So you’ve heard the term “asexual” in passing, but you don’t really know what it means. Or maybe you recently started to identify as asexual and you’re not sure how to explain it to other people. Wherever you stand, we’ve talked to collegiettes and Michael Doré, from the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), to help you make sense of asexuality and avoid any misconceptions.
How can we define asexuality?
On a basic level, “asexuality is the lack of sexual attraction to anyone,” Doré says. “Everyone has certain people they are not sexually attracted to—asexual people find everyone falls into that category.”
Asexual people, who sometimes refer to themselves as “ace,” can identify anywhere on the ace and aro (aromantic) spectrum. For reference, being aromantic means that the individual only pursues platonic relationships, such as those with friends and family. That being said, asexuals are not necessarily aromantic; there are many different ways to experience asexuality.
“There are also people who experience sexual attraction at a lesser intensity and/or frequency than most people—they are usually called gray-asexual or gray-A for short,” Doré adds.
What are some misconceptions about asexuality?
Many people have never even heard about asexuality and this lack of visibility is harmful to asexual individuals. It leads to a great deal of false assumptions about the community, including that asexuality does not actually exist—which invalidates anyone who identifies as ace and is (obviously) unacceptable.
“There are many versions of this [assumption],” Doré says. “One is that anyone who says they are asexual is actually gay. Or can’t find a partner. Or is just going through a phase. Or has just got out of a bad relationship. Or just hasn’t met the right person yet.”
Some people fail to grasp the concept of asexuality, and use the excuse that it does not exist to “reassure” themselves. “Virtually any alternative explanation seems fair game—and in some cases they can even be correct—but by far the majority of the time, the simplest explanation is correct: like 0.5 percent to 3 percent of the general population, the person simply doesn’t experience sexual attraction.”
What are the consequences of these misconceptions?
Being misunderstood can have many negative repercussions on asexual individuals’ lives. “Misconceptions can be harmful because asexual people often try to be something they aren’t in response,” Doré says. “Sometimes asexual people enter into sexual relationships because they’re told that this is the done thing, and try to force themselves to want sex.”
Lauren*, a junior at Northeastern University, knows exactly what Doré is talking about. “What’s frustrating about being asexual is that there’s an assumption that everyone has sexual tendencies,” she says. “I sometimes feel pressured or judged for not having a boyfriend or wanting to hook up, and sometimes it seems like people feel sorry for me because I have something ‘missing’ from my life, [but] my friends and family are all that I need to feel happy and complete.”
It’s always better to ask (respectful) questions than to wrongly assume things about asexual people you meet. Chances are if this person mentioned his or her asexuality to you, he or she is open to discussing it.
How can you tell if you’re asexual?
Figuring out asexuality is different for everyone. “Unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule for telling if someone is asexual,” Doré says. “All one can do is listen to the experiences of other people—when they are talking about sexual attraction—and see if it fits in with your experience. If not, you are probably asexual, or possibly gray-A.”
At lot of the time, understanding your asexuality starts with becoming aware of the concept and the community. “I figured it out in high school because that was the first time I heard the word ‘asexual,’” says Michelle, a senior at the University of California at Los Angeles. “I saw the term on someone’s blog and looked it up and it just clicked.”
Of course, finding your identity—whether it’s related to your sexuality or not—is a journey and doesn’t happen overnight. “Before that I identified as bisexual because I couldn’t really find a difference between the way I felt about different genders,” Michelle explains “Now that I’m thinking about it, being asked about someone’s attractiveness was always rather uncomfortable.”
Should you come out?
Coming out is a complex issue for asexuals, because some individuals feel the need to do it explicitly, while others don’t. “Being asexual is a bit strange because there’s not really a coming out process,” Lauren says. “We aren’t actively discriminated against like other members of the LGBT community, and so there isn’t really a need to.”
That being said, many asexual people feel the need to disclose this part of their identity, in order to be entirely themselves and build lasting bonds with people. In fact, many are extremely proud of their asexuality and actively educate their communities about it.
Of course, being out all the time is not easy. Even Michelle, who so willingly shared her experience with asexuality, doesn’t always feel comfortable disclosing this aspect of herself. “At times I’ve lied about being a lesbian because I didn’t want to explain asexuality to a stranger,” she says.
The bottom line is that you should come out if it feels like the right thing for you. Also keep in mind that coming out is a constant process and that some people might be more understanding than others, so it’s important to gauge the person you’re talking to.
Can you be asexual and have a romantic relationship?
Asexuality is complex and different for everyone. Although some ace people, like Lauren, are perfectly content with exclusively platonic relationships, others actually engage in romantic partnerships. “An asexual person can still form romantic attachments,” Doré says. “In fact they can call themselves heteroromantic, homoromantic, aromantic, biromantic, panromantic etc., all defined in analogy with their sexual orientation counterparts.”
Who and how asexual individuals date can also vary a lot. “Some asexual people form romantic relationships with other asexual people, but more form relationships with sexual people as the latter are more numerous,” Doré says. “Some asexual people are quite happy to have sex, and some are repulsed. It depends on the individual.” Whatever the situation, it’s crucial to respect each other’s sexuality (or lack thereof) and not try to change your partner’s sexual identity.
Michelle told Her Campus that she once had a “QP,” or queerplatonic partner. A QP relationship is defined by the AVEN website as “a relationship that is not romantic but involves a close emotional connection (platonic) beyond what most people consider friendship.”
However, like Doré said, relationships between an asexual and a sexual person are more common. Paris*, a junior collegiette, is dating an asexual man who is out and proud. “My boyfriend is very open about his asexuality,” Paris says. “He has an asexual pride flag and tells everyone about it.”
When they first started dating, Paris didn’t know what to expect. She wasn’t sure whether it was okay to kiss or not, for instance, but there are no universal rules for this across asexual individuals. “[My boyfriend] felt very comfortable around me, so much so that we had sex and he lost his virginity,” Paris says. “He really enjoys it. This does not mean that he is no longer asexual. It means that he is not sexually attracted to anyone but me.”
If you’re confused by all these contradictions, know that you are not alone. “[My boyfriend] is very confused by the idea of enjoying sex with me and being asexual is really confusing for him in general,” Paris says. There is no simple way to define asexuality apart from the fact that it’s personal. Some asexual individuals don’t engage in any form of sexual contact, while others are okay with kissing or will go as for as foreplay, but not sex. Others, like Paris’ boyfriend, will have sex despite their asexual identity.
Is asexuality fluid?
The answer here seems to be that the label “asexual” is more fluid than experienced asexuality itself. “Asexuality is a sexual orientation and while, for the most part, orientations are fixed for life, there is some evidence that this isn’t always the case,” Doré says. “The main thing is that asexuality is not a choice. You either are or aren’t, or could possibly be a gray-A, the in-between case, but it’s not something you can decide on. That being said, shifts over time are possible.”
Basically, you can have always been asexual without labeling yourself as such. “We do encourage people to decide on labels (if any) that best fit their experience, whether that be asexual or anything else,” Doré says. “But what is not a choice is whether someone experiences sexual attraction in the first place, any more than being straight, gay, bi or any other orientation is a choice.”
Asexuality is so much more complex than many of us think and we can’t overstate how important it is to educate ourselves and the people around us about it. After all, it is a very significant part of the population’s sexual identity! Ignoring asexuality is ignoring these people. It’s so great that the trans community is gaining visibility, so let’s make the same thing happen for all queer folks, because nobody deserves to feel like they don’t matter—or worse yet, like they don’t exist at all.
*Names have been changed.