This is the fourth part of a six-part series on asexuality, in which we explore the history of the asexual movement, uncover current research on asexuality, debunk common misconceptions and discuss the challenges the asexual community faces.
When Julie Decker was 19, a male friend tried to "fix" her by sexually assaulting her.
"It had been a good night," said Decker, now 35 and a prominent asexual activist and blogger. “I had spoken extensively about my asexuality, and I thought he was listening to me, but I later realized that he had just been letting me talk."
As she said goodbye to him that night, the man tried to kiss her. When she rejected his advance, he started to lick her face “like a dog," she said.
"'I just want to help you,' he called out to me as I walked away from his car," she explained. "He was basically saying that I was somehow broken and that he could repair me with his tongue and, theoretically, with his penis. It was totally frustrating and quite scary."
Asexual activist and blogger Julie Decker. (Photo credit: Julie Decker)
Sexual harassment and violence, including so-called “corrective” rape, is disturbingly common in the ace community, says Decker, who has received death threats and has been told by several online commenters that she just needs a "good raping."
"When people hear that you're asexual, some take that as a challenge," said Decker, who is currently working on a book about asexuality. "We are perceived as not being fully human because sexual attraction and sexual relationships are seen as something alive, healthy people do. They think that you really want sex but just don't know it yet. For people who perform corrective rape, they believe that they're just waking us up and that we'll thank them for it later."
In April, a heated debate sparked online when an asexual Tumblr blogger wrote about corrective rape.
"There is a real fear even among the asexual community that people who identify as anything other than heterosexual will be harassed and assaulted," wrote "Angela," a self-identified aromantic ace. "They have a reason to be upset and a reason to be afraid, it has happened to many people before."
In response to the post, an anonymous user wrote, "[A]sexuality is not a thing. You are just ugly and no one wanted to date you, so you made up a thing to cuddle your lonely self as you cry into your pillow. Also, I hope you get raped. It has a dual benefit, you'll get laid finally AND put you into your place as well."
The comment triggered a firestorm, with some asexuals speaking out and sharing their own experiences involving sexual violence.
Asexuals and ace activists say the conversation about sexual assault in the asexual community is part of the wider societal discussion about rape culture generally and about corrective rape in the queer community specifically. They also say it speaks to a bias and an invisibility that asexuals face in everyday life.
Indeed, aces have in the past been characterized by members of the mainstream and religious media as abnormal, unhappy and repressed.
In a 2012 Fox News segment about sexologist Anthony Bogaert's book Understanding Asexuality, host Greg Gutfeld and a panel of guests mocked the asexual identity, treating it as something invalid or exaggerated.
“[T]hey have a lack of ... sexuality, so they’ll be kind of treated as lepers -- asexual lepers, if you will,” Gutfeld said in the segment.
Yet few outsiders appear to know much, if anything, about the community.
In the beginning of filmmaker Angela Tucker's 2011 documentary "(A)sexual," members of the general public try -- and fail -- to grasp or explain asexuality. While many quickly connect asexuals with organisms like mosses and amoebas, one man asserts with conviction that there’s “no such thing” as asexual human beings.
Last year, the apparent bias against aces was corroborated by a landmark study conducted by Brock University researchers Gordon Hodson and Cara McInnis. The study found that people of all sexual stripes are more likely to discriminate against asexuals, compared to other sexual minorities.
"Most disturbingly, asexuals are viewed as less human, especially lacking in terms of human nature," the study authors wrote. "This confirms that sexual desire is considered a key component of human nature and those lacking it are viewed as relatively deficient, less human and disliked."
The study's results raised alarm bells for many asexual activists.
"It was really scary for us to read about," said David Jay, founder of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), who has himself been publicly lampooned for his asexuality. "Sure, we've seen anecdotal evidence of asexuals being seen as incomplete, as mechanistic, inhuman, but here we have disturbing evidence that indicates that there may be widespread discrimination as more asexuals come out and the ace community gets more of a voice."
In the last few years, asexual activists have been working hard to address these concerns of violence, discrimination and invisibility, bringing asexuality to the fore, one small step at a time.
"A few years ago, there was nothing. There was a deafening silence about asexuality," said Sara Beth Brooks, an activist who has been advocating for asexuality awareness since 2010. "I didn't even know about the asexual community until I was 23. I had visited psychiatrists, doctors, I had even been on hormones. But you know how I heard about it? I discovered it on Google."
Confused about where she fit on the sexual spectrum, Brooks, now 28, said she began identifying as bisexual in her early teens. As she grew older, however, she said she knew instinctively that there was a puzzle piece missing from her life. She thought, at the time, there was "something wrong" with her.
Asexual activist Sara Beth Brooks. (Photo credit: Sara Beth Brooks)
Still, as she discovered more about herself, Brooks found a safe and familiar home in the LGBT community. Finding a passion for activism, she became a vocal and active advocate for marriage equality, organizing and attending rallies and conferences to fight for the cause.
But after discovering AVEN and the asexual community in 2008 (a revelation Brooks describes as "very powerful"), she said she was stunned and unnerved by the lack of asexual visibility from both inside and outside the LGBT community, and by the skepticism and criticism she faced as a newly identified ace.
"I was getting a lot of push-back from the LGBT community," she said, her voice rising. "I was told that asexuals can't exist, that asexuals should stop trying to pretend that we're special. Some people in the LGBT community even told me that asexuals are trying to 'co-opt the movement.'"
Dissatisfied with what was and wasn't being said, Brooks, currently a student at California State University, Fullerton, became an activist for the emerging asexual movement.
Three years ago, with the help of other ace activists, she started Asexual Awareness Week, an annual online public education campaign that kicks off in September or October. She also started organizing workshops with other asexuals and began doing outreach on college campuses to encourage the organization of ace-inclusive groups and events.
Today, Brooks is active in the asexual community on Tumblr and is one of the leaders of the Partnership for Asexuality Visibility and Education, an asexuality political advocacy group due to launch this summer. Brooks says she hopes PAVE will bring more visibility to asexuality, while also building partnerships with other like-minded groups, organizing around asexual policy issues and nurturing future asexual activists.
Brooks added that many other similar projects, including activist blogs and ace-positive groups on spaces like college campuses, are beginning to crop up in the United States and elsewhere.
AVEN founder David Jay points out that in recent years, asexuals have finally begun to assert their presence at Pride events around the world.
"We take part in least one or two big events every year," he said. "Usually, there'll be one in Europe and one in North America."
Asexual activists at WorldPride 2012 in London. (Photo credit: Michael Dore)
Last July, for example, AVEN held a conference in London as a complement to WorldPride 2012, an international LGBT awareness celebration. More than 120 people from 13 countries attended, and the AVEN group also took part in the larger festivities, walking in the parade and giving out educational pamphlets.
Filmmaker Rodney Uhler even created a short documentary, "Not Broken, Not Alone,” about the aces who participated in last year's event.
All this activism, Brooks said, has been vital for the health and progress of the ace community.
"Many asexuals describe the experience of feeling alone. It was -- and still is -- a very isolating experience to talk about asexuality when no one else around you understands it, not even a little bit," she admitted. "This has been a way of breaking down this feeling of severe isolation. It may only be a whisper right now, but there's no longer silence."
This story appears in Issue 63 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, August 23.