Star Trek: Lower Decks is boldly going for asexual representation

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Lower Decks Seasons 1-2, particularly the episode Where Pleasant Fountains Lie.

This article deals with the subjects of sex and sexuality and may be uncomfortable for some readers.

Growing up asexual is difficult. We live in a world that seems to revolve around sex and sexuality much of the time, with an awful lot of music, art, and entertainment dedicated to relationships and to sex. Graphic depictions of sex on screen may be a relatively recent phenomenon, but even in the 1980s and 1990s sex was a frequent subject on television, in cinema, in music, and in practically every other form of media.

Even the arrival on the scene of more lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans characters in media didn’t bring much respite. Who people were having sex with changed, but the fact that they were having sex – and spent much of their time pursuing it in one form or another – had not. The growth in LGBT+ representation in media has been fantastic (though it is still far from perfect) but speaking for myself as an asexual person, it didn’t always succeed at resonating with me. I still felt alone, that my perspective wasn’t being represented.

The asexuality flag or asexual pride flag. You might’ve seen it before – it’s permanently flown in the upper-right corner here on the website.

In the few “sex education” lessons that I was given at school, there was no mention of the LGBT+ community, let alone asexuality. Sex was something that “everyone” had and wanted to have, and between the depictions and talk of sex in all forms of art and media through to peer pressure from my adolescent peer group, it was inescapable. The only people who might be celibate were monks, nuns, Catholic priests, and losers who couldn’t find a date. That was the way sex and sexuality appeared at the time I was discovering my own.

In the time and place where I was growing up, away from the more liberal and cosmopolitan cities, even being homosexual was considered something abhorrent, let alone being trans, non-binary, or asexual. People didn’t understand what any of those terms meant because they’d never been exposed to it, and even being suspected of being a “poof” or a “bum boy” was enough to send the bullies into a frenzy.

The new “progress” LGBT+ pride flag.

The process of “normalising” – and gosh do I hate that term – asexuality can only begin when asexuality is visible. There may be a handful of asexual activists both within and outside of the broader LGBT+ movement, but generally speaking the level of visibility remains low. Without that visibility, understanding and acceptance can’t follow. The same is true of any minority group – including transgender and non-binary.

It’s for this reason that I get so irritated when I hear people talking about “too many” gay characters on television, or how “in-your-face” LGBT+ representation feels. It’s like that specifically because these groups have been so underrepresented for such a long time, and by making LGBT+ depictions more overt and obvious, it raises awareness and draws attention to the LGBT+ movement and the quest for acceptance within society as a whole.

Greater representation of LGBT+ people is still needed.

Since I went public with my asexuality, I’ve started displaying the asexual pride flag right here on the website. You can see it in the upper-right corner both on PC and mobile devices. I do that deliberately with the express intention of raising awareness and pointing out that asexual people exist in all areas of life. My chosen subjects here on the website are entertainment – Star Trek, video games, sci-fi and fantasy, among others. But there are asexual people in all walks of life and with as broad a range of interests as everyone else.

Being open about my asexuality was a choice that I made in part because of the lack of representation and lack of awareness many folks have of asexuals and asexuality. Even by offering my singular perspective on the subject in a small way in my little corner of the internet, I feel like I’m doing something to advocate for greater awareness and greater visibility, because without those things I fear that asexuality will never be understood. And without understanding it’s very hard to see a pathway to broader acceptance of asexuality in society.

If you’re interested to read a more detailed account of how I came to terms with my asexuality, you can find it by clicking or tapping here.

Title card for Where Pleasant Fountains Lie.

So we turn to Star Trek. As an adolescent dealing with some of these issues surrounding my sexuality, the Star Trek franchise – and other sci-fi and fantasy worlds – could offer an escape. Science fiction and fantasy tend not to be as heavily reliant on themes of sex as, say, drama or even comedies can be, and I think that may have been a factor in my enjoyment of Star Trek: The Next Generation during its original run.

Despite that, the Star Trek franchise is hardly nonsexual. Characters like Captain Kirk and Commander Riker are well-known for their many relationships, and episodes like The Naked Time and Amok Time, while never showing as much overt sexuality as some more modern shows, do reference the subject. Even characters who have proven popular in the asexual community – like Spock and Data – had sexual relationships. While the Star Trek franchise has been at the forefront of many battles for representation – famously showing the first interracial kiss and with episodes like Rejoined promoting LGBT+ issues – asexuality itself had never been overtly referenced in Star Trek.

