Why you should care
Because about 75 million people globally are asexual.
As she set out to discover her own sexual identity, Delhi-based Dr. Pragati Singh chanced upon the term “asexuality.” The online research answered most questions about her own identity, but it also told her that India did not have a community for asexuals — despite strong discourse around gender and other sexual identities. So Singh created a Facebook page, Indian Aces, in 2014 and a flood of messages soon arrived.
“I particularly remember a woman in her mid-20s who was on the verge of suicide,” recalls Singh, 32. “It was a classic Indian scenario: Her family was forcing her to get married. She, meanwhile, was traumatized by the idea of any kind of intercourse or intimacy. There was nowhere she could go, nobody she could talk to.”
These kinds of stories propelled Singh into offline meetups — Platonicity events — across Indian cities, hoping to find compatible partners for aces (a colloquial term for asexuals). Asexuals often decouple sex from romance, making regular dating apps largely useless. (One British study has pegged the proportion of asexuals as 1 percent of adults globally — about 75 million people.) Now Singh is trying to launch a dating app to match asexuals, as her community has grown into more than 3,000 people and earned her recognition as one of the BBC’s most inspiring women in the world.
Singh grew up in Delhi as the naughtiest child in her class but always earned top grades. She completed medicine and surgery degrees, going on to work as a medical officer with the World Health Organization’s National Polio Surveillance Project. She now takes on clinical research projects on contract, but most of her time is devoted to traveling for asexuality workshops. In her spare moments, she’s often dancing, having recently learned a bit of salsa.
While sex is still a taboo in India, getting married is an extremely important societal milestone — along with having sex for procreation. Indian laws consider refusal to having sex as grounds for divorce, notes Abhinaya (who goes by one name), coordinator at online platform Asexuality India. In addition to the legal hurdles, “asexuality is far from being accepted as a valid orientation by therapists as well,” Abhinaya says.
[Many asexuals] are regretful since they’ve spent their lives compromising, trying to fit into something that wasn’t them.
Dr. Pragati Singh
Aces feel unwelcome even in LGBTQ circles, says Delhi-based asexual writer Shambhavi Saxena. “There’s this assumption that asexuality is pretense, that aces are just late bloomers — inherently heterosexual, but haven’t realized it,” says Saxena. “You would think that asexuality is the best thing for Indians because sex is such a touchy subject. However, while we’re not allowed to be sexual, women are obligated to produce children.”
Singh has heard mostly from asexual women, often fearing marital rape in a patriarchal society, but men can face the same trauma.
Singh recalls an asexual man from Bangalore, about 60 years old, whose wife and children had left him. “He’d keep wondering if he was damaged or abnormal, and lost his job because of depression,” Singh says. “There are many like him, who are regretful since they’ve spent their lives compromising, trying to fit into something that wasn’t them.”
To help them find and accept their identity, Singh developed a “Comprehensive Sexuality Model,” which divides sexual identity into eight unique components — only one of which is the gender you’re attracted to. The model defines asexuals as people who don’t experience sexual attraction but might still want intimacy.
Using the model to explain sexual identities, Singh has conducted workshops and counseling sessions in 10 major cities across India, attended by people ranging from 16 to 60 years old. A 21-year-old journalism student, who did not want her name published because her parents do not yet know her sexual orientation, attended Singh’s workshop in Bhopal four months ago. She assumed she was asexual because she did not feel sexual attraction toward men, but came to realize she is attracted to women. “The workshop is extremely helpful for someone who is trying to understand human sexuality, as well as to decipher one’s own sexuality,” the student says.
Akhil Karanam, a 28-year-old Hyderabad-based filmmaker, says watching the emotional catharsis of people discovering their identities at the workshop was powerful, as he learned about the “layers of sexual identity” as well as “the trials and tribulations faced by sexual minorities.”
Yet Singh’s methods raise questions about access. “Paid workshops can restrict the audience to only those who can afford it,” Abhinaya says, though she adds, “it is a good starting point as it can act as a gateway to other organizations” for asexuals. Singh points out that her voluntary fees run from around $4-$7, and many attendees do not pay. Given the costs, the entire enterprise “has taken a toll on my finances,” Singh adds.
Still, others question the work of asexual advocates writ large. Dr. Rajan Bhonsle, a Mumbai-based professor who has authored seven books on sexual medicine and education, points out that according to Indian scriptures, asexuality is the final stage of sexual evolution in human beings, whereby a person transcends sexuality and sex doesn’t matter. “The word ‘asexual’ is invariably used as an excuse,” says Bhonsle, arguing that homosexuals use the term as a way to avoid a heterosexual marriage. “A few such people get together and say they’re all asexuals because that’s a respectable title.”
Self-identified asexuals disagree entirely. Saxena, 26, says it took her a long time to even grasp the term. “There were times when I felt misunderstood, angry, that I didn’t fit in anywhere,” Saxena says. “I would have really benefitted from the information Singh is spreading, had I had access to it when I was young.”
OZY’s 5 Questions With Pragati Singh
- What’s the last book you finished? Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, a long time ago.
- What do you worry about? What if I die and Indian Aces dies with me?
- What is your one must-have tool? Intention.
- Who’s your hero? I haven’t had a hero or an idolized image in my mind for the longest time.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? I want to go to Mars.