Iowans on the asexual spectrum face misconceptions, lack of visibility

Noelie Boardman, 23, is one of the 1.7% of the population identifying as asexual. This means she is not drawn to others in a sexual way, according to the Asexual Visibility & Education Network. Boardman is a 2021 Simpson College graduate. She is pictured in May on campus. — Alyssa Craven/IowaWatch

By Alyssa Craven for IowaWatch

Growing up, Noelie Boardman felt like there was something different about her.

“As I hit puberty, I noticed a lot of people around me were getting into relationships and talking about sex, especially in high school,” Boardman, a 2021 Simpson College graduate, said. “That was just never a thing I cared about. It wasn’t something I was interested in.”

The 23-year-old recalled how one day as a high school junior she scrolled through Tumblr and stumbled upon a blog about asexuality.

“I was like, ‘what is this?’ I started reading it and was like, ‘Hmm, this sounds sort of cool.’ As it started to marinate in my brain, I started to realize that everything they were talking about hit a little too close to home,” she said.

Boardman realized she was asexual.

The Asexual Visibility & Education Network or AVEN describes an asexual person, also called an ace person, as someone “not drawn to other people sexually and do not desire to act upon attraction to others in a sexual way.”

An estimated 1.7 percent of adults identify as asexual, according to a study by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Asexuality is different than celibacy, according to AVEN, when a person is actively making a choice to abstain from sexual activity. A celibate person, by definition, is not engaging in sexual behavior; an asexual person, by definition, doesn’t experience sexual attraction.

Aces often feel underrepresented and misunderstood in both heteronormative and LGBTQ circles, a four-month IowaWatch project on the topic revealed through dozens of interviews.

There are several groups to support asexual individuals in Iowa. Iowa City Aces was founded by Rachel Wickelhaus, who identifies as panromantic asexual (see the glossary at the bottom of this article) and uses they/them pronouns.

“At the Pride festival [in Des Moines] in 2018 I noticed that I did see a few aces,” Wickelhaus said. “One over here and one over there behind that bush, but there was no cohesive unit of aces. There were no groups of aces anywhere. So, along with another asexual friend, we started the Iowa City Aces.”

The group, which has eight to 10 people at meetings and a few dozen members on the Facebook group, became a way for ace folks to meet others who have gone through the same experiences, Wickelhaus said.

“There are so few of us, and ace spectrum is still so unknown,” Wickelhaus said. “There are aces in the smaller communities in Iowa, but the likelihood of finding another is slim. We have several aces that come from as far as the Amanas and Lone Tree to come to meet-ups simply because they want to spend time with others who are like them.”

Wanting to see better ace visibility in Iowa, Wickelhaus ensures pamphlets about asexuality are available at youth centers such as United Action for Youth.

“That way … young aces have a chance to know that it is a real thing, that they aren’t broken,” Wickelhaus said. “Our older aces in the group did not have the advantage of knowing about ace spectrum, and we all spent years of our lives thinking there was something wrong with us. Not having any way to articulate how we felt. I try to do everything I can to help the next generations not have to go through that.”

People who identify as asexual were often told that they had sexual dysfunction, and aromantics — people who don’t experience emotional or romantic attraction to others — were told they were afraid of commitment, Wickelhaus said.

“It really took the internet to get enough of us together to say, ‘Hey, the lack of sexual or romantic attraction is valid, too,’” she said.

Due to COVID-19, Iowa City Aces has not been able to have in-person gatherings since March 2020.

“We are pretty much in a holding pattern until it is safe to meet in person again,” Wickelhaus said.

Todd Bogaert, courtesy of IowaWatch

Anthony Bogaert is a professor of community health sciences and psychology at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. He has studied asexuality and published many journal articles and the book Understanding Asexuality, which explores sexual desire, sexual orientation and sexual identity.

Like other sexual orientations, Bogaert found that asexuality is on a spectrum when it comes to attraction.

“Some probably feel very little or no sexual attraction, but there may be some individuals that feel at times some level of sexual attraction,” Bogaert said.

Graysexuals and demisexuals are part of the middle area when it comes to asexuality.

According to AVEN, graysexuals may experience some sexual feelings, but it’s not enough to act on or does not reflect their ongoing experiences. Graysexual people tend to have sexual feelings in a smaller way than a sexual person would.

Demisexuality also falls into this middle area. Demisexuals tend to feel sexual attraction to an individual after they have created a strong emotional bond.

Some asexuals can also feel sexual attraction, but they may not connect those sexual feelings to other people. Even if they’d prefer not to engage in sexual activity, asexuals may still be attracted to someone romantically and desire relationships.

“They may lack sexual attraction and lustful feelings towards people,” Bogaert said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is not interested in developing a romantic relationship with others.”

According to AVEN, people can fall under a range of romantic orientations, regardless if they identify as asexual or not. Boardman finds herself on the heteroromantic side of the spectrum.

