Notes for a talk tomorrow

It’s now been quite some time since I undertook my research on asexuality. It was initially motivated by sheer curiosity, as I guess research should be under ideal conditions: I’d met a couple of asexual people socially around the time I was completing a masters degree project on sexual identity. The conjunction between my confusion concerning the former (I just didn’t ‘get it’) and the absence of asexuality in the literature review I did for the latter, left me wanting to explore it in greater depth. The project I undertook involved an online ethnography, an online questionnaire and a small number of face-to-face interviews. Through the research I sought to answer the question of ‘how does one come to identify as asexual?’. It’s a biographical question about a process that takes place over time and what it means to the people involved.

What I found was get there’s a lot of similarities in the processes people go through: people recognise that they’re somehow different to a reference group, they initially impute pathology to this (often reinforced by others), before beginning to look for other explanations. Before the Internet this could take all sorts of forms, exploring different communities and trying out different identities. But with the Internet it became possible to google one’s experiences, a process which will likely lead to the asexual forums, websites, blogs, YouTube videos which have continually grown over the last decade. At which point the experience was pretty uniform among the people who took part in my research, much as it was with the assumption of pathology: going from “feeling broken” to finally discovering your “place in the world”.

In the last few years my interest in asexuality has shifted away from a concern with the experience of asexual people to a preoccupation with why those who aren’t asexual find it as confusing as they do. This can seem to be a confusingly niche interest, or at least I occasionally worry that it might come across that way. It emerged from one recurrent theme in the many personal stories I encountered in my research: the incomprehension with which most asexual people have at times found their asexuality greeted. What makes the notion so hard to grasp?

What’s more important is how this incomprehension can lead people to act. This inability to grasp asexuality as a concept can bring otherwise well meaning people to act in deeply hurtful and marginalising ways. It can leave those who are far from well meaning acting in even more unpleasant ways than they might otherwise. What these actions usually have in common is a failure to believe asexuality exists as a possibility and a concomitant tendency to explain it away. Offering asexuality as an account of themselves, asexual people are instead told that it can’t exist… it must be their hormones, psychological damage, repressed child abuse. Don’t they know that sex is natural? Don’t they realise that sexuality is an integral aspect of the human condition? Perhaps they’re just a late bloomer? Or maybe they haven’t met the right person yet? In terms of the broader cultural frameworks within which we think and talk about sexuality, some of these reactions are entirely comprehensible to me (and this is why I find the reaction of non-asexuals to asexuality so interesting from a sociological standpoint). But they’re often deeply hurtful and what I find particulalry frustrating is how unnecessary the hurt caused is.

But this isn’t just a matter of asexual visibility, as important as that it is. As Petra Boynton has put it, our lexicon to express what we’re into sexually has expanded hugely and I think this is an unambiguously good thing. But I’m not sure there’s a corresponding expansion in our lexicon to talk about sexuality itself, as opposed to sexual behaviour, in fact I wonder if it might have even shrunk as a evaluative register of ‘moral and immoral’ has been comprehensively replaced by one of ‘normal and pathological’. My own experience as someone who is not asexual (but has often been assumed to be so, which is quite interesting in its own right) has been that I know think much more articulately about my sexuality than I once did. I have an identify of myself as sexual, above and beyond my sexual orientation, in a way I once didn’t. But there’s no good word for this: sexual, non-asexual, allosexual? I think this very telling in its own right. I wonder if my own experience will become a common one as asexuality become ever more visible and recognisable. I think there’s a rich vocabulary to talk about sexuality and intimacy that has emerged within the asexual community that could be of great value to many who aren’t asexual.






The screenshot below is from an ‘Easy Read document’ attached to “The Government’s plan for dealing with hate crime” in the UK. I’m looking for other examples of asexuality being institutionally recognised. Preferably ones with a source I can cite but I’d also be interested in any anecdotal evidence of growing recognition, either formally or informally.

