Happy LGBTQIA+ History month! I was lucky enough to have the pleasure of speaking with Yasmin Benoit, asexual model and activist. Yasmin is witty, incisive and passionate. In the interview we chat about a range of topics from Yasmin’s guilty pleasures, what it was like growing up, asexuality and media representation, being sexualised and why Twitter is truly the ghetto and hell rolled into one. You can check out our interview below.
Please note that this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Note trigger warning: molestation and abuse and ableist slurs are referenced in the interview.
Describe yourself in 3 words?
YB: I’m really freaking weird.
What’s your favourite comfort food? Or one of your favourites?
YB: Ah, tic tacs the basic ones I take them everywhere. Every time someone sees me, I always have tic tacs and a Capri Sun tropical flavour that’s my carry around go-to. They’re very practical, especially for wearing lipstick. When you don’t want to carry a bottle you’ve got a little straw.
Are you a TV/book person? What are you currently reading or watching or taking in as media consumption?
Um, I’m not really watching anything. I’m not very good at paying attention to TV shows consistently. But I’m reading a book on The Romanovs because I’m into Russian history for some reason. It’s really pretty as well as golden. So that’s what I’m reading.
[YB: Holds up to the camera a turquoise and golden paperback version of The Romanovs 1613–1918, a 2016 history book by Simon Sebag Montefiore]
Um, yeah, it’s quite thick.
What is a guilty pleasure of yours? Aside from miniature Capri Suns?
YB: Um, I do feel guilty about the extent to which I play Sims 4. Actually, no, I think if I had to pick something guilty, my like, very relaxing thing [that] I like to do is to play the Bratz video games on my PS2 that came out in 2005 it’s very soothing. To play like childhood video games where you know what’s gonna happen and you know how to win. Yeah, those kinds of video games, that kind of don’t stress me. I don’t like stressful games.
Do you have any pet peeves, and it can be related to anything. So, for example I don’t like the sound of people eating.
YB: That’s literally my pet peeve. I’m so sensitive to that noise. It drives me crazy. I hate when I’m eating with people and they’re like [YB: makes a mock sound of someone chewing aggressively] and I’m like argh.
ON SCHOOL LIFE, GROWING UP AND DEFINITIONS
Tell me a bit about you. What was young Yasmin like, what were your likes, your dislikes? What was it like growing up?
YB: I am very, very, very similar to how I am now. I play the same video games. As I do now. I was very much a kind of loner non-conformist who was very into history. I was obsessed with Green Day. And like Marilyn Manson, and like all that kind of music, and I wasn’t very popular, and I didn’t care. And I just wanted to dress like Avril Lavigne and play with my Bratz dolls and watch WWE. I was that kid.
So taking you back to that primary school age. Like what was that like for you? Because I think around well, quite young, quite a lot of non-ace people begin to experience attraction or crushes or have interests in whatever their orientation is. What was that like for you?
YB: Well, that’s kind of when I noticed that I wasn’t like [everyone else], in Year Six. I just remember when we came back off from the summer holidays and everyone was just acting weird. I feel like prior to that everyone would just be doing things like skipping and fast cradle and playing with basketballs and all that kind of innocent stuff. And then next thing you know, girls are like fighting over boys like hair pulling and people are going out with each other, and they fancy each other. And I’m like, where are we going? I don’t understand.
What does this even mean? And it just felt like drama. It seemed like effort. I was like, I assume whatever thing has just afflicted all of you will afflict me at some point. But I was like, I’m not encouraging this because it looks like effort. So I wasn’t particularly concerned. But I was so annoyed by everybody in general that I went to an all girls school after that.
Tell me a bit about that. What was it like going to an all girl school ?
YB: Yeah, the whole girls’ school plan thing backfired, I would say for the first few years. You’re just like, you’re so small. Everyone’s so big. You kind of got to 14 and you’re in Year Eight and everyone’s comfortable.
Then it got weird everyone was so horny in the school and there were no boys. So it was 2009 so this was Twilight peak, Jonas Brothers peak, like Metro Station, Kerrang! Magazine. So everyone was either obsessed with Twilight characters. Or having a favourite Jonas brother, Bring Me the Horizon. Yeah, anime characters or any boy that will pass the school no matter how mediocre they were. Honestly, I remember once N Dubz came to our school if you remember. [I interject in disbelief about girls throwing themselves at Dappy and Frazer – very cringe] Yeah they came to school. And it was like a scene out of I Am Legend when they’re trying to escape.
