Notion sat down with Yasmin Benoit, an award-winning British asexual activist and model, to discuss her moves to increase ace visibility throughout society and how she fights stereotypes.
Yasmin Benoit came out in 2017 as asexual-aromatic, and ever since, she has been tireless in her efforts to increase asexual visibility and provide empowerment for a frequently underrepresented community.
She is responsible for creating the popular social media #ThisIsWhatAsexualLooksLike movement, and in June 2021 received the prestigious Attitude Pride Award, becoming the first-ever openly ace-aro person to win an LGBTQ+ award. Benoit has also embarked on a highly successful modelling career, including her trailblazing asexual-themed lingerie campaign with Playful Promises. Having recently made her presenting debut on BBC Sounds’ ‘Me and My Asexuality’ podcast series, Benoit’s activism is only picking up the pace with time.
We caught up with Yasmin to chat about the motivation behind her activism, her numerous social projects, and how she makes intersectionality the core of her values.
- Jacket & Skirt alvaro mars via sum other agency
- Bra Studio FCLX
- Shoes Natacha Marro
You’ve taken on the role of representing asexual-aromanticism to the world. What does that representation mean to you?
I’ve always had a weird relationship with representation. I grew up in an era where you’d be lucky to see a Black girl on TV. I was forced to get used to not seeing myself represented. I was the only Black girl in my class, and a goth on top of that. I stopped expecting to see myself reflected in other places and I adjusted to it from a young age. Representation wouldn’t affirm me personally, but I knew it would make my life easier because it would mean that other people would see me as being less of an anomaly.
I remember watching Emma Watson’s ‘HeForShe’ speech in 2014 and there was a point when she said, “If not me, who? If not now, when?” and that really resonated with me. I didn’t necessarily think that I’d be good representation for anyone or anything, but I thought there was no harm in trying to help a little bit, just to see if I could. That was what lead me into alternative modelling – trying to diversify what was an incredibly white scene at the time, one I was already a part of.
I had that same approach when I first mentioned being asexual on my social media. I rarely saw asexual people but it was even more unlikely to see Black asexual people. I wanted to see if I could fill that void a little and be the change I wanted to see. I was hardly even using the term ‘aromantic’ at the time. I didn’t really start understanding the significance of using that label as well until later because the experiences blended together a lot for me.
But I didn’t think people would really care or get behind me the way they did, especially since there’s a reason why these orientations are always represented by white people. I didn’t expect to end up being the representation that I never had – and that a lot of other people never had – but I take that very seriously and try to do my best with it.
What common misconceptions about ace existence have you come across, and how do you try and dispel them?
I’ve heard pretty much everything at this point! It all comes down to people thinking that asexuality – rather than being a type of sexual orientation – is either a condition, the result of a personality flaw, a lifestyle choice, or something that some bored kid on Tumblr made up to feel special. People think that asexuality is a physical or mental disorder, like you can fix/cure it with therapy or a pill. They think it’s a hormone deficiency and the inability to become aroused. They think it’s the side-effect of having a traumatic experience. That it’s just a cover for either having a different sexuality or some kind of hidden perversion.
They think you just haven’t met the right person yet, that you think you’re too good for anyone, that you’re sexually attracted to yourself, or that you’re so unattractive that no one
would want you and you have no choice but to identify as asexual. And if you do identify as asexual and you don’t experience sexual attraction, then you need to make yourself as sexually unappealing as possible while also staying clear of anything that could be associated with sexuality. And you should never date, have sex, or have children, but if you don’t do any of those things then that’s a problem too.
The main way I try to dispel them is just by continuing with my work and living my best life. Education is central to my work, and so is showing that you can be unapologetically asexual, happy and thriving.
Why did you choose modelling as one of your primary mediums for your message?
It wasn’t really a conscious choice. I didn’t decide to become an activist and then decide that I was going to It wasn’t really a conscious choice. I didn’t decide to become an activist and then decide that I was going to educate people by modelling clothes. I had been modelling for years before I started the activism. So it wouldn’t have been a question of, “Shall I use modelling to spread this message?” It would have been, “Shall I stop modelling and try to wipe all of those shots from the internet so that people take me seriously?” But I didn’t actually consider that for a second.
I’ll admit that I did underestimate just how confusing people would find the idea of an asexual person being a lingerie model. I naively thought that we were beyond thinking that people have to dress in a particular way because of their sexual orientation, or work in a particular field, or look a certain way. But I did quickly realise that the confusion could easily become a learning opportunity. If I challenge the misconceptions and stereotypes that people have about asexuality as soon as they lay eyes on me, then that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, it can lead to the conversation going in an interesting direction, and it can encourage people – particularly asexual people – to wear whatever the hell they want to.