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In the last decade, a growing number of individuals, self-identifying as asexual, have come together to form asexual communities. According to the largest asexual community, an asexual individual may be defined as a person ‘who does not experience sexual attraction’ ( However, the straightforward nature of this definition masks the considerable heterogeneity, captured by a rich terminology that has emerged through the ongoing dialogue of asexual persons about their respective experiences (Carrigan, 2011). Within the asexual community, one key distinction drawn is between those who experience romantic attraction (romantic asexuals) and those who do not (aromantic asexuals), with individuals in the former group commonly understood as heteroromantic, biromantic, homoromantic or polyromantic. Another distinction that often emerges concerns reactions to sexual activity: some asexual individuals are indifferent to sex while others are actively averse to varying degrees. For researchers in the field of psychology and related disciplines, the elaboration of asexual identities and the growth of online asexual communities raise a range of empirical and theoretical questions, which are just starting to be addressed.

Mark Carrigan , Kristina Gupta & Todd G. Morrison (2013): Asexuality special theme issue editorial, Psychology & Sexuality, DOI:10.1080/19419899.2013.774160

Pre-print available here. Published in Psychology & Sexuality.

In recent years a growing research literature has addressed Asexuality, commonly defined as ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’, with a diverse range of contributions being made from a variety of fields. This article is intended as an accessible review of the topic, framed in terms of the core questions which have been addressed within the field of asexuality studies and concluding with a discussion of its broader significance for the academic study of sexuality.

Pre-print available here. Published in Psychology of Sexualities Review, Vol. 4, No. 1, Autumn 2013

Asexuality is becoming ever more widely known and yet it has received relatively little attention from within sociology. Research in the area poses particular challenges because of the relatively recent emergence of the asexual community, as well as the expanding array of terms and concepts through which asexuals articulate their differences and affirm their commonalities. This article presents the initial findings of a mixed-methods research project, which involved semi-structured interviews, online questionnaires and a thematic analysis of online materials produced by members of the asexual community. The aim was to understand self-identified asexuals in their own terms so as to gain understanding of the lived experience of asexuals, as well as offering a subjectively adequate grounding for future research in the area.

Pre-print available online here. Paper published in Sexualities 14(4).

Carrigan, M. (2011). There’s more to life than sex? Difference and commonality within the asexual community. Sexualities, 14(4), 462-478.

This is the outline for the special theme issue of Psychology & Sexuality which I edited with Kristina Gupta and Todd Morrison. It was published in March 2013. The editorial and the ‘virtual discussion’ are open access (i.e. freely available without a university library subscription to the journal) until the end of May 2013.

The Editorial for the Theme Issue, including a review of existing literature on asexuality and an attempt to formulate a cohesive agenda for Asexuality Studies

Who reports absence of sexual attraction in Britain? Evidence from national probability surveys

There is little evidence about the prevalence of absence of sexual attraction, or the characteristics of people reporting this, often labelled asexuals. We examine this using data from two probability surveys of the British general population, conducted in 1990–1991 and 2000–2001. Interviewers administered face-to-face and self-completion questionnaires to people aged 16–44 years (N = 13,765 in 1990–1991; N = 12,110 in 2000–2001). The proportion that had never experienced sexual attraction was 0.4% (95% CI: 0.3–0.5%) in 2000–2001, with no significant variation by gender or age, versus 0.9% (95% CI: 0.7–1.1%) in 1990–1991; p < 0.0001. Among these 79 respondents in 2000–2001, 28 (40.3% men; 33.9% women) had had sex, 19 (33.5% men; 20.9% women) had child(ren), and 17 (30.1% men; 19.2% women) were married. Three-quarters of asexual men and two-thirds of asexual women considered their frequency of sex ‘about right’, while 24.7% and 19.4%, respectively, ‘always enjoyed having sex’. As well as providing evidence on the distribution of asexuality in Britain, our data suggest that it cannot be assumed that those reporting no sexual attraction are sexually inexperienced or without intimate relationships. We recognise the possibility of social desirability bias given our reliance on self-reported data, but suggest that its effect is not easily predicted regarding absence of sexual attraction.

Mental health and interpersonal functioning in self-identified asexual men and women

Human asexuality is defined as a lack of sexual attraction to anyone or anything, and preliminary evidence suggests that it may best be defined as a sexual orientation. As asexual individuals may face the same social stigma experienced by gay, lesbian and bisexual persons, it follows that asexual individuals may experience higher rates of psychiatric disturbance that have been observed among these non-heterosexual individuals. This study explored mental health correlates and interpersonal functioning and compared asexual, non-heterosexual and heterosexual individuals on these aspects of mental health. Analyses were limited to Caucasian participants only. There were significant differences among groups on several measures, including depression, anxiety, psychoticism, suicidality and interpersonal problems, and this study provided evidence that asexuality may be associated with higher prevalence of mental health and interpersonal problems. Clinical implications are indicated, in that asexual individuals should be adequately assessed for mental health difficulties and provided with appropriate interventions that are sensitive to their asexual identity.