Characters like Data have been talked about in an asexual context before.

Though the depiction of Lower Decks’ chief engineer Andy Billups wasn’t explicitly about asexuality, his story in Where Pleasant Fountains Lie presented the first significant analogy for asexuality in the Star Trek franchise – and one of the first ever on television, certainly the first that I’ve ever seen. In typical Star Trek fashion, the episode looked at the subject through a science fiction lens, with Billups’ unwillingness to have sex being tied to the medieval-spacefaring culture from which he came.

Star Trek has often done this. Rather than explicitly referencing a contemporary issue, writers will devise an in-universe comparison. The Doomsday Machine featured a planet-killing superweapon in an analogy about nuclear proliferation. In The Hands Of The Prophets told a story about Bajoran religion clashing with secular teaching in a story that was clearly about the creationism/evolution debate but that made no explicit references. Likewise we can say that Where Pleasant Fountains Lie is a story about asexuality – but one seen through a Star Trek filter.

The episode told a story about asexuality through a typical Star Trek lens.

As an asexual person watching the episode, I was floored. For the first time, a character in Star Trek shared my sexuality and feelings about sex. More than that, as the Hysperians’ plot to trick Andy Billups into having sex reached its endgame, the poor man looked so incredibly uncomfortable and ill at ease with what he was about to do. I’ve been there. I’ve been Andy Billups in that moment, and to see that portrayal was incredibly cathartic.

When I was fifteen I lost my virginity, succumbing to the pressure from my peer group and having talked myself into it. I thought that by doing so I could convince others – and myself – that I was “normal,” just like everyone else. Never having heard the term “asexual,” nor understanding that the way I felt about sex and genitalia was valid, I convinced myself that I must be the one who was wrong, that I was broken and that my sexuality simply did not exist as I now understand it. In that moment I felt a great deal of trepidation. This wasn’t simply the anxiety of one’s “first time,” but I was forcing myself to do something that I fundamentally did not want to do; something that disgusted and repulsed me.

I related to Billups so much during this sequence.

If you’re heterosexual, I guess a reasonable comparison would be having sex with a same-sex partner. Even if you could talk yourself into it, it wouldn’t feel right. And vice versa if you’re homosexual; having sex with an opposite-sex partner would feel fundamentally wrong. That’s the expression that I saw stamped on Andy Billups’ face in Where Pleasant Fountains Lie, and if I had looked in the mirror on that day in my mid-teens – or on any of the other occasions on which I talked myself into having sex with partners both male and female – I would have seen the exact same thing.

I believe that this is the power of representation. To truly see myself reflected in a fictional character has been an entirely new experience for me, and no doubt for other asexual folks as well. Lower Decks may be a comedy series, but this storyline has become one of the most powerful that I’ve seen in all of Star Trek. It was the first time I ever saw my sexuality represented on screen, and for as long as I live I will be able to go back to that moment and point it out to other people. There is finally an understandable, sympathetic metaphor for asexuality on screen.

Chief engineer Andy Billups: asexual icon!

As I stated in my review of Where Pleasant Fountains Lie, the depiction of Billups wasn’t perfect. There was a jokiness and a light-heartedness to elements of the story that clashed with the heavier themes that were present. But in spite of that, Billups’ story resonated with me. It’s an incredibly powerful moment to see any kind of asexual representation, and although there were jokes at Billups’ expense in the episode, he came across incredibly sympathetically. He even had his entire team cheering for him and chanting his name at the end – celebrating how he remained true to himself and didn’t have sex.

No asexual person should ever feel that they’re obligated to have sex. Sex education classes need to include asexuality alongside the rest of the LGBT+ spectrum so that asexual kids and teenagers can understand that the way they are is normal and valid. But education is only one thing that needs to change. Representation in all forms of media is exceptionally important too, and even a single depiction of a secondary character in one episode is already the best and most powerful asexual story that there has been in a long time – possibly ever. As more people become aware of asexuality and understand its place alongside heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality, and other sexual orientations, the stigma or prejudice against asexuals and asexuality that exists in society will – in time – decrease.

Whether intentional or not, Lower Decks has joined the conversation and brought asexuality to mainstream attention in a way that I’d never seen before. It’s now possible for me to point to Where Pleasant Fountains Lie to show anyone who’s interested to learn more about asexuality and to see it represented on screen. That opportunity didn’t exist before, and I’m incredibly grateful to Lower Decks for this episode, this character, and this powerful story.

Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2 is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States, and on Amazon Prime Video in the UK and around the world. The Star Trek franchise – including Lower Decks and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

I am asexual

This article deals with the sensitive topics of sexuality and sexual orientation and may be uncomfortable for some readers.

This is part one of a two-part series. You can find the following article by clicking or tapping here.

This has been surprisingly difficult to write. When I decided that I was going to take the opportunity presented by a new year to openly discuss my sexuality, I didn’t anticipate that getting the words to flow would be so difficult, but after six months and several failed writing attempts, here we are. If it weren’t for the fact that it’s Pride Month spurring me on, I daresay I wouldn’t have gotten this finished.

This is the first in a two-part series of personal posts here on the website in which I explain or share a little more about myself and my private life than I ever have before. The semi-anonymity of the website has, to a degree, emboldened me to do so. Though some close friends know that I am asexual, it isn’t something I discuss freely or openly with most of the people in my life. I’ve always been somewhat of a private person, and though I have come to accept my asexuality more in recent years, for a long time it was a source of shame and embarrassment, and for years before that, simply an unknown feeling that at various points I repressed, struggled with, and fought against.

So one more time, for the record: I am asexual.

Asexuality is, broadly speaking, the lack of sexual desire or sexual attraction. I would direct anyone interested to learn more about it in a general sense to websites like AVEN – the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network. In this piece I will primarily be discussing my perspective on asexuality rather than presenting a full picture, but asexuality is itself a spectrum with differing interpretations and viewpoints, and those of you interested to learn more about it beyond my singular experience would be well-served there.

Where to begin? This is the question that’s taken up much of my time over the last few months as I struggled to put this piece together. I grew up in a time and place where there was no internet, no Google, and the word “asexual” was used only in a scientific context to discuss the reproductive process of single-celled organisms. Though homosexuality had been decriminalised decades earlier, in the villages and small towns scattered around the rural area where I grew up, LGBT+ people were not commonly out, and homosexuality was not generally accepted by a significant number of people.

At school, the word “gay” was used often by my peer group to describe something they didn’t like. Missed the school bus? That was “gay.” Your favourite football team lost a match? That was “gay.” I don’t know if this was a regional thing, and of course other words were in use too. But I distinctly remember from those days that the word “gay” had become synonymous with something bad or unpleasant. No one I knew was openly gay, and the few people suspected of it found themselves subject to hate and abuse – as I was myself on many occasions for not acting the “right” way or for saying or doing something deemed “gay” by bullies.

As I reached my teen years and conversations in my friend group – which mostly consisted of males – turned to sex, I began to feel like an outsider. Not because I was a virgin, but because unlike any of them I had no interest in sex at all; I didn’t even masturbate. But not being aware of asexuality, nor believing that the way I felt was valid, I joined in with my peers, and even lost my virginity at age 15.

Sex education in this part of the UK in the ’90s can only be described as shockingly bad. I had two lessons called “sex education” that I can recall. Each lasted around an hour and primarily consisted of watching slides on an old overhead projector (the same set of slides both times) that were probably made in the 1970s, while a clearly uncomfortable teacher stood by silently. In a room full of thirty giggling kids making snide remarks, very little education actually happened. The information that was conveyed only described the basic mechanics of sex, the need to use a condom to avoid STDs, and how sex equals babies; it was also purely heterosexual, with not even the scantest mention made of the LGBT+ community.

My parents opted to leave sex education to the school system, never so much as mentioning the subject to me. That may be a generational thing; my parents grew up in Britain in the ’40s and ’50s, and the postwar generation, while “sexually liberated” in some ways, was still very constrained in others. I don’t blame them for the lack of sex education; they wouldn’t have known what asexuality is anyway!

Having heard friends bragging for years about sex and their sexual prowess, I began to think that perhaps if I experienced it for myself I would finally come to understand why everyone treated it as such a big deal. After a brief phase of telling people that I would abstain until marriage for religious reasons – which seemed like a convenient excuse, even though I’m not and never have been religious – I decided that maybe once I experienced sex for myself I’d change my mind and finally be “normal” like everyone else.

