A Wellington woman tells Sarah Lang about being asexual and what myths she’d like to bust.
Ceridwyn Roberts is a freelance science communicator and ‘science interpreter’ for various organisations, businesses and government agencies – and she helped write the Climate Change Commission’s draft report for the Government’s 2022-2025 emissions-reduction plan. She has a 15-year-old son.
Hi! Could you please explain the difference between being asexual and aromantic, and where you fit in?
Sure. My name is Ceridwyn and I identify as asexual. That’s something I’ve discovered over the last three to five years. For me, it means I’ve never, and do not, feel sexual attraction toward anybody. But I do feel romantic attraction. If I didn’t, I would be aromantic.
People think you should have sex this many times a week, month or year, and I’m like ‘why would you bother’?’
My romantic feelings are towards women and nonbinary folk [who have gender identities that aren’t solely male or female]. Some people are asexual and aromantic, some are one but not the other, and there are degrees of it. For me, I want potential love, romance and touch, but not sexual touch.
You’ve never experienced sexual desire for anyone?
No. I’d heard people say things like ‘I want to climb him like a tree’ and I thought that was just a metaphor. I thought being sexually attracted to somebody just meant you think they were cute, funny, and nice. But, apparently there’s more to it.
When did you realise you were asexual?
I was at a storytelling convention in the U.S, and this amazing [spoken-word] storyteller Lily Be said she was asexual and that she puts that in her Tinder profile. She gets contacted by guys who say ‘Oh, I can convert you!’. Some things Lily said sounded familiar to ways I’d felt, but I didn’t know anything about asexuality. So I looked into it and thought ‘I think this is me’.
When did you come out? It’s a shame, in a way, that people feel they have to ‘come out’ – like, we don’t expect heterosexual or sexual people to ‘come out’.
Yeah, I’m 52 and I’ve only been out as asexual since age 50. I was 20 when I came out initially as bi[sexual], then lesbian, then queer. From then on, I considered myself queer [an umbrella term that refers to the entire LGBTQIA community].
Coming out as lesbian, and as queer, was actually easy in many ways because many of my friends were doing it too. As a privileged, well-educated middle-class white lady, who is cis [a person whose gender identity corresponds to their sex assigned at birth], it was actually pretty easy. And it was. But I didn’t know I’d be coming out again!
Do you have a partner?
I had a long-term partner for 22 years, and we have a son. We broke up last year – in some ways because of me being asexual, and in other ways because it just wasn’t working.
Did you have sex with them and previous partners?
I did, and it was fine. People think you should have sex this many times a week, month or year, and I’m like ‘why would you bother’?’
Did you have orgasms?
Yeah. But I don’t get why sex is a driver for people. Maybe being asexual makes me a bad lesbian or whatever, but that’s alright.
How do you explain being asexual to people?
I feel like I’m trying to describe a smell to somebody who can’t smell. Realising I’m asexual shocked me in a similar way to realising I had aphantasia, which is where you can’t build pictures [visual imagery] in your mind. I didn’t realise people can actually do that; I thought it was a metaphor. But having aphantasia has made the asexuality a little bit easier, because I already knew my mind worked differently in that one particular way, and I’d stopped assuming that everyone’s brain was the same!
Explaining aphantasia to people is similar to explaining asexuality – it boggles people’s neurons in the same way. “What do you mean you don’t create pictures in your head?” “What do you mean you don’t understand sexual attraction?”
What did coming out as asexual feel like for you?
I was terrified. But, also, it meant that I could say ‘this was part of the reason for the break-up, and why it’s completely amicable’. I told my parents about being asexual, which was interesting. They don’t talk about it because we don’t talk about sex anyway. They’re nice polite Welsh folk.
What did you tell your son when you came out?
There wasn’t one specific moment. It was just part of everyday conversations. I’ve been open about everything with him.
How did telling other family members and friends go?
They’ve been great. People either just go ‘okay…’ and clearly don’t want to ask further, and other people want to know a lot – because it’s so far removed from them and they don’t know much about it.
Would you bring up being asexual at a party?
I might! Being a loudmouth, I’m happy to tell people more about it [asexuality]. I think that what interests people most is that it’s got the word sex in it. People ask me ‘do you still have sex? Do you masturbate?’
Occasionally. Sometimes it’s useful to put me to sleep.
So…. tell me about your beautiful necklace.
My necklace looks like miniature books joined together and each is one colour of the ace [asexual] flag: black, grey, white, purple. I’ve got a friend who has an ace wristband. If I see people with the ace flag, I get all excited and talk to them.
Do you know many asexual people?
Some. My ex-partner made me an asexual flag which now blows out of my window, and a young relative of mine walked into my house and said ‘why have you got my flag?’. I found out she’s aromantic and asexual. After putting up that flag, I thought ‘right I simply have to be open about being asexual’. A) Because you find more [asexual] people and a community. B) Because there’s some awareness of asexuality and aromanticism among people under 30, but not so much [awareness] if you’re older.
