Despite centuries of study, humanity has never been very good at understanding itself. We try, but it seems like we get in our own way more often than not. This is true in a lot of respects, but today I’m going to focus on assumptions based on the so-called “biological imperative” and an aspect of human psychology that has only recently began gaining attention—Asexuality.
I want to explain the spectrum of asexuality as best I can because, since discovering asexuality in 2014 and slowly espousing it, I’ve had numerous conversations in person and online about the orientation. The assumptions I’ve heard people express after learning about my asexuality usually display not only ignorance of the orientation, but the belief that there’s only one way an individual experiences it.
Asexuality is categorized by a lack of sexual attraction to other people regardless of gender, aesthetics, personality, or other characteristics. It’s an orientation (truly and really), and like other orientations, it’s predicated upon physical, sexual, and psychological attraction, not sex acts of any sort.
That distinction between attraction and sex is incredibly important. Attraction is about the pull someone feels toward another human, the feeling of seeing someone and wanting to know what they look like without clothes on. Or seeing someone already naked and wanting to do something more than look at them. At least, that’s how it’s portrayed in the media and been described to me. For me and others on the asexual spectrum, these feelings occur in frequency somewhere between rarely and never.
Sex is a physical activity including one or more people, and from what I’ve seen in movies, books, and life, sex in no way requires people be attracted to each other. They don’t even seem required to like each other. This is why it’s a fallacy to make asexuality and having sex mutually exclusive.
The relationship an asexual-spectrum (ace-spec) person has with sex is as unique as people themselves are. Some asexual people (aces) enjoy sex the same way they enjoy running, as an enjoyable physical activity they can enjoy alone or with partners. Some like to read about it, but please don’t make them watch or participate in it. Some aces find the thought of being intimately touched disgusting to the point of nausea.
Truly, the range of experiences and preferences within the asexual spectrum is just as diverse as those within any other orientation group, but most allosexuals (anyone who experiences sexual attraction of any kind) get stuck on the “I’m not attracted to anyone” part of the definition. They equate it in their head to “I’ve never had sex and don’t plan on ever having it ever,” which seems to be inconceivable to them, and they jump from there to “I’m incapable of love and probably miserable and hiding it.”
This is literally from a conversation I’ve had before, so I know I’m not exaggerating the thought process. It’s both baffling and painful to listen to.
While there are some asexuals who also identify as aromantic (someone who is not romantically attracted to anyone), many people within the ace spectrum can and do fall in love. They can and do have sex. They can and do enjoy it. They can and do think about it.
I’ve gone through all of this because it’s crucial for writers to understand something before they try to write it. This applies to everything, every experience, and every culture. If you were writing about kidnapping victims, ancient Mesopotamia, nuclear physics, or a detective in Chicago, you’d have to do research to feel like you were getting the details of the experience right. That should hold true for sexualities different from your own, too. You can’t (and really shouldn’t) write something or someone you don’t understand.
The problem is that, even after they’ve done reading and research, asexuality seems to be incredibly difficult for many allosexuals to understand. It’s a mindset that diverges so far from the way sexuality is portrayed in any form of media and how most people seem to experience it themselves that “I don’t understand” is a common response to my explanations. The assumption that aces are “missing out” is prevalent. We can’t possibly be happy without sex, allos claim. An offer to show us exactly how wrong we are about what we think we want isn’t exactly a rare follow-up. Writing us off as robotic, mechanical, or sociopathic happens a lot too. In fact, it’s only in the most recent revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) that asexuality is mentioned, a tagged-on caveat to keep self-identified aces from being slapped with a diagnosis of Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder or Male Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder.
Part of the problem with understanding comes from the fact that there’s no easy way to describe what asexuality is; it’s not any one thing or group of things. No matter how I describe the experience, my words would leave someone’s story out. What I can do, however, is create a list of some of the things asexuality isn’t.
Asexuality is not:
- Virginity. While some aces are sex-repulsed from a young age or become comfortable with their lack of desire early and never give in to the pressure to have sex, many do. This can be because they think they must in order to have relationships or because they want to or because of any number of reasons. Inexperience with sex is not a requirement before someone can identify as ace.
- Celibacy. This is a choice, usually lifelong, to not have sex. Key to this definition, though? The word choice. Asexuals can be celibate, but not all those who are celibate are asexual. Think Catholic priests, for example. Identifying as ace would make the required vow of celibacy easy to keep, but comparing aces to priests is misunderstanding both asexuality and celibacy.
- Abstinence. Again, this is a choice. Most commonly, this is the religious belief that people should wait until marriage to have sex, but it can be used to describe any period of time when one is willingly choosing to refrain from sex even though they do actually desire to have it. Whether that reason is medical, psychological, religious, or other, it’s a choice. Asexuality is not.
- A phase. Almost every ace-spec individual I have ever spoken to knew something was different about their feelings toward sex somewhere between the age of five and fifteen. Most of those aces were between their late twenties and mid-forties when I talked to them. I don’t know what the outside limit of a “phase” is, but asexuality definitely doesn’t fit those parameters.
- A choice. This is why abstinence and celibacy aren’t synonyms for asexuality. Just like homosexuality and bi/pan-sexuality aren’t conscious decisions that people have made at some point in their lives, asexuality is not something we brought upon ourselves.
