Sex remains a taboo within the family, especially within the family. Deemed as massively inappropriate, sensitive, society-structured cultural norms and values dictate that sex should never be talked about in public or even with friends. But when you tell people you aren’t interested in sex or don’t have any desire, they think you’re out of your mind. And they say LGBTQIA+ community members are the weird ones.
Asexuality is the A in the extended LGBTQIA+ acronym but it’s more than that. If you’re unfamiliar with asexuality, fret not as most people are, “an asexual person is someone who does not experience sexual attraction” — as defined by the Asexual Visibility and Education Network or AVEN, which was founded in 2001 and can be considered the start of the modern asexual movement. Thanks to the internet, the rise of discussion forums has given asexuals a way to openly discuss something that was previously considered quite private and provided a means of creating a community and shared terminology — “ace”.
In the asexual Pride flag, which is black, gray, white, and purple, the black stripe is for asexuality; the gray for the gray area in between sexual and asexual and demisexuality; the white for non-asexual partners and allies; and the purple for the community.
In a world where the desire for sex is strong and procreation is commonly the end goal, where do the aces stand?
In the mainstream media, asexuality is an orientation that is rarely covered, remains misunderstood, and underrepresented. Aside from shows like BoJack Horseman and Shadowhunters, it’s hard to name shows that actually portray characters that identify as ace.
However, there’s one worth noting, Netflix’s hit TV series, aptly named Sex Education, delivered one of the most beautiful statements ever heard on the show, “sex doesn’t make us whole and so, how could you ever be broken?” It happened in episode four of its second season, where Florence, a drama student who felt broken for her lack of desire to have sex and the simultaneous pressure she feels from those around her to have it and stop feeling “like a freak.” Unfortunately, it was misinterpreted as “not being ready” and she just needs to “find the right person” — the line non-aces hate the most.
Asexuality is not to be confused with "aromantic," which refers to a person who experiences little or no romantic attraction to others. Again, asexuality doesn’t always mean someone doesn’t enjoy sex, it just means they don’t experience sexual attraction.
Tien, an 18-year old social activist, and academic achiever founded an online alliance of young Vietnamese which aims to provide youth-positive, sex-positive, and LGBTQIA+-positive accurate information on the LGBTQIA+ community. In celebration of Pride Month, we spoke with Tien as she openly discussed her principles, her story, and her identity as an aromantic asexual.
Tell us a little something about yourself, your childhood, interests, and what’s keeping you busy now?
My full name is Lý Hoàng Thủy Tiên, when I’m in Canada, I use my English name Jessiny Ly. Just like many other Vietnamese people, I grew up in Vietnam, absorbing the traditional and conservative perspective of Vietnamese culture in many aspects of life. Since I was a kid, I have been intensely interested in arts, especially language and music. However, I am interested in other areas too, which is why I am now studying German, classical music, and gender and sexuality on my own. I am quite passionate about business, which I learn at my university. Surprisingly, all these aspects of my knowledge aid me in my activism work, especially my perspective as a business student and a multilingual speaker. Other than being part of the Honors Business program at school, I am a social activist, classical musician, a language teacher, and an ardent reader.
In our previous article on PRIDE month where you were featured, you mentioned you’re an asexual. Can you tell us more about asexuality?
When it comes to asexuality, I think we need to put attraction in place with sexual behavior. Per definition, attraction is just part of sexual behavior. Sexual behavior includes many other facets, such as romantic/sexual desires, romantic/sexual engagement, etc. Asexuality is a spectrum in which people who identify as asexual experience none/less than usual (a.k.a allosexual) permanent romantic and/or sexual attraction to other people. Some examples of labels in the asexuality spectrum include asexual (aromantic asexual), graysexual and demisexual. Attraction is a concept that requires a subject in which it is another gender/other genders. Hence, asexual people, upon seeing OTHERS, feel none/less than usual romantic and/or sexual attraction to them. Asexual people’s other facets of sexual behavior, including sexual desires, remain irrelevant in the definition of asexuality. I have always disliked how society always pairs sex with bonding in a romantic relationship. People just have sex or masturbate because it feels good.
At a very young age, you seem to be very outspoken and expressive. What motivates and inspires you to be such?