This is an awkward thing to have to say, but I am – as Data put it in Star Trek: The Next Generation – “fully functional.” I’m not impotent nor suffering erectile dysfunction, and I am capable of performing in the bedroom, as I found out when I became intimate with my first girlfriend. I felt some degree of trepidation at that moment – was I about to discover the joy of sex? Would I finally understand why it’s been the number one topic of conversation among my friends for years, and why they seemed desperate to engage in it at every opportunity?

In my first sexual encounter, and in several encounters thereafter, all I can remember thinking was: “is this it?” Is this all sex is: just lying down, bashing our genitals together, trying to stay on target and not miss the hole? It was interminably boring, it was hard work, and I quickly learned that it required a great deal of acting to feign happiness lest you upset your partner. But above all, I was disgusted by it.

Human genitals – male and female – are just incredibly unappealing to me. They stink, both as a result of being confined under clothing and by their proximity to the waste extraction system, and are truly ugly to look at. The idea of putting mine in or near someone else’s filled me with disgust. I felt that way then and it remains how I feel to this day.

That sense of disgust was what I tried to supress for a long time. I convinced myself to try different sexual partners, different positions, different kinks, even oral sex – which may be even more disgusting to me than regular sex due to putting one’s mouth on the aforementioned region. Or having someone’s mouth on mine. Neither were enjoyable in the slightest.

In my late teens as I prepared to go to university, I got access to the internet for the first time, and after spending some time online looking up reasons why I might not enjoy sex or why it feels disgusting, I seriously wondered if I might be gay. Having a boyfriend was out of the question because of my family’s attitude to homosexuality, and with no one local to test out my new theory, my gay experiences in those days were very risky – meeting up with strangers from dodgy internet chat rooms and message boards in whichever city was closest. I had a number of encounters with significantly older men during this period – only to confirm my belief that gay sex was no more enjoyable that straight sex.

I’m not aromantic. I do like being in a relationship and I still wanted to have a partner, despite how I felt about the sexual side of things. After moving out and having spent some time abroad, I settled down and met a woman who was my age, and we got along great. There was only one problem: she was very sexual.

I can, for a time, fake that. I can keep up with a partner, pretend to be into it, and perform my “obligations” in order to keep the relationship going. But it was hard work, and all the while I felt as though I was living with some horrible secret. Though other aspects of the relationship were progressing well, the sexual side was eating away at me.

But this was still at a time when the term “asexuality” did not exist in my lexicon. Everyone likes sex, so I felt I had to find a way to like it too, or at least tolerate it. Over time, though, my ability to put on the mask and feign interest in bedroom activities faded, and because my partner – who had, in the intervening years, become my wife – was still a very sexual person with sexual needs, the relationship began to fail. I don’t blame my now-ex-wife for cheating, because I wasn’t giving her something significant that she needed. At the time it was horrible, of course, but on reflection I can understand why our marriage ended the way it did.

It was my ex-wife who first used the word “asexual” to describe me, though she did so as an attack and an insult rather than to be helpful. I denied it, of course; I was a man, and men aren’t asexual. Men love sex, and I couldn’t deal, at the time, with the idea that I was so radically different from everyone else that such a label should be assigned to me.

As my marriage broke down and paperwork was being filed, though, I spent some time looking into what it means to be asexual, and despite my internal objections, every step I took resonated with me. It took years to come to terms with it, but eventually I began to be comfortable enough in my own mind to call myself asexual.

In the years since my divorce I’ve dated different people, and though at first I would not be up front about asexuality, I learned quickly that it was something I needed to do. I need to give a potential partner the opportunity to leave before they find out that I can’t offer them what most people consider one of the key components of a relationship. And, on the flip side, I need to know that anyone I’m considering dating is 100% okay with that.

I’ve had some unfortunate experiences of meeting people who would say that, while not asexual themselves, they loved the idea of an asexual partner. There are myriad reasons why someone would think that, of course, and I don’t believe for a moment that any of these people were lying or being dishonest. But I found out that most of the time, even if they thought they wanted that at first, it wasn’t something sustainable in the long run. Asexual to me means no sex. Ever. It doesn’t mean “not very much sex but still some sex sometimes,” though to some asexual folks it may – if you want a broader perspective I strongly recommend AVEN, as mentioned.

To me, though, being asexual is a label which describes how I felt in every sexual encounter I’ve ever had, both male and female: I didn’t enjoy it, I found it boring, and I found it disgusting. I don’t experience sexual attraction to any other human, and I will not ever have sex with anyone again.