HSDD and asexuality: a question of instruments

The relation between the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals(DSMs) and asexuality is likely to constitute a prolific direction in research, especially because of the diagnostic category ‘hypoactive sexual desire disorder’ (HSDD). This article investigates the concept of sexual desire as outlined by psychiatry and explores the ways in which asexuality disrupts that knowledge. By extension, I consider the model of sexuality that the DSM vehiculates. The manuals themselves provide no measures, no scales, and no defined norms, yet, simultaneously, assume a normative sexuality against which all others can be measured and classified. This article discusses the conceptualisation of ‘sexual dysfunctions’ in the DSM, of which HSDD is a part, and questions how it operates in clinical research into asexuality. I also pay attention to the clause of ‘personal distress’ in HSDD, since it appears to be one of the main differences between HSDD and asexuality. HSDD, asexuality, and the role played by the DSM poses questions such as what discourses, forms of knowledge, and institutions, have shaped, silenced, and eventually erased, asexuality.

Asexuality: from pathology to identity and beyond

This article draws attention to the constitutive mechanisms of asexual identity. It identifies a shift in expert discourse: a move away from pathology towards recognition of asexual identity. While this discursive shift, propelled by recent research in psychology and sexology, could pave the way for the inclusion of asexuals in public culture, it also reaffirms dominant terms and formations pertaining to sexuality and intimacy. The article argues that the discursive formation of a new asexual identity takes place through a process of objectification and subjectification/subjection at the interface between expert disciplines and activism. The recognition of identity is constitutive of subjects that are particularly suitable for self-regulation within the parameters of (neo)liberal citizenship. Yet, at the same time, the discursive shift also makes room for critical intervention akin to queer critique of naturalised gender and sexuality norms. The recognition of asexual identity could serve to destabilise the sexual regime (of truth) that privileges sexual relationships against other affiliations and grants sexual-biological relationships a status as primary in the formation of family and kinship relations. The article concludes that asexual identity encourages us to imagine other pathways of affiliation and other concepts of personhood, beyond the tenets of liberal humanism – gesturing instead towards new configurations of the human and new meanings of sexual citizenship.

Afterword: some thoughts on asexuality as an interdisciplinary method

A mystery wrapped in an enigma – asexuality: a virtual discussion

Contributors to this thematic issue were requested to answer six questions related to asexuality as a phenomenon and also the research therein. All responses received were collated into a ‘virtual discussion’ with the hope of spawning new ideas and also identifying any gaps in the current research and general knowledge regarding asexuality.

Review of Sex, lies and pharmaceuticals: how drug companies plan to profit from Female Sexual Dysfunction 

Review of Understanding Asexuality

And here are some of my favourite papers that have been written elsewhere on asexuality:

Coming to an Asexual Identity: Negotiating Identity, Negotiating Desire

Sexuality is generally considered an important aspect of self-hood. Therefore, individuals who do not experience sexual attraction, and embrace an asexual identity are in a unique position to inform the social construction of sexuality. This study explores the experiences of asexual individuals utilizing open ended Internet survey data from 102 self-identified asexual people. In this paper I describe several distinct aspects of asexual identities: the meanings of sexual, and therefore, asexual behaviors, essentialist characterizations of asexuality, and lastly, interest in romance as a distinct dimension of sexuality. These findings have implications not only for asexual identities, but also for the connections of asexuality with other marginalized sexualities.

What Asexuality Contributes to the Same-Sex Marriage Discussion

While same-sex marriage debates have captured public attention, it is but one component of a broader discussion regarding the role of marriage in a changing society. To inform this discussion, I draw on qualitative, Internet survey data from 102 self-identified asexual individuals. I find that asexual relationships are complicated and nuanced in ways that have implications for a GLBTQ political agenda, including same-sex marriage recognition. In addition, findings indicate that assumptions of sex and sexuality in relationships are problematic and that present language for describing relationships is limiting. Findings suggest a social justice agenda for marginalized sexualities should be broader in scope than same-sex marriage.