“One of the big things about sexuality is that your romantic orientation is separate from your sexual orientation,” Boardman explained. “For most people, they do line up. So, if you’re heterosexual, you tend to also be heteroromantic. Same with homosexuals; you tend to be homoromantic.

“One of the things I learned when I realized what asexuality was and I started doing more reading is that those two identities don’t usually line up for asexuals,” she continued. “For example, I fall more under the heteroromantic side of the spectrum, but I am still asexual.”

Boardman does have an interest in dating, but has found it difficult since it often comes with the expectation of sex.

“For me, I would rather already have a relationship that turns into a romantic relationship,” Boardman said. “Then we work out boundaries from there. While I am interested in dating, I haven’t dated because I haven’t really found the person that I want to date.”

Growing up, Boardman moved to many different places during her adolescence. From Maryland to California, as well as Iowa, Boardman was never in one place for too long and felt at odds with peers.

“At the time, I wrote it off as the fact that I moved a lot as a kid, and I wasn’t the same as the other kids I was going to school with,” Boardman said. “But looking back, there was more to it than that.”

Boardman found it hard to relate to peers’ conversations about crushes and relationships.

“Internally I was like, why is this so important?” Boardman said. “Why does this matter so much? I was so frustrated that I didn’t understand.”

Boardman began seeking out friend groups that weren’t as focused on dating.

“I’m not necessarily sex-repulsed,” Boardman said. “But it’s not my thing, and I don’t understand it. So, for me, it’s more frustrating because people are talking about it and going on and on about it. I just don’t get it.”

After Boardman discovered she was asexual she slowly started coming out to her friends and family when she was 17.

“Coming out is a really stressful thing because, even if you know your parents don’t care, you worry: will they accept me?” Boardman said. “You’re never 100 percent sure.”

Ace folks display the asexual pride flag at the 2019 Capital Pride Parade in Washington D.C. — Ted Eytan

Boardman first came out to a close friend before eventually coming out to her friends and family.

She has only encountered a few other people who identify as asexual. One is Leslie Rankin, who identifies as biromantic asexual. Rankins is romantically interested in males and females, but still does not feel physical attraction.

Rankin, 26, lives in Columbia, Maryland. She, too, is interested in a relationship.

“I don’t have a lot of experience in dating, but I do have interest in having a romantic relationship in the future,” Rankin said.

Both Rankin and Boardman have faced some skepticism.

“I had one kid in my class that was like, ‘I don’t think that’s a thing. I don’t think that exists,’” Boardman said. “I’m sitting there like, ‘That’s not a me problem, that’s a you problem. I am here and I obviously exist.’”

Bogaert thinks the lack of knowledge of asexuality may have to do with it being not noticeable.

“If you are asexual and you’re walking down the street, you’re not holding hands with someone, you’re not necessarily tipping someone by engaging in some sort of sexual activity that people can see on some level,” he said.

The Ames counterpart to the Iowa City Aces is the Asexual Aromantic Alliance, an official Iowa State University student organization.

According to Catherine Thom, president of Asexual Aromantic Alliance, the club has existed since 2017.

“Our goal is to create space for asexual and aromantic spectrum people to connect,” Thom, a senior at ISU this spring, said, “to be a safe space for them to be themselves and be with other people like them.”

“The first time I came out to a friend it was kind of on a whim,” Thom said. “They said they were bisexual. They came out to me and I came out [as ace] to them. But they didn’t know what it was. I kind of panicked and explained it badly, then changed the subject.”

Thom tends to keep her sexuality more private.

“To the community, I was pretty out in the open,” Thom said. “Otherwise, I don’t bring it up a lot.”

“People say it’s a phase or we don’t feel anything, or you just haven’t found the right person yet.”

Boardman said she wishes that asexuality would be more widely known by the public.

“Ace people tend to get pushed to the background,” she said. “It’s like a footnote or it’s not even mentioned at all a lot of the time.”

IowaWatch – The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news outlet that strives to be the state’s leading collaborative investigative news organization. Read more at Alyssa Craven is a 2021 Simpson College graduate, who majored in multimedia journalism and English. She worked on this story during the spring term as part of her senior capstone class.

A quick glossary of terms

Ace: Someone who identifies as asexual.

Aromatic: Someone who is not romantically attracted to anyone and have no desire for a romantic relationship.

Asexual: Someone who does not experience sexual attraction to others.

Biromantic: Someone who is romantically attracted to multiple genders.

Demisexual: Someone who does not feel sexual attraction to others unless a strong bond has been established., which usually takes a long time to establish.

Graysexual: Someone who experiences some sexual feelings, usually to a very minor degree.

Heteroromantic: Someone who has desires for romantic relationships of the opposite gender.

Homoromantic: Someone who is romantically attracted to the same gender.

Panromantic: Someone who desires romantic relationships without gender being a factor.

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