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As a student at the University of Liverpool in the 80s, Chris Coles called himself asexual. It made sense to him. "I was studying biology," he says. "And asexual organisms don't have sex."

But few people understood the term so, as a young man in his 20s, Coles described himself as celibate. When he hit his stroppy 30s, he would tell people he was frigid.

The confusion over just what label to use is only one of many challenges asexuals in our sex-obsessed society face. Of all the sexual minorities - homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, and those with proclivities for just about anything - asexuals have had a low public profile and a real sense of isolation. Now they are banding together in a bid for recognition, understanding and acceptance.

An asexual person is commonly defined as someone who experiences no sexual attraction towards other people. But some professionals think the term is somewhat imprecise.

Clinical psychologist and director of Sex Therapy NZ Robyn Salisbury says some people who call themselves asexual still masturbate regularly - "which isn't asexual to me".

Salisbury says sex therapists would call that auto-erotic - that is, enjoying their sexuality themselves - rather than asexual.

Coles, now aged 40, is the self-appointed poster boy for the asexuality movement in New Zealand. After 28 years of feeling ill at ease with his lack of sexual attraction, he remembers the overwhelming sense of relief when he discovered the San Franciso-based website, Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN).

To finally realise where he fitted in and to encounter other people who felt exactly as he did about sex was a watershed moment for him.

"Until I came across AVEN, I basically thought I was the only person in the world who felt the way I did. It's very isolating," he says.

Coles is now determined to raise the asexual profile so that no other young person need spend decades in the sexual orientation wilderness.

"I think it's really important for teenagers, for young people, to know that if they don't feel sexual, if they don't want a sexual relationship, that's perfectly OK. I don't want people to feel like freaks or that they're broken or that they have to go to the doctors or there's something wrong with them."

In November 2005, Coles, from Wellington, set up the Asexuality Aotearoa website. Since then, he's been campaigning to have the term asexual recognised as a valid sexual orientation alongside heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual. To this end, Coles has attended conferences, participated in workshops, manned stalls, given presentations, put up posters and handed out leaflets.

He's also travelled throughout New Zealand to meet fellow asexuals. He's been there, done that - and even got the ironic asexual T-shirt which reads: "Just lie back and think of England. Yeah right."

Asexuality has not been widely researched, but recent findings by Canadian academic Anthony Bogaert (using a sample of 18,000 British residents) indicate that around 1 per cent of the population is likely to be asexual.

That's about 40,000 New Zealanders who could potentially identify with Asexuality Aotearoa, yet today its mailing list sits at a modest 12 people.

"There are some very good reasons why the emerging asexual community is not going to parallel the gay and lesbian community, for example, because it's far easier not to be out," Coles says.

Kate, a Christchurch woman in her 30s, is one asexual who is currently very content to stay in the closet. She hasn't told any family, friends or colleagues about her lack of sexual attraction to others.

"I don't want to give the idea that I live some sort of secret life or I tell lies to people. It's nothing like that," she says. "It's just it has never been explicitly discussed amongst people that I know. I'm still getting used to the whole concept."

Kate only heard about asexuality a couple of years ago on the AVEN website. Until then she'd considered herself a freak. She'd even searched medical literature for case studies of people who were like her, but to no avail. "I came across nothing that was related to attraction because what everybody seems to focus on is low libido and I felt I was off the scale," she says. "I couldn't say anything was low because I didn't even know what it was that could be higher."

Coles is a critic of our sex-obsessed culture. "There is a strong pressure in society to be sexual, to be in a sexual relationship, so if you don't conform, you're seen to be defective," he says. "Everywhere you look, on advertising, billboards, movies, soaps, books, magazines, just everywhere you look, there is material, stories, narratives reaffirming and validating people's feelings, if they want that kind of life.

"It really hacks me off. It annoys me, and before I discovered other asexuals, it did make me feel defective. It makes you feel invisible and invalidated because you never see people, you never hear of people, who feel the way you do."

Coles first realised his feelings at intermediate school, aged 10, when he first heard about sexual intercourse in the playground. "I remember it very clearly. I wasn't grossed out, I didn't go: yuck," he says. "I just remember feeling that I wouldn't do it. It wasn't a disgusting thing or an awful thing. I just couldn't imagine myself doing it. For me it was a defining moment."