There’s more to life than sex? Difference and commonality within the asexual community

Asexuality is becoming ever more widely known and yet it has received relatively little attention from within sociology. Research in the area poses particular challenges because of the relatively recent emergence of the asexual community, as well as the expanding array of terms and concepts through which asexuals articulate their differences and affirm their commonalities. This article presents the initial findings of a mixed-methods research project, which involved semi-structured interviews, online questionnaires and a thematic analysis of online materials produced by members of the asexual community. The aim was to understand self-identified asexuals in their own terms so as to gain understanding of the lived experience of asexuals, as well as offering a subjectively adequate grounding for future research in the area.

Crisis and safety: The asexual in sexusociety

This article provides a discussion of the implications that asexuality, as an identity category emerging in the West, carries for sexuality. Asexuality provides an exciting forum for revisiting questions of sexual normativity and examining those sex acts which are cemented to appear ‘natural’ through repetition, in the discursive system of sexusociety. Drawing especially on feminist and postmodern theories, I situate asexuality as both a product of and reaction against our sexusocial, disoriented postmodern here and now. This article also addresses the question of whether or not, and on what terms, asexuality may be considered a resistance against sexusociety.

Asexuality in disability narratives

This essay explores normative regulations of disabled people’s sexuality and its relationship with asexuality through narratives of disabled individuals. While asexuality has been persistently criticized as a damaging myth imposed on disabled people, individuals with disabilities who do not identify as sexual highlight the inseparable intersection between normality and sexuality. Disabled and asexual identity and its narratives reveal that asexuality is an embodiment neither to be eliminated, nor to be cured, and is a way of living that may or may not change. Claims for the sexual rights of desexualized minority groups mistakenly target asexuality and endorse a universal and persistent presence of sexual desire. The structurally and socially enforced asexuality and desexualization are distinguished from an asexual embodiment and perspective disidentifying oneself from sexuality.

This Guardian article was the first time I’d noticed sexual people (I prefer this term to ‘allosexual’ i.e. ‘sexual’ and ‘asexual’ as adjectives rather than nouns) respond with indignation, as bewildering as it was in its intensity, to being identified as ‘sexual’ people i.e. as a distinguishable group rather than humanity as such. But inevitably, when we designate a group, particularly when using a noun, the possibility exists that we falsely attribute a homogeneity to that group which doesn’t exist. Which the post  reblogged above insightfully elaborates, in terms of both consequences and curing it, in the case of asexual people’s perceptions of sexual people:

However, by talking about allosexual people as if they can’t help but need sex all the time constantly and can only think of relationships as sexual, we are only perpetuating the problem. It teaches us that if we ever want to be in a relationship with a person who is allosexual, we will be forced to have sex, since they can’t live without it. It makes us more likely to distrust or push away allosexual folks as friends, zucchinis, or partners, since we are believing these ludicrous assumptions society teaches us. It makes us discount the experiences of allosexual people in non-sexual primary relationships, accounting that they won’t last, since a sexual person cannot live without sex.

This totally erases allosexual people who abstain from sex for whatever reason. Allosexual people at least have their own experiences to know that they are not constantly craving sex. However, many of us don’t have these experiences, so we allow what society teaches us to become our main archetype for what allosexual people are like.

So how do we fix this? We need to not make generalizations or assumptions about allosexual people. We need to realize that, like us, they are human and their sexualities exist on a wide spectrum. We need to look at the beliefs we have about sexuality and allosexual folks and critically examine where those come from and how society, the media, and we are contributing to them. We need to not shame people for being allosexual, and accept their sexualities as part of who they are, and realize that does not make them a better or worse person. We need to openly communicate with our romantic, sexual, platonic, and queerplatonic partners about what their sexualities mean to them and talk about how that interacts with our own. We need to listen when allosexual people call us out and tell us we are making assumptions or contributing to the false conceptions of sexuality that our society teaches us.

Most importantly, I believe we need to have discussions with our allosexual friends about their experiences. This will help dispel many of the misconceptions some of us have about allosexual folks, as well as open communication and create allies. There’s an entire wealth of information to be shared and explored. We merely need to talk about it!

