A Personal Take on Asexuality and Asexual Awareness Week

Guest blog by Mark McClemont, Technical Services

For Asexual Awareness Week (22-28 October) I’ve been invited by Simon Chandler-Wilde, Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, to write this piece to provide some information for those who might be interested or are, or think they might be, asexual.

What is asexuality? Quite simply: an asexual is a person who does not experience sexual attraction.

Asexual (or “ace” for short) people are quite rare, the most common estimate I’ve seen is around 1% of the population. Based on this there could be 30-40 ace staff members at the University, more amongst the Student population. I’m definitely not the only one here as I met another UoR staff member who is asexual at Reading Pride this year. Another University staff member I met at the same event identifies as pansexual but has asexual friends.

There is an asexual flag:

(There are a growing number of flags in the LGBT+ community – click on “Identities” on My Umbrella’s site, link below.) Black signifies asexuality, grey: greysexuality, white: sexuality and purple (purple is my favourite colour: win!): community. Greysexuals are those who rarely experience sexual attraction and/or only do so in specific situations. For example demisexuals – a subset of the greysexual population – only experience sexual attraction after a strong emotional bond has been formed.

The asexual community itself makes up a spectrum ranging from those who don’t experience any notable attraction for other people, through those who experience one or more non-sexual attractions for others, to greysexuals; these latter could be described as sitting in the boundary area of the asexual community with the wider sexuality spectrum. Non-sexual attractions include aesthetic: attraction to a person’s appearance without it being romantic; romantic: a desire to be romantic with someone, and sensual: a yearning for non-sexual physical contact. I’ve met quite a few asexual people of many types from across the spectrum from aromantic asexuals to greysexuals and, only a few weeks ago, someone who had lost their sex drive and wished to meet and chat to asexual people and another who had looked at the AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network, see link below) site and wanted confirmation that asexuality is actually “a thing”- I was happy to confirm that it is, indeed.

Isn’t asexuality like celibacy? No: a celibate is someone who chooses not to act upon their sexual desires whereas an asexual person doesn’t have those desires in the first place – celibacy is a choice, asexuality is an inherent orientation.

Is asexuality some kind of medical condition that can be cured? Interesting question – in some cases, yes. There are a number of physiological and psychological factors – e.g. trauma, abuse, medications/drugs, hormonal imbalance, hyposexuality (very low sex drive) etc. – that can affect libido and so can render a person, by simple definition, asexual. Asexuality is also a naturally occurring, inherent orientation which people are born with. I was born this way.

Can asexual people fall in love and have relationships? Yes, in fact two of my ace friends, who both identify as homoromantic asexual, got married earlier this year and in a recent media interview revealed that they do everything most people would expect couples to do apart from have sex.

My story? I identify as homoromantic asexual: I find some people of my gender to be aesthetically, romantically and sensually attractive. I would enjoy doing romantic “couple stuff” with someone I fancied but have no desire, at all, to interfere with their reproductive impedimenta (yeugh!) or have my bits and pieces played around with in turn. I can experience arousal but in a separate context such that it doesn’t translate into an ability to be sexual with another person and, yes, I have tried.

I knew I was “different” from quite early, lack of sexual attraction at puberty made me consider that there was something wrong with me. Finding members of my own gender to be attractive was an additional problem at a time – mid ‘70s – when casual homophobia was socially acceptable and being “different” in school was an open invitation to be picked on: I kept my head down. Thinking that I might be gay I socialised on the gay scene for most of the ‘90s reasoning that, perhaps, in the right situation and context something would “click” and it would all make sense. It didn’t: people lost interest, fast, when they realised that there was no sex in the offing – merely confirmed what I already knew inherently. It was about this time that I started to use the term ”asexual” to describe myself and theorised that there must be other people like me out there and just got on with life. On the 14th October 2004 I experienced an epiphany: there, on the front of The Guardian, was an article about asexual people – I spent the rest of the day punching the air chanting “I was right” and a weight was lifted from my shoulders, gone! That and other articles in national newspapers that day were likely inspired by an article about asexuality in that month’s New Scientist featuring an interview with a Californian, David Jay, who founded, with others, AVEN.

I became a member of AVEN in November 2004 and in January 2005 knowingly met other asexual people for the first time – another high point. Knowing what it was like to find out about others like me I became active with visibility and media projects, for a time I was AVEN’s UK media contact and have been on television (daytime telly…), national and local radio (including BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live) newspapers and magazines. I also took part in the Asexuality Conference which took place the day after World Pride in London 2012.

I consider that visibility is particularly important for asexual people – there will be plenty still thinking that there’s something “wrong” with them in our fairly heavily sexualised society and media. Recently, I was accepted to be a part of this University’s Faces of Reading project (link below) which I saw as a great opportunity for some visibility for University staff and students and that led to, well, this blog: I hope some people find this helpful.

P.S. Sticklers for punishment may wish to know that I’m due to be interviewed for BBC Local Radio covering Coventry and Warwickshire on November 2nd

Useful links:

AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network – resources, information, FAQs and forums): https://www.asexuality.org/

My Umbrella (a Reading-based, volunteer-led support group for the lesser known LGBT+ identities): https://www.myumbrella.org.uk/

Support U (a Thames Valley-based resource service for those needing help with LGBT+ issues – they are ace-friendly and participated in Asexual Awareness Week here at the University in January 2016): http://www.supportu.org.uk/

Faces of Reading (a project highlighting the diversity of staff and roles at the University of Reading): http://www.reading.ac.uk/about/faces-of-reading.aspx

What is cultural competency?