Also, the whole rumour that at all girl schools girls hook up with each other – [they] totally do. So, it was like, very obvious that I was just not into it. And that’s when people noticed and then started, making inquiries, and it wasn’t something I cared about. I was like, I have bigger fish to fry, but everyone else was kind of like. Okay, so what’s wrong with you? What’s the deal? And then I was like, Oh, God, is there a deal? Should I be here? Should I be thinking about it? Should I be trying to work this out?
So did it make you want to? Were you at all curious? Because people were curious about your non-engagement with the whole fanfare of burgeoning sexuality? Or were you just kind of like, ah, I’m into what I’m into?
YB: I mean that’s what I was trying to do. But I kind of didn’t have much of a choice because it was like, every single day people would quiz me. And people thought I was gay. Or people thought I got abused as a child, or people thought I was like, mentally slow. And it was like such a daily thing, or we’d be sitting in like, ICT, and someone would turn the computer to me and just show me a random vagina. And I’m like, how did you even get this on our secure system? And people [would] find a way to get explicit content and then just throw it in my face and be like, how do you feel? And I’m like, I know what a vagina looks like I have one! It was such a daily thing that after a while you’re kind of like, are they onto something? Am I missing something? I must be missing something. Everyone is saying it like it’s a given like people said I got molested so often that I started to think was I? And I was like, looking at my family members, like, have I missed something? Because people can forget and repress stuff. But I didn’t forget, I wasn’t. But I was kind of like did I? ‘cause everyone’s saying this. Um, so yeah, I kind of had to just navigate that. But if it wasn’t for other people, I really wouldn’t [have] cared.
So then, when did you stumble onto the terms like asexuality or like aromanticism was it much later?
YB: It wasn’t that much later in comparison to other people. In hindsight, it was pretty early, I mean, I was like 15. So quite quickly, and it was only thanks to one of those ongoing sexuality quizzes, which I was constantly given. While I was minding my own business. I think I was getting something out of my locker? And then the questions were: so are you straight? Are you gay? And I was like, um, I think I’m straight, but I don’t like guys. I didn’t know how else to put it. I know that I don’t like girls. And I was like, No, I don’t like anybody. And then someone said maybe you’re asexual or something. I was like, okay, I’ll whip out my slide-y Samsung. And I’ll Google this. And then I did and I was like, hmm, that sounds kind of about right. Okay, I guess there’s a word, shame no one else knows or cares [about] what it is. But it’s I guess there’s a word.
How did you feel once you kind of had the word? This is me, assuming you correct me if I’m wrong. Was it like I now have a label for this thing so, if people want to ask me, I can just say, yeah, this is what it is. Google it.
YB: I was like, okay, I have a word. But then I was also like, no one else knows or cares about this? So, it really wasn’t actually that helpful. Also, I was kind of thinking, yeah, the internet says that, but the internet says a lot of things. How do I know that someone on Tumblr didn’t just make that up? I mean, it’s not like I’ve met other asexual people really, enough to kind of gauge like, what the community was actually like, I thought it could just be a bunch of like, total weirdos. And, I’m weird, but it could be like, seriously weird. The point where I’m like, I don’t think you guys are asexual. I think you’ve just got issues, and we’ve just thought of a nicer word for it. So I was at the time, I was kind of like, I know that there’s a word but I’m not entirely sure how comfortable I feel using it. Because I don’t know anything aside from anonymous posts on the internet by people whose faces I can’t even see. So yeah, that was kind of my take on it at the time.
ASEXUALITY AND ITS INCLUSION IN THE QUEER COMMUNITY
Speaking of the Internet, and your amazing campaign, #ThisIsWhatAsexualLooksLike, talk to me a bit about that, how you started it and why?
YB: Yeah, the hashtag. And it kind of came from, like a literal response to people saying you don’t look asexual to me. And it was also a way to give the agency back to asexual people. So, we can represent ourselves and also have a source so that when you actually want to see asexual people, not their favourite emojis, or their favourite avatars, or like, all those kind of things, you can actually see people.
Because that was one of the things that I noticed, when I would be on social media trying to find out what is this community, you can find a lot of blocks of text, but you can’t see many faces. And I think that it’s quite a unique experience for the asexual community, where you could literally go through life and not meet another openly asexual person.
