It’s not unusual for people to not know what “asexuality” means.
When friends talked about how they were sexually attracted to their partners, I had always pretended I understood. But the reality was that I never felt that way about anyone, even in long-term relationships with people I truly, deeply loved.
As I started to question how my way of feeling attraction differed from that of my friends, I discovered there were others like me: asexual people, or “aces” for short. For me, attraction is about aesthetics — personality, conversation, style, appearance, and attitude. I found that many other aces feel that way as well. According to the Asexual Visibility & Education Network, asexuality is a spectrum of sexual orientations and identities, all of which lack sexual attraction at some level.
“Asexuals are fully capable of being physically intimate and enjoying it,” an AVEN spokesperson told me via email. “Being asexual simply means you don’t feel sexual attraction. There are different types of attraction, not all of them sexual. Aces can feel desire or attraction romantically, platonically, sensually, among others.”
If you’re finding this difficult to understand, imagine how it feels to be on the other side of it. The world often treats us like we should inherently experience and understand sexual attraction, but some of us just … don’t. It can be confusing, especially when you’re young, because the subject of how we experience attraction is complicated and often conflated with sex, a complex subject which many parents and teachers have difficulty discussing in itself.
Many of us learn about asexuality after years of second-guessing ourselves, of trying to be something we aren’t. For me, it was such a relief when I finally understood my own orientation. It freed me to become more intimate with people important to me.
Knowing that asexuality is not a commonly understood orientation, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see how it is represented in Death Stranding.
Death Stranding’s ‘Asexual World’ fundamentally misunderstands asexuality
In the week of its release, a screenshot from Death Stranding started circling on social media featuring a bit of in-game world-building text titled “An Asexual World.”
This is what it says:
Records suggest that the widespread aversion towards physical contact and intimacy was a phenomenon that had been observed even before the Death Stranding. One contemporary report, for example, details the increasing popularity of the “sexless lifestyle” among young people. A growing percentage of the younger cohort were self-identifying as asexual, claiming to be incapable of feeling desire or attraction. Accordingly, such individuals were less likely to have children or engage in sexual activity.
It should be noted, however, that many other unique sexual identities were being recognized during this period, such as demisexuals, who are incapable of sexual attraction without an emotional connection, and panromantics, who profess an attraction unrestricted by sex or gender — albeit one not necessarily sexual in nature.
One theory posits that the Stranding accelerated the proliferation of these sexualities. In a terrifying new world in which BTs roam and annihilation is an everyday occurrence, people have grown reticent to form emotional connections with others.
Although there has been no measurable decrease in human fertility, the birth rate has nevertheless dropped dramatically. Incidence of sexual harassment and assault have also seen a sharp decrease, which seems to suggest that sex could not be further from our minds, for better or for worse.
I must preempt myself by admitting that I do not have any empirical data with which to support the following claim. That said, it is my contention that, based on the aforementioned observations and others, the vast majority of the population could be categorized as asexual.
I cringed while reading the text. There is a lot wrong with this description of asexuality.
I asked Hideo Kojima’s company, Kojima Productions, what relevance the content of this letter has to the narrative of the game, but received no reply. I also got my hands on the Japanese version of the letter and can confirm, as a fluent Japanese speaker, that it is almost word-for-word identical to the English version. This wasn’t an issue of translation.
It’s also not a small thing: A lot of people may have heard the term “asexual” in the past few years, but may not understand what it means, or even that they may themselves be asexual. A well-written letter in a mainstream, popular video game may seem like it offers a few answers, or at least a solid conversation about the topic.
But a game like Death Stranding isn’t a great place to engage with sexual education, and its content may actually spread misinformation about asexuality rather than educating people about it, or just avoiding the subject altogether.
What this letter gets wrong, and why it matters
We should be clear that this letter is meant to be a part of the fictional world of Death Stranding, so it obviously shouldn’t be automatically taken as a comment on the real world. However, the choice of the word “asexual,” and the way it is tied to behaviors that are not actually related to asexuality, is careless.
Among the misconceptions the “Asexual World” text contains are those that misrepresent how aces feel about sex, intimacy, and desire.
