Asexuality as a Threat to Society: The Roots of Acephobia


Many people feel that the LGBTQ+ acronym has become too long. The appearance of new letters baffles them. They begin to wonder about the authenticity of some of the letters—pansexuality? Aromantics or allies? And who decided asexuals were part of the “queer” community?

A close-up of a person holding a torn-off piece of paper with LGBTQIA written in rainbow colors.
If the only “A” you have is “ally” … we have a problem. (Sharon McCutcheon / Pexels.com)

Yet the LGBTQ+ community is constantly in flux. Many people embrace the idea of an ever-evolving identity. After all, we’re human beings. We grow. We change.

Why should we be beholden to static labels for our entire lives? That seems silly.

What’s even more silly is all the gatekeeping that goes on around LGBTQ+ identities. I talked about biphobia and panphobia in a recent post. That got me to wondering: why is there so much acephobia in the LGBTQ+ community?

Expansive Queerness Worries the Western Myth

Gatekeeping around bi/pansexuality happens because they pose a threat to a major myth in our society. Specifically, bisexuality and pansexuality upset the idea of the heterosexual majority. Pansexual and bisexual people in “straight-presenting” relationships are very, very threatening for that reason.

Think about it. If you’re trying to prove queers are a minority, you’re going to point at every “straight” couple you see.

Now what happens when those people start saying, “Oh, but actually, we’re queer too”? Your argument that the majority of the human population is exclusively heterosexual breaks down.

When you include bi- and pan- straight-presenting relationships, suddenly, you have to question the idea most of us are exclusively heterosexual. Is straight the default setting on humans?

If you follow the Kinsey sexuality spectrum model, the answer is no. Small minorities of the population are exclusively heterosexual or exclusively gay. The greater majority float somewhere between the two poles.

Excluding “Straight-Presenting” Persons to Preserve the Myth

This is where we find resistance to bi and pan folks who are in “straight-presenting” relationships. Queers who argue to keep these folks out are arguing for their own “special status” in society. They wish to remain as a minority.

These groups do this because they believe the heteronormative myth benefits them. They are an exception to the rule and need special treatment. What they fail to realize is that arguing for “special status” under an oppressive regime allows oppression to continue. By erecting a fence around the “queer community,” you’re not only keeping people out but keeping yourself penned in.

That allows for society to oppress you, even if they offer token recognition and “special status” with the other hand.

In short, society has tricked queers into thinking they want their own cordoned-off area. In turn, society corrals them in their enclosure, where it is much easier to cause harm.

The antidote is to embrace the idea that the majority of the human population is probably some kind of queer. We don’t need special status. Queer culture is just culture. We are not a minority but a majority.

In sum: gatekeeping shoots us in the foot and allows the heteronormative machine to continue oppression.

Asexuality Is Threatening to Power Structures

So, where do the asexual folks fit into all of this?

The answer is that, much like their bi/pan siblings, asexual folks threaten the exclusively heteronormative minority.

Asexual people similarly challenge the idea that “straight” (or, perhaps more accurately, “not queer”) is the majority. If asexuality is under the queer umbrella, then we have more queer people.

The asexual flag, which features a black stripe, a gray stripe, a white stripe, and a purple stripe in that order. Variations exist.
Scary stuff, right?

This includes asexual individuals who engage in opposite-sex relationships. These are queer relationships. Our straight desperado pointing out “straight” couples to prove their point is going to have a problem. Much like the bi/pan folks, the asexual individuals will say, “But actually, this isn’t a straight relationship.”

Is Asexuality Actually Queer Though?

Now we run into a different problem. If an asexual person is exclusively into members of the “opposite sex,” are they not then heterosexual? And is heterosexuality thus not straight?

Our straight desperado trying to uphold the myth of the exclusively heterosexual majority will think this is a gotcha! These people aren’t queer. They’re totally straight, heterosexual, whatever.

And many queer people echo this sentiment when they suggest we should not include asexuality under the queer umbrella. The ace label is only queer when we consider people who are both asexual and exhibit another “queer” identity. We cannot discount an asexual lesbian as a “queer” person, because they are not “just” asexual. They are also a lesbian, which is a “very queer” identity.

This gets a bit messy. If the asexual lesbian is “doubly queer,” why is the straight ace not queer at all?

To understand asexuality as queer, we have to look at a different aspect of the Western heteronormative paradigm. And that has less to do with the “who” than the “how” of sexual attraction/desire.

