SHANGHAI — When Marie Guo confided in her dormmates about her asexuality, she received little sympathy. Instead, they questioned how a virgin could be so sure she didn’t feel sexually attracted to anybody. “They suggested I have sex with my boyfriend and emphasized I needed to do it repeatedly before drawing a conclusion,” Guo tells Sixth Tone.
Being questioned, ridiculed, and dismissed is a common experience among people who identify as asexual, a sexual orientation defined as lacking sexual attraction to others. But while there is some public knowledge of asexuality in other countries, in China ignorance is still widespread.
In a 2004 paper, Canadian psychology professor Anthony Bogaert estimated that asexuals account for about 1% of the world’s population, which would mean the sexual minority has about 13 million members in China. Many of them fear coming out — especially to older generations, who often put immense value on marriage and having children. Parents find asexuality hard to accept or see it as a disorder that can be cured. Some interviewees did not use their Chinese given names to protect their privacy.
Asexuality is often confused with sexual dysfunction, where people with disorders experience distress due to their lack of sexual attraction — something asexual people don’t typically feel. Some asexual people say they masturbate to relieve tension — as does Guo, who remembers being met with more disbelief when she tried to explain this to her dormmates. Other people who identify as “little A,” the common nickname in China for asexual people, have sex only to satisfy their partners.
Diane Xie cannot imagine how it would feel to have sex with someone. “When people say someone is sexy, I have no idea what it means,” she says. When searching for answers online, she found AVEN — the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, the world’s largest online community for asexual people. After reading its explanation of asexuality, she exclaimed that this was who she was. But she was still a bit uncertain, wondering if maybe the person who could interest her sexually just hadn’t shown up yet.
Therefore, when studying in Hong Kong in 2015, Xie began dating a Dutch student for whom she had feelings. She tried intimacy up to second base but felt nothing other than uncomfortable. “I thought he was attractive and I really enjoyed hanging out with him, but I just didn’t have the desire to have further physical contact with him,” says the 24-year-old Shanghai native, who wears a black ring on her right middle finger, an internationally used sign for asexuality.
Diane Xie shows her black ring at a café in Shanghai, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
Chinese academic research into asexuality is, for now, limited to just one paper, published in 2018 by researchers at Southwest University in the city of Chongqing. The findings of their study of 284 individuals who were certain they were or thought they might be asexual were in line with results in the West. But what the country lacks in scientific writing, it makes up for in social media activity. Popular apps like Douban, Zhihu, WeChat, and QQ all have asexuality communities whose members can number in the tens of thousands.
When Yin Xuyan’s middle school classmates started to obsess over celebrities or experience their first loves, she remembers feeling nothing. “I don’t even have the experience of having a crush on someone, and I have no impulse at all to fall in love,” says the 19-year-old from the eastern city of Yangzhou. She then began to reflect on whether she’d suffered any physical or mental trauma in childhood, but other than her mother telling her that girls can’t touch boys or masturbate, she couldn’t think of anything. She sought porn catering to female pleasure, but that didn’t arouse her either.
Like thousands of others before her, Yin found the answer on Douban. “The moment I knew I was asexual, I felt so relieved,” she says. “Everything seemed to make sense then.” But when Yin told her best friend, she didn’t take it seriously. “Maybe no one will ever take it seriously,” Yin says. The freshman doesn’t talk much about her sexuality, and when people ask whether she has a boyfriend, “I just pretend I’m a good student who wants to devote herself to studying and has no time for dating,” she says, laughing.
But Yin will have to tell her conservative parents at some point and has been preparing what she calls a “psychological setup” since middle school. “I told them I might not get married in the future, and I act like a proactive feminist who doesn’t accept any patriarchal suppression,” she says. The argument lasted three years before they tacitly accepted that their daughter might be single for the rest of her life.
“While asexual people in Western countries are getting recognition and equal treatment, most asexuals don’t dare come out in China,” says Su Yanchen, one of the authors of the 2018 paper. He hopes their research can increase the social visibility of the asexual community and give them the opportunity to speak up in China. “Asexuals must expand their influence and fight for more rights, just like other LGBT groups, if they want to be recognized and live happily in this sexual-dominated society,” he says.
Compared with other sexual minorities, public awareness of asexuality is much lower. “Homosexuality is at least in line with the mainstream view that everyone needs sex, but asexuality is farther away from the mainstream,” says Frank Gao, a 26-year-old graduate student currently living in Germany. He previously identified as gay, but after dating men for years, he felt that something was off: Sex was boring to him. “It’s just as boring as when we are required to write something 100 times by the teacher as punishment,” he explains. “I don’t want sex, and if I have to do the same action many times, it bores me.”
