In “Immaculate Heart,” on stage at Crane Theater in northeast Minneapolis, the protagonist, Clare, a shy church lady, awkwardly tells a suitor why she feels uncomfortable talking about sex.
“I’m embarrassed,” Clare says. “I’ve never had a boyfriend. I can’t relate to any of it. I usually just try and keep my mouth shut and hope nobody puts me on the spot.”
In a society where our sexual framework is dominated by three types of attraction — opposite sex, same sex, both sexes — Clare identifies as part of a largely invisible fourth group that lacks sexual feelings entirely. Clare’s asexuality has made her feel “weird” and isolated.
In recent years, a wide range of once stigmatized sexual orientations and gender identities has achieved greater inclusion and visibility. Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage in 2013. Three years later, Target welcomed transgender customers to use the restroom matching their identity. A 2018 City Pages cover story profiled Minnesotans in polyamorous relationships.
LGBT, the 1990s-era umbrella term for orientations and identities, has tacked on a few more letters — including an “A” that sometimes refers to asexual. There’s a local group, Minnesota Asexuals, that organizes discussions, activism projects and social activities for those in the community.
Still, those who don’t experience sexual attraction find their identity largely unrecognized and misunderstood.
“In our culture, the idea of not having sexual feelings about anybody is so out of the realm of possibility that if you aren’t feeling sexual feelings about that hot guy on TV, then you must be a lesbian and you’re in the closet,” said Ruth Virkus, who wrote “Immaculate Heart” and serves as Freshwater Theatre company’s co-artistic director.
Virkus hopes that the theater’s mounting of two plays on the subject (“Immaculate Heart” runs through Sept. 28) will raise awareness of asexuality and help those in the community feel a greater sense of belonging.
Asexuals, who sometimes go by the phonetic “ace,” are defined by their lack of sexual attraction, on a spectrum ranging from none at all to extremely limited in nature. (The latter are known as demisexuals, who experience sexual attraction only after they’ve developed a strong emotional bond with another person.)
The Asexual Visibility and Education Network, the largest online forum on the subject, defines asexuality as neither celibacy nor a “problem.” It’s not deciding to abstain and suppressing desire. It’s also not the result of a medical issue or psychological condition.
For asexuals, attractions can be romantic (desiring emotional attention), aesthetic (appreciation of physical appearance) or sensual (enjoyment of kissing and cuddling). Those on the spectrum may form relationships, sexual or not.
While some asexuals experience arousal or libido, and may engage in activities from masturbation to sadomasochism, their motivation is more abstract (seeking relaxation, or an adrenaline rush) than related to a desire to have sex with a partner.
Ontario-based psychology Prof. Anthony Bogaert, the leading academic researcher on the subject, notes that studying this minority group can also reveal insights about the majority. “Asexuality provides an interesting lens to look at sexuality differently and understand it more deeply,” he said.
Research suggests asexuals make up about 1% of the population, which is one reason behind their lack of representation. Another is society’s misassumption that sex is an essential part of being human, that everyone must be wired to react with arousal.
An ‘Immaculate Heart’
Ruth Virkus started writing “Immaculate Heart” about a decade ago, wanting to depict a romance whose main character’s feelings on relationships were loosely based on her own confusing lack of sexual interest. She shelved the project, but in the intervening years learned about asexuality. (“It was so not on my radar in 2009,” she said.)
When she picked the script back up a few years ago, it became clear to Virkus that she, like her protagonist, was a demisexual. “I say I don’t have the ability to be intimate with someone unless I’m intimate with them,” Virkus said. “That it requires words and actions and deeds for me to even get to a point where I would feel that.”
At age 29, Virkus finally felt that when she got to know the man who became her husband, Freshwater co-artistic director Ben Layne. It was Virkus’ very first relationship.
The awkwardness she felt growing up resembled that of a closeted homosexual amid straight peers, but she wasn’t attracted to women. She had no interest in thinking about sex, and even bristled at friends’ innocuous dirty puns.
“When the conversation does get particularly nitty-gritty, shall we say, it tunes me out a little bit,” Virkus said.
After getting to know Layne, she recognized herself as a demisexual, a term so new to the public consciousness that it didn’t appear in a major newspaper until 2013.
“People just don’t have the language to talk about this,” Virkus said. But she hopes that presenting asexuality on stage can help destigmatize it. “Awareness that somebody else is like you can be lifesaving sometimes,” she said.
Freshwater’s short play series, “Eventually, Epiphany,” which ran in repertory with “Immaculate Heart,” includes Monte D. Monteleagre’s “Dude’s Night,” a fish-out-of-water monologue he wrote about realizing he was asexual during his first visit to a strip club.
“I had been questioning for a long time, but I wasn’t quite sure,” he recalled. “And then I walk into this strip club, and I’m like, ‘OK, I’m pretty sure now.’ … I just didn’t have a connection to it the way that anyone I was with did.”
Monteleagre, a recent college graduate who spent a year in the Twin Cities before moving to New York City this fall, said he learned about asexuality in high school, when he read about it on a blog. Until then, he’d been only vaguely aware that people could be anything besides straight. Living in Omaha, he hadn’t met anyone who was openly anything else.
Several signs pointed to his asexuality. “I never enjoyed school dances or other activities that were built as pseudo romantic encounters for young people,” he said.
On the other hand, perhaps he hadn’t met the right person yet. “It’s hard to prove the lack of something, which is what asexuality is,” he said.
So during the intense late-night discussions of crushes at Boy Scout camp, Monteleagre would pick a name at random from a list of girls his friends or his brother admired.
When he finally came out as asexual to a close-knit group of his college fraternity brothers, he felt free. “It was like, ‘OK, I don’t have to wear that mask I didn’t know I was wearing anymore,’ ” he said.