“I may not be in the first four letters, but I do not relate to the heterosexual experience in the slightest.”
Yasmin Benoit, asexual activist and model, speaks from the ‘The + in LGBTQ+’ panel at Student Pride 2019. Discussing frequently side-lined identities such as asexuality, intersex and non-binary, the panellists talk about how they define themselves, and how they navigate a world that so often misunderstands their sexuality or gender identity – even within LGBTQ+ communities.
“I’ve known that I was asexual since I was in primary school, but I didn’t know that there was a word for it until I was like fourteen,” Yasmin says at the panel. “The only reason I noticed I was asexual was around the time everyone else realised they weren’t asexual. I remember coming back from the summer holidays thinking, what’s happened to everyone? It was like that scene from The Walking Dead.
“At the time, I would just try and explain it when people asked me – because for some reason once you hit puberty people start asking you ‘so what kind of boys do you like? Are you seeing anyone?’ And I’m like, I’m literally eleven.”
Being asked about her romantic interests towards boys at such a young age highlighted to Yasmin the imbalance in how straight and queer identities are approached for young people. “If you’re not straight, you’re not allowed to know that at a certain age,” she tells me when we sit down to chat after the panel. “You can be straight from the time you’re two months old, people ‘oh that guy’s gonna be getting all the girls!’ But if you’re anything else… I mean, I’m 22 and people are still like ‘oh but you’re too young to know’.
“I’m not sure why I worked it out so young,” Yasmin continues. “For me, I was always such a non-conformist anyway. Realising there was something different about me wasn’t a heart-breaking thing. It wasn’t really something that bothered me, until I was kind of expected to explain it or act upon it. But when people just left me to my own devices I was perfectly fine. And I’m kind of the same now.”
Misconceptions of asexuality
“There are so many!” Yasmin exclaims when I ask about what common misconceptions she’s heard about asexuality. “After doing the Sky News documentary, and having such a big audience that aren’t familiar with LGBTQ+, I became aware of even more misconceptions! One I heard recently was, oh well they’re just a bunch of vegans. I was like, where did that come from?! And there were so many people saying that and agreeing with it that I was thinking wow, this is a genuine thought people really think that it’s a side effect of being vegan. That’s really odd.
“Usually people either think there’s something physically wrong with you,” Yasmin continues. “That you have no hormones… and I can say, I have no hormone problems, I went through puberty like everyone else, my hormones are fine. That’s never been an issue. People think that it’s a psychological issue, that you’re religious, that you’re just very shy, frigid, haven’t met the right person, was molested as a child – that’s a common one. Closet gay, closet perversion of some sort that you don’t want to admit, that’s one I’ve unfortunately heard a few times. That you’re ugly, that no one would want to have sex with you anyway so you have to be asexual.
“But then,” Yasmin adds, “people tend to get confused by me. They say ‘but you don’t look asexual! I would imagine that you’d have to be incredibly unattractive to be asexual’. Which is kind of offensive to all asexual people… I mean, straight people aren’t that beautiful either. There isn’t really a correlation sexuality-wise as to how good looking you are.”
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“I think the main assumption is that you’re just not supposed to be what anyone would conceive as being good looking. I also believe the LGBTQ+ community is whitewashed anyway, and black women are hyper-sexualised in general, so they really don’t find that association. People say ‘well why do you dress like that if you’re asexual?’ Like what do you want me to wear, a potato sack?
“I guess the assumption is based on how I’ve seen the media try and frame it,” Yasmin says. “People expect you just to be very socially awkward, terrified of sex, like you can’t even mention sex in front of them, kind of like infantalised, probably with some kind of neurotic issue, and very unattractive. And you don’t know how to dress,” she laughs. “That’s the image. And probably white.
When discussing misconceptions with ‘+’ identities on the panel, Yasmin discussed not only misconceptions from non-LGBTQ+ people, but from within the queer community itself. “I noticed when I was doing some stuff with Pink News – obviously that platform is aimed at LGBTQ+ people – that in some of the comments people were saying ‘why are you even giving any attention to asexuality, this is nothing to do with it.’
“I noticed based on what they were saying, most of them were gay men… it’s interesting because I feel like it’s part of this whole oppression Olympics thing people are trying to do. It’s like ‘I had to deal with this, I don’t think you had to deal with that’.”
Modelling and asexuality
As an asexual person working in the modelling industry, Yasmin sometimes encounters confusion about how those two elements of her life match up – especially when her work is seen by a wider audience. In the Sky News documentary on asexuality, Yasmin is interviewed on the set of a photoshoot, and this elicited some strange comments from some viewers…
“I believe one comment was ‘that girl looks like she’s about as asexual as a stray dog’,” Yasmin says. “And I’m not entirely sure what that means!? Are stray dogs particularly sexual creatures? They were like ‘if she’s asexual why is she getting her picture taken? Why is she wearing those clothes?’ You obviously don’t understand what modelling is, you have to get your picture taken, you have to wear the clothes.”
