Let’s say you’re a researcher looking for a treatment for erectile dysfunction or low libido. Odds are good you can find funding for your quest. Pharmaceutical companies love the pursuit of a pill or cream that will get customers’ engines revving again. The industry of sex drive and enhanced performance is notoriously robust.
But what if someone didn’t lose their verve for sex, but rather, never had it? For someone who is asexual, desire to get down with another person may be rare, happen only under specific conditions, or never occur at all. Asexual people may still end up having sex- for a lot of different reasons- which can make it more complicated to understand.
What does it mean to be asexual? In many ways, the orientation is defined by what it’s not: sexual desire for other people. For allosexual people (those who are attracted to others), we may see someone super sexy out in the world and feel an internal drive to get closer to them…and specifically their bodies. Asexuals may recognize someone as esthetically pleasing or note their alluring personality, but not feel raunchily pulled towards their sexy bits. Or they may only feel that kind of desire in specific circumstances, like after significant trust and intimacy have been established.
Because it’s so expected in our culture that adults will pair up and have sex, it’s hard to know how common asexuality is. But thanks to the internet’s ability to help folks find each other and create community- we’re now starting to understand that a small but significant portion of the population does not experience sexual attraction. Organizations like the Asexual Visibility and Educational Network (AVEN) provide online spaces for talking about these issues. The Off the Escalator project- a series of surveys and publications on unconventional relationships- found that “Nearly 9% of… survey respondents indicated that they fall somewhere on the asexuality (“ace”) spectrum, or the aromantic (“aro”) spectrum.”
Asexuality is also often described as being on a spectrum, with some individuals never feeling desire for partners and others experiencing it occasionally, or after some time investment. Someone might use a term like demisexual or grey-asexual to describe that kind of periodic or situational desire. Someone might even use the term cupiosexual to explain that even though they don’t have sexual desire, they still are interested in a sexual relationship.
This is distinct from making a conscious choice to abstain from sex or going through a period of feeling depressed or disinterested. It’s also different from having a traumatic experience that turns sex into a scary or revolting idea. Asexuality is lifelong– and is a perfectly healthy state of being and there’s nothing about it that requires fixing.
So if someone isn’t horny for other people, why would they have sex? There are lots of reasons, same as for allosexual people. We may want to experience pleasure, relieve sexual tension, and get off. Another big driver is romantic interest or yearning for connection. Physical and emotional intimacy can be incredibly satisfying even if it’s not a result of libidinous longing. Sometimes we become sexual with partners because it’s normalized, expected or what we think our peers are doing. Other motivators include: boredom, procreation, drunkenness, experimentation, money, validation, revenge…and every other possible human state.
An important consideration is that sexual attraction isn’t necessarily the same as romantic attraction. The people who give us butterflies in the stomach may or may not be the same people who give us pants feels. That’s also different from who we feel socially connected to- the folks we want to hang out with. If there’s ever been someone you wanted to bang but whom you didn’t want to date or befriend (or vice versa), you’re familiar with this concept already. For someone who is asexual, there may not be an innate drive to bump fuzzies, but there might still be a drive for partnership, commitment, and intimacy.
So how does an asexual person navigate our heavily sexualized culture? As I’ve written previously, the biggest concern is really figuring out what you want and need. What kind of life and relationships do you want to have? There’s a big difference between seeking a partner because “that’s what people do” versus pursuing something you actually crave. What are your needs in terms of connection with others? Do you want to have sexual experiences with other people? If so, in what circumstances would that sound good to you? What are the things you’re not willing to do or that would make you feel compromised? The first step is identifying those things to ourselves.
I sought the wisdom of Cody Daigle-Orians, asexuality writer and educator and the creator of “Ace Dad Advice.” He says ““Ace Dad Advice” is a social-media based asexuality education project designed to support young people exploring asexuality as an identity and anyone questioning their sexual orientation. The project provides clear, approachable information on asexuality as well as advice and encouragement on living your best ace life.”
What is his guidance for ace folks?
- “. Know how asexuality works for you and feel confident explaining it. So many allo folks don’t know a lot about asexuality, so they’re armed with a ton of misconceptions about it. It’s really useful for us as ace folks to be able to follow up “I’m asexual” with “and here’s what that means for me in particular.” So there’s no confusion and no room for the other person’s gap in understanding to get in the way.
- Just be clear and comfortable on your boundaries. I’m poly, so I still date. And I’ve got the menu at the ready for a prospective partner: I can tell them what’s on the table from the jump, what’s off the table, what’s up for discussion and exploration. I know what my boundaries are, and I feel comfortable expressing them. And that helps me a lot with new people. They’re never wondering “well, what can we do together?”
- Don’t apologize for your asexuality or your boundaries. This one’s big. If we go into relationships apologizing for our aceness or our wants and needs, we’re not going to fare well. I encourage ace folks across the intimacy spectrum to treat their aceness as a feature, not a bug. It’s a unique thing we bring to the table. And while we’re open to discuss whether or not our aceness is compatible with your alloness, we aren’t open to considering our asexuality an issue or a hurdle or a problem to be solved. I’ve got two allo partners. And they learn how to treat my asexuality through my example. If I respect it, they do too.”
As the world comes to understand more about asexuality and the fact that it’s a perfectly healthy way to be, these conversations will become easier. Currently there’s a lot of stigma and confusion about the orientation, as is the case with any queer identity. Asexual folks may hear a lot of invalidating things from friends or family who don’t understand or who are worried that a sexless life must be a meaningless one. Finding community with others who live and love outside the box and filling your life with supportive, curious people seems to be the best path forward.
Here is some other advice that was shared with me by ace folks:
“Before I knew I was aro ace, dating was very strange and taxing. I liked spending time with the person but the moment they signaled that they wanted more, something in me just recoiled. As I did not have any words for my feelings yet, I took the bad road of ghosting them.” – A
“My advice would be to stick to the rules that you obey when it comes to dating, and follow your instincts. Be logical when making decisions. If it doesn’t feel right, then it doesn’t feel right but if it does then explore it. Be straightforward and ignore drama/unsolicited advice” – N
“I’ve long thought of myself as a failure and dysfunctional because I never put much effort into dating, even characterizing myself as a coward. The fact that I very much love romantic stories, love writing shipping, and have some sense of arousal about people being “sexy” (getting turned off as soon as it involves me or actual sex scenes) helped confuse the issue. One of my friends pointed out that feeling happy when people are feeling happy with each other is an entirely different thing… A romantic relationship is not necessarily deeper or more intense than friendship. I would really love to see people normalize the idea that friendship isn’t just a consolation prize.” – T
“I despise dating, especially if it’s only facilitated through apps; feels like a meat market. In my 20s, I did feel so much pressure to date, that I ended up in a few deeply uncomfortable situations. Don’t let others talk you into doing something that only they expect of you” – M
“My best piece of advice is: know your comfort levels, respect this, and set the boundaries YOU need. Don’t hand over reigns to the allo about pacing or limits because they’re more “experienced” or “knowledgeable”. Your needs matter. You wants – and not wants – matter.” -H
All sage words of hard-earned wisdom that sound really applicable to any sexual orientation in my opinion.