One of the things that fascinates me about the asexual community is quite how diverse it is (in a range of different ways) without the extent of this difference undermining the collective identity (i.e. the ‘umbrella’ definition). In fact the difference is, in a superficially paradoxical way, the condition which secures the commonality. But it stands to reason that much as ‘asexual’ works discursively by negating the ‘sexual’, bringing an opposing point of identification into language around which a relatively heterogeneous array of subjects can converge, so too might this be true of ‘sexual’. It’s just that until we identify ‘sexual’ people, as a distinguishable sub group (albeit a very large one) rather than human beings as such, the discursive opening which allows the articulation of internal differences (i.e. the range of what it is to be ‘sexual’) is foreclosed and there’s no basis for reciprocal articulation of the ways in which we differ in spite of our commonality of being ‘sexual’.

The Asexual Agenda

HEY. I’m calling you out, ace community. I’ve seen something prevalent in our community, and I think it’s time that it needs to end.

The way we talk about and portray allosexual folks is often almost a caricature. We often speak of them as if they are constantly horny, unable to abstain from sex, and unable to experience love without needing sex. We sometimes act as if we are superior because we are able to pursue our interests without ‘all that sex business’ getting in the way. We often suggest that our friendships are more important to us, or even that allosexuals will always choose a sexual relationship over a platonic or queerplatonic one.

We need to stop this. This is detrimental to many people. It erases the experiences of allosexual folks who are in queerplatonic relationships, are celibate, are aromantic, or are in mixed relationships with asexuals. In addition…

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The sexual assumption is the usually unexamined presupposition that sexual attraction is both universal (everyone ‘has it’) and uniform (it’s fundamentally the same thing in all instances) such that its absence must be explicable in terms of a distinguishable pathology.

All from this Guardian article about asexuality earlier in the week:

  • What, not even a bit of mild masturbation?
  • The only person I have seen in real life who was asexual was affected pretty severely with his autism so I don’t know if someone who has never felt attracted to another person is suffering from some kind of disorder.
  • Nature invented sex for reproduction. Being asexual is like being born without an arm. It’s not normal, but no one should get all excited about it.
  • So you can literally lie there and flick the bean without thinking about anything? I don’t believe you. Call me cynical, but I’m not even sure there is such a thing as asexuality. If you have a sex drive, even if it isn’t “directed at anyone or anything”, surely that makes you a sexual being of some sort?
  • In some ways, it’d be great to be asexual. There are so many other things to do, books to read (or write), mountains to climb, symphonies to compose, TV show box sets to watch, countries to travel to, languages to learn, video games to master, diseases to discover cures for, internet forums to engage in endless hair-splitting debates on, &c. Think of how much one would get done if one didn’t have to share one’s nervous system with the ancient machinery one’s genes built for passing themselves on.
  • I find it hard to believe that the hormone levels of asexual people who do not have anysexual desire would have hormone levels comparable to sexual people.
  • Maybe it’s just people who can’t find the opposite sex they think they deserve.
  • As you may I’m really struggling with this asexual stuff, I fail to see how “romantic attraction” can not involve some sort of physical trait in the person you’re attracted, even if it’s just “pleasing to the eye”.
  • Can I ask if this is post menopause? It’s one of those well known but hush hush “facts” in my extended family that the women (from my mothers side at least) lost pretty much all desire for sex once menopause is done. And most of their close female friends feel the same way. It’s just that talking about it openly is not done.
  • Because without sex, we don’t exist. We’re genetically predisposed to have a pronounced relationship with it.

And then I got bored. There were a lot of comments. But it’s helped developed my idea about something to add into my postdoc plan: the comments and responses to asexual articles online constitute a great resource and, rather than abstract theoretical speculation, I want to collate and systematically analyse responses to asexuality by non-asexuals. More specifically I want to analyse attempts to explain away asexuality: what do they have in common on a conceptual level? I’m offering the sexual assumption as an empirical hypothesis based on (a) what I found in my research about experiences of sexual responses to asexuality (b) my own experience in the last few years of doing media work, talking to lots of people about my research and generally seeing a lot of different people react to asexuality.

I got completely sucked into this discussion all afternoon. I had three initial aims with my asexuality research: mapping out community in a ideographically adequate way, understanding the role the internet played in the formation of the community and exploring what the reception of asexuality reveals about sexual culture. There’s still more I want to write in relation to the first two points but I’ve basically drawn my conclusions at this point. Which means that my interest in asexuality has basically transmuted into an interest in how sexual people react to asexuality. This sounds much more obscure than it actually is.

