Welcome to the first installment of our new “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities. Do you have a word that needs defining? Let us know!
Asexuality, like hetero-, homo-, or bisexuality, is a sexual orientation. More accurately, it is a lack of sexual orientation. In the simplest terms, an asexual-identifying person does not experience sexual attraction.
For a lot of allosexual people (read: anyone who is not asexual), the idea of not experiencing sexual attraction can seem confusing and scary, especially since our society is one that tells us that sex and sexuality are inherent parts of being a human. We live in a world that tells us love cannot exist without sex, or that sex is somehow a mandatory aspect of being. This constant bombardment of a hypersexual culture leaves many asexuals feeling broken, wrong, or missing a vital something that everyone else seems to have. But I promise you, this is not the case. People who identify as asexual are just as whole and complete as everyone else.
And keep in mind that asexual folks can and sometimes do have sex! Asexuality isn’t the same as abstinence or celibacy. It doesn’t mean that those who identify as asexual can’t enjoy sex, just that they don’t experience sexual attraction. Some of us enjoy sexual activity, and others of us don’t. Whether or not someone who identifies as asexual engages in sexual activity is up to each individual, just as it would be for an allosexual-identifying person.
What asexuality really comes down to is attraction. Just like the prefixes “hetero-” (meaning “different”) and “homo-” (meaning “same”) describe the object of one’s sexual attraction, the prefix “a-” in asexuality, which means “none” or “not,” means that for an asexual person, there is no object for sexual attraction. Or in other words, the person does not experience sexualattraction.
To put it in another way, I remember being in seventh grade sitting in sex-ed while my teacher carefully explained the “urges” we would all begin to feel toward other people, and how this was a part of growing up. I remember her saying that all of us would experience it because everyone does. I finished seventh grade without ever understanding or feeling those urges. And eighth grade. And ninth. And every grade and every year including this very moment. I couldn’t tell you what sexual attraction feels like because I have never experienced it. That is asexuality.
With me still? Awesome, because there’s more!
Asexuality is also an umbrella term. Unlike other sexual orientations, asexuality exists on a spectrum. Picture “asexual” on the left side of that spectrum and “allosexual” on the right. In the middle, there aredemisexuality and gray asexuality. Demisexuality is when a person only experiences sexual attraction after a deep emotional bond is formed, romantic or otherwise, and gray asexuality is when a person experiences sexual attraction very rarely, or at such a low level that it is ignorable. A gray asexual or demisexual person is still on the asexual spectrum; just like a genderqueer-identifying person may also identify as transgender, a demi- or gray asexual person might also use the identifier asexual.
All of this isn’t even taking into account romantic orientations, which are a different thing entirely! Remember, asexuality only describes sexual attraction. This means that asexual-identifying folks may still feel all sorts of other attraction, such as romantic attraction.
The point is, all of these different ways of identifying come down to each individual and what makes them feel most comfortable in their own lives. Asexuality is just another way of identifying, and is a very valid sexual identity.
Asexuality is not…
• the same as celibacy or abstinence. Celibacy and abstinence are choosing not to have sex, regardless of attraction. Asexuality is all about a person’s experiences, or lack thereof, of sexual attraction. Besides, asexual people are totally capable of having sex—and enjoying it!—and a lot of us do!
• immature. There’s a huge myth out there that all asexuals are immature because of the pervasive idea that sex is a mandatory part of growing up. Asexuals are constantly infantilized and talked down to. I can assure you that we aren’t immature—and if we were, it wouldn’t be because of our sexuality.
• only for science class. For a lot of people, the first time they heard the word “asexual” was in science class learning about plants or single-celled organisms. Yes, okay, asexual reproduction is a science-class thing that we all need to learn about, but it is also a very real identity for a lot of people that has nothing to do with plants or micro-organisms.
• cold or uncaring. So much of the media representation of asexuality is through villains, robots, or generally really sucky characters. They are usually portrayed as cold and distant, or unloving. This is likely rooted in society’s incessant need to equate love with sex, but I can assure you that even those asexuals who choose not to go to bed with anyone are just as capable of forming strong, loving bonds with other people.I’ve already mostly covered this in the first point, but I’m repeating it again because it’s so dang important.
For a lot of people, myself included, finding and identifying with asexuality gave us a place to feel like they fit. In our current, hypersexualized society, we are constantly bombarded with messages that tell us lack of sexuality is somehow wrong. It isn’t wrong. Asexuality is a valid identity and it is important to recognize it as such.
If you want more resources about asexuality, check out the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) at www.asexuality.org, or the Asexuality Archive at www.asexualityarchive.com.