Growing up in a country like India, which views abstinence from sex as a mark of purity yet in an ironic twist looks down upon those who lack an interest in sexual intimacy, means that many people in the country – like myself – have struggled to come to terms with their own asexuality.
As with most misunderstood topics, representation is key to normalising the existence of asexuality. Popular media has the potential to be exactly the type of representation needed, a means of information that helps underrepresented communities like asexual people to see someone like them on screen thus creating a larger acceptance for it.
In fact, a survey from the Journal of Homosexuality found that media and its portrayal of characters can influence self-perception for queer individuals. Further it can help people within the community to equip themselves with the vocabulary to educate others without the need for academic jargon. But in a country that avidly consumes media, using the mirror of film and TV to reflect real life and thus leaves what it doesn’t understand, how does one begin to explain this orientation that has yet to be fleshed out on screen?
In recent times, India has begun to take slow, uncertain steps in the direction of understanding and accepting various facets of the LGBTQ+ spectrum -with mainstream films like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Lagaand Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhaan bringing narratives on lesbian and gay relationships to Indian moviegoers- however the lack of awareness about the existence of asexuality is reflected in erasure of the orientation from popular media, thus leading to continued stigma.
With patriarchal, often heteronormative and conventional characterisations forming the basis of most Indian films and shows ; with stories that focus on sex after marriage, and the expectation of reproduction soon after, there is no room for understanding that asexuality is not an illness or an allusion to celibate or prudish behaviour.
Despite the few instances of LGBTQ+ representation, Bollywood and the never-ending slate of TV serials that dominate screens across Indian homes still feed the stereotypes of homosexuality, playing it off for laughs instead of offering genuine explorations of relationships in a society fraught by conservatism. If this is the case for most of the spectrum, then what of asexuality that already has no space within these stories?
The lack of representation means that many within the asexual community have no point of reference to not only understand themselves but explain how they feel to others. Searching the Internet for South Asian representation – even today, at this moment – gives very few results. One of the few bright spots is Director Garima Kaul’s film Desire? which tackles the subject of asexuality through realistic portrayals of intimate relationships that are based on love and acceptance but not sex.
A film that seeks to break down the barriers that confine the understanding of asexuality with misrepresented terms of impotence or frigidity, it’s heartening to find a piece of visual media dedicated to understanding asexuality. Disappointingly, however, there is not much more of this across Indian media.
Instead, misrepresented portrayals see asexuality left unacknowledged – at best – or at worst, perceived as something to be fixed rather than accepted rooted in the age-old Indian belief of “marriage fixes everything.” Reflecting the conservative culture of the culture, media in India usually goes one of three ways in its portrayal of all things related to sexuality ; by either shying away from discussing it, rumour mongering when someone engages in pre-marital sex or viewing sexual intimacy as the end goal of any relationship.
This is not to say that asexuality is not misrepresented or stigmatised outside of India. For instance, in the case of Sherlock Holmes, asexuality was erased from his characterisation with one show-runners stating that abstinence makes the character more interesting that asexuality.
So, in western media, asexual characters are created but this part of their identity is often ignored. Among the small number of asexual characters, the ones whose orientation plays a major part in their character arc is almost negligible – one of the only one names coming to mind being Todd Chavez of Bojack Horseman.
But where the west engages in partial erasure, in India the illusion that sex is an unfailing mark of a healthy, normal relationship is often perpetuated with conservatism giving way to hypersexual ideas of love and marriage. Until this changes, until there is more content like Desire?, looking at the realities of asexuality, many like myself will be forced to resign to accepting intimacy that we do not want.