Heteronormative Myths about Quantifying Sexual Desire

Most of us tend to think of queer people as dealing with the “who” of the sexual equation. Who are you attracted to? Lesbians like women, gay men like other men, pan people like everyone, and so on.

When we run across a “straight” ace individual, our knee-jerk reaction is that this person is not queer. The “who” part of the sexual attraction equation matches the dominant society.

We don’t look at the remainder of the equation, however. Asexuality is less about the who than the what or the how—how much sexual attraction does someone experience?

That is what makes asexual people “queer” to the Western heteronormative paradigm. That paradigm assumes that “really horny” is pretty much the default setting for most people.

Again, though, we see “high rates of attraction” or “highly sexual” as normal within the culture at large. “Queer” simply means “strange”—and asexual individuals are very much estranged from this cultural norm.

Asexuality Worries Biological Essentialists

Asexuality challenges the assumption that most human beings experience a high degree of sexual attraction/desire. We don’t often think about this, but it’s everywhere. The slogan “sex sells” justifies all kinds of racy ad campaigns. It works on the assumption that most or all people will experience some kind of innate desire.

Men, in particular, are assumed to be at the mercy of their sex drives. We make jokes about men making friends with their hands, having socks under their mattresses, and spending time on PornHub. We say, “Any red-blooded male would have gotten hot and bothered.”

What happens to a man who does not feel this kind of urge?

A concrete statue of a medieval monk, tonsured and in robes, holding a cross. Many asexual people may have joined holy orders during the Middle Ages.
You become a monk, that’s what. The “Dark Ages” were nicer to ace people than we are. (bHere / Pexels.com)

In most cases, we’re likely to ask what is wrong with him. A healthcare practitioner might diagnose him with low libido. Maybe doctors suggest his testosterone is low. Perhaps he has a mental illness like depression.

Or maybe he’s just asexual. Perhaps there’s natural variation in the human population in terms of how much sex drive someone has. Maybe it isn’t a problem that needs to be “fixed.”

The Western paradigm of “woman” allows for some degree of asexuality. Women have, at points, been assumed to be “frigid” or asexual. Feminists in the twentieth century tried to do away with this notion—“women,” by and large, do like sex, they argued.

This push toward seeing women as sexual was liberating. Today, we presume women are sexual creatures—perhaps not quite the same as men, but with urges and needs, some of them barely controllable.

Where does this leave the asexual individual in our society? Again, “low libido” is presumed to be a problem that needs some kind of medical diagnosis.

The (Bogus) Biological Argument against Asexuality

The idea that high interest in sex is completely normal and individuals who deviate are somehow sick is rooted in biological essentialism. From a biological perspective, the point of life is to live long enough to reproduce.

This is, in biological terms, how you achieve immortality. You pass your genes on to your child, then get them into position to reproduce. You will live forever, just like mitochondrial Eve and chromosomal Adam live on in all of us.

So, science reasons, adult individuals of any species have this almost insatiable urge to reproduce. Having more sex results in a higher likelihood of having children—and having more children. And at least some of those children will likely survive to adulthood.

Thus, in biological terms, the asexuality spectrum makes no bloody sense. If the entire goal of biological life is to reproduce, then asexual people must have something wrong with them. We must need to fix them.

This “ideal” dovetails nicely with the patriarchal-capitalistic complex, which desires people to continue to reproduce as much as possible. That system’s goal is engineering “overpopulation,” “scarcity,” and impoverished, exploitable workers.

Asexual people challenge the notion that everyone has a high sex drive. They challenge the notion that this is the default for human beings. Their very existence deconstructs the myth supporting the pressure heteronormative society exerts about marriage and children.

Thus, asexual people become a serious threat to the heteronormative world order. This is why we reconstitute them as “ill” and in need of medical intervention. If we were to accept asexuality, that would threaten one of the basic myths our social structure rests on: that reproduction is paramount.

Wait a Second—We’ve Seen This Shit Before

You might recognize that line of thinking. It was used against gays and lesbians and is currently being weaponized against trans people. The DSM listed homosexuality as a form of mental illness until the 1970s. As reproductive technologies have advanced, however, the state has given more rights to gay men and women. This is based on the assumption they will fit into the heteronormative framework. This includes gay marriage rights, easing adoption rules for gay couples, and giving access to reproductive therapies.

Two women in white bridal dresses descended a white staircase. The woman to the left of the frame wears a pink faux fur shawl and carries a bouquet of roses; she grasps the other woman's arm.
I’m happy for them, but have we considered why the state lets us get married now? (Brianna Amick / Pexels.com)

In turn, society has become more accepting of gay people, because they can now reproduce. With the sexual revolution of the 1960s and birth control, birth rates began to fall. That necessitated the state’s revision of its stance on gay couples. Now, it’s okay to allow gay couples to take up the mantle of reproduction in order to fulfill capitalism’s need for impoverished workers.