- Two Piece alvaro mars via sum other agency
- Bra & Belt Studio FCLX
- Jacket Studio FCLX
- Top & Trousers ray chu studios
What was the experience of recording your BBC Sounds series like? What did that platform mean to you?
It was a really cool experience and different to anything I’d ever done before. I haven’t done anything like that since either. It was very longitudinal. We recorded it over 2019, covering a lot of different occasions, places, people and experiences. It was my first time presenting anything and I was working with a lovely producer who also gave me a good amount of creative control. I got to shine a light on the issues and topics within the asexual community that mattered. Even though what ended up on BBC Sounds – of course – couldn’t include everything, we managed to cover a surprising amount.
We spoke about asexual conversion therapy before that was really a conversation, acephobia in the media, I got to interview a journalist who wrote a questionable piece about our inclusion in Pride that year, I was speaking to people in Switzerland and the Czech Republic, and doing interviews while I was working at the UK Asexuality Conference 2019 in Scotland that year. Then there was recording the commentary in the studio as well, which was a fun experience.
I’m still really proud of what we made and I’m grateful for the opportunity to put something like that on the BBC, which is one of the biggest platforms in this country. I hope to make a more visual version of it someday.
What progress do you think the ace community has made in the last 10 years? Do you see this inclusion as a forward step?
In some ways, it’s quite hard to tell. I know of activists who have been doing this for decades longer than me and they say that there’s a notable improvement, because of the conversations we’re having about sexuality in general and how easy it’s become to find information online. Asexuality definitely isn’t as much of an obscure concept as it was twenty years ago. More people are identifying as being asexual or on the ace spectrum than ever before. But if you were to compare our progress to that of other identities or orientations, we’re incredibly behind. We’re still on the outskirts of conversations, we’re still on the sidelines, we’re still an afterthought.
The kinds of questions that I get asked now are the same ones I was getting asked ten years ago, and what I’m asked in interviews are the same as what activists were asked twenty years ago. Asexuality has been continuously called the ‘invisible orientation’ for a reason.
We’re still very much at an introductory 101 stage. Even when we are included in things, it’s often more like being given crumbs to pacify us, and so that the platforms involved can say, ‘See, we did something.’ It’s all a step forward, just little ones, really little ones. There’s a long way to go across so many areas, but I know that I’m going everything I can to drive progress and other people are as well, so I’m hopeful that we’ll see more substantial progress that will stick.
You were involved in founding International Asexuality Day. Why was that idea important to you?
I was! I started working with a range of ace organisations and groups from across the world in 2020 because there really wasn’t an official, cohesive, inclusive ‘Ace Day’ of sorts. Many other identities and orientations have some kind of day, so there has always been this idea that the asexual community should have one as well. We have Ace Week (FKA Asexual Awareness Week) in October, but that’s really the only time in the year when people are truly encouraged to knowledge asexuality. Even our recognition during Pride Month isn’t a sure thing. That means that we have to wait until the end of the year for one week’s worth of momentum, and we felt like we needed something in the first half of the year as well.
It was also becoming increasingly obvious that our community didn’t just need a day, we needed one that made a strong statement about the diversity of our community and the experiences we have. The asexual community can be very Eurocentric, Anglocentric and white. But asexual people exist across the world and speak many languages. That was why it was important to focus on the ‘international’ element and uplift ace communities who are in very different stages of their visibility, have different ideas and experiences around asexuality and aren’t heard from enough. The themes of the day are advocacy, celebration, education and solidarity and I think the last theme is particularly essential to what I hoped to achieve with it.
Congrats on your Attitude Pride Award! What does ace inclusion within the LGBTQ+ community mean to you?
Thank you! It was the first thing I’ve ever won in my life. It felt really amazing to have my work recognised by the biggest LGBTQ+ magazine in the country. It made quite a powerful statement for Attitude Magazine to give someone like me that award, given the communities I’m representing. And it was a necessary statement because acephobia within the LGBTQ+ community, and asexual exclusion from it, is an ongoing issue.
One of the things that the LGBTQ+ community does best is challenging the heteronormative ideas we’ve been taught and providing a space for those who don’t fit that mould. They push conversations about sexuality forward and highlight its
diversity and complexity. But if asexuality isn’t included in that conversation then you’re not getting the whole story, and that’s a disadvantage to everyone, not just ace people. It also alienates those within the LGBTQ+ community who might be on the ace spectrum and also identify with one of the other letters. There’s asexual trans people, asexual gay people, asexual intersex people. We’re not these strange aliens infiltrating the community, we’re already there and always were.