Jackie Bell, 38, of Wellington, says she'd identified as bisexual for 20 years but now considers herself to be a bi-romantic asexual - that is, an asexual person who is romantically attracted to both men and women. She likes to be in a relationship, and she currently has a boyfriend, who is "pretty much" asexual too. "He's leaning that way.

"I can find people physically attractive, like, I think they might look good, but I don't really want to do stuff to them," she says. Unlike asexuals who classify themselves as sex averse, Bell would describe her feelings as indifferent towards sex.

"People think I just haven't slept with the right person yet. God knows, I've tried. It's not lack of experience... Once you realise that that's what you are, then it takes the pressure off of feeling like you have to have sex with people. I feel more able to stand up for myself."

In addition to being either sex averse or sex indifferent, asexual people can be classified as either romantic (that is, being romantically attracted to men or women or both) or aromantic (not being romantically attracted to anyone). According to Bogaert's study, 33 per cent of asexuals were in long-term relationships. He says his findings suggest that many asexual people are not aromantic.

Clearly, complications are likely to arise when just one member of a partnership is asexual. "There are asexuals out there who are in marriages, finding it very difficult to maintain that marriage," says Coles. "There are lots of asexuals whose marriages have broken up because of their asexuality."

Coles admits that it's fairly common for asexual people in sexual relationships to seek professional help, to have their hormones checked by a doctor or to consult a psychologist or a counsellor. But he questions the wisdom of constantly scrutinising the relationship in such cases. He says the advice that you and your partner must work harder on the intimacy isn't much use if you're an asexual.

Professionals often consider that an underlying cause may make a person more disposed towards asexuality. Salisbury tells of one man she worked with who claimed to be asexual; it turned out that he'd been horrifically sexually abused and was making a very valid choice for himself to not engage in that aspect of life.

Such rationales can frustrate asexuals, especially those who don't see themselves as fitting that model. As Kate says: "I'd never been abused or all those sorts of reasons that people often roll out as possible reasons why you might be so called asexual. I didn't feel I had a dysfunction or an illness."

Jackie Bell adds: "I think there is an idea that something very bad must have happened, that you've been put off. I don't see why that's the only acceptable reason." As far as Coles is concerned, asexuality is a perfectly natural state for some people.

"It's not a medical problem that's developed. It's been with them all their lives, and that's what I feel about myself," he says. However, Salisbury says, "We don't know whether someone can be born asexual or not. That has not been established either way."

While debate continues as to the exact origins of asexuality, there's no doubting the comfort asexuals take in discovering they're not alone.

"All I needed, now with hindsight, was the knowledge that I'm not the only one," says Kate. "Once I got that, it was fine."

Keri Hulme

The 60-year-old self-employed writer, author of the Booker Prize-winning The Bone People and resident of South Westland, answers questions about being asexual.

What does being asexual mean to you?
It is part of who I am: the major impact is that I am not - and never have been - interested in sex.

Was there a moment you discovered you were asexual?
It was more a slow realisation that I was different from most people. By my mid-teens, I'd realised that what was of great moment and interest to other young people - their sexuality and relationships - didn't intrigue me in the slightest.

Are there any misconceptions about being asexual you would like to reject?
The idea that asexual people can be cured. I am not sick, I am not deficient; I may not be normal but I am thoroughly natural. And I don't want to be any different from the way I am.

Have you ever had sex or a sexual experience?
I've never had sex with anyone or anything.

What's the worst thing about being asexual?
It can be isolating. (Everyone assumes you are a sexual being, and are as interested in sex as most humans.)

What's the best thing?
Well, I can both concentrate on other kinds of relationships (family, friends, and with the rest of the natural world) and be able to be quite happy with my own company. Note: I would not be happy with just my own company! I need my family and friends but don't have to be with them all the time.

How important is it for you to be able to network and communicate with other asexual people?
It was and is wonderful to know you are not a solitary mutant! AVEN is the major forum, with the NZ asexuals site also being important.

How has being asexual affected your life?
Well, I don't make friends easily. (There have been misunderstandings in the past, on the part of both heterosexuals and homosexuals, and this has made me a bit leary of people.) But I am not antisocial, just reticent. And while I've always been driven to have a home of my own, I never expected to share it with someone all the time. (I am very happy to share it with family and friends.)

Do you classify yourself as a romantic or an aromantic asexual?
Aromantic asexual. And atheist! Triple A rating!

Do you believe the profile of asexuality needs to be raised in society?
Yes. Primarily for the sake of young asexual people who may not be aware that they aren't sick or ruinously different - just wonderfully rare.