- A medical problem. “Have you checked for hormone issues?” is a common question asexuals get, but imbalances in the body like that usually come with a variety of other health problems, not simply low/no libido. The changes that come with hormone issues and other health problems are also just that—changes. Low sex drive isn’t a symptom if it’s always been part of someone’s personality.
- A call for attention. I don’t know how to fight this one, even after hearing it more than once. Why the hell would anyone want the kind of attention identifying as asexual brings?
- Because of religion. More than once, people have assumed I am going to try to “convert” them. As though asexuality is some new cult or a very old religious belief. Aces can absolutely be religious, but the orientation itself has nothing to do with religion or any charismatic cult leader. We don’t want you to join us (unless you feel the same way we do, then come on over). All we want when we talk to you about asexuality is understanding.
- Because of naivete or denial. This is an especially common argument when the ace in question is in their teen years or very early twenties. “You’re too young to know what you want.” “Don’t write it off until you try it.” “Just wait until you meet the right person, you’ll change your mind.” “You must like the really twisted stuff if you don’t want to talk about it.” No. Don’t deny the words coming out of our mouths to satisfy whatever expectations you have of people and the world. Trust us to know what we don’t want the same way you’d trust an allosexual to know what they do want.
- Because of fear or repulsion. Although some asexuals do have an innate or learned fear or repulsion of sex, it does not automatically describe the mindset of ace-spec individuals. Even for those who do experience a fear/revulsion of sex and intimate contact, it is not because of their asexuality, merely an aspect of it.
- Because of past trauma. I have lost count of how many times this question suggestion has been made in some form. My ex-husband was particularly fond of throwing it at me in arguments, saying “this would at least make sense if you’d been raped or something.” While many aces do experience sex-related trauma (assault, molestation, rape, harassment, etc.), often it’s the case that the trauma stemmed from their asexuality instead of the other way around. Sometimes the trauma does come well before any understanding of their orientation, which can certainly tie the two together mentally for an individual, but trauma is not the cause of the orientation as a whole.
- Repressed homosexuality. Asexuality. Is a lack. Of attraction. It cannot be repressed anything, because there’s nothing to repress. Someone repressing their homosexuality by avoiding sex entirely would be either abstinent or celibate, not asexual.
- Synonymous with aromanticism. Some aces are aros. Some aros are aces. The two do not, however, always coexist.
- Something that precludes the enjoyment of sex. Like I mentioned above, the act of sex does not always have to connect to attraction of any sort. Enjoyment of sex doesn’t have to either. People aren’t attracted to dildos and vibrators, for example, but they use them often enough for the sex-toy industry to be large and flourishing. Some aces actively enjoy sex, others don’t. It’s a spectrum.
- Something that needs to be “fixed.” Please, don’t. If someone comes out to you as asexual, do not begin to play the “Have you tried” game. Sex isn’t exactly a secret in our society. We know about it. We know how it’s “supposed” to feel. We know, we know, we know. Whatever you want to suggest to help us “fix” the problem—vibrators! a more experienced partner! drugs! kink! therapy!—chances are we’ve thought of it and, if it sounded interesting, tried it.
- A way to play hard to get/punish our partners. This belief, like the one where people thin asexuality is a cry for attention, makes no sense. There are easier ways to play hard to get, and punishing our partners in this way usually ends up punishing us. It’s a lose-lose.
- Restricted to those who identify as female. Because of the pervasive belief that men can’t control their sex drive, male asexuality is often seen as a myth. An impossibility. It’s one that can be immediately disproved, though, with about five minutes of research. For example, one or more of the founders of Asexual Visibility & Education Network (AVEN), the Asexuality Archive, and Asexual Outreach identify as male.
If you’re considering including an ace-spec character in your book, please do keep all of this in mind. This is especially important if you’re writing something set in or before our current society. Fantasy and sci-fi authors have the ability to change the societal and cultural perceptions of sex and acceptance of asexuality, but doing that demands an awareness of how those perceptions impact us in the here and now. Readers will come to the story with those concepts in mind, and deconstructing them takes time and effort.
For those willing to put in that work, thank you and please feel free to submit questions to me for the ongoing Coming Up Aces Q&A segment that will be part of the Queership blog.
For those who can’t understand and aren’t willing to try to, please go play in someone else’s sandbox.
Below are some words that are useful to know the specific definitions of when discussion asexuality, and a more complete glossary can be found on Asexuality Archive.
Abstinence – the choice to refrain from partaking in a particular activity (like sex) for personal reasons or a specified period of time (for example, until marriage)
Allosexual – a name for all those who experience sexual attraction regardless of their gender preferences
Asexuality – an orientation categorized by a lack of sexual attraction to other people regardless of gender, aesthetics, personality, or other characteristics
Celibacy – a long-term, often life-long, decision to refrain from sex
Demisexuality (demi) – sexual attraction can potentially occur, but only on occasions where some kind of emotional/psychological bond or connection has formed
Graysexuality (gray-asexual/gray-ace) – like demisexuality, attraction can sporadically occur, but for gray-aces, these instances do not require an emotional bond first
Libido – the physical desire for orgasm, whether alone or with a partner(s)
MOGAI – Marginalized Orientations, Gender Alignments, and Intersex; this term is a specifically inclusive alternative to LGBTQIAP+
Romantic orientation – a person’s identifying orientation with regards to emotional/romantic attraction; the labels for these mirror ones for sexuality, for example biromantic, heteromantic, homoromantic, aromantic, etc.