Updated: Jul 8, 2020
An asexual person is usually defined as “a person who does not experience sexual attraction” (AVEN). An asexual person might be drawn to another person somehow (e.g. aesthetically or romantically), but doesn’t experience sexual thoughts about them.
Asexuality is best understood as a spectrum. Some people never experience sexual attraction, others may feel it in passing, once they form an emotional bond with someone (demisexuality), or in other specific circumstances.
The confusing phrase ‘sexual attraction’ often needs more explanation, which can make asexuality seem overcomplicated and difficult to recognise. This creates misunderstanding and prejudice, both in society and in popular culture.
Some pernicious assumptions include the idea that asexuals are always aromantic or ‘cannot’ love, that asexuality is the same as celibacy, and that it can be ‘fixed’ through medical intervention (as in House), sex, or a romantic relationship (The Big Bang Theory). Asexuality is often presented as a part of an intellectual or autistic stereotype (Sherlock), and in all three examples other characters have a prurient curiosity about the asexual person’s sexual history.
Frustratingly, creators sometimes deny that their characters are asexual, even if they are discussed as such or strongly resonate with asexual audience members. According to Sherlock’s Stephen Moffat, “there would be no tension… no fun” in asexual characters (Guardian).
Asexual representation in popular culture is crucial for several reasons. In the UK, asexual people are unlikely to be open about their orientation, and many have reported a low level of life satisfaction (gov.uk). Popular culture validates their experiences. It is also a way to educate people, who may be – or know someone who is – on the asexual spectrum. Asexual representation also encourages everyone to interrogate sexuality in general, and asks why being sexual is so often presented as a compulsory part of adult life.
Asexual representation in popular culture is still almost non-existent (GLAAD), but it does exist. One popular example of asexuality is Jughead in the Riverdale comics, who is also aromantic. However, the TV adaptation – to many fans’ disappointment – has changed these elements of the character.
The most prominent and beloved onscreen asexual character is BoJack Horseman’s Todd Chavez, who came out in the premiere of season four (2017). The Netflix animated show followed Todd as he went to an asexual meetup and started dating, educating its audience about asexuality with humour and sensitivity.
Shadowhunters, Faking It and Emmerdale have also introduced visibly asexual characters in the last few years, and in 2016 Game of Thrones’s Varys mentioned that he had never experienced sexual attraction. Creator Stephen Hillenburg has stated that SpongeBob Squarepants is asexual, though this is never revealed onscreen.
Many asexual people find echoes of their experiences in TV and film. Examples include: Withnail and I, Lost in Translation, Big, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Frozen, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Good Omens, and superhero movies. Jessica Rabbit and (some regenerations of) Doctor Who are often considered asexual, as are several characters in the Harry Potter franchise including Luna Lovegood and Newt Scamander.
To date, confirmed asexuality in mainstream popular culture has mostly been represented by young, white, cisgender people who are interested in romance. This suggests that asexual experiences are more homogenous than is true in reality: asexuals face different prejudices depending on their ethnicity, (dis)abilities, and other aspects of their identity.
These assumptions are slowly being challenged, however. Asexual model and activist Yasmin Benoit runs an online campaign, #ThisIsWhatAsexualLooksLike, to highlight the diversity of the asexual community and “battle stereotypes” (Qwear). Some podcasts, fanfiction, webcomics, videos, poetry, and video games also display the vibrance of intersectional asexuality.
As shows like BoJack Horseman prove, there is tension and fun in asexual characters. Hopefully, asexual representation in popular culture will not only become more widespread in the next few years, but will give voice to a broader variety of experiences.
Emily Oldham studied English at Oxford University, going on to receive an MA in modern and contemporary culture from the University of Sussex. They helped to organise the first UK Asexuality Conference in 2018. Since then, they have taught English in Milan and Wolverhampton, where they are currently living. Their poetry has been published in several magazines, including Inkapture and Bare Fiction.