LGBTQIA+ History Month: The History of Asexuality


By Laura Hughes (Suicide Crisis Service Lead)

‘Asexual’ refers to individuals who experience little to no sexual attraction towards people of any gender. Asexuality is a real and valid sexual orientation, with 1-2% of the UK population identifying as asexual, despite not being listed as a sexual orientation within UK law.

Many people have not heard of the term ‘asexual’, due to lack of representation in the media and lack of education about asexual experiences. This can lead to the incorrect assumption that asexuality is a ‘new’ sexuality; however, asexuality has always existed, even if it was known by a different term. Our Suicide Crisis Service Lead has done some research about the history of asexuality for LGBTQIA+ History Month.


19th Century
The earliest-known reference to asexuality can be found in Karl-Maria Kertbeny’s pamphlets from 1860, which campaigned against the criminalisation of same-sex relationships. Kertbeny famously coined the terms ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’, but he also refers to ‘monosexual’, describing individuals who do not engage in sexual activity with others.

30 years later, in 1896, German physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld wrote the pamphlet ‘Sappho und Socrates’, which mentions people without any sexual desire, and links them to the concept of ‘anaesthesia sexual’. Hirschfeld’s advocacy for sexual minorities led to him facing extreme discrimination, including being forced into exile from Germany by the Nazis, due to his identity as a Jewish, gay man.

The term ‘asexuality’ was closely defined the following year, in 1897, by German sexologist Emma Trosse. She refers to ‘Sinnlichkeitslosigkeit’, which can be translated to ‘Asensuality’. In her work, Trosse actually came out as ‘asensual’: ‘Verfasser hat den Mut, sich zu jener Kategorie zu bekennen’, which translates to ‘The author has the courage to admit to this category‘.


20th Century
In 1907, Carl Schlegel (the earliest known US homosexual emancipation activist) was found guilty of charges of ‘homosexualism’. In Schlegel’s own words, the acts which led to these charges was him advocating for the ‘same laws’ for ‘homosexuals, heterosexuals, bisexuals, [and] asexuals’. This is the earliest-known attempt for legal equality for asexual people in the US.

In 1948, The Kinsey Scale (a research tool used to quantify sexuality), included the category ‘X’ for those reporting ‘no socio-sexual contacts or reactions’. This was the first time that asexual individuals could be included in LGBTQIA+ research.

In 1972, Lisa Orlando published The Asexual Manifesto, in which she wrote that an asexual person is someone ‘relating sexually to no one’. The article continues to describe the harmful impacts that societal expectations of sex within relationships has towards the asexual community, which are broadly aligned with modern concepts of compulsory cis-het-allosexuality.


21st Century
In 2001, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) was founded by David Jay. AVEN went on to make huge advances for asexual individuals, including the creation and formalisation of the asexual flag in 2010, and contributing to the creation and launch of International Asexuality Day in 2021, held annually on 6th April. AVEN is still a huge part of the asexual community today.

Asexual identities and experiences have continued to become an increased priority within LGBTQIA+ research, with one of the most recent advances in asexual research being made by Yasmin Beniot in partnership with Stonewall, publishing the ‘Ace In The UK’ report in 2023. The fight for asexual rights continues, with the UK bill to ban conversion therapy (and include asexual individuals in that ban), and include asexuality in the Equality Act 2010.

In conclusion, whilst the term ‘asexuality’ is newer than other terms describing other sexualities, the concept of not being sexually attracted to people of other genders is present through history. Asexual activists, campaigners and researchers continue to fight for equal rights for asexual folk across the UK and beyond, and an understanding of their history is paramount to understanding ace experiences today.


References

Katz, J.N. (2022). Carl Schlegel: Early U.S. Gay Activist, 1906-1907.
Orlando, L. (1972). The Asexual Manifesto.
Prickett, D. (2000). ‘Like a Stone Thrown into Water’: The Testimony of Magnus Hirschfeld. focus on German Studies.
Asexuals.net (no date). The History of Asexuality.
Trosse, E. (1897). Ein Weib?: psychologisch-biographische Studie über eine Konträrsexuelle.
Benoit, Y. (2023). Ace in the UK Report.