Popular media, like dominant societal views and unfortunate marginalization within the Queer community, presents asexuality as Not A Thing. Among the endless problematic tendencies, the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” presents asexuality as a giggle-factor; cue the laugh-tracks.
One of the main characters, Dr. Sheldon Cooper, an awkward physicist living with his friends, is asexual. He is not canonically asexual, but throughout the years the show has been on television, Sheldon’s character has been sex-repulsed or merely uninterested, and can reasonably read as such. (Sheldon has many other character traits that can be read as misrepresentations of marginalized groups associated with those traits or identities, and the show as a whole is problematic.) He has made it clear that he has no interest in sex or the idea of it. And, somehow, that is funny. What doubles the hilarity is how asexuality, Sheldon’s relationship with asexuality specifically, is viewed by his circle of friends—who are all sexual, and in later seasons romantically involved with one or more persons—as a defect. It’s viewed as just part of his inherent awkwardness, and attempts to “cure” his asexuality are made throughout.
Several seasons ago, a SexEd book given to Sheldon as a gift (the book itself is never actually shown on screen) is referenced in casual conversation when Sheldon makes 1) an offhand comment about sex, 2) doesn’t “understand” sex in the manner prescribed by society as a whole as well as his friends in the show, 3) implies he is sex-repulsed/averse, 4) doesn’t understand a sexual-based joke, 5) avoids in-depth conversations about sex and sexuality, and 7) mentions he is very fond of his girlfriend. They tell him to read it, or ask him why he hasn’t. Quintessential sitcom laugh-tracks follow these comments encouraging the viewer to share the belief that asexuality is a joke.
Sheldon has a girlfriend, Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, in the most recent seasons, and while she is extremely interested in having a more physical relationship with him she does not pressure him into sex acts.
While Amy is sexual and does not put undue pressure on her partner to engage in sex acts with her, Sheldon’s small group of friends readily, actively, and openly continue to pressure Sheldon throughout the entirety of the show. It borders on harassment and grows into nothing short of coercion, inviting the viewer to believe if enough ‘encouragement’ is given to an asexual person they will cease being asexual, that if an asexual-identified person is given enough information on societal norms in regards to sex and romance they will have a sudden bout of insight that they weren’t asexual after all–that, perhaps, asexuality wasn’t A Thing.
And, yes, within the show Sheldon is told what all Queer folks have been told: you just haven’t found the right person.
The fact that a multitude of Queer folks are not embracing asexuality as a legitimate identity may be one of the most harmful things about asexual erasure. Do you remember that time your parents said your sexual and romantic orientations and identity were ‘just a phase?’ Or the times your friends said you ‘just hadn’t found the right person of the ‘opposite’ sex?’ What about all those times popular culture enraged and discouraged you by implying your sexual and romantic orientations ‘aren’t real?’ Do you remember how hard it was to come out; the pain (or joy) of the aftermath? And weren’t you embraced by Queer folks, found acceptance and solidarity, people who didn’t think you were ‘weird,’ or ‘wrong,’ or ‘defective’ or ‘perverted?’ A community where you were safe, where you were not abnormal? I’d venture to guess the answer is ‘yes.’
So why are Queer communities doing nearly the same things that hurt us so violently, mimicking erasure and rendering an identity invisible, ostentatiously and unabashedly, when it comes to Queer-identified asexual folks?