Characters in shows such as Gossip Girl and Skins get approximately 10 times as much action in high school as almost anyone I knew in grades 8 to 12 combined, but I’d bet that most people still consider their college years to be the ultimate time for self-discovery and sexual experimentation. College students may not be falling into a vortex of sex, drugs and indie-rock worthy of CW programming, but they are often questioning what it means to be a sexually competent, confident and comfortable person. For some students, this process entails throwing oneself into physically intimate relationships à la Spring Awakening, while for others it involves far less peeking between the sheets—or none at all.
While little research has been done on asexual orientation, increasing numbers of adults now identify as asexual and proud. A commonly cited study published in the Journal of Sex Research in 2004 reports that 1% of individuals self identify as asexual—a figure that seems unimpressive until you enter smaller communities such as Internet havens or college campuses. Since “coming out” as asexual may seem improbable at best to the uninitiated or to anyone who has never met an “ace” (slang for an asexual person), Her Campus decided to investigate how people define asexuality and what it means to be asexual in college.
What is asexuality, anyway?
Starfish and amoeba jokes aside, asexuality is defined as a lack of sexual attraction, not to be confused with celibacy or abstinence. People who are celibate or abstinent choose not to have sex for various reasons, while people who are asexual just aren’t interested. Many asexuals describe their orientation as being a natural inborn state such as being gay or straight, and AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (a 10-year-old online association that hosts the world’s largest asexual community), contends that asexuality is simply “an intrinsic part of who we are.” However, even this simple you-either-want-it-or-you-don’t stance is complicated, since sexual desire can be defined in so many ways. “Everybody will have a different definition regarding all things sexual,” says Dr. Patricia Fawver, a clinical sexologist and member of the American Board of Sexology and American Academy of Clinical Sexologists. “The area of sexuality is ripe for miscommunication so it’s important to start with common language and make sure we’re on the same page.”
Dr. Fawver specializes in transgender issues and alternative erotic orientations, yet she is skeptical that anyone can truly be deemed asexual. “The literal definition of asexuality it means ‘without sexuality’, but it is not possible to be without sexuality. We are all sexual beings from the day we’re born until we die, and whether or not we choose to act on that is a choice. We don’t choose to be sexual beings but we can choose to act on asexuality.”
In some ways, it is difficult to argue with Dr. Fawver.
The AVEN FAQ section gives visitors a glimpse of the array of lifestyle choices to which many of the organization’s members adhere, and many of them include sex. “There is considerable diversity among the asexual community,” the site overview notes. “Asexual people have the same emotional needs as anyone else, and like in the sexual community we vary widely in how we fulfill those needs. Some asexual people are happier on their own, others are happiest with a group of close friends. Other asexual people have a desire to form more intimate romantic relationships, and will date and seek long-term partnerships.” AVEN stresses that whether “aces” have active sex lives or not is a personal decision and it’s pretty clear that asexual people aren’t anti-social just because they may not have sex.
Does asexuality really exist?
Sure, says Maria Santos, a facilitator of SAFE Zones, a peer education group on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, which spreads awareness about LGBTQA issues. “[Being asexual] may have to do with a name that someone comes up with, but I think it’s just different things for different people. Part of the problem is that we try to place identifiers on people based on their actions and based on the person they have sex with. If an asexual person wants to identify that way and be in a relationship, then that’s that. We’re trying to create some sort of vocabulary with these identifiers to empower people, but at all times we should be asking people what they mean when they say they’re asexual.”
Dr. Fawver adds that the why someone is asexual matters, too. Instead of jumping aboard a terminological bandwagon, the sexologist encouragespeople who claim asexual orientation to think deeply about their family history, any past sexual experiences or hang-ups, and possible physiological discrepancies that may affect sexual desire. “You would need to explore a full range of possibilities of what is behind [asexuality],” Fawver says. “Is it part of their erotic template? Is it because of bad sexual relationships in the past? Is it because they’re focusing on their studies in college? There [are] a number of things that could be going on, but the person’s sexuality is still present. You could live 100 years and never engage in a sexual or erotic experience with another human being, and that wouldn’t make you asexual. What a person might want to do about a lack of desire depends on what’s at the base, and if they feel like something is unresolved or undiscovered, then they should investigate.”
Even so, many asexual people reject the notion that asexuality is just a low rung on the sex drive totem pole.