To a lot of people that’s weird, strange, and even beyond the pale. That’s okay, and I understand why people would have those reactions. I don’t want to force people to talk about an uncomfortable topic, nor do I want anyone to think I’m somehow being judgemental – sex is a normal thing, and whatever consenting adults do in private is their business. I just don’t want to participate!

Lately I’ve been struggling again with my sexuality and gender identity, and that’s partly why I decided to talk about this now and make it known that I’m asexual. Despite telling myself for years that being asexual is okay, and simply part of who I am, there’s still a dark part of me – connected, sadly, to my ongoing mental health issues – that tells me it isn’t okay. That I’m wrong or abnormal. And keeping all of this inside – a secret of omission – isn’t helping. I don’t want asexuality to define me, nor to be known forevermore as “that asexual person,” but I also don’t want to keep my sexuality secret any more.

I created this website to talk about the subjects I’m interested in and to give myself a writing project. Though this subject is far outside of what I usually talk about, this is also my only real outlet, and the only place I feel comfortable writing these words and discussing this topic.

In a way, I think my experience growing up asexual and coming to terms with asexuality shows the need for two things: education and representation. Education can show people like me that asexuality exists and it’s a valid sexual orientation or way of being. It’s normal and doesn’t make you a freak or a weirdo. Representation in all forms of media can be helpful there too, showing that asexual people exist in all walks of life.

Representing asexuality is difficult, because at least in my experience and my opinion, it’s easy for an asexual person to be invisible. Asexual folks who have romantic relationships may be seen as straight, bi, or gay depending on who they have those relationships with, and unless we draw back the curtain and look at what’s going on behind closed doors, we don’t really know how an individual’s sexual life plays out – be they a real person or a fictional character. So I’m not claiming to have all the answers on how to perfectly represent asexual characters in fiction, nor am I arguing that any specific story, film, or television show needs an asexual character immediately. It would be great to see positive asexual representation, though.

One of the things I’ve always liked about a lot of sci-fi and fantasy is that sex is not a big topic of discussion in those shows and films in the way it can be in drama or soap operas. Recent years have also seen a lot of stories introduce casts which are more diverse, including characters from across the LGBT+ community. That representation, while not always (or often) explicitly referring to asexual people, does at least show that these settings and stories are willing to embrace people like me, and that’s an incredibly positive thing.

The Star Trek franchise has, to a greater or lesser degree, touched on sexuality at various points. I’ve seen some asexual folks talk about characters like Spock and Data, and while neither were outwardly asexual, I can certainly see why they resonate with many people. Star Trek has been a franchise I’ve loved since the early 1990s, and it’s no coincidence perhaps that it was around that time that I began to deal with some of the issues I’ve outlined above. Star Trek’s optimistic and inclusive future showed a human race that had put its differences aside to work in common cause, where the ideas of discrimination or marginalisation did not exist. That spirit remains present in Star Trek today, with recent shows representing a broad range of identities and sexualities on screen.

There are still things I’m not sure of in my journey with asexuality. Where do I fit in, exactly? Asexuality is a contentious topic in some areas of the LGBT+ community, and for that reason I’ve never been comfortable using terms like “coming out” or associating myself with the LGBT+ community as anything more than a self-described ally. There are a few people I’ve discussed this subject with, both online and in person, and I have to credit the internet with being an amazing tool and wonderful resource for this and many other topics. Were it not for the internet, I may well still have been struggling alone.

So this article doesn’t yet have an ending. I’m asexual, and now you know. I’m comfortable enough in this online space to be open about it, and in the next article I’d also like to discuss my gender identity in a bit more detail. At some point in the future I’d like to talk about my mental health too.

If you’re a regular reader tuning in for sci-fi and Star Trek, I hope you’ll forgive the detour to discuss some personal subjects. Perhaps this piece will be good background in future if I’m able to discuss sexuality and identity within some of the films and series I talk about here on the website. If anything above made you uncomfortable, I apologise. Thank you for sticking with me to the end, I appreciate each and every one of you who read this.

As mentioned, I recommend AVEN – the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network – for anyone looking for more information. If you are struggling with your sexuality and unsure where you fit in, please know that help is available, and may only be a Google search or phone call away. This article only looks at asexuality from one person’s narrow perspective, and as asexuality is a broad community, I do not claim that my experience is fully representative. As always, this article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.