It’s important to you to normalise asexuality?
Yeah. Part of that is role-modelling but also there’s nothing really in the media about it. There are some books about asexuality, mainly for young adults, but very few ones for adults.
Are there any online communities or groups for asexual people?
There’s not much out there in Aotearoa, but yay for the internet! I follow a couple of people on Instagram and Twitter. Then there’s AVEN: the U.S-based Asexual Visibility and Education Network. It’s really useful for providing documents, help sheets, etc.
There are actually smaller groups within the wider [asexual] group. I think of it more as dimensions than a spectrum, but there’s a huge range. For instance, ‘demiromantic’ people only have sexual attraction towards someone once they’ve formed a strong emotional connection. You could call me ‘placiosexual’, which is that I don’t feel sexual attraction and don’t particularly care about having sex but I’ll be an active sexual partner with somebody in a relationship if we decide that’s important.
Do you know many aromantic people?
I was talking to somebody recently who has never had sex, and never wants to have sex; who has never been in a relationship, and never wants to be in a relationship. Whereas I’d quite like to have [another] romantic relationship. I think once I got to know someone, I could be romantically attracted to them and could fall in love, but also I have no experience of doing that without sex. I’m not looking for anyone right now because I don’t know how that might look or what I want – and I’m still dealing with a break-up. I’m not ready yet.
Might there be a scenario in which a new partner accepts that you don’t necessarily want to have sex, but they do want to, and you both agree to that?
If I get into another relationship, I’m going to be upfront and open. I think some of it is a negotiation. So I might ask, ‘if we never had sex for a year I wouldn’t care, would you?’
Are you worried that will scare someone off?
Absolutely, but also if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.
Do you feel there’s a stigma around asexuality?
There’s a huge stigma. I think it’s partly people not knowing what it means, and not wanting to ask about it.
Are you nervous to have people read this article?
Yeah – particularly people I know but don’t know well. There’s a layer of judgement put on you. So much of that comes from society and its emphasis on sex. You’re supposed to want sex, and have sex as a central mode of communicating – and sex becomes about how we position ourselves in the world. I just want to take myself out of that equation.
Does society places a greater emphasis on sex than it should?
I don’t like the phrase ‘the pendulum has swung,’ but we went from the Victorians where ‘sex didn’t happen’ to being very focussed as a society on sex and sexuality. When you’re not actively part of that, it’s hard. There’s that feeling of being an outsider. I know I’m massively privileged, compared for instance, to black women in the States who are ace and also have to deal with stereotypes about black women’s sexuality harking back to slavery.
Do you feel that people might label you as ‘the asexual person’ rather than appreciating all the facets of you?
Probably – you know, there’s the ‘frigid bitch’ stereotype. Which isn’t true, although I guess in some ways people might think it is. It’s similar to thinking that lesbians can be ‘cured’, or men saying ‘all you need is a good bit of dick’ [vomiting noise].
Did you contemplate just never coming out at all?
Yes. I stewed in it for about a year-and-a-half, thinking maybe this is me, maybe this isn’t me. I was trying to make sense of everything.
Did you feel relief when you did come out?
Yeah. Because I wasn’t hiding it, nor did I feel there was something wrong with me.
Do you think a lot of people just never have, and perhaps never will, come out?
Yes. Hopefully someone asexual reading this might think, ‘that’s who I am and that’s fine’ rather than ‘god this is weird and odd’.
Have you had a good support system around you?
Yeah, I’m very lucky. A close friend has said she’s ‘demi-aro’ [generally not romantically attracted to someone]. She has a long-term partner and still doesn’t know if she’s romantically attracted to that person. Whereas I’m a smushy, romantic person and for her, that doesn’t really compute. I’ve got an ace friend and she and this guy go for walks together and have cuddles and that’s their relationship. They don’t live together, don’t have sex and never will. They’re getting what they need out of it.
You like cuddling and non-sexual touch. Is that sort of a replacement for sex?
I don’t think of it that way. But to me, definitely cuddling is far more important than sex.
Do you think there’s a stigma about being single, especially with women, as in ‘what’s wrong with you’?
Yeah. Although I don’t think I’d hang around people who think things like that.
Do some people think is a choice?
Yeah. It’s an orientation, not a choice. It’s not a celibacy thing. It’s not a frigidity thing. It’s who I am and it’s an innate part of me that I can’t change, because believe me if I could have, I would have.
Because life would be easier?
Much easier. I’d have been ‘normal’.
Anything else you’d like people to know about being asexual?
It’s that we’re really, honestly, not broken and we don’t need fixing. We’re fine just as we are.