During his senior year at university, Gao came across the term “asexuality” on an LGBT forum and started to reflect. “It shocked me,” he says. “I had lived as gay for years, and all of sudden it changed.” In 2011, an online survey of 3,436 people aged 16 to 25 who identified as asexual suggested that women asexuals significantly outnumber their male counterparts. And the percentage of asexual people who are attracted to the same sex is much lower than the percentage of those who like the opposite sex. This means that someone like Gao, a male asexual who’s into men, is a minority within a minority.
A woman looks at a group for asexual people on the app Douban in Shanghai, July 2019. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
None of Gao’s ex-boyfriends are asexual. When he told them he didn’t enjoy sex, they thought it was because he is “too rational.” The lack of a sex life affected his relationships. “Most gay men have a strong libido, and that’s why if I didn’t have sex with my exes, they’d often complain that I didn’t love them.”
Gao has been dating another Chinese student in Germany for a year. The couple have a lot in common, from values to interests — except when it comes to sex. But Gao says they compromise and have negotiated to have sex twice a month: “This frequency is quite low for a gay person, but we are willing to sacrifice for each other.”
It’s hard to explain to sexual people what asexuality is, says Gao, who often attempts to do so both online and offline. “They can’t empathize with what it means for someone not to be sexually attracted to any gender,” he says. Once Gao was asked if he had sexual desire for animals. “The public is set on the idea that humans have a desire for something,” he says.
When Jenny Wang explained to her roommates last year what sex means to asexual people, she used a metaphor. “Everyone has a few kinds of food that they don’t crave but don’t absolutely reject, either.” They understood right away, which Wang doesn’t think would happen with her parents and friends back home in China’s southwestern Yunnan province, where awareness and information about such topics are scarce.
Despite her successful food metaphor, Wang thinks there is little understanding among the public: “If we don’t have sex, people would ask how come we know we are asexual before we try it; but if we do have sex, people question how we can do it if we are asexual.”
Wang started identifying as asexual after moving to Shanghai in 2017 to study journalism. She did the Kinsey Scale test, designed half a century ago by sex research pioneer Alfred Kinsey. In his sexual orientation research, Kinsey reported that 1.5% of the population didn’t have any sexual reactions, and so he created a new category, “X,” for them. “I felt happy when I saw the X result, meaning I’ve fully accepted myself,” says Wang.
Wang joined a WeChat group of over 180 Chinese asexual people last year. There, she found a sense of belonging. Group members chat daily about everything from LGBT events to self-motivation. “I feel they feel me, and it’s easier to find common ground with them — and more importantly, I don’t need to think too much before I share my feelings,” says the 20-year-old.
A few months ago, Wang’s best male friend confessed his love to her. Wang turned him down after hesitating for two days, in large part because she’s afraid her asexuality will affect the relationship. “The most intimate thing I can accept,” she says after a long pause, “is probably hugging, and kissing on the lips at the most.”
Though having a child is not in her life plan, Wang already knows her parents will make her have one. Growing up in a small town where most girls have their firstborn before the age of 20, she doesn’t want to come out to her parents until she’s financially independent. Her parents, who are in their early 50s, still believe gay people are mentally ill — a thought that lingers, despite homosexuality being taken off China’s list of mental illnesses in 2001. “If I want to live the way I want, I must stay in Shanghai after graduation, because people here are much more open-minded,” she says.
Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
Chen Mei, 27, found out she’s asexual while at university and has been married for nearly a year now. She told her husband she’s asexual when he asked her out for the first time. Though he had little clue of what the term entailed, he searched online and was considerate. “He said he’s OK with this, and I have feelings for him, so we’re together,” Chen says.
Just like Gao and his boyfriend, Chen and her husband discussed how often they would have sex before registering their marriage. “Any couple needs to adjust to one another,” she says. “Even in sexual relationships, things don’t always go smoothly. Sexual compatibility is just one of many factors that a relationship needs to take into account, such as life goals, lifestyle, and personality matches.”
Chen isn’t actively seeking asexual friends to bolster her sense of belonging. She’s happy with her current life. “Asexuality is just one of my identities. It doesn’t make my life better or worse. Asexual people just have different needs and meet different challenges from sexual people.”
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)