I’ve been going to Pride festivals since I was fourteen. That was where I met asexual people for the first time, it was where I saw the asexual flag for the first time. I’ve always felt like I was part of it, because I am. It isn’t something I’m trying to be.
That’s why I try not to get involved in the discourse or the debate about whether asexual people are part of the LGBTQ+ community or not. It isn’t a debate, it’s just a fact.
- Jacket Studio FCLX
- Top & Trousers ray chu studios
- Shoes Natacha Marro
What blindspots do you think exist in the present fashion industry? What could it do to work on them?
I think there’s a lot of blindspots in the fashion industry, including some safeguarding ones and sustainability issues. But since we’re on the topic of representation, I’ll focus more on that. I think that the fashion industry fell into the habit of using diversity as a gimmick and a marketing tool a while ago and they still haven’t gotten out of that. I feel like inclusion within the fashion industry has never really felt genuine. I get it that it’s capitalism so maybe we should expect that but we can expect better fine to ask for more.
How much have the catwalks changed, really? Why are the girls still so incredibly young? Why are they nearly all the same size? Why is a modelling agency’s example of diversity having two black models and ten white blonde models, and why do the black models have to be either incredibly dark-skinned or racially ambiguous when the white models can be of
any shade? Why are the ‘curve’ boards so small? Why aren’t make-up artists being trained to work on darker complexions? Why can’t the hairstylists do afro hair? Where are the models with disabilities? Why aren’t the people working behind the scenes more diverse? Why aren’t more POC designers being uplifted in the same way as white European designers?
I think the only way to drive real change is to diversify the people working in the industry and if those buying the products made it clear that they don’t support brands that aren’t inclusive, no matter how cute the products are. People switching from Victoria’s Secret to Savage x Fenty changed the standard. That kind of thing could happen again. You need designers who will take risks and people who will support it.
What does it mean to you to exist as a proud Black ace-aro woman? Do you think it’s important to highlight how those two sides of your identity intersect?
It’s really important for me to highlight those intersections. Those intersections, and the fact that they’re so rarely represented, is how I got into activism in the first place. I couldn’t help but notice that the people who usually represented asexuality, where amplified the most in the media and by the ace community, were white. Not only did that make me feel more alienated in the ace community, it made it harder for people to believe that I was asexual. So it’s always been an important part of my experience. It’s always impacted the way people perceive me and my sexuality.
There are a lot of Black ace people out there, but we don’t fit the ‘image’ that people have – or want to have – of asexuality because we’re probably the most hypersexualised demographic in the world. Being Black impacts the way my activism. I’ve lost opportunities because people in the media don’t think that I seem asexual enough to represent asexuality on their platform. They don’t think I make sense as an asexual Black person. And when I do get the opportunity, the reaction I get from white audiences can be starkly different and blatantly racist compared to what white activists get. It’s very much the same when I speak about aromanticism as well.
Racism is also an issue within the ace community, of course. White people tend to be more comfortable identifying as asexual and they tend to relate more to people who look like them. I’ve been stereotyped the same way as I have in other non-ace white spaces, and I’ve experienced unambiguous racism from white asexual people before. Even now, it makes it hard to feel comfortable in a space I should feel safe in. The only way I can really deal with that it by trying to raise awareness for that issue, because sometimes sexual minorities forget to check themselves. Using me as the token black girl or the symbol of aro/ace community’s racial diversity is pretty useless if the racism within those communities isn’t tackled.
How has lockdown and social distancing affected your activism? Do you think the move to digital activism has helped with exposure for the ace cause?
I think that the ace community is particularly well-adapted to digital activism because our community really came to be because of the internet. While asexuality has always existed, so much of our foundation, our spaces, or culture, our language and our ideas were born online. A lot of our activism has been digital and asexual people are unfortunately used to not encountering each other offline – because it’s statistically less likely – so there wasn’t much to adapt to in that sense.
That was why I’ve always tried to bring my activism offline as well – I think it’s important for people to see members of their community outside of the internet. We were just getting to a place where we were having more IRL ace spaces, so the pandemic forced us to take some steps backwards. The most fun part of my job was getting to visit a variety of places and spend time connecting with different people face-to-face. that transitioned almost entirely to Zoom in the pandemic but we still managed to make progress.
We took our conferences online; I hosted the International Asexuality Conference 2021 online. We planned International Asexuality Day during the pandemic in 2020. It was quite good for allowing us to reach a wider range of people, as not everyone can attend offline, regional spaces. One downside I really noticed was an increase in online acephobia – the consequence of people spending more time online, encountering unfamiliar ideas, and being so anxious in lockdown. It’s showed me that there’s still a lot of work to do. It’s the price of exposure.