I mean, I was lucky since I’d met a few before…I met like two, at Pride. But other than that, I wasn’t like really enough of a human sample. So, I thought that it would be helpful for people to just be able to actually see faces. This is what people look like, this is where they live, and this is what they’re into and this is how they express themselves. Yeah, and then that kind of became a thing. And I have a series on Qwear Fashion that I write called: This is What Asexual Looks Like, where I interview asexual people about like their journeys, their experiences and their self-expression. And yeah, and there’s also an Instagram page for it when people like to submit photos and stuff, which is cute and cool, [although] I don’t run it.
How would you describe asexuality, and then aromanticism? I know that they are two distinct things often used interchangeably —people should stop doing that.
YB: Yeah, so being asexual means experiencing little to no levels of sexual attraction, and being aromantic is the same thing but for romantic attraction. So, there are aromantic people who aren’t asexual and asexual people who aren’t aromantic. So, you can still feel romantic attraction as an asexual person. Well, I can’t, but others can. And then there are aromantic people who still experience sexual attraction. So that’s kind of what it means.
And while we’re still talking about it, obviously AZ Mag is a queer publication, and I think they do amazing work at trying to spotlight every element of the community. But, how have you felt being like ace person, within the queer community?
YB: I feel like my experience in real life and my experiences online are weirdly different. So, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to actually have experiences in real life. Some asexual people, if you’re like living in the middle of nowhere, then you probably have, no queer interactions whatsoever. But we have Pride in Reading, and we also have London Pride. I mean, I started going to Pride when I was 14 the first time was by accident, I went to my local park and there it was. I was like, there’s rainbows! What is this? And then I was like actually, I’m into it. Then I saw an asexual flag there, and that’s where I met asexual people for the first time. So I’ve been going like every year until last year, I’ve been to London Pride twice.
But when I went to Black Pride it was so weird because I’ve never seen so many black people in one place in the UK. That was my thing because Reading we have some, but we don’t have that many. I was like this is surreal, like [it feels like] I’m in the Caribbean. But I liked it, we were in like Hackney or something like that.
I liked the vibe of having stools and then the stage because that’s kind of like what Reading Pride is like. I’m into it, and the food is good and the music is familiar. So yeah, it was fun, I took some ace people that I met there. So yeah, in real life, if people think I’m not supposed to be there no one says it to me.
BEING ACE ONLINE
YB: Wow, like in real life. I look like a black female version of The Crow. So no one’s approaching me or questioning my decisions.
But then, I literally speak at an LGBT conference. And then I’ll post the picture online. And then I’ll have people in the comments saying ‘you’re not part of the community, stop trying to sit with us’ and I’m like, I was a paid invited VIP guest. Do you think I’m trying? I’m not trying. I’m just there. And it’s weird, but I only joined Twitter in 2019. And then was when I kind of became more aware of the extent of the debate and like, vitriol behind the debate, because unless you spend that much time on social media, or you’re actually hanging out with people often, which I don’t, you probably won’t notice. I remember when I first joined the website, there was this weird thing where people would like, you know, how you can group message people? People would do group messages with a title saying like, oh, ‘ace people’ or ‘ace support’ with little hearts or whatever. I click it is like, oh, this is like a fan adding me to something. And then you click it and it would be a bunch of like trolls from within the communities sending pictures of people covered in feces. Like you get one, literally [people] sending really weird like pornographic got feces fetish pictures. Just to like, freak us out. I think anyone would be freaked out about that. I don’t think that’s a uniquely ace thing to be like eww.
I was going to ask you what some of the big challenges that like asexual and aromantic people are facing, clearly being sent pictures, obscene images — WTF?
YB: This is why I didn’t join Twitter until 2019. And then I joined it. I was like, oh, I see why I shouldn’t have joined the site. I think some of the challenges we have are partially down to just like the lack of visibility, awareness, and the representation, lack of inclusion, like in education, and we’re medicalised like a lot of other orientations. I mean, experiencing low levels of sexual desire is categorised in ISD in the DSM as a mental disorder. I think in the American one it now says unless you’re asexual, but unless, you know, that word, or the person diagnosing you knows that, then you’re probably more likely to get given medication you don’t need. So yeah, that’s something that’s happened to people I know. And, I think that it’s kind of the lack of education and lack of visibility, I think is what adds to [the fact that there is] so much of the misinformation going around. But then at the same time, whenever we do have like, a visible moment, people that don’t know anything about asexuality still have a lot to say. Like, I remember when, the people from Nickelodeon, I think they did it for Pride, and they posted SpongeBob, but everyone assumed SpongeBob is gay for some reason. I never assumed he was gay, ‘cause it’s a sponge. But apparently, he’s asexual. They clarified that. And I was like, well, it makes sense. He’s a sponge…
I mean, I wouldn’t have assumed any sexuality onto a sponge. But then people were really mad about it. And that kind of just happens a lot. It’s like whenever there’s any kind of remote thing where it’s [asexuality] a part of a conversation, people get mad. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword. Because I know that if people spoke about it more, I think the same thing that kind of like happened to the trans community would happen to us. So, when it becomes part of a public conversation, next thing you know, it gets very, very messy. So yeah, it’s a slight blessing, but it’s also a total curse, because people have to live with being completely invisible.