It begins by going on about “aversion towards physical contact and intimacy” and the “popularity of the sexless lifestyle.” But as described above, aces can enjoy physical contact and intimacy, and many happily engage in sex. The note defines asexual as “incapable of feeling desire or attraction” but again, aces do feel desire and attraction, just not sexual attraction.
One of the more egregious issues with “An Asexual World” is its third paragraph, where it talks about “the proliferation of these sexualities,” as if external forces guide who we are or aren’t attracted to.
“Just like any sexual orientation, asexuality can’t be spread from one person to another — even efforts to forcibly sterilize people have been found to have minimal impact on attraction,” an AVEN spokesperson told me. “While human sexuality can be highly fluid and subject to change, sexual orientations simply aren’t transmittable to one another, even in the case of large-scale societal change. The current ‘rise’ of asexuality, for example, has more to do with visibility efforts than individual identification.”
While it may seem like asexual orientations or identities are “new” and “proliferating,” even in our world, the reality is that, thanks to access to information about asexuality online and via outreach, asexual people are coming to understand themselves better. Identifying as asexual is about embracing the way that you feel attraction as a part of who you are, not something that stems from “growing reticent to form emotional connections with others,” as Death Stranding describes it.
You may be hearing the term more often because the folks who have always been asexual are hopefully finding it easier to learn about their sexuality, meet others who feel similarly, and talk about how they’d like to express the their sexuality in a healthy way.
That sort of support and information doesn’t create asexual people; it just gives people who may have already been asexual a better framework to think about something they’ve always felt. We’re not reacting to alienation or a lack of emotional connection — we just have a different way of experiencing attraction. Our emotional connections can be very strong, and we desire connection to others just as much as those with other sexual orientations. Once you realize that the difference is in the expression of love, but not in the emotion itself, asexuality will hopefully become easier to understand.
Getting asexuality right is a challenge worth facing
In the roughly 66 hours I’ve spent playing Death Stranding start to finish since seeing the screenshot, I haven’t seen any direct connection between the “Asexual World” text and the rest of the game. The story is essentially about “reconnecting” people who’ve become isolated from each other in a post-apocalyptic world, and this letter may have been an attempt to connect that theme with sexuality in some way. But if that’s the case, the note misses the mark by a wide margin.
Some asexual people may experience conflicts in their relationships because sex might not be important to them, but it doesn’t mean they don’t love their partners. In fact — even though it may be counterintuitive to folks who aren’t asexual — embracing their asexual orientation can enable aces to form stronger connections with friends and loved ones. Understanding how you experience attraction helps you look for a partner with similar needs, and can even help you be better equipped to articulate your feelings, desires, and struggles.
And again, being asexual doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t enjoy sex or the emotional connection it can bring. How any single asexual person feels about these things can vary, which is true of any sexual relationship. The first step toward navigating your own sexuality is understanding it and making peace with it, and that can be hard when there is so much bad information — like this in-game letter — out there.
Asexuality is about connection, not alienation. It shouldn’t be a prop used only to make your fictional world seem a little more dystopian to people who don’t understand what it means to be asexual, nor should it be used in world-building by people who may not understand the misinformation they’re spreading by doing so.
The good news is that gaming in general has multiple positive examples of asexuality. The AVEN team gave me a prime example: Mass Effect’s Salarians.
“Salarians are almost wholly asexual and manage to have a thriving society and powerful impact on the rest of the galactic community,” they said.
More recently, Obsidian Entertainment’s wonderful The Outer Worlds included an asexual companion character named Parvati. Parvati has struck a chord with players in general because she’s so relatable. But in addition, the game presents her sexuality as a natural part of who she is — something that makes her relationships different than most of the relationships of those around her, but not better or worse.
And if there’s one thing I want to get across to people who may be confused about asexuality, especially after Death Stranding, it’s this: Asexuality isn’t about disconnection. It’s not about needing a hero to help connect you to others, or a way to draw away from the world in times of stress or calamity.
Being asexual doesn’t mean I’m cut off from other people; it just means my emotional and physical life may be a little different than yours. Or maybe you’re just learning that you may be asexual yourself! It’s about wanting or needing different things from your relationships, and finding people who can provide those things in a healthy, supportive way, while also being able to make them feel more complete and treasured.
And that’s the most important thing in any relationship.