Outsiders in London

All photographs:  copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK


Melanie Sawyer

Some changes have been made to protect the sitter’s identity.

Age: 25

Born in Manchester, England

Father & Mother both born in England

Ethnic heritage / Father: Pakistani & Dutch / Mother: English


Melanie was born in Manchester and attended both primary and secondary schools locally.   Her father ran his own business and her mother was a housewife;  they were quite a conventional family.   Melanie had one younger sister and their childhood was certainly a happy one.   While Melanie did not excel at school initially, she later showed herself to be a bright student, taking her education seriously and becoming increasingly keen to advance herself and to secure a fulfilling professional career.   As a teenager, Melanie does not recall any major emotional storms but describes this time as a period of insecurity and self-discovery not in any way atypical for a young person at that age.  She did notice, however, that everyone around her seemed to be starting up relationships with the opposite sex, with some evidently going further as they discovered themselves as sexual beings.   “I remember clearly being most curious about sex,” recalls Melanie, “and like most teenagers, I made a point of reading up about the mechanics of it.   Of course, I also listened intently to friends’ stories and their bragging about sexual exploits.   Naturally, I was both fascinated and apprehensive;  what teenager isn’t?”

Melanie continues:  “I sort of wanted to follow the example of everyone else, and felt pressures from those all around me to do what they were doing, but deep down, I wasn’t really that interested, not ‘sufficiently driven’, you might say.”   Most teenagers are highly sensitive to how they are perceived, especially by their peers, and Melanie was no different in that respect.   She continues:  “I did try to participate in the ‘dating game’, but it felt rather as if I was putting on a show, a show that I was expected to perform in.”   Eventually, Melanie acquired a boyfriend; they were both 17, so the novelty of courting, of mutual tenderness, felt as nice and exciting as she had imagined it would.   That is, until they had sex.   “I realised then that I did not like it at all; it felt wrong; it was unpleasant and felt almost unnatural to me. I had no interest in it at all. From that moment on, I knew I did not wish to have my boyfriend’s sexual attentions any more.   While on the one hand, I felt validated - I now had a boyfriend and I was no longer seen as a ‘loser’ - on the other hand, I quickly realised that I neither liked nor enjoyed the sexual side of the relationship.   I just wanted to cuddle, to be tender, to caress, and to kiss.”  

Melanie wanted to be romantically involved but had no desire to take it any further, to have sex itself.  She enjoyed learning about sex, understanding how it fitted into people’s lives, how it affected and seemed to drive so many aspects of our society, but she soon realised that her interest was only theoretical, she had no interest in putting what she learned into practice.   Not surprisingly, these feelings were markedly at odds with those of the young women and men she mixed with and, inevitably, she started to feel almost an outsider.   “Of course, part of me thought and hoped that, this being my first time, my attitude towards sex might change with more experience.   I was still young, still in the process of getting to know myself, still trying to manoeuvre through the labyrinth of my teenage feelings.”   In her mind, Melanie felt she could empathise with someone who was homosexual, being expected to have sex with a partner of the opposite sex and finding the experience deeply unsatisfying, unpleasant even.   Asked if she thought sex would have been more satisfying if it had been with a woman, Melanie replies:  “This is the weird thing:  as they’re growing up, lots of people like me assume initially that they’re gay, because they don’t experience conventional sexual interest.   It is true that I found women visually attractive;  I even had crushes on women and fell in love with them.   But it was always clear in my mind that I was not interested in having sex with them.   It just took me longer to realise that I felt the same way about men.”

Still attached to her first boyfriend, Melanie went to Leicester University, to study the History of Art and, from time to time, they continued having sex.   However, this part of their relationship was something that she found it harder and harder to endure.   “Over time, he became very angry and resentful, asking me bluntly why I always seemed to try to avoid sex whenever I could.   The only answer I could offer was another question, this time to him:  ‘Why do you need to have sex?’   For him, it was the fulfilment of his physical desire for me and seemed the ultimate way of expressing his love;  to me, this was a wholly alien concept.   I wanted to show my love through our closeness, by kissing, with tenderness, and by telling him how I loved him.   Sex, for me, had nothing to do with love.  That was the fundamental difference between us and the reason why our relationship had to end.”

“I simply could not comprehend that the main, if not the only, way to express love was through sex, when there seemed to me so many other ways of doing it.   This divergence from what appeared to be the norm, in our highly sexualised society, certainly made me feel that I was most definitely an outsider.”   Asked how she coped with this growing awareness, Melanie recalls:  “Although I knew that there was nothing wrong with the way I was, I did accept that my reluctance to have sex would be likely to make any future relationships difficult, if not impossible.   At school, girls are taught in Sex Education classes that if you don’t want to have sex, just say ‘no’, and whomever you are with should respect that.   While knowing that I could always say ‘no’, it felt like I couldn’t say ‘no’ all the time.   I suspected that in order to sustain a relationship, I simply had to have sex in order for my partner to feel happy and fulfilled.   But the thought of having to go through with it filled me with total dread.”  