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“From within the industry, it’s complicated, especially because of my body shape. If you have anything above an A cup then you’re pretty much in the lingerie category. And everything you do is seen as being more sexualised. It’s interesting navigating it from within and to people outside of it as well.”
Coming out as asexual
Many people in the LGBTQ+ community – especially those who fall outside the L and the G – often find that they need to repeatedly come out to people, as it’s not just accepted at face value. Yasmin has her own way of dealing with this issue. “I’ve almost stopped doing it!” she laughs. “If I’m doing public speaking it’s common knowledge, and on social media it’s common knowledge, but personally in my daily interactions I usually don’t mention it because I can’t be bothered.
“I also have a rule where I’m not going to say it twice. So, a reaction I often have when I say I’m asexual is ‘oh no you’re not’. I’m like, I’m not arguing this point. So if a few months later that same person is like ‘oh I found you a guy!’ I’m like, I’m not even going to say I’m asexual again. I’m just like, it’s not going to happen. I have a very low tolerance for explaining it to such a degree that there are people who have known me for a while who assume I’m straight, despite the fact that I’ve never behaved in a straight way in any way shape or form. Unless people ask, or the conversation comes up, I can’t be bothered to say it.
“Also, it tends to invite really weird questions,” Yasmin adds. “I don’t know why, I think it’s the same as if you say ‘oh I’m trans’, and they’re like “oh tell me about your genitals”. For asexual people, it’s like “oh tell me about masturbation”. And I’m like… why?! We just met! What did I say that welcomed these questions? The things that I get asked are almost like people are trying to test and see how asexual you are, or whether they should take it seriously by trying to test whatever sexual boundaries you might have. So I can’t be bothered to have that in casual conversation with people over a cup of tea. It’s weird.”
Representation of asexuality in the media
Representation of LGBTQ+ identities in mainstream media is poor to say the least – but even more so once you get past the Q. GLAAD’s annual report on LGBTQ+ inclusion for 2017-18 was the first time they were able to count asexual characters, and that counting hardly meant needing to bust out a calculator. One character out of 173 LGBTQ+ characters on cable networks, and one out of 70 LGBTQ+ characters on streaming. And that’s not even to say that the actual representation of asexuality in these characters is good.
“The thing is, most of the time they don’t SAY the word asexual, but they have characters who display asexual characteristics, and it’s usually in a bad way,” Yasmin says of asexual portrayals in the media. “It’s usually like, Data from Star Trek or something – they’re an alien, they don’t experience love and connection, they’re missing that part of their brain and need to learn to be more human. Or it’s like, they have some kind of social deficiency, like Sheldon Cooper. They will learn, they become more ‘humanised’ and then you grow to like them more because they’ve started exhibiting these sexual characteristics.
“I tend to find that whenever, including in like things that aren’t fiction like documentaries and stuff, they tend to lean in a specific direction of what kind of asexual person they want to represent. They have a very homely image of it. That doesn’t seem like me at all. Personally, I don’t feel like asexual representation is very good, which is why I do this stuff, to try and fill a space as much as I can.”
Inclusion in LGBTQ+ spaces
Events like Student Pride that choose to focus on the less represented identities within the LGBTQ+ community are sadly not always the norm – many people who identify beyond the + can often feel left out, or even actively excluded.
“It’s ironic that in a community that’s supposed to be very inclusive and diverse, even that can get stuck inside a status quo of forgetting,” Yasmin explains. “I think when people are in an oppressed group, sometimes they forget to check themselves. They’re like, well I have this issue, so I couldn’t possibly be an issue, I don’t need to worry about it. And it’s like, yeah you do need to check and think have we included this, have we even thought about this, there are people here who don’t feel included.
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“I’ve heard of people who are asexual having issues at Pride events, but not just feeling like they’re not welcome, being TOLD they’re not meant to be there,” Yasmin adds. “Because even in the community there’s no focus on it whatsoever. If that platforms aren’t doing it, why would people be interested.”
“I want people to understand that asexuality is literally just what it says on the tin,” Yasmin finishes. “Don’t approach it with all of these other ideas of how it’s supposed to be or how the story is supposed to end… it’s literally just normal people, every type of person, every country, every background, every occupation, it’s not just young confused teenagers, it’s not just people who look a certain way. It’s a diverse group of people and the same thing as you’d expect from any other community. It’s not a psychological problem, it’s not a physical problem… for a lot of people it’s not a problem! It’s literally just one element of a normal person’s life. So just treat it like that, without any of the extra baggage that people feel the need to throw on top of it.”
You can find out more about Yasmin’s activism and work by visiting her Instagram page.