What the numbers say
Some research has been done to show that asexuality is not merely a reaction to medication, depression, or an emotional hang-up, but rather that it is truly another expression of (non) sexual desire. According to “Patterns of asexuality in the United States,” a study published in 2010 by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, when asexuality was strictly defined as never having sex with males or females, “almost 5% of females and more than 6% of males [reported that they had] never had sex at any time in their lives.” The researchers realized, however, that having sex isn’t a clear-cut indication that someone is or isn’t asexual. For example, in 2009 the Observer spoke to Andy Holland, a college student who tried having sex once. “I thought some hidden sexuality might blossom, but it just wasn’t something that I was driven to do like she was,” he told the publication. “If it happens it happens. I enjoy golf but if I never play it again, I don’t care.” Holland’s blasé stance on sex is comical and somewhat illuminating, but his experience is just one among many.
Her Campus recently polled members of AVEN about what it’s like to be asexual in the land of higher education; and while the 55 respondents expressed varying degrees of comfort with their orientation in college, few of them had doubts about who they were by the time they finished school. When asked if they knew that they were asexual in college, 42% of respondents reported that they realized that they were asexual before attending university, while an even larger percentage (55%) became fully aware of their orientation while still in school. In terms of “coming out,” 33% of those polled preferred to keep their orientation to themselves in college, while 44% of respondents were honest with the people closest to them and only 23% felt okay telling anyone who seemed curious.
Only 3 people out of the 55 of those polled reported having had a sexual partner in college to cover up the fact that they weren’t sexually attracted to anyone and 69% of those polled attested that they did not try to hide or obscure who they were. Nonetheless, some members of the asexual community admitted to hooking up with others just to satisfy others.
Faking it ’til they make it
Helen, a recent graduate from a university in Wales, detailed the difficulty of being asexual in college. When confronted with her peers’ assumptions that she, too, would become a ravenous shark in a sea of tantalizing co-eds, she fibbed like Emma Stone in Easy A. “I kept trying to make myself sexual,” Helen told HC. “I realized I was asexual before I went to uni, but I wasn’t really able to accept it because of all the pressure society puts on people to be romantic or sexual. I decided that I could just ignore the fact that I wasn’t sexually or romantically attracted to anyone, and I could just fake the parts of the relationship I didn’t really feel.” Helen’s first efforts at “faking sexuality” included dabbling in make-out sessions with students of both sexes “just to exhaust all possibilities.” She didn’t know what exactly to call her lack of interest sex at that point, but she hoped that a physical attraction to someone would point her in the right direction. Even so, nothing changed how she felt.
With the use of Google and little help from her most supportive friends, Helen learned about asexuality and came across resources like AVEN where other people were going through the same thing. She was relieved to learn that a larger asexual community existed, but not everyone was as accepting. “Once I realized that [experimenting] would never work, I managed to work on accepting and becoming happy with myself,” Helen says. “One friend of mine who started expressing interest in me reacted quite well to begin with. She backed off with the flirting and made a very big show of telling me that she only thought of me as a friend. But I don’t think she ever actually accepted or understood it. Once, she didn’t say anything when a male friend of hers started pressuring me to let him touch my breasts, even though I was having a difficult time putting him off. I can only assume she thought I wanted it, even though I’d told her I wasn’t interested in any of that.” Another girl that Helen has known since she was six only just stopped asking about potential boyfriends. “When I tried to explain she usually reacted as though I told her I had some kind of illness—a kind of, Well, you might get over it? response. Even now I’m not really sure whether she’s really come round to understanding and accepting, or whether she’s just given up asking.”
Although Helen’s family has declared a ceasefire about the issue of her asexuality, Helen suspects that her aunt thinks she is a lesbian and doubts her mother’s sincerity about believing in the existence of asexuality. “My dad hasn’t said anything but he’s very easygoing, so I think he’s fine with anything as long as I’m happy. But my mother’s a little more difficult,” Helen confides. “She keeps telling me [that] ‘most women aren’t very into sex’ and doesn’t get that there’s a difference between having a low sex drive and not being attracted to anyone, ever.” One incident that stands out in Helen’s mind is a dinner party in which her mother announced her asexuality to everyone at the table. “[My] mum went on to tell them, as though the whole thing were a huge joke, ‘I thought she was going to say something really serious!’”
