it up: some asexuals do have sex and some don’t.
How to approach an asexual or someone you believe is asexual, when wanting to engage in a romantic and perhaps even intimate and sexual relationship with them?
Being asexual is just a sexual orientation. It does not tell you anything more about that person than the fact that they don’t feel sexually attracted to anyone or anything. Asexual people are human beings and everyone has their own individual feelings, limits and needs in regards to intimacy and touch. So approach it as you would do with any other person, whatever their sexual orientation might be: Have a conversation and, before you do anything, ask them what their limits are and what they are OK with doing and what not.
Anything else that you want to add and that you think is important for people to know?
Many people wonder, why I choose such an „explicit“ or even „pornographic“ imagery in my visual works and performances. The Freudian fixation on sexuality and concept of „sublimation“ through art, makes absolutely no sense for someone who is asexual!!
The fact that many of my artistic works deal with subjects like gender and sexuality and the fact that in many of my performances I do appear as a person, that is very confident in their sexuality, is a result of my political beliefs. As a queer feminist and as a person, who is living in a body that is perceived as female by our society, I want to keep these conversations going, fight for the visibility, rights and freedom of everyone and empower womxn.
These are my real motives, and as an asexual, I don’t have the existential need to live/express my sexuality through anything. Sex by itself is as important and meaningful to me as a handshake. And exactly like a handshake, it can become a meaningful and very symbolic act to me, when the person(s) it is shared with or the situation it happens in, make it more meaningful to me.
Cover image: © Valérie Reding