Still at the University and having separated from her first boyfriend, Melanie succeeded in keeping up a good social life and did get involved emotionally with other people.  “At one stage, I had this flirtation going on with a guy who was already in a relationship with someone else, a girlfriend he wanted to be sexually faithful to.   I found this situation very satisfactory, above all, because it was safe - there was no sexual pressure.   I could mess around with him, knowing that there was a safe frontier between us, and that felt good.   But of course things never stay the same;  our physical closeness grew and I came to the realisation that if I was ever to have a real relationship, I would have to sex again.   Or, if I refused to compromise, did that mean relationships were no longer an option for me?”

By that time, Melanie was 20.   She finished university with flying colours and was heading for what she hoped would be a successful professional career.   She was perfectly content to be single at that stage, enjoying her many platonic friendships, and came to the firm conclusion that unless she found someone like herself, someone who didn’t require sex as part of a romantic relationship, then she was happy to remain single.   “I knew that I could not be the only person who felt like this.   I had no name for my feeling;  I just knew that I simply couldn’t be the only person on earth who felt this way about sex.”

Then one day, during a visit to her local hairdressers, Melanie overheard a conversation which changed her life, a conversation about a guy who had apparently ‘taken himself out of the dating game’ because he had come to the conclusion that he was ‘asexual’ – he wasn’t interested in men or women.   “I felt frozen to my seat,” Melanie says, “with the sudden realisation that they could have been talking about me.   And I had heard this new word which described me perfectly - I was ‘asexual’!   I literally ran home from the hairdressers and put the word ‘asexual’ into my computer’s search engine;  what should come up but ‘The Asexual Visibility & Education Network (AVEN)’.   I immediately got on to their website and read the list of things that were described as defining asexuality and almost every single bullet point applied to me.”   Through this invaluable online resource, Melanie found that there were actually thousands of people around the globe calling themselves asexual, people just like herself, people who were not sexually attracted to either men or women.   “I joined AVEN immediately;  I no longer felt like an outsider;  a whole new community, a new world, had opened up for me.”

“Having discovered AVEN, I initially asked lots of questions, feeling a real urge to know more and connect with others.   Of course, I still harboured doubts and fears:  ‘Am I really asexual?   Will I ever change?’  But slowly, I learned that many people go through this early phase of doubting.   Then I started to meet other asexual people in my locality.  The first time I felt really scared, fearing that I might be meeting with weirdos from the internet, but the reality was a pleasant surprise:  the asexuals I met were people from all walks of life, ordinary ‘normal’ people.  I felt an instant connection, like I belonged.   I had finally found others like me, and it was incredible.”

On the AVEN message board, she had been chatting to a young man, another asexual, gradually discovering that they had many things in common.   Their relationship blossomed in the way that these things sometimes do and, quite soon, theirs became a romantic attachment.   “We fancied each other almost from the start,” says Melanie.   “From the first time we kissed, it all felt right.   We have been together now for over four years and while we love each other deeply and physically, that love is not expressed sexually.   Many people belittle my relationship as ‘merely friendship’, or as something naïve and innocent;  they don’t believe I can really feel or experience love if sex isn’t involved.   In the past, when a prospective partner has learned that I am asexual and do not desire them sexually, I have been accused of ‘faking my feelings’, even though my romantic feelings were genuine.”

“To be perfectly honest,” says Melanie, “I entered a relationship with another asexual fairly naively; I imagined that because we were both asexual, things would be straightforward.   But of course, asexual relationships are in most respects just like any other relationships, there are compromises to be made.  I am conscious that my partner is more physically affectionate than me, while I tend to be more emotional than physical;  this difference needs to be understood and managed so as not to become a strain.   We both have needs, emotions and desires and we have to learn how to share these to our mutual content.   But in the light of our being together, I do genuinely feel that asexual relationships have the potential to demonstrate that there is more to intimacy than sex.   I believe the asexual community as a whole has the ability to challenge the way society views human relationships – sex is not necessarily what defines a romantic relationship.  If sex can exist without love, then love can exist without sex. I think asexuality also demonstrates that you do not necessarily need a romantic relationship to feel emotionally fulfilled;  there are many asexuals out there who have no desire for a romantic partner, preferring to cultivate platonic relationships.  

