Richard Bailey

My Life As A Black, Asexual Model Is Not A Paradox

Asexual Activist Yasmin Benoit isn't defined by the male gaze.

Sex & Love - Home Page

One of the questions I'm asked the most is, "What is it like being a Black asexual model in the modeling industry?"

It's probably because that combination sounds like something inherently contentious and I can no longer deny the truth in that. Yes, modeling is associated with sexuality - sometimes justifiably, sometimes not.

It's also associated with a rather specific beauty standard which hasn't always been appreciative of Black phenotypes. Asexuality has never been associated with Blackness; in a world where Black people are either hypersexualized or desexualized by the white gaze, being Black and asexual is often treated as paradoxical. So, all in all, existing as all of those things must be a little weird, right?

Yes, but not for the reasons most usually assume.

I entered the modeling industry not because I thought I was strikingly beautiful - quite the opposite. With my big alien-shaped head, cartoon-looking features, Bratz doll proportions, and gothic style, I thought I could be one of those 'weird' models. You know the kind. I was specifically drawn to a more alternative style of modeling in particular because it seemed like a space for outcasts like myself. Only, even in that space, it was ironically white. With my work, I was trying to increase the representation out there for alternative Black girls in a time when it was quite rare to see us. I wanted to be the change I wanted to see and needed growing up. It turned out that I'd carry that same ethos into my activism in the future.

Some picture the modeling industry as being a space full of sexist objectification, with pervy photographers, seedy studio activities, and an unhealthy culture. That can sometimes be the case, but that hasn't really been part of my experience. The complexity for me has little to do with my experiences actually navigating the industry itself. After all, that's influenced more by your physical appearance than your life story. Despite what people think often happens in the studio, the focus is on angles, lighting, and making sure the clothes look alright, rather than the lack of sexual attraction that I experience.

Of course, there were moments when it got a little awkward. When the male photographer asks me to look at the camera like it's my boyfriend, being asexual and aromantic meant that nothing immediately came to mind. I doubt I nailed it.

When I've been asked to participate in shoots that seem like they're more about them molding and selling my personal 'sexual allure' rather than creative expression or advertising products, I've had to turn them down. And I've always been acutely aware of the fact that being associated so heavily with an obscured, often stereotyped sexual orientation isn't going to win me many mainstream campaigns outside of Pride Month.

But that's not the contentious part. That part happens when the images taken in the studio make it to the outside world. That's when those intersections play a role.

Capturing an image means representing something. If that image contains someone who is part of a social group, it becomes representation for an entire demographic, whether you like it or not. Before I publicly came out as asexual, there was nothing particularly controversial about my image as a Black woman in 'racy' clothing. It's not exactly an uncommon way that Black women are depicted in the media, so despite modeling in various styles, I became most known for ‘sexualized’ images and the reception I got was pretty positive.

But when I publicly came out as someone who doesn't experience sexual attraction, I became an example of asexual representation, and that's when the problems started. After all, I wasn't the 'right kind' of asexual representation.

Yasmin Benoit

Rachel Sherlock

There is a certain 'look' associated with asexuality. Something between The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper and someone more...homely and frumpy. If you're not sexually attracted to anyone, you're expected to make yourself sexually unattractive. You shouldn't allow yourself to be interesting to look at. Ideally, you should be white, and come across with an aura of childlike awkwardness that must come innately with being 'out of touch' with the expected forms of sexuality. A Black woman unapologetically dressed like a gothic half-naked Dead or Alive video game girl, talking a lot and throwing up devil horns wasn't what the average person expects when they hear the word ‘asexual.’

Those inside and outside of the asexual community collectively raised their eyebrows and part of me thinks that shared morbid curiosity contributed to me being recognized as an asexual activist quickly. I found myself in documentaries, being used in clickbait headlines about the ‘asexual lingerie model who doesn’t want sex,’ being invited to speak at universities, across online platforms, appearing in Pride campaigns for brands like Uber and even collaborating with Budweiser to open an asexual pop-up bar. Fortunately, I've always had more to bring to the table than shock value, but that hasn't always been acknowledged. The attention was partially on my perspective but mainly on my 'controversial' outfits.

The more people became aware of me and my modeling, the more I started receiving abuse from people on social media because of my job and appearance. I was being called a slut, a whore, a cock-tease, as well as a virgin loser simultaneously–on a strangely regular basis. I was a living, breathing sex toy and an anti-sex agenda all at the same time. If I had a penny every time someone described me as an attention-seeking narcissist, I'd have made more money than I ever earned at a photoshoot. And I know that me working in a shallow industry has as much to do with me being called an attention-seeking narcissist as the stereotypes often associated with asexual people does.

I’ve encountered people who assume that I must be the kind of asexual who thinks I'm too good for anybody; that no one meets my standards enough to be sexually attractive to me. It's a natural conclusion to jump to, considering that my asexuality hasn't rendered me a nervous wreck who hides myself away out of shame for not meeting societal expectations (though I would’ve been more acceptable if I had). It must be my life's mission to tempt and agitate men, while contributing to the sexual objectification of women, with my troublesome asexual tits...or something like that.