Trans people face similar arguments today; the concern rests, by and large, on notions of heteronormative reproduction. Transphobia argues to keep “men” and “women” siloed. They argue biological essentialism—that women are women by function of their reproductive organs and virtue of their XX phenotype. By this logic, a trans woman cannot possibly be a woman, because she lacks the necessary reproductive parts.

Even arguments against giving trans children access to HRT comes back to concerns about reproduction. The fear centers on people who access HRT having their fertility irrevocably damaged. (The jury is still out, although there’s some evidence the effects are reversible, to some extent.)

Asexuality as a Stick in the Spokes of Heteronormative Wheels

Asexuality poses a unique threat in this climate. They threaten the very foundation of the myth: that reproduction is the goal. Asexual people can and do have sex, and they can and do have children. But the myth of everyone having a high sex drive funnels into biological essentialism.

Asexual people blow that myth up, because they do not conform to the goal. The idea behind biological essentialism is that we naturally have high sex drives to encourage us to have lots and lots of sex. In turn, we should have higher reproductive capacity. In short, our “naturally” high sex drives should help us churn out lots of babies for capitalist society to prey upon.

Asexual people suggest alternatives exist. They suggest variation in the human population, that not everyone has a naturally high sex drive. They also suggest, then, that “as much sex as possible / high reproduction rates” are not in fact the goal.

If we allow that asexual people exist naturally and they are not somehow suffering from some medical defect, then it opens the realm of possibility. It is no longer some biological imperative to hump and pump out as many babies as possible.

That scares capitalist heteronormative society. Asexual people are thus a threat that must be stopped.

Why Acephobic Exclusion Reduces the Threat

It should be clear that virulent acephobia stems from the fact that asexual people are a dual threat. Thus, we are encouraged to enact acephobia. The queer community rejects asexual individuals as not queer enough. This brings them back into heteronormative society. Their queerness is neutralized. The myth of the heteronormative majority—and queer minority—remains in place.

When we include asexual individuals, we challenge that myth. Are the heteronormative mores of society actually “normal”? Is queer actually, well, queer? Or is it he normative experience of the great majority of human beings?

Asexual individuals are further pathologized because they threaten biological essentialism. Queer communities that reject asexual individuals in “heterosexual” relationships buy into this heteronormative narrative. (It’s also the rationale behind calls for “family friendly” queerness. The state has extended special status to the minority, which seeks to protect that status by assimilating. From there, the culture can neutralize it as a threat.)

Capitalist society does not have a use for people who do not reproduce. We can see that in ableism, transphobia, and even the revulsion against child-free women. Biological essentialism exists to support this idea. Asexuality is seen as some sort of misfire in the genome because it limits reproductive behavior.

Asexuality Has Biological Purpose

In human societies—and even elsewhere in the animal kingdom—queer individuals, including asexual people, do serve a purpose. Humans take a long time to reach maturity, and we start off entirely helpless. Raising a child is an enormous effort over a long period.

It makes sense to have individuals who are not involved in raising their own. They can provide assistance to reproductive pairs. In humans in particular, socialization is incredibly important. So an asexual individual can pass on a “legacy” by the mere act of being emotionally and socially involved. And non-reproductive individuals can always care for abandoned or orphaned children: we see that in animal populations.

Acknowledging this suggests that simple biological reproduction is not the only way, particularly in a species with such a complex social structure. Adoption, “aunties,” extended care networks, and so on present ways to “parent” that patriarchal-capitalist society discounts and dismisses. It wants everyone to reproduce. That way, it can achieve larger populations, and larger numbers of impoverished people fighting over “scarce” resources and jobs.

Asexual individuals threaten that with their very existence. So it’s no wonder at all we see rampant acephobia being spouted from all quarters.

Pushing Back Against Acephobia

The solution, of course, is to recognize that acephobia is punching down. It aims to maintain the current status quo, where queers are a minority who need “special status” at the same time they are oppressed by the structure that accords them special status. It allows the cultural complex to fold queerness back into the heteronormative narrative. Asexuals, by their very nature, present resistance to those norms.

If we truly wish to achieve equality, then we must rewrite the culture. And that starts with recognizing the heteronormative myth in all its forms. Accepting asexuality allows us to begin dismantling that myth.

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By Cherry

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