MEDIA REPRESENTATION AND BEING A MODEL
I was gonna ask you this question about media representation because we’re talking about soaps before — Emmerdale, which you don’t watch, has an asexual character in it — Liv.
YB: I don’t watch but I do know that they had a character who is asexual, I’d be lying if I said [can] I relate, but I was like, that’s cute. I can’t relate to your country white girls, who represent asexuality on every TV show.
I was going to ask you about that. As a black woman, how do you feel about representation because I was happy that they[ Emmerdale] were doing this, but also like, come on, man.
YB: Most people Emmerdale are white so I’m like, alright, I got it. I mean, [but] that’s probably one of the only characters on any kind of British show. And it’s yeah, it’s cute. I’m sure, I know that people do relate. But I’m not a teenage white girl in the countryside. So I don’t, but I was like, yeah, I mean, it’s cute. I don’t think she’s aromantic though.
[The character isn’t she has a boyfriend/love interest]
I can’t really relate to it but then I don’t relate to most [shows]. And I’ve never have done, I kind of got used to not relating to anything. I’m not dependent on it personally for my own validation. But I was like, okay, we have something on. Yeah, of course, it’s going to be that! [laughs] Like in Sex Education where we have that really good four minutes in season two. [I interject saying that I don’t remember this]
YB: Exactly! It was a ginger girl. In season two, episode four, look real close, you’ll see her. And she had a scene where she talks to the pretty blonde lady [Gillian Anderson] about being ace. She has like a quotable line and then that was a story. Um, so yeah, we had that. Ginger girl, look real close, and don’t stop to get a drink and you’ll see it [laughs].
Is she to any degree lacking in empathy or kind of questionably sociopathic? Or just not very nice? [OO: big sigh, yes] Yeah, I thought so, because that’s how it goes! Any sort of character that has asexual tendencies they’re total Voldermorts. Yeah, they lack social skills or have questionable morals, or no empathy. This then manifests in them not being able to form proper connections and this then means that they are “asexual”. That’s usually the trope.
BEING SEXUALISED AND BRINGING AWARENESS
What’s it like being a lingerie model and being asexual, how has that experience been for you?
YB: It’s been fine, it’s not like a personal conflict of interest for me. I ended up doing lingerie because I have D cups and that’s just how it works. I don’t have the physique to be doing catwalks or anything but I can fill out a bra [laughs]. So I ended up going that way… recently I noticed I’ve been getting a lot more lingerie than fashion stuff I used to get a lot more fashion stuff. I like lingerie. I think it’s cute.
I think people think that when you’re shooting it, it’s a sexualised experience but it’s all very practical. No one is really near you. The photographer is like five metres away shooting so it’s not actually a very sexualised experience, but I think it confuses people when they see the imagery.
I, personally, did not realise how much people place fantasies or assumptions on models…I don’t walk through the lingerie section of M&S and see a model’s [picture] and go ‘oh yeah, I know her’ and make assumptions on their lifestyles but apparently, people do! Therefore, when people find out I’m asexual they’re like ‘well why do you look like that?’, ‘why are you doing this?’. It’s like it’s a picture for a brand, do you think everyone in the Burger King advert likes Burger King? Obviously, it’s a job! But it’s [also] been helpful because, one, I think people think I became an activist and then took my clothes off for the drama. When actually I was already doing the modelling and thought I’m not going to stop doing it or tone it down to fit a preconceived idea. I also, think it’s helpful because people do infantilised asexual people and they tend to leave us out of conversations relating to sexuality. But, I think because people see my image as being sexualised I get included in a bit more and I get to dispel those misconceptions in more sex-positive spaces.