The University of Reading is a global university, with a global engagement strategy. Increasingly, understanding and appreciating different cultures is necessary at work in the University and in our broader lives. In some HE institutions, health care and prison services, there is a recognised “thing” called “cultural competency”. The Cultural Diversity Group (open to anyone at the University interested in how race or ethnicity might affect staff or student experiences at Reading) on 6th September was an animated discussion on what “cultural competency” actually means, whether it is relevant to us as individuals, the University of Reading as an organisation or to our students as global citizens.

A quick wander around the internet suggests that cultural competency is variously defined as…

  • The ability to appreciate and interpret accurately other cultures.
  • The ability to successfully teach students who come from cultures other than their own.
  • The ability of providers and organizations to effectively deliver health care services that meet the social, cultural, and linguistic needs of patients (much of the cultural competency framework has its origin in healthcare).

Other terms are sometimes used, including cultural awareness or intercultural awareness. Employers and commercial organisations often use the term to refer to very practical matters such as how to greet people of other cultures, understanding the laws when working in other countries. Many Universities interpret cultural competency as applying only to international students coming to study here – who undoubtedly do need support in getting the maximum benefit from their time here, but this seems rather narrow!

I will now attempt to summarise our discussions.

Theme 1: Meaning, relevance and terminology

“Culturally Competent” vs “Culturally Aware”

There was quite a lot of resistance to the term “culturally competent”, at least initially, because:

  • Felt to be challenging for people to admit they weren’t competent.
  • Implies it is something that can easily be measured?

However, it is a term recognised by employers who want “employees who can demonstrate that they can adapt and work with people from other countries, ethnicities and religions

“Culturally aware” felt like a “softer” term which more people might sign up to, but actually on discussion we realised that you can be aware of something but not engage with or d  anything about it. Is this term therefore too passive?

Does “Competence” equate to skills, whilst “awareness” equates to knowledge?


CONCLUSION 1: We prefer the term “Intercultural” as opposed to “Cultural” because what we would like to improve is communication between, understanding of and learning across cultures. We felt that “Cultural” could be interpreted as knowing about only one culture.

CONCLUSION 2: Intercultural skills (or whatever the term that is used) is entirely consistent with the University’s espoused position as being a university with global reach and a “thriving community”. From a student point of view, Employers definition of cultural competency is a strong driver, particularly for students associated with Business and professional degree programmes.

CONCLUSION 3: We can imagine that there is a spectrum of positive engagement with intercultural issues beginning with “Awareness” at the lowest end. We thought therefore that a framework whereby individuals and the organisation moved from “Awareness” to “Competent” to “Confident” might be a more useful way of thinking. We recognised that there are other levels of engagement described as “Unaware”, “Ignorant”, “Uninterested” and “Opposed”.

CONCLUSION 4: Intercultural awareness is NOT just for international students and staff. It is something that is relevant to, and reflection on would be beneficial to ALL students and staff.

Theme 2: Current situation

Discussion here was wide-ranging. As with many Diversity and Inclusion issues, we recognised that there are already lots of good practice examples in many parts of the University, but that finding out about them and adopting them is difficult. For example, we already have employers who visit through the careers service to give presentations on Cultural Competency – these tend to be attended mostly by HBS students although they are open to everyone. IoE have had discussions with student groups about cultural diversity in order to prepare their trainee teachers for posts in Schools. Resources from RISC on cultural diversity were recommended.

We also recognised:

  • The tendency for cultural segregation amongst students and the challenges of persuading students to work in culturally mixed groups (associated with students dislike of group work in general)
  • The lack of confidence felt by some members of staff in terms of interacting with culturally diverse students and colleagues. In the latter case, people were particularly worried about “saying something wrong / offensive”.
  • The difficulty in involving home / English as a first language students in working with international students, particularly in terms of language development and support.
  • The multiple demands on staff and students.

Theme 3 Moving forward

Assuming that we can convince the rest of the University (or even if we can’t!) that there is a need (driven by competition for students, increasing numbers of students on campus for part of their degrees and changing expectations of students and employers), to move staff, students and the organisation from a state of (partial) awareness towards competency and confidence, we came up with some suggestions as to how to move forward in the short term.

  1. Complete a more systematic audit of existing initiatives and good practice across the University.
  2. Look to maximise benefits of opportunities that already exist – e.g. encouraging / incentivising involvement of home / native English speakers in language conversation sessions run in ISLI (developing skills to work with those from other ethnicities and countries etc as well as providing much needed conversation practice for non-English speakers); advertising Employers interest and talks more widely?

In the longer term, it was strongly felt that development of Intercultural Awareness and confidence should be mostly embedded within existing modules and development programmes (e.g. through Curriculum development and review and via careers and RED award?). However this approach relies on confident, competent and motivated teachers and staff – how would we get to this point? Many people thought that the best way to do this would be to bring different groups of people together more, and that ways of doing that could be the topic of discussion at a future meeting. Ideas and views should also be solicited from the wider staff body (through the Race Equality Survey or the subsequent action plan?)

It was acknowledged that there may be a place for specific staff training to be available but this might be more relevant for specific practical situations (e.g. staff heading overseas etc). Some colleagues had trialled using a team development day for this type of training, using free resources from culturewise.ltd to select exercises and make them relevant to their three main overseas groups. Georgia Riches-Jago shared with the wider group how useful they had found the exercises and the opportunity to reflect on the practical side of intercultural awareness in their own context.

What next? 

  • This blog!
  • Solicit wider views via staff portal article linking to blog, Race Equality survey and other methods during Autumn 2017.
  • Incorporation of proposed actions into draft Race Equality Charter Mark action plan, and discussion at UEB in November 2017.
  • Discussion of “bringing together” events at a future CDG meeting