Now 25, Melanie is working successfully in an auction house, studying to become a gemmologist.  “Personally, I don’t really consider myself an outsider anymore; what I am experiencing is ‘normal’ for me.   It is society that views me as the outsider, as if I am lacking something which is judged to be a vital part of the human experience.   More damaging still, asexuals are commonly viewed as defective, with a ‘condition’ that must be down to problems with hormones, physical dysfunction or something psychological. Upon ‘coming’ out, many asexuals are treated with sympathy, being reassured that there must be some way of ‘curing’ them.   Currently, asexuality is regarded by some health professionals as a sexual dysfunction and I very much resent being told that the only reason I am the way I am is because something is wrong.   It makes me seethe.   I believe that this is my sexual orientation and that I was born this way.”

Knowing that it is OK to be asexual has helped me to feel comfortable within my own skin.  I am a happier, more confident person these days.   I feel like it’s okay to be me, that I don’t have to live my life the way how society thinks I should in order to be happy.”   Personally, Melanie feels incredibly fortunate that she has found the asexual community and others like her, understanding that there are many asexuals living in isolation, and even more who are in relationships, enduring sex just to maintain partnerships or marriages, unaware that there are others like them.   She does accept, however, that the sense of being an outsider is understandably felt by all those who have yet to recognise within themselves that they might be asexual, and to discover that it is possible to live a happy life together with another person, without any need to have sex.  

Asked what she considers to be the advantages or disadvantages of being an asexual, Melanie comments:  “In my opinion, there is no advantage or disadvantage to being asexual.   I just get on with my life like anyone else.   However, I would never now engage in a relationship with anyone who was not asexual.   A sexual partner cannot provide what I need in a relationship and I cannot cater for their needs - neither party is at fault, it is just a fundamental incompatibility.   That makes my dating options incredibly limited, of course. I also find as an asexual that people often try to convince you that you must have been sexually abused to make you asexual, or that you haven’t met the ‘right person’ or are a ‘late bloomer’, as if one simply can’t be asexual by nature, that there has to be some terrible reason for it.”  

Being invited to consider whether she would choose not to be an asexual if she could, Melanie expresses quite clear views:  “Now, at the age of twenty-five, I feel very happy.   I have many asexual friends, I have a loving boyfriend, and life is good.  Some might say that I live in an asexual bubble, a microcosm, cut off in my own community, but I do not see it that way, I can communicate and reach out to many other asexuals all over the world, my life is full of possibilities now.   Someone isolated would inevitably feel differently.   If there were a pill you could take to rejoin the sexual community, I would refuse, over and over again.   I am happy the way I am.   Amongst my friends, I am so at ease with myself that I feel I would have nothing to gain;  indeed, I would have more to lose.”

Melanie chose to be photographed in an outfit she made for herself and which she wears for Pride marches & other agitprop events.  It incorporates the ‘asexual colours’ of black, grey, white and purple, together with asexual symbols, such as the Ace of Spades and a cake (an inside joke:  “I’d rather have a cake [than sex]”).   “I designed this outfit to confound many of the preconceived ideas people have about asexuals:  that we’re prudish, conservative, and somehow afraid of, or sickened by, sex and sexuality and that we don’t care about appearance or ‘looking sexy’ - because why would you, if you weren’t looking for sex?  I want to challenge those stereotypes.”  

In conclusion, Melanie observes:  “The asexual community is still young and still trying to forge an identity for itself, and while it has its place in both the straight and LGBT communities, it simultaneously belongs wholly to neither, existing as its own entity, somewhat isolated.   To society, the idea of asexuality is still new;  we are only just starting to talk about it as a sexual orientation, but it is important to talk about it, so people like me know that they’re not alone.   I am taking part in this project because I want people to know asexuality exists.   Ultimately, however, I am doing this because there may be someone out there, reading this, who recognises my story and realises that they too are asexual.  They will no longer feel alone;  they will no longer feel like an outsider.”  

Interview Date: 26th August 2013

Updated:  12th September 2013

To learn more about The Asexual Visibility and Education Network, go to:


Melanie is a secure, confident and happy asexual;  that is to say, she is an attractive young woman in a fulfilling relationship with her boyfriend, who is also asexual.   They have been together now for over four years and, though they love each other deeply and physically, their love is not expressed through sex.   Melanie has chosen to be photographed in an outfit she designed herself and which she wears for various agitprop events;  she wants to confound the preconceived ideas people have about asexuals, that they’re prudish, conservative, and somehow afraid of sexuality, and that they don’t care about their appearance.   Melanie wants to challenge these stereotypes.   She feels both different and normal and just because her feelings and experiences are different from other people’s, they shouldn’t be disregarded. ”

Photography: London 26th August 2013