In essence I’m arguing that the reactions of sexual people to asexuality reveal the architectonic principle of contemporary sexual culture, namely the sexual assumption: the usually unexamined presupposition that sexual attraction is both universal (everyone ‘has it’) and uniform (it’s fundamentally the same thing in all instances) such that its absence must be explicable in terms of a distinguishable pathology. This is instantiated at the level of both the cultural system and socio-cultural interaction: it’s entailed propositionally, even if not asserted outright, within prevailing lay and academic discourses pertaining to sexuality but it’s also reproduced by individuals in interaction (talking about sex, either in the abstract or in terms of their own experience) and intraaction (making sense of their own experience through internal conversation).

Until the asexual community came along, the ideational relationship (the logical structure internal to academic and lay discourses about sex) and patterns of socio-cultural interaction (the causal structure stemming from thought and talk about sex) reinforced one another. Or to drop the critical realist terminology: the sexual assumption got reproduced at the level of ideas because nothing conflicted with it at the level of experience. But when something comes along which empirically repudiates it (namely the asexual community) the underlying principle suddenly becomes contested. This doesn’t mean discourse ‘makes’ sexual people not get ‘asexuality’ but it does mean that, given the centrality of the sexual assumption to our prevailing ways of understand sexuality, being confronted with asexuality immediate invites explanation. One such explanation is to drop the ideational commitment but, given that its usually tacit, few people (including myself) can do this immediately – though many, it seems, do so once they’ve reflected upon it. Instead the usual response is to evade the logical conflict by explaining away asexuality: its a hormone deficiency, the person was sexually abused, they’re lying, they’re gay but repressed, they’ve just not met the right person yet (etc).

The empirical evidence of quite how pervasive, indeed near universal, this kind of reaction is seems increasingly conclusive. What I am suggesting is that the sexual assumption is what explains this being a ‘kind’ of reaction i.e. all the explanations, in spite of their superficial differences in content, involve a reassertion of the uniformity and/or universality of sexual attraction. I’m not saying people are deliberately or consciously defending the sexual assumption (though I’m not categorically saying no one will ever be doing this) but rather that it is this, as the foundational assumption ‘holding together’ the conceptual architecture of the sexual culture which has emerged from the mid/late 20th century onwards, which asexuality renders problematic. The precise content of any given individual’s attempts to explain away asexuality varies depending on the specifics of their personal and intellectual history within this sexual culture (i.e. it’s not a homogenous thing) but the shared form of the response is explained by the architectonic principle of that culture and the logical relation of contradiction in which it stands to the empirical observation of asexual individuals who are ‘normal’ (i.e. non pathological). Logical relations don’t force people to act (some people don’t try and explain it away) but everyone who has not experienced what David Jay calls the ‘head-clicky thing’ has the same initial reaction. The above is my first attempt to offer a convoluted social theorists explanation of what I mean when, in interviews, I talk about sexual people not ‘getting’ asexuality. If you follow my chain of reasoning then, I ask of you, test it out: go and read the comments on the Guardian article I linked to and think about the reactions of people on there and what they have in common. Or do the same with pretty much any news article which has comments that I’ve encountered. There is something really fucking interesting happening there.

Fringe! Gay Film Fest is proud to announce the UK Premiere of Angela Tucker’s documentary (A)sexual on Saturday 14th April at Rio Cinema, London. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Michael J Dore and members of AVEN UK (Asexuality Visibility and Education Network). For more information on Fringe! visit their website at or follow them on Twitter and Facebook.


Rio Cinema, 103-107 Kingsland Road, London E8 2PB

Sat 14th April, 2pm, £8


Dir. Angela Tucker, USA, 2011, 75 mins

(A)sexual follows the growth of a community that experiences no sexual attraction.

Studies show that 1% of the population is asexual. But in a society obsessed with sex, how do you deal with life as an outsider?

In 2000, David Jay came out to his parents. He was asexual and was fine with it. And he was not alone.  Combining intimate interviews, verite footage, and animation with fearless humour and pop culture imagery, David and our four other characters grapple with this universal question and the outcomes might surprise you.