If these assumptions people make about me sound a little extreme, it’s because they are. It is the consequence of being caught between two contradicting narratives - the one where Black women are inherently hypersexual and must be sexually available, and the one where asexual people need to be sexless and unappealing with an aversion to anything associated with sexuality. As my asexuality makes me sexually unavailable to others, to them, my body and what I do with it is just a provocative lie. But I embrace the perplexity. I'm okay with being an oxymoron, as I know there are people out there who find my work empowering.

Maybe if I wasn't so perplexing, I wouldn't have found myself in a position where I'm able to show what being asexual actually is. It's a sexual orientation, not a lifestyle choice, not a personality flaw, not a limitation. You can be asexual and express yourself however you want to, be whoever you want to, wear whatever you want to, and fall into any demographic. Being a Black asexual model might make me less palatable, more scandalous, and more likely to attract racist, sexist, and acephobic abuse. But as long as I get to keep being myself, I'm past caring.

Featured image courtesy of Yasmin Benoit

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Before she was Amira Unplugged, rapper, singer, and a Becoming a Popstar contestant on MTV, she was Amira Daughtery, a twenty-five year-old Georgian, with aspirations of becoming a lawyer. “I thought my career path was going to lead me to law because that’s the way I thought I would help people,” Amira tells xoNecole. “[But] I always came back to music.”

A music lover since childhood, Amira grew up in an artistic household where passion for music was emphasized. “My dad has always been my huge inspiration for music because he’s a musician himself and is so passionate about the history of music.” Amira’s also dealt with deafness in one ear since she was a toddler, a condition which she says only makes her more “intentional” about the music she makes, to ensure that what she hears inside her head can translate the way she wants it to for audiences.

“The loss of hearing means a person can’t experience music in the conventional way,” she says. “I’ve always responded to bigger, bolder anthemic songs because I can feel them [the vibrations] in my body, and I want to be sure my music does this for deaf/HOH people and everyone.”

A Black woman wearing a black hijab and black and gold dress stands in between two men who are both wearing black pants and colorful jackets and necklaces

Amira Unplugged and other contestants on Becoming a Popstar

Amira Unplugged / MTV

In order to lift people’s spirits at the beginning of the pandemic, Amira began posting videos on TikTok of herself singing and using sign language so her music could reach her deaf fans as well. She was surprised by how quickly she was able to amass a large audience. It was through her videos that she caught the attention of a talent scout for MTV’s new music competition show for rising TikTok singers, Becoming a Popstar. After a three-month process, Amira was one of those picked to be a contestant on the show.

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To make sure her deaf/HOH audiences can feel her songs, she makes sure to “add more bass, guitar, and violin in unique patterns.” She also incorporates “higher pitch sounds with like chimes, bells, and piccolo,” because, she says, they’re easier to feel. “But it’s less about the kind of instrument and more about how I arrange the pattern of the song. Everything I do is to create an atmosphere, a sensation, to make my music a multi-sensory experience.”

She says that working alongside the judges–pop stars Joe Jonas and Becky G, and choreographer Sean Bankhead – has helped expand her artistry. “Joe was really more about the vocal quality and the timber and Becky was really about the passion of [the song] and being convinced this was something you believed in,” she says. “And what was really great about [our choreographer] Sean is that obviously he’s a choreographer to the stars – Lil Nas X, Normani – but he didn’t only focus on choreo, he focused on stage presence, he focused on the overall message of the song. And I think all those critiques week to week helped us hone in on what we wanted to be saying with our next song.”

As her star rises, it’s been both her Muslim faith and her friends, whom she calls “The Glasses Gang” (“because none of us can see!”), that continue to ground her. “The Muslim and the Muslima community have really gone hard [supporting me] and all these people have come together and I truly appreciate them,” Amira says. “I have just been flooded with DMs and emails and texts from [young muslim kids] people who have just been so inspired,” she says. “People who have said they have never seen anything like this, that I embody a lot of the style that they wanted to see and that the message hit them, which is really the most important thing to me.”

A Black woman wears a long, salmon pink hijab, black outfit and pink boots, smiling down at the camera with her arm outstretched to it.

Amira Unplugged

Amira Unplugged / MTV

Throughout the show’s production, she was able to continue to uphold her faith practices with the help of the crew, such as making sure her food was halal, having time to pray, dressing modestly, and working with female choreographers. “If people can accept this, can learn, and can grow, and bring more people into the fold of this industry, then I’m making a real difference,” she says.

Though she didn’t win the competition, this is only the beginning for Amira. Whether it’s on Becoming a Popstar or her videos online, Amira has made it clear she has no plans on going anywhere but up. “I’m so excited that I’ve gotten this opportunity because this is really, truly what I think I’m meant to do.”

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