It’s one of those things where if I wasn’t asexual it would not be an issue. I know that because before I said I was asexual, everyone was like oh hot, whatever. Then it changed when they find out I am asexual. Even if it’s just a picture of me not even in lingerie. I’ve posted a picture on Twitter where I am wearing high-waisted jeans and a slightly rolled up band t-shirt and a leather jacket, and there are like people going, ‘you’re touching your hair that’s very sexual! You’re wearing lipstick, that’s very sexual, I can almost see your belly button – you’re not asexual!’. So, I’m like it’s pretty much just anything at this point, if I am an existing human woman, that’s not asexual because you just can’t compute that. I think people almost use lingerie modelling as a scapegoat to kind of justify the feelings they already had.
Why can’t people stay out of grown folks’ business? Why do they feel the need to be so intrusive?
YB: It’s strange! But I feel like because our society places such a strong emphasis on sexuality, when people say well why are you talking about it you’re making it a big thing. I’m not. It’s like, for example, you don’t eat bread and everyone else in the world 24/7 eats bread it’s going to become a thing that you’re the person who doesn’t eat bread. It doesn’t matter if it’s a significant detail [to you] or not if that’s something that is deemed as important by others it’s going to be a thing that you don’t do it. So, that’s what I’m saying I didn’t make everyone pay attention to sexuality, I didn’t make the rules – hate the game don’t hate the player! [laughs] I’m just reacting to the climate that we are in where sexuality is a big deal and we talk about it, and we analyse it. Where we are now, fortunately [we are] discussing all types of orientations but we are leaving one out, and I’m just trying to fill the void. But that’s not me making it a thing!
ON ACE HISTORY
Given it’s coming up to LGBTQ+ History month do you have anything you want to say about the history of asexuality?
YB: Historically, asexuality hasn’t been documented not to say that it didn’t exist but it wasn’t something that people really put a word to. Especially considering how religious this country was as well as many other European countries. You weren’t supposed to be blatant in your sexuality anyway. It’s definitely hard to go back historically, there are some people who study this stuff who say you can read between the lines. But I like things to be obvious [laughs] so I can’t attribute it to anyone specific, because I don’t like to debate historical figures’ sexualities. But in terms of ace history, I feel like our documented history only goes back the past 40- 50 years really, so in terms of figures they’re all kind of recent. I think David Jay’s one of the more well known asexual people because he founded AVEN [Asexual Visibility and Education Network] the website that has a forum that’s pretty popular.
HOPES AND EXCITEMENT FOR ASEXUAL AWARENESS
What are you excited about?
YB: I mean the way the last year has happened, it has not gone to plan if you’d asked me last year I was excited to have more real life things, but now nothing happens in real life! One thing that will happen that I’m excited about is International Asexuality day starting annually on April 6th! That’s exciting. We’ve had activists from all over the world to plan this thing. Oh! Aro week is coming up — aromantic awareness week is coming up after Valentine’s Day.
Before we go tell me about the research that you’re doing?
YB: I am on an asexuality research board at California State University although I’ve never been to California hopefully when COVID is over I can actually visit — that would be fun. That would be awesome!
So, we are investigating asexual relationships and family relationships, we are rounding up participants for that. There’s a link in my Instagram bio for a form you can fill out. But we will be transcribing and coding that data, there’s definitely a gap in asexuality being documented in academia – I didn’t get that Master’s degree for nothing!
Do you have any advice for people who are questioning their identity?
YB: I always say that your sexual orientation, your sexual identity, your sexual preference is not the most important thing about you. It is one element of who you are, most people’s sexualities do not fit into one specific box no matter how much they might try and make it. You don’t need to fit into a specific box either so don’t worry too much about it, if you find a word and you feel like it works for you feel free to use it. Don’t worry if you don’t fit the word, the word is meant to fit you, and stay weird you only live once!
WHERE YOU CAN FIND YASMIN
Twitter – @theyasminbenoit
Instagram – @theyasminbenoit
Qwear Fashion – This is What Asexual Looks Like
SUPPORT THE ACE MOVEMENT
- CSU participant study into asexual relationships – https://csusb.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_6mVhoni0PtT0lBr
- Feb 21–27 – Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week – an annual, international event meant to spread awareness and acceptance of aromantic spectrum identities find out more.
- April 6 – International Asexuality Day – a coordinated worldwide campaign for ace advocacy, celebration, education and solidarity, which will take place annually on April 6th find out more.