I am open now, but I was not really in the past. I found out about the LGBTQIA+ community when I was in grade seven. Of course, I knew this community as “the third sex” (giới tính thứ ba), and I had some negative viewpoints about LGBTQIA+ people. However, as I went through my sexuality discovery journey, I figured out I was not like other peers because my romantic/sexual attachment to others was short-lived, if not non-existent. I even felt like I was pressured to have a crush, for which I made up some crushes at some point because those at my age kept talking about romance/sex. When I came to Canada in grade 10, I joined Planned Parenthood Toronto to be part of the Supporting Newcomer Access Program after just three months in Toronto. I became a peer educator to hold workshops in the city, thanks to this program and continued actively advocating for the LGBTQIA+ community in Canada by associating myself with the Canadian government and the Public Health Agency of Canada through Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights (known as Planned Parenthood Canada). Also because of my advocacy work with Action Canada (i.e., campaigns, reports, and speeches), I gained the courage to start my own organization in Vietnam — the Vietnam Youth Alliance. I believe that the open-minded perspectives about sexuality in Canada have helped me be myself and advocate for what I believe in.
It was just recently when the LGBT acronyms added QIA, how did that change you?
In my training sessions on LGBTQIA+ sexuality, I have always told attendees, “LGBTQIA+ community ain’t a music group which has like ten members, so do not push others to say an “adequate” acronym or something like that, because there exists no full acronym for the LGBTQIA+ community. More acronyms on the name are about representation.” To me, adding QIA means that there is more representation of these sexual identities, so I am surely happy with these additions. I’m not sure if these additions have changed me, but I’m sure that it has changed people’s viewpoints on QIA, which were discarded a lot in the past due to medical/social debates or non-existent representation.
As an asexual, how do you react to people pressuring or convince you to have sex, or at least have the desire for it?
As an educator, I am cool when people say those things to me. Of course, sex feels good, which is why people are doing it. I'm sex repulsive just because I identify as an asexual person, although there are sex repulsive people in the asexuality spectrum. However, if people say something like, “You should try sex with another person because maybe you have not found a suitable partner to do it,” then I am not pleased. Sex can be done at one’s own pace and decision, and not to be pushed by others.
Tell us more about your youth organization in Vietnam.
I was inspired by all the advocacy work I did with Planned Parenthood Toronto and Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, leading me to establish Vietnam Youth Alliance (VYA). However, VYA did not start off as an organization. It was a project, which I intended to only last for about three months and just end it when we finished with sufficient basic information on sex education and LGBTQIA+. However, my best friend Nguyễn Hương Giang, who is currently the Vice President of VYA, convinced me to make VYA an organization because of the potentials of VYA’s standing: youth-friendly content in Vietnam Youth Alliance's website vnyouthally.org and Vietnam Youth Alliance Facebook and Instagram, accurate information, and creative content ideas across social media. Thus, I decided to make VYA an organization, which is now about two years old. My time with VYA has had ups and downs due to the cultural and social conflicts I experienced when shifting my liberal approach to a more conservative approach when advocating for the LGBTQIA+ community. However, with great support from the management team, we have altogether overcome tough periods and thrived. Many thanks to my dearest management team members.
Regarding my goals in the community, I hope to deliver youth-positive, sex-positive, and LGBTQIA+-positive accurate information on the LGBTQIA+ community. Most importantly, I hope to put the knowledge regarding the LGBTQIA+ community into perspective. Most people, upon seeing how homophobia has no longer been expressed overtly, say that the LGBTQIA+ community has achieved what they want. That is not true, members of the LGBTQIA+ community still receive discrimination in films, books, laws, even music, etc. Seeing multiple perspectives helps us understand how intense the phobia against LGBTQIA+ is.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
I think no matter how much time has passed, my activism for the LGBTQIA+ community still remains. I hope that in ten years, I will witness pivotal moments of change for the LGBTQIA+ community in Vietnam. I hope that VYA will develop to be active in both online and offline spaces and become more intensively connected with other organizations in Vietnam. I have no plan to have a family, only plans to continue contributing to the LGBTQIA+ and youth communities.
If there’s one thing you want to tell those who don’t understand asexuality, what is it?
Keep an open mind. Remember that not everyone perceives sexuality the same way. I have come across so many people who said something like, "I have not seen true asexual people ever, hence their identity must not be true." Understanding that there exist so many barriers for asexual people to express themselves in society and that expressions of asexuality vary greatly is key. Also, keeping great respect for everyone goes a long way.
Generally speaking, what are you most proud of?
I'm most proud of my dedication to the LGBTQIA+ community. Despite the prejudice against LGBTQIA+ activism in Vietnam, I'm proud to say that I've overcome societal challenges to continue my activism work, partnering with other fellow activists to bring about greater change to the community and hopefully inspiring others to be on the same advocacy path. I'm proud to be and have been part of many young people's sexuality discovery journeys, aiding them in finding out who they truly are without prejudice. Finally, I take pride in having worked with so many great people in my journey of advocating for the LGBTQIA+ community, especially those who are in VYA, being not only my support but also my inspiration. I couldn’t be more grateful.