Nonetheless, though she’s doubtful of her prospects, Helen would like to find someone that would be willing to stay with her for the long haul—without forcing her to fake romantic or physical intimacy. “A romantic-but-sexless relationship wouldn’t be my first choice, but depending on the situation it might be the best option,” she muses. “What I’d really like is a committed, long-term friendship. I have lots of close friends that I know I’m going to keep in touch with for a long time, but at the end of the day those friends are probably going to settle down sooner or later, and that relationship (and their kids, if they have any) is going to be their main priority. I just wish I could find a friend or friends who were happy to ‘settle down’ with me as friends, rather than as romantic or sexual partners. I want to find someone who’s important to me and who considers me that important, too. But I don’t think it’s likely to ever happen.”
Playing their cards close to their hand
While Helen tackled the issue of being “ace” head-on, a significant number of people who identify as asexual find it easier to let their peers make their own assumptions. 73% of AVEN poll respondents said that they “never really felt like there was an outlet to discuss asexuality” and 40% said that they “often felt out of place or uncomfortable in various social situations.” 45% of respondents said they felt that being asexual on a college campus never really mattered to anyone, although more than one user responded that this may have been because they chose to fly under the radar.
One AVEN-ite revealed that she successfully shielded herself from the scrutiny of other collegiettes™ by feigning interest in guys. “I pretended to be sexually attracted [to men] but never did anything sexual to keep up the act,” she explained. “It mostly consisted of girls asking me if I thought so-and-so was hot, and I would look blankly and go, ‘Yes?’” Another AVEN community member said that he never felt pressure to define his orientation to anyone because his brother and his friends have accepted who he is. “I see it like my height,” he wrote. “I don’t walk up to people I meet and say, ‘Hello, I’m X. I’m 5’9 ½. Pleased to meet you. There weren’t really any outlets in college to discuss being asexual [but] I talk to my roommates about it and AVEN is another outlet.”
Amanda, a student supporting herself through Hillsborough Community College in Florida, also denies ever having resorted to subterfuge to get out of “awkward situations” that come up because of her asexuality, but is conscious of the fact that keeping a low-profile at her big school makes life easier. “I would like to attempt to start an ‘ace’ awareness group by allying with the LGBT association for starters, but that would also take a certain boldness that I have yet to find within myself. I do not share my asexuality often (or, come out of the basement as some Avenites affectionately call it) because the concept of asexuality can be difficult for some to accept or understand. It can be painful because no one wants to share a crucial aspect about herself only to have it dismissed or ignored by people she respects, loves and desires acceptance from.” The Floridian believes that the inability of others to understand asexuality makes it hard to see that many aces desire intimacy, too, even if they act upon those impulses in different ways. After breaking up with an ex when he became increasingly interested in having a “physical relationship”, Amanda decided to take a hiatus from romance, but is open to the idea of dating someone new later on in college. “Sex does not equal love and therefore aces are very much as capable of feeling it as much as anyone else,” Amanda states. “Many asexuals, if they happen to find that special someone—that ‘soul-mate’ you could say—would consider consensual sex if the person weren’t asexual themselves.”
For Amanda, an asexual significant other would be preferable (“because it would be nice to be on the same wavelength”), but she remains open to the idea of dating any person who is compatible with her—as long as her asexuality remains a non-issue. Still, she is perfectly happy for the time being. “Even if things could not work out with someone, I am comfortable the way I am and with the friends and family that I have. I feel as though I don’t need more at the moment.”
How do we come to terms with asexuality when it’s so complicated?
Like many identities, asexuality is malleable and may change depending on a person’s environment, friends, family or decision to commit to another person. However, Dr. Fawver stresses the importance of making sure that we all use words that enhance the meaning of, rather than define our lives as sexual beings. “If a person is content with being asexual,” the sexologist says, “then they should go live their life and be happy. But if someone is unhappy, I think it would be wise to delve a little deeper into the subject [of her sexuality] before she automatically grabs onto a self-definition. It could be that this person had negative previous sexual experiences and just wants to chill. It could have been early messages about female sexuality from society, or from parents, or from certain religious doctrines. It could come from a variety of sources and if a young person has thought about her own sexuality and has chosen to not be sexual or engage in sexual activity with another person, that’s alright—but you don’t have to pre-diagnose yourself with some trendy label. Claim your sexuality and be proud, but understand that that’s a choice not to engage with another person, rather than a diagnostic condition that will be with you forever.”
The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN)
“No sex please: An asexual life”, The Observer
“Study: One in 100 adults asexual”, CNN
Helen and Amanda, anonymous AVEN users
Patricia Fawver, Ph.D., clinical sexologist
Maria Santos, SAFE Zones educator
“Decision”, UmiNoTenshi on Photobucket