What is asexuality? This emerging identity is quickly gaining traction

People who identify as asexual come in all different identities and backgrounds.

Sex sells. That’s what they say anyway. The fact remains though that for a sizable portion of society, current research shows about 1.7 percent of all people based on self-identification, they’re not buying. 

Or, rather, they weren’t going to the store in the first place. They identify as asexual.

What is asexuality? It’s simple: people without much of a natural interest in sex or those who require deeply strong emotional connections to even consider going to bed with someone. In Philadelphia, there’s about 27,000 people who are asexual based on that 1.7 percent figure.

Like all sexuality and identity questions, asexuality isn’t cut and dry, though: Despite not having an interest in sex, asexuals are just as likely to develop strong, intimate bonds with someone else. They also even sometimes have sex and enjoy it.

If you’re perplexed by the seeming contradiction, that’s OK. You just haven’t talked with enough ace people – that’s shorthand for asexual – yet. While it seems new, researchers are calling it an “emerging identity,” asexuality is likely as old as our species but only now getting the kind of safe space and transparency in conversation to be a thing. 

That probably explains why a full 91 percent of self-identified asexuals in one study were under the age of 28. 

Speaking to the relative newness of asexuality in our ongoing social conversation, sex and gender researcher Dr. Esther D. Rosenblum explains, “Given that the majority of asexual respondents were young, we expect that the prevalence and understanding of asexuality will grow as more youth reach adolescence and become familiar with the idea.” For gays and lesbians, this idea should seem pretty familiar itself.

Rosenblum, with coauthors Evan A. Krueger, Krystal R. Kittle, and Ilan H. Meyer, worked on the 2019 study, “Asexual and Non-Asexual Respondents from a U.S. Population-Based Study of Sexual Minorities,” for the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law focused on data about sexual and gender minorities. The Williams Institute devotes itself to the idea that with scientifically rigorous data, lawmakers and others can draft and enact public policies that better support and affirm LGBTQ people. They’re the research group with one of the best methodologies for estimating the overall LGBTQ population in the United States, too.

But, wait, are asexual people LGBTQ? If it’s mostly about one’s propensity away from the kind of physical acrobatics and antics many view as commonplace in adulthood, can’t asexual people be straight?

The answer is yes – to both questions. More on that later.

Heather Arlene Woolley was confused for several years across her adult life, including during her first marriage, until she realized there was a word for who she was. 

“When I was separated and then divorced [after college], a lot of my friends said that I’d have two years of random physical encounters before I ‘got it all out of my system,’” the 43-year-old South Jersey resident tells me. She spent a sizable chunk of her young adulthood attending graduate school at Temple University. “Twenty years later, I still didn’t feel that their approach fit with how I feel.”

She describes a recognition early on that she was different from her peers. The common rites of passage most people experience – that first kiss, the anticipation and excitement over sex, the obnoxious obsession with sex people develop in adolescence that for some never really goes away – were absent. But a desire for connection, for intimacy, was always there.

“I didn’t date in high school. I had a crush on the same guy for years,” Woolley remembers, “and was not really interested in anyone else and was perplexed about why my friends were so eager to have sex. I longed for a real connection but had zero interest in more than a snuggle and maybe a kiss.”

It’s important to note that asexuals can have sexual interest or desire. It’s all about getting there, if someone ever even gets there, that differentiates asexual people. For them, especially a subset of asexuals called demisexuals, developing a strong emotional connection is literally the only route to physical manifestations of love. “The idea of that level of contact with someone I didn’t know at all,” explains Woolley, touching on casual hook ups and her identification as demiseuxal, “was repulsive at worst and unimaginable at best.”

With asexuality, there’s a range of expressions, including demisexual as well as aromanticism. Those who identify as aromantic are exactly as their name literally spells out: they don’t have romantic feelings for anyone really.

“Like with asexuality, an aromantic person may still choose to engage in romantic relationship or not,” explains the Gay and Lesbian Association Against Defamation (GLAAD). “Many romantic people will enter into what are called ‘queer plantonic partnerships,’” says the LGBTQ advocacy group, explaining that people in queer platonic partnerships “may live together, have children, or even get married. Major life decisions are made jointly. The only real difference is that the relationships is platonic, rather than romantic.”

In other words, your June and Ward Cleaver seeming next door neighbors could be in a queer platonic partnership, identify as straight, and almost never have sex – and they’re just as normal and healthy than anyone else on the block. 

“There’s this automatic assumption that we’re all sexual beings, especially in the LGBTQ community, but it doesn’t always hold true,” adds Michael Galvan. The 31-year-old Northwest Philly resident is married and identifies as queer. This expectation of being a “sexual being” can add what Galvan refers to as pressure.

“It’s kinda like being in middle school again and realizing you’re gay, you know? Like, here’s what society has deemed ‘normal’ and I don’t feel that,” they talk about their own their own process coming to identify as asexual. “And I’m afraid of the stigma if I’m like, ‘Yeah, I just in general don’t like sex or sexual activities.’”

Galvan isn’t wrong about the stigma piece. Within the LGBTQ community, there are regular debates about including asexual people – that’s really what the “A” stands for in LGBTQIA, it’s never ally (sorry straight people) – under the overall community grouping. 

“Asexuality tends to be misunderstood and under-discussed,” explains the BBC’s Jessica Klein. “Or, they dismiss asexuality entirely. Common misconceptions about asexuality include that sexuality equates to celibacy (it doesn’t), or that it’s a choice (it’s an orientation).”

Which other letter in LGBTQIA could you imagine such public discussions taking place over excluding without immediately triggering protests and boycotts – and rightfully so? Even coming from the right place, questioning whether someone “belongs” in the LGBTQ community seems sort of at odds with the very nature of that community. 

Still, much like “trans exclusionary radical feminists” or TERFs, who claim that trans women are not women no matter what, those who question asexuality under the queer umbrella often insist that being a sexual or gender minority means enduring some degree of societal oppression. It’s possible, they argue, that a straight cisgender white man would play a part for special status, maybe. It sounds a little too elaborate for whatever few benefits it supposedly garners.

“Asexuality in many ways is invisible and invisibility gives you this form of protection,” explains Angela Chen, an asexual activist and journalist, to Slate’s LGBTQ vertical Outward. “It feels like you don’t need to come out. It feels like if you’re on the street with your partner, many times, you are not going to be a target in the same way. In many ways, being asexual doesn’t require feeling like you need to hide yourself in the way that has been the case for the other identities in the queer umbrella.” 

Yet, at its core, the LGBTQ community defines itself through its opposition to the majority, to its queerness as many writers and activists and advocates with lived experience have been self-identifying for decades now. In other words, it’s a place for all sexual and gender minorities. 

Under that definition, it’s clear that asexuals would fit perfectly as an affiliate of the overall LGBTQ community. Younger people seemingly agree in unanimity. 

Galvan, who also identifies as queer, agrees. “I’ve always viewed the LGBTQ+ community as a home for all individuals who don’t see themselves represented in ‘traditional’ forms. With that in mind, I’d say, yes, the LGBTQ+ community has space for even straight ace people.”

“I’ve realized that romantic attraction, intellectual attraction, and sexual attraction are different things,” Heather Woolley concludes. “For me as a demi, I need all three kinds of attraction and connection to have a sexual relationship with someone. On the flip side, I have had times in my life where I felt romantically and/or intellectual attracted to someone, so cuddling with them, or being physically close, felt good, but I didn’t want to jump in bed with them.”

For their part, Galvan insists that what we convey as “normal” in society can do a great deal of harm, especially to people who aren’t, well, normal.

“When you think about love at first sight or whatever, to me that is purely based on physical attraction. So I would say that there’s a bit of a norm that emphasizes physical romance above romantic feelings.”

And what about people still not understanding any of this? Or, rather, people who aren’t willing to expand their concept of what the human experience is?

“People can sometimes view it as a phase,” Galvan laughs. “Like, ‘Oh, once you meet a person you’re attracted to, that’ll change